EXCLUSIVE: Staples Takes Judge Death Back to His Roots for "Dark Justice"

Revered UK anthology "2000 AD" is famous for looking towards the future, but this time artist Greg Staples and writer John Wagner are looking towards the past for the inspiration of upcoming 11-part "Judge Dredd" epic "Dark Justice." Beginning in year-end "2000 AD" prog 2015, "Dark Justice" finally gives fans what they've been craving for years - a return to form for twisted fiend Judge Death, co-created by Wagner and "The Killing Joke" artist Brian Bolland in 1980's "2000 AD" prog 149 and last seen in 2004's "The Wilderness Days."

Gone is the wise-cracking, comedic version of the character seen in recent decades, replaced with Wagner and Bolland's original horrific version of a demented Judge Dredd who views all life to be a crime punishable by death. And, naturally, Death is bringing his brothers along for the ride -- Dark Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis.

"Dark Justice" is fully painted, taking Staples two years to complete 66 pages of story, CBR News learned from speaking with the artist. Staples also revealed how the "Alien" influenced project began life as a "Batman/Judge Dredd" crossover pitch, which Dark Judge he 'hopes to never have to draw again in his life' and teases a comic book collaboration with "The Descent" director Neil Marshall.

CBR News: Greg, your latest project "Dark Justice" has been shrouded in a lot of mystery. It's been years in the making yet pretty much nothing is known about the project besides the fact that it will feature the return of Judge Death and his dark brothers. What is "Dark Justice?"

Greg Staples: Judge Dredd's co-creator John Wagner also created the character Judge Death a long time ago. Judge Death is the Joker to Judge Dredd's Batman. His ultimate nemesis. He's a very, very cool character. His philosophy is that all life is a crime because all crime is committed by the living. So he skips over to our dimension and starts murdering everybody. He's the alter ego of Judge Dredd, really. He's also got three other characters in his group [Judge Fear, Judge Fire, and Judge Mortis] and together they make up the Dark Judges. They are all fan favorites and haven't been around together in a long time. But now they're back in "Dark Justice" for a full 11-part series.

It starts running in December in the UK and I believe it's going to be collected over in the US by IDW at some point next year. I believe it's going to be a graphic novel. I had even heard it's possibly going to be slightly oversized but that's just a rumor. I really don't know.

What art style are you using for this?

It's all fully painted by hand. There's no digital artwork in this. Every single panel and there's 66 pages. Which is why it's taken nearly two years. Each panel is highly detailed. I've got a different approach to what I've done before, too. I've approached this like a bid budget Hollywood film in a fully painted form. I haven't really seen many people do this before so I'm hoping it's going to be quite fresh.

That sounds intense. How long does each page take to paint?

I've broken it down it down in a way that it's difficult to say how long it takes on each page. Because some pages are three or four days and other pages are only a couple of days. But generally speaking it's been taking four or five weeks to do one episodes. Six pages per episode.

That's almost a full week a page!

Oh yeah! It's been a lot of work.

When was the last time you did full interiors?

I used to do the odd interior thing about ten years ago, but I moved into cover work because it just suits me quite well.

I decided to do this basically because John Wagner was writing it and he's my favorite writer. Secondly, because it's Judge Death and most artists would give their arm to draw Judge Death. And thirdly, I'd been asking John to do this for years. When I was seven years old I read Judge Death and it frightened me to death. I've wanted to draw him since.

John's expanded it into this really big story. A big epic. You can't really turn something like that down, even though it's a huge amount of work.

You worked closely with Wagner on this one and you mentioned how you've been trying to get him to do this for years. Can you tell us exactly how "Dark Justice" was born?

For maybe a year or two I was doing a lot of cover work but I kind of missed telling a story because I've always been very interested in storytelling. I've turned down many comic strips before because I just knew what a commitment it would be, so unless it's a really good story I didn't want to commit.

It started because I wanted to do a follow-up on "Judgment on Gotham." So if anything I wanted to do Batman and Dredd again. But it seemed that DC had sort of passed on the idea so then I just sort of said, 'Well look, John, the real fact is I'd love to do Judge Death.' He said he didn't want to bring Judge Death back. He's not an easy character to write for and it's horror as well. He'd have to get the right idea. So I emailed him every so often asking him about it and he'd never really have an idea. Then I sent him this painting of the four Dark Judges I did for a commission. He loved it and said if I could paint the strip like that he'd do it. He'd come up with an idea. And then six months later he came up with this idea and it was just brilliant. I've been reading John Wagner since I was a kid. He's a bit of a hero of mine and we've worked together many times before but I've never done a really epic series.

This is probably going to be one of the last interior strips I do for "2000 AD." For a while at least. I'm going to focus on covers for a while. But I've got a solid piece of work here.

The work looks amazing. What was the idea that Wagner came up with?

To be honest, I can't really talk much about the story. "2000 AD" wants to keep it quite under wraps because there's a lot of speculation about it at the moment. The one thing I can say is that [the film] "Alien" is a little bit of an influence -- especially in the way that I've lit it.

I think in some terms it does have a slight "Alien" feel to it. Bit I think that might have to do with my approach to it rather than what the script is. I colored each panel and each scene for 66 pages so I planned it in a way that as they go from location to location there are different lighting situations like you would do in a film. And some of it is similar to what you might see in horror films.

We already saw Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis return during "Day of Chaos," but this is Judge Death's first appearance in many years. Will he look and feel the same as we last saw him?

The point of this whole thing was to take Judge Death and the Dark Judges back to their roots. I haven't tried to reinvent the wheel here. I've gone straight back to what Brian Bolland was doing.

So you're abandoning the more comedic aspects of later Judge Death stories?

Exactly. I texted John before we started the story and I said to me this had to be horror. It had to be scary. It had to go back to the way Judge Death originally was and he'd not been like that for a long, long time. No quips. No funny scenarios. This is literally going back to the way he was originally intended. This is the original Dark Judges. There's no comedy in this at all. It might have a little black humor, but it's not a comedy. It's a horror thriller.

When I spoke to John about doing the script we spoke about the horror aspect. He said if the story's not right and it's horror, I'm not going to do it. Because it's a difficult thing to write for which is why sometimes he might have played [Judge Death] a little more lightly than usual. But when he told me the idea for this story it was great. And the reason why I can't actually say anything about the story is because everybody's assuming things about the story. And they're going to be very surprised when it doesn't go in the direction that they think.

The reason why the Dark Judges made an appearance in "Day of Chaos" is because that's when me and John, a few weeks or months before, had agreed on doing ["Dark Justice."] That's when John started it. It was a key moment.

What's it like working with John Wagner, one of your heroes?

He's a joy to work with. You get a lot of scripts that come through from different writers and scripts can sometimes be a little over powering. Some writers can overwrite things and not leave you much room for the imagination. That happened a couple of years ago where I wanted to interpret certain panels in my own way and I got almost told off for doing that. But Wagner's not like that. His pages are very direct and very simple yet very descriptive. They're perfect. And he encourages the artist to take it beyond what is on the page, which is complete confidence. It just brings out the best in you. An old mate of mine used to say that when he got a John Wagner script he'd make himself a cup of coffee and sit down and enjoy it.

Sounds quite relaxing. Speaking of relaxing, what music do you listen to when you're painting?

At the moment I'm listening to Aphex Twin. But to be honest I mainly watch a lot of films and television while I'm working these days.

What are you watching now?

I watched "Californication" all day. So in the background I've got all this sexy stuff going on while I'm painting horror. [Laughs] I always fall back on "Columbo," if not.

You do some cool work for film directors, too. Any of those projects coming up?

I did quite a bit of film work recently. I was the costume illustrator for Brad Pitt on "World War Z." And another director I work with a lot is ["Descent" and "Constantine" pilot director] Neil Marshall. He's wicked. We've often worked on things that have never seen the light of day. I tend to take his scripts and do four or five images. Some of them don't go anywhere so there's a lot of artwork out there that people haven't seen.

Have you ever thought of working with Neil Marshall on a comic book or graphic novel?

We've spoken about it, actually. We have spoken about it. But the thing is I just don't want to go down that road again. For a while, at least. Not unless a project comes along that I can't turn down. You sign on for eleven issues. 66 pages of artwork. And then you find out what that really entails. I forgot just how much more work there is. Just in doing the covers. One of the main reasons I did it was I was getting my style down for the last couple of years just where I was getting comfortable. So I had to push it. And I thought "Dark Justice" was the way to do it. I've learned a lot from this and I've got a lot of ideas for things that haven't been done before. It's going to be interesting.

Let's talk about Judge Dredd, himself. Every artist draws him a little differently. The pads, the chin, the helmet, everyone's take is slightly unique. What's your approach?

My Judge Dredd is quite realistic. He's not got stupidly big pads; he's not got a stupidly big jaw. He is quite realistic. Same with Anderson. The whole strip has a certain realism to it and I think that's what's been so difficult.

I don't know if you know this, but I played Judge Death in the fan film "Judge Minty." The guy you see in the photos is me. The funny thing is they occasionally get me in to do that so I get myself in shape. And it just so happens Dredd happens to look like me in this strip, too. I do change tiny little things to make him just a little bit cooler.

You've drawn yourself into the Dredd universe? That's amazing. So if "Dark Justice" is a hit, the next generation of Dredd artists will pick it up in 20 years, homage your style, and you will literally be Judge Dredd, Greg.

[Laughs] It's great, isn't it! It's quite funny. People have seen me draw Judge Dredd over the past few years and then they meet me and go, 'Ah, yeah. It's you.' Which is fine by me, to be honest.

Any final thoughts on "Dark Justice" you'd like to share?

I hope to never have to draw Judge Fire again in my life. Having to paint fire. Moving fire. Constantly. And things setting on fire? It'll be like my Spielberg "Jaws" moment. I'll just wake up in the middle of the night in a stone cold sweat.

Who's your favorite Dark Judge?

I actually like Judge Mortis. I just think he's very cool. All this rotting stuff and he just touches stuff and it rots. That's good, fun stuff. And he's got this sheep's skull. It's just amazing. Judge Mortis gets some particularly nice money shots in this. He gets quite a lot of showcase.

The weekly 11-part series "Dark Justice" begins in "2000 AD" prog 2015, available this month from Rebellion.

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