EXCLUSIVE: Wagner, Flint & MacNeil Give Verdict on Dredd's Dark Judges

"The crime iss life. The ssentence iss death!" These words, first printed in 1981, have sent chills down the spines of Judge Dredd readers for decades. They signal the imminent arrival of the Dark Judges, Judge Dredd's twisted, mirror image counterparts from another dimension. Today, these words are being read again for the first time in over ten years in "2000 AD" prog 1781, as long-time Dredd architect John Wagner resurrects three of the British comic anthology's most popular and twisted characters.

Co-created by Wagner and legendary artist Brian Bolland in "2000 AD" prog 224, the Dark Judges consist of Judge Fear, Judge Fire and Judge Mortis and are frequently joined by their leader, Judge Death. In their own dimension, the Dark Judges have come to the conclusion that since all crime is committed by living things, all life is therefore a crime -- and the punishment is death. In pursuit of their goal to destroy all living things they managed to acquire special powers, not the least of which is the ability to transfer their consciousness and powers between bodies, leaving them in a permanent state of un-death.

After exterminating everyone on their own planet, the Dark Judges crossed over in to Judge Dredd's dimension, following their brother Judge Death and tussling occasionally with Dredd. After a number of attempts to destroy Mega-City One, Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis disappeared into containment chambers at the end of the 1998 Judge Dredd and Batman crossover "Die Laughing" while the whereabouts of their leader Judge Death were -- and remain -- unknown. The return of these twisted super-fiends comes amidst Wagner's current ongoing Dredd mega-epic "Day of Chaos."

Rebellion, 2000 AD's parent company, teased the return of the Dark Judges here on Comic Book Resources with a series of images released throughout April, rolling out new teasers each week throughout the month. Starting as three oblique symbols adorned with the tagline "THEY ARE COMING" and the date May 2, 2012, the images gradually revealed more information each week, culminating in stylized depictions of Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis.

John Wagner spoke exclusively with Comic Book Resources about why this is the right time for the return of the Dark Judges, why their popularity has endured so long and when we will finally get to see the return of the original super-fiend himself, Judge Death. The artists for prog 1781, Colin MacNeil and Henry Flint, also spoke with us about what it's like to resurrect the infamous and visually twisted characters and 2000 AD has provided CBR with the previous two chapters of "Day of Chaos" from progs 1799 and 1780 in their entirety!

CBR News: You've waited a long to bring back these fan-favorite Judge Dredd characters. Why did you decide that now was the time for the Dark Judges return?

John Wagner: I didn't realize it had been so long! I hadn't intended to use them in "Day of Chaos," but as the story developed, I saw they would fit in very nicely. The idea was to start off slowly and gradually build up to a thoroughly chaotic conclusion. By the final days, I was holding nothing back. Dark Judges? Sure -- stick them in the pot and give it a stir.

Is "Day of Chaos" a story newcomers intrigued by the Dark Judges return will find it easy to jump into?

I hope so. All you need to know is that the 'Sovs,' Mega-City One's great foe, have been planning revenge for 30 years, since Dredd's destruction of East-Meg One. The return of the Dark Judges is but one of many strands of the Sov plot to return the favor.

Why do you think the characters have remained so popular despite not appearing in "2000 AD" for so many years?

Because they look so good. The great Brian Bolland designed them, a classic piece of comic creation.

Because their powers are varied and shocking and very visual.

Because the logic behind their quest for justice is so twisted yet relatively simple -- all crime is committed by the living, therefore life itself must be a crime.

In your opinion, do real world-based villains like serial killer PJ Maybe or supernatural villains like the Dark Judges work best in Dredd's world of Mega-City One?

That's one of the beauties of Mega-City One. It's so varied, so multi-faceted, that it can cope with just about any kind of story you want to throw at it. Nuts and bolts, strong emotion, light-hearted humor, wild fantasy -- it all works fine in The Big Meg.

When the other three Dark Judges show up, the original super-fiend himself can't be far behind! Will we eventually see Judge Death again?

I have to confess that part of the reason I brought Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis back is that I'm considering writing a new story to reunite the four, with the excellent Greg Staples on art. My problem with the Dark Judges, and the reason that I've left them so long, is that I find it difficult to write any story without adding large dollops of black humor. This, however, tends to diminish characters like Judge Death, to dilute their level of menace. If I couldn't handle them in the way they deserved, then it was better to leave them alone. So I've been prevaricating on a new story ever since Greg suggested it -- until last week when he sent me a Dark Judge illustration he'd done. It was out of this world, simply stunning, and it made me think more seriously about a comeback. I'll be considering it over the coming weeks. If I can find a way to make it work (without the humor!), then the project is on.

Colin, you're doing the interiors for "2000 AD" prog 1781. Henry, you're illustrating the Dark Judges for the cover as well as doing interiors for the build-up issues. When did you both first learn the Dark Judges would be coming back and what went through your minds when you were approached to draw them?

Colin MacNeil: I first heard about the return of the Dark Judges when Tharg ["2000 AD" editor in chief Matt Smith] phoned me up to see if I could do a couple of Dredd episodes. When I heard "Dark Judges," well, I thought I'm definitely gonna enjoy drawing these episodes. I mean, it's the Dark Judges! Who wouldn't want to draw the Dark Judges?

Henry Flint: I read the script in preparation to draw the page layouts [of "2000 AD" prog 1780] and it was right there: Dark Judges. Wagner's Dredd story had been running for the best part of a year, so for the DJ's to suddenly turn up out of the blue changed a disastrous situation into a gigantically disastrous situation, a real "wow" moment. I was going, "No way!" three or four times out loud when I first read it.

What do you think has made Brian Bolland's designs remain so popular among artists and fans after all this time? They haven't changed a stitch in 30 years and still look brilliant.

MacNeil: That's an easy question to answer -- they're just a piece of great design. Great design is great design, no matter how long ago they were designed. It's like the Judges uniform; it's a brilliant design. Yes, I know it's totally impractical "in the real world," but who cares? It's comics! It's about the world of imagination. Many, many different artists have done their own versions of it over the years, but it is always the same design. Some artists may draw a bigger shoulder-pad, some a rounded eagle-pad, some a pointy one. However, the essence of the design is intact.

The Dark Judges are just the same, except that fewer artists have had an opportunity to put their take on the characters. Hopefully mine will be enjoyed by the readers. It's not a slavish copy of Bolland's Dark Judges, but then I'm not a Brian Bolland. I'm a Colin!

Flint: What you have with the Dark Judges is the result of two artists. Carlos [Ezquerra, Judge Dredd co-creator] with the original Judges design, and Brian blaspheming it all up.

The best I can do is draw them in my style. The worse thing I can do is draw them in a Bolland style and alter their appearance. The Dark Judges are classic British horror icons, in my book up there with Frankenstein and Dracula. 

Henry, can you describe the process that went in to the cover of "2000 AD" prog 1781? The dynamic image of the Dark Judges is becoming iconic before it's even been released!

Flint: Compared with other covers, it was a relatively easy one. First, I wanted people to be able to read all three name badges. Also, due to the narrowness of a page, I knew I couldn't have them standing side by side. Mortis was always going to be in the foreground, and to compensate Fear for taken the background position I made his cape engulf the page. I can see influences from other 2000 AD artists. [Glen] Fabry, Ezquerra, [Kevin] O'Neill, Jock, [Simon] Bisley and Bolland of course. These guys are my teachers.

Colin, you've worked on some of the most important stories in Judge Dredd's history. How do you try to leave your own mark on the character? How much leeway does Wagner give you to let your imagination run wild? 

MacNeil: I don't per se "try to leave my mark," I just try to draw something that tells the story and that looks interesting and entertaining, both for the readers and myself. Regarding Dredd, well, I grew up with Dredd. He was my playground pal. I think I know Dredd. That is, who he is, or rather, who he is to me. I just express that. Isn't that what all artists do?

When I was drawing "Judge Dredd: America" I would often phone John to see if I could change this panel here, or draw that panel a different way. In the end, I think John got a bit fed up with me constantly asking stuff! He eventually said, "Colin, I'm the writer. I've done my bit. You're the artist, draw it however you think best," or words to that effect. So long as the story and flow of the story is left intact, then it's all fine. It's my job to make stuff look good. Mr. Wagner is quite good at leaving space for the artist. He doesn't overwrite a script. He assumes you're a professional and that you know what Dredd's all about. A panel description might be something as simple as just "Dredd," or "Dredd on bike." It's up to you and your imagination to fill in the rest. That's why Dredd, and Wagner's Dredd in particular, is so good. There IS space for imagination.

He's your Dredd, our Dredd, everybody's Dredd!

The Dark Judges return as part of the ongoing "Day of Chaos" story-line in "2000 AD" prog 1781. The print edition goes on sale in the UK and digitally worldwide May 2. Print editions hit North America May 16.

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