‘Judge Dredd: Day of Chaos’ Is An Event Comic Done Right [Review]
In theory, Judge Dredd: Day of Chaos should be everything I hate about big event comics. It goes out of its way to be grim and dark even by Dredd standards, boasting a body count over 300 million, features a protagonist who's often powerless to stop the terrible things that are going on, and the only person who really comes out of it with anything that remotely resembles a victory is a mass murderer. It's almost thoroughly devoid of hope, with a focus on brutality and horror that's telegraphed from the opening. Half of it's built like a zombie story, and in true 21st century event comic fashion, there's even a dude who gets his arm cut off.
Taken all together, that's essentially a checklist of things I never want to see again in superhero comics. In Day of Chaos, however, that all comes together to form a textbook example of how to do event comics right.
What it really comes down to is the expert craftsmanship on display from writer (and Dredd co-creator) John Wagner, along with artists Leigh Gallagher, Henry Flint, Ben Willsher, Colin MacNeil, Edmund Bagwell and Staz Johnson. The basic story, which plays out over the course of two paperbacks (or, for those of you who read it weekly, almost 50 progs of 2000 AD) is built around a plot by Soviet agents attacking Mega City One with a deadly biological weapon in revenge for Dredd nuking East Meg One during the Apocalypse War storyline from 1982, but that's just what's at the center of it. One of the brilliant things about how Wagner and his collaborators have crafted Dredd's universe is that there's always something lurking on the fringes waiting to make things worse.
Not only does this story involve the Chaos Bug, but there's also PJ Maybe, a mass murdering sociopath who escapes from prison after it's revealed that he's been masquerading as the Mega City's mayor. There are other terrorist organizations from past Dredd stories waiting for another opportunity to strike. There's a new mayoral election on the horizon with politicians stirring up the citizens, and MC1's usual complement of crazies creeps that are driven to new heights of destruction when everything goes wrong. And as always, ready to be dropped into any story and make it immeasurably worse, are Dredd's most famous enemies, the Dark Judges.
Wagner's script weaves these elements (and more besides) in and out of the story as it goes on. They're always there, ready to be added into what are already impossible odds, or to tease the readers with possibilities before spinning off in a different direction that promises things aren't exactly about to get better once this is all over.
Like most big events, Day of Chaos draws heavily from Judge Dredd's long-running continuity -- specifically the Apocalypse War storyline, although there are bits and pieces of the stories that Wagner's been working on recently, starting with Origins, as well. The thing is, as someone who's still relatively new to Dredd (even if I did jump in with both feet over the past few months), that continuity never feels limiting, or intimidating, or like it's standing in the way of the creators telling the best story they can. Instead, it's the opposite -- you could hand these two volumes to anyone along with the most basic description of Dredd and his world, and I'm pretty sure they could follow it without any problem at all. Everything just falls into place. Wagner explains what needs to be explained in a pretty elegant fashion -- meetings, debriefings and interrogations are great for exposition and don't feel out of place in what is technically a crime comic -- and while there's stuff in here that's a lot more rewarding if you've been following along for a while, the script and art are sharp enough to pick most of it up as you go along.
If you have been following along for a little while, then it's worth noting that Day of Chaos doesn't just put Dredd through the hellish destruction of most of Mega City One (again), it also does a great job of frustrating the moral question that he's been dealing with over the past few stories. Since Origins, Dredd has had a lot of reasons to wonder if MC1's Justice System is really the infallible, eternal monolith of righteousness that he was made to be a part of, and even questioning his own place in it as he ages. With the devastation of Day of Chaos, though, those questions are answered for him. If Mega City One was ever at a point where it didn't need the Judges, it definitely needs them now, and if Dredd was ever going to question his place in the world, he's out of time. It's a perfect development, letting those doubts and questions exist as part of his character, while putting him into a situation where they're the absolute last thing he has time to deal with.
That's the other Big Event element that Day of Chaos gets right: It creates an entirely new status quo for the series. Every event comic promises that it's going to Change Everything Forever™, but Day of Chaos does a pretty good job of delivering on that promise. Admittedly, this is a hell of a lot easier when you're dealing with a universe that's relatively self-contained, based around a single character and largely masterminded by the vision of one writer than it is when you're dealing with something as big and diverse as the Marvel or DC Universes. And to be even more fair about it, this is hardly the first time something like this has happened. The Apocalypse War story was designed to reduce the size of Mega City One down to something that would be a little more manageable, and in 1990, the Necropolis storyline was another landmark, long-running epic that offed another sixty million Mega Citizens. In that respect, Day of Chaos suffers the same desire to continually top its predecessors that plagues a lot of event books.
Even so, the destruction of Mega City One in Day of Chaos goes far beyond just a body count of nameless, imaginary citizens. By the end of this story, the Judges themselves are in ruins -- their surveillance department has been destroyed, the Chief Judge and his council are ousted, the Academy of Law and its recruits have been burned to the ground. It's a change for the entire fabric of the book, and if there's one thing Judge Dredd excels at, it's exploring the consequences of these big storylines for years to come.
Even though we all seem to keep buying them, one of the most often heard complaints from superhero fans is that we're tired of one big event after another. But really, every story should be an "event" -- every story should have consequences, should move things forward and set up new challenges and questions for the hero to face. It's not "events" that are the problem as much as how they're done.
So if you want to see what it looks like when an event comic is done exactly right, pick up Day of Chaos.