Total War by John Wagner, Colin MacNeil, Henry Flint and Jason Brashill. Colours by Chris Blythe and lettered by Tom Frame. These stories originally ran in the Prog in 2004 so they are from that long period when I wasn't picking up the comic regularly and just buying the occasional trade. I know I've read this story before but a recent trip to Forbidden Planet in London gave me the chance to pick up the latest edition and revisit it.
It's hard to remember it sometimes but Judge Dredd is the bad guy. He is the very visible embodiment of a totalitarian police state that is a terrible way to run the future, except it may be better than all the alternatives. That doesn't mean we can't admire Dredd's dogged determination, but he is still not too far from the SS lightning symbols that appear in the light reflected on his visor. There are two ways to make Dredd seem less appalling, the first is to slowly soften his beliefs and show him having doubts like he did over the Mutants in Mega-City One issue, and the second is to make the forces that he fights even worse. In Total War the opposition is a grim and brutal terrorist organisation of the same name. They want the Judges out of the city and are not opposed to killing innocents with bombs, up to and including nukes, in order to achieve their aims.
As ever Wagner slowly builds the tension. Concentrating the original chapters on two citizens who are falling in love amidst the chaos of a terrorist campaign is particularly effective. One of them is a member of Total War who is having his own doubts which makes the fate of the doomed lovers even more poignant. Meanwhile Dredd and the Hall of Justice show what lengths they will go to in the hunt for the terrorists. It's a clever commentary that makes us question just what government actions are acceptable in the war on terror. The only reason the Judges are not water-boarding their suspects is that they have found worse things to do to them. Judge Roffman from the public surveillance unit shows up and despite their mutual dislike he helps Dredd while making us wonder how much surveillance of our lives is justified.
NacNeil's art is full of figures who conceal their true selves behind dark glasses or helmets. Shadows play over grim interrogation scenes and all the action takes place at night in the deepest, darkest corners of Mega-City One. I think MacNeil is doing his own colouring here and the palette is a little bright for my tastes compared with the fine work that Chris Blythe is doing in the Prog just now on Wagner and MacNeil's Mega-City Confidential.
The second part of the Total War story introduces a new element in the form of Nimrod, another of Dredd's clones that has gone horribly wrong. The Tech department that created him want Dredd's permission for termination but Dredd refuses to get involved, seeing no connection between himself and the deformed creature in the cells. So the techs turn to Joe's niece Vienna and set off a new plot thread that plays out over the escalating war with the Terrorists. Again, this forces Dredd to face his own humanity and consider the family ties that he constantly tries to reject. It reminded me of a similar interlude in the Day of Chaos storyline when Dredd went to rescue Vienna from her besieged apartment block.
Henry Flint takes over on art duties for this chapter and produces some of his best work. Recently his line work has become looser and more abstract, but here he's in his gritty realist phase. Interestingly he shows just as many nasty interrogation scenes as MacNeil but uses more close ups on tortured faces with Dredd's visage looming over them. Both approaches are equally effective and unpleasant. I also prefer Flint's version of Chief Judge Hershey here to the teenage Goth girl who turned up in the recent Titan.
Overall this is a top trade with some of the cream of 2000AD's current creators at the top of their games. Five star stuff.