Douglas Wolk Talks His and Ulises Farinas’ ‘Judge Dredd: Mega City Two’ [Interview]
To put it mildly, Judge Dredd has had a rough couple of years. His city’s been put through the wringer yet again, he’s questioning the justice system, and crime shows no sign of slowing down no matter how many times he shoots it with high explosives. Fortunately for him, Douglas Wolk and Ulises Farinas have stepped up to send him on a vacation this January in Judge Dredd: Mega City Two, a new miniseries from IDW where Mega City One’s most famous lawman takes a trip to the West Coast to see what post-apocalyptic California has to offer.
To find out about the series, we spoke with Wolk, a long-time Dredd fan, about why he loves the series, what the inspiration was for (re)building Mega City Two, how he’s rewriting the book with Farinas as he goes, and what stories new Dredd readers should check out.
ComicsAlliance: We should probably get this out of the way up front: You are a former ComicsAlliance writer.
Douglas Wolk: It’s true. I love ComicsAlliance, I still read it all the time, and who knows, I may someday do ComicsAlliance stuff again, but I have not for a while.
CA: Well that really leads to what I think is an important question: How did you free yourself from the grasp of Laura Hudson and get to write one of your favorite characters? Is there a treasure map I need to follow?
DW: I will forever be in the grasp of Laura Hudson.
CA: We all are.
DW: I am bound to Laura Hudson’s ectoplasmic form for all eternity, I think.
CA: But you have been a really big Judge Dredd fan for as long as I’ve known you, probably the biggest I know. We’ve talked about it before when I was getting into it as a recent convert.
DW: I am, and I’m not. I’m not a hardcore scholar of Dredd, there are still hundreds of stories I haven’t read. I like it an awful lot, and I did that blog, Dredd Reckoning, for a year and half, basically to give myself a writing exercise every week and an excuse to read as much of that stuff as I could. I love it, I enjoy it enormously and I’ve read a lot of it.
CA: What all did you end up reading and writing about in-depth there? I know you were going through it chronologically, but you didn’t get through all of it, obviously.
DW: I didn’t get through all of it, but I got through all the book collections. That was the plan, to go through every squarebound book collecting Dredd stories that didn’t overlap in its entirety with another book. At the time I finished it, I’d gotten through all the books that were extant at that point. There’s a lot of stories that were not collected then, and a lot that are still not collected now, and those were the ones that I haven’t read.
CA: I’m assuming that means you got through the big ones — all the ones that I busted through when I got started reading Dredd. The Day The Law Died, Dark Judges, you know, the greatest hits.
CA: What was the appeal of the character for you?
DW: I had first really read them when I was eleven years old or so. I had mail-ordered a bunch of stuff from Mile High Comics, because they had a deal where if you sent them three or four dollars, they’d send you a package of 20 British weekly comics, but you couldn’t pick what they were. So I got a package of issues like Spider-Man and Mighty World of Marvel, but it also had three issues of 2000 AD, which were three of the early Brian Bolland issues, amazingly. I read these in 1981 or whatever and thought “Wow, this is fantastic!”
Then the next year, I went to England because I was with my family, and we were living in Europe for six months. When I went to England, I’d heard of this legendary comic book store called Forbidden Planet, went there, they had 15 or so recent issues of 2000 AD, and this was right smack in the middle of “The Apocalypse War,” so a great time to get on board, especially if you’re a twelve year-old boy. I bought those issues, took them home, and read them over and over and over, and when I got back to the US, I went to the comic book store I always went to and said “there’s this amazing series, you have to get it!’ They somehow managed to special order it for me, and so I continued to read 2000 AD pretty much for 20 years or so. Eventually I drifted away from it when I moved out to Portland, Oregon and couldn’t find a place to buy it anymore, and I didn’t read it for a few years. Then, a couple years after that, the Complete Casefiles that reprinted all the stories from the very beginning started going.
I thought “Well, I’ve never read some of those early ones, I’ll pick it up and see if it’s as good as I remember.” I got a couple of them and thought “Wow, this is actually significantly better than I remember.” I started digging through, trying to find some of the book collections that were there, and around that time I felt like giving myself some sort of writing challenge, and the idea of doing the blog came up. Then I just sort of went overboard with that, in an obsessive-compulsive kind of way.
CA: Was it just that it was something so different from American superhero comics? I remember being a kid when I’d go to get my Gen13s and I’d see those Quality reprints, and that DC series around when the movie came out. They always seemed so weird — I remember paging through that Simon Bisley Batman/Judge Dredd comic as a kid and just being like “Nope.” It was not the aesthetic I was prepared for.
DW: I really enjoyed that one when it came out. The appeal for me changed over the years. The appeal when I was 12 or 13 years old was that this was this crazy, over-the-top, insane, action-packed thing. One of the beautiful things about the series is that when it started in 1977, it was aimed straight at 7 and 8 year-old boys, and it has grown up with us. There are people who discovered it when they’re 12, in their 20s, in their 30s, and as time goes by, it continues to be something that’s aimed at what we’re interested in.
Now that I’m in my 40s, I’m fascinated by the fact that 70% of this weekly series that’s been going for 37 years has been written by one guy, John Wagner. Wagner is a genius. He was a terrific writer to begin with, and he keeps stepping up his game over time, which is beautiful to see. I think he’s a much better writer now than he ever was before.
CA: Getting into it recently and wholeheartedly jumping on with Origins, then going back to fill in gaps with stuff like America, it’s amazing to see how well he builds on his continuity, and how much comes back. Background Judges will suddenly be a big deal, there’s a recurring cast of characters that’s really interesting to see.
DW: And it all happens in real time, so all the characters are 36 years older than they were at the beginning of the series, which is fantastic. Another thing that’s fascinating to me about it now is that it’s an ongoing series in the sort of heroic adventure mold, but the protagonist is just an absolute bastard. He’s a genuinely horrible human being who acts heroically, but in the service of something that is really, really terrible. The story acknowledges that and plays with that tension a lot, and I love the way that it keeps shifting where my sympathies are as a reader. One thing I really love is that it’s this vicious, vicious satire of American culture that has historically been mostly by and for British people. There’s that kind of outsider-ness that is really amazing to see, and it’s seeing oneself from the outside.
CA: The thing that’s interesting, and that I think makes it difficult for people to get into if they grew up reading traditional superheroes, is that it’s a book where the fascists are the good guys. If it doesn’t hit you right the first time you read it — and I read Dredd here and there over the years before I really got into it — that makes it hard to get behind Dredd and what he’s doing because there’s no reason to want Mega City One to survive. Then you realize, when it hits you right, that the story is aware of that. They are the good guys, but they’re not — they’re only the good guys because they have actual, literal, genocidal demons to deal with.
DW: There’s the sense that what the Judges are there to do is very good for the short term and the small picture, and when you go out to the broader picture, it’s this terrifying thing. It’s a horrifying dystopia, and we’re looking at the people who not only enforce that, but perpetuate it. There’s a lot of dramatically interesting stuff about that.
CA: Right. Dredd himself is not a sociopath, he knows the difference between right and wrong, but he’s in service of this horrifying place. There’s nothing worse for him than the idea of democracy.
DW: Right, and if you go back to the very first Dredd story that John Wagner published, the first thing we ever see him doing is all but explicitly putting down a slave uprising. It’s the story where the robots rebel, and he quashes the Robot Rebellion.
CA: Because the robots not only rebel, but go genocidal. Other than that, Walter and Dredd would not be the good guys in any other story. The idea of it being a satire of American culture seems like it would lead to what you’ve done with Mega City Two, which is that instead of the overblown super-New York in a funhouse mirror that you’re looking at through a kaleidoscope that is Mega City One, you’re taking it to their version of Los Angeles.
DW: I like to think of it as being what happens when the very worst cloverleaf in LA metastasizes into taking over the entire coast.
CA: We’ve hung out together before, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say the word “dude” as much as it appears in this comic.
DW: [Laughs] It’s true. I am not a Californian, I have never been a Californian, but I’ve spent a lot of time there, I have a lot of friends there and I have a lot of important experiences that I’ve had in California. Again, I have the same sort of outsider-insider relationship, because I’m a West Coaster. I’m just a little bit further up north. It’s interesting to play with what I’ve seen and experienced in the city, and with some of the stereotypes about the city, some of which are flat-out true, and some of which are not, and try to blow that up the same way. To use the same sorts of toys and tools that Wagner and Grant and all of Dredd’s other writers over the years have come up with.
CA: The thing that made me laugh while reading it the most was, on the subject of those stereotypes, you’ve taken the biggest California stereotype. It’s the “Hey man, do your own thing, it’s all valid!” attitude, and you’ve applied that to the legal system on a grand scale, where everyone is making their own law, and then you put a cop in the story. It’s a cop story where everyone has made their own law unto themselves.
DW: Pretty much. The other source of that is actually the source of the subtitle of the series. There’s an amazing book by Mike Davis called City of Quartz, which is kind of a political history of Los Angeles, about the way LA has become a batch of tiny little or medium sized communities that have almost nothing to do with each other, but have been physically slammed up against each other. It’s a whole bunch of different cities that are all pushed together into one big city. It seemed like there was a way to play with that in a whole different context, the “do your own thing” context, the legal context. What if cultural and social stratification went so far that every little neighborhood within this huge city actually had its own morality, its own laws, its own sense of what’s okay and what’s not, and then you put our East Coast cop in there and try to make him enforce it all.
CA: True to classic comics critic fashion, you have an essay in the first issue where you talk about the other Mega Cities. You talk about Mega City Two, and Ennis and Dillon’s Emerald Isle story where Ireland has become a theme park, and those are always interesting to see. Those early Dredd stories are all built on the idea that Mega City One exists in this post-apocalyptic world surrounded by the Cursed Earth behind walls, and then as the years go on, they go “yeah, there’s a lot of other cities.” Why did you want to put Dredd into one of those other places?
DW: First of all, I’ve always loved the stories where Dredd gets taken out of his natural environment. Mega City Two seemed like an opportunity that nobody had ever really played with. It showed up a year and a half into the series for literally two pages of The Cursed Earth, then you got to see it for a couple pages two years after that, then a couple pages ten years after that, and then Garth Ennis basically nuked it to a cinder.
CA: That happens a lot in Judge Dredd.
DW: It’s true. Places go away. People die. But there had never really been a Dredd story set there. We never got to see what the culture of that places was. There was a possibility there. I also wanted to come up with something that could not have fun in the British Dredd series, could not have run in the regular American Dredd series that Duane Swiercynski is writing, wouldn’t step on anybody’s toes, but would also maybe let me make up some toys that other people could play with later if they wanted to.
CA: So who’s the Dredd reader that this is directed at? It’s easy to get into, but you being a guy that has a strong background with the character, is this for the British readers who get 2000 AD every week, is it more for the people reading the IDW series?
DW: I wanted to make it for everyone. The Sweirczynski series and the British series, I think they’ve decided, are now two slightly different continuities, and I didn’t want this to clash with either of them. I wanted this to be something that could fit in anywhere, but I also wanted it to be something that anyone who was totally new to this character and this fictional world could jump right into the first issue and not be baffled, get some sense of what was going on very quickly, and then roll with it.
There’s stuff in there that’s Easter eggs for people who have been reading the series for years or decades, but they’re Easter eggs. They’re things that, if you haven’t been reading for five or ten or twenty years, you won’t even notice. That was the goal, to make something that was a completely painless, easy, fun introduction, something that if you just wanted to see Ulises Farinas do mind-bending beautiful things on the page, you’d open that and not go “okay, who is this, what is this, what’s going on?”
CA: I’m glad you brought up Ulises while you were talking about making it accessible for the casual Dredd fan, because from page one of this comic, especially pages two and three, you are assaulting the reader. We’ve seen Ulises doing tons of great art with beautiful details, and he packs these pages so full that it’s almost overwhelming, in the way that I think Dredd stories really excel at. They’re stories based on the idea of future shock and having a culture that’s actively opposed to you, so it all really works.
DW: Yeah, and Ulises is incredible. He has made everything he’s drawn look so much better than I have imagined it, you would not believe. He’s also come up with basically all of the design that you see, all the costumes, all the weapons, all the characters. That’s all him. He texts me like four times a day, like “Oh, I came up with this drawing, I’m not sure what to do with it, can you write that in somewhere?” Yeah, absolutely, this is great. “Can we have a pug? I really want to have a pug.” Yes, I will put a pug in there for you. “Can we do a big musical number?” Yes. There are multiple musical numbers now.
He’s had a lot of fantastic ideas, and they go in there. I wanted to, in the tradition of a lot of the best episodes of the series, make it something where the artist gets to show off what they’ve got, because he’s phenomenal.
CA: How early was he brought in? Did you actively push for him?
DW: He was actually suggested by Chris Ryall, the Editor-In-Chief of IDW. He said “what do you think of this guy, Ulises Farinas?” and I was like “YES!”
He did illustrations for a piece I wrote for Wired a few years ago, and they were amazing. I think the first piece he drew for this was what turned out to be the cover for the first issue, and it was amazing. He totally got what I was going for. I had written one version of the script for the first issue before he got involved with it, and then once he was involved, I went back and ripped it apart and rewrote it specifically for him.
CA: How do you do that, going back and rewriting for a guy with that kind of style?
DW: I know he can do these amazing cityscapes, and he really likes designing things. He loves coming up with interesting looking characters and devices. I just give him room to do a bunch of that, and when he started coming up with things…
If you look at that big spread on pages 2 and 3, there’s this giant robot in the foreground, and that’s something he drew near the end of drawing that page. He was like “Yeah, I just decided it needed something more in the foreground, so I made up this robot, and then I made up what this robot does, and then I made up these other robots that go with that robot, and then i wrote eight pages of history about that robot and what they do.” Great. That is excellent, I am totally putting that in there if you want to draw them later on, and I’ll write a bunch of stuff for them.
CA: Did it make any drastic changes from your original outline?
DW: Not a drastic change, but the way that I’m approaching it is clearer. There was a giant hole in my idea of what the fourth issue was going to be. I knew there had to be a character that fulfilled a certain role, but I wasn’t sure what that was going to be. Then Ulises admirably came up with this genius idea for a character, and I was like okay, now I know who this person is, what they do, and what happens here.
CA: Right, it’s a giant robot pug who does a musical number.
DW: [Laughs] It’s even better than that. I’ll let you wait and see.
CA: So as a Dredd guy who’s drawing on a wealth of knowledge, what would you suggest for people who wanted to go and do a little homework before they pick up Mega City Two? What stories should they read?
DW: I wrote it specifically so there’s no homework that you need, you can just jump on here, but if you’re interested in reading great Judge Dredd stories, there are a couple of standard jumping on points. The one people always suggest, which I agree with, is The Complete Casefiles Volume 5. Not Volume 1, Volume 5. At the beginning, the series took a little while to find its feet, and the Casefiles reprint all the stories from the beginning. Volume 5 has The Apocalypse War, which is this insane over-the-top action thing, it has Judge Death Lives, which is Brian Bolland knocking it out of the park. There’s this story called The Stookie Glanders that there’s a little riff on in the first issue of Mega City Two. It’s a great introduction to the character and his world. I’m hoping this is a pretty good introduction to the character and his world, too.
My favorite Dredd book is probably America, which I think in the US you can only get in digital form right now. It’s three stories that were published over the course of close to 20 years that really do a lot with the fact that the series takes place in real time. There’s something that happens in one of the stories that really has to happen five years after another part, and ten years before another part. It’ll make sense when you read it, and it’s a story that really plays with your sympathies of who’s in the right, who can be temporarily in the right, how sympathetic you feel to Dredd and how sympathetic you feel to the judges. It’s a great book.
But there’s no homework for this one.