This is part of 45 Year Of Thrills, How to Love Comics’ celebration of 2000 AD’s 45th anniversary throughout 2022. Find out more and read other posts in the series here.
The Essential Judge Dredd line is a great way to dip your toe into the long-running 2000 AD series. They collect a classic story or saga in one book, giving readers new and old a clear indication of what stories you should read. As a result, the publishing initiative has brought all-timers such as America, The Apocalypse War, and Dredd vs Death in these editions. The latest, which makes its way to stores today, is the horror-filled epic Necropolis by writer John Wagner, artist Carlos Ezquerra, and letterer Tom Frame.
Published weekly over 26 instalments in 1990, Necropolis follows the blueprint for Judge Dredd epics that John Wagner perfected. That formula is: a threat arrives at Mega-City One, escalating until it endangers the entire city, and it’s up to Dredd to save the day by any means necessary.
In the case of Necropolis, that threat is Dark Judges and the Sisters of Death. For those not familiar, they’re a dark and ghoulish version of the Mega-City One’s Judges from another dimension that believe that life is the biggest crime of all. However, Dredd is not around to face them, at least not until things have escalated to dire circumstances. Instead, the reader initially follows Kraken, a clone from the same lineage as Dredd, who’s taken his identity in Dredd’s absence.
This is where Necropolis becomes one of the more continuity-heavy stories in the Judge Dredd catalogue. It builds off events of previous stories from 1990, such as The Dead Man and Tale of the Dead Man, and takes those plot threads to their natural conclusion. Apart from the five-part Countdown to Necropolis, these stories are not included in this Essential collection (which is fair enough as it would double the already over 200-page count) and are summarised with a text page instead. This works well to get readers up to speed. Although, those who stress about granular elements of continuity might want to read a Wikipedia summary of The Dead Man and Tale of the Dead Man before diving in. (UPDATE: About 8 hours after this review went live, the 2000 AD newsletter included a free PDF of Tale of the Dead Man.) That being said, there’s enough to enjoy that continuity isn’t a concern once you’re into the thick of this epic.
By having Kraken as the point of view character for a significant time, Necropolis explores how the Judges are tools for others’ bidding. In the case of this character, he’s almost a Swiss Army Knife, becoming the tool for not just the Justice Department but also the Sisters of Death and eventually the Dark Judges. With their influence, whether it’s rhetoric or more supernatural, he’ll do their bidding without question. Heck, he’s even willing to kill himself to prove he’s worthy of the Justice Department! It shows how malleable people can be with the right kind of suggestion.
As mentioned earlier, this epic is steeped in horror. That makes a lot of sense when you consider the Dark Judges and the forces of Deadworld are involved. But it’s more than just ghoulish character designs and supernatural elements that make it creepy. The creative team position the characters as terrifying and unstoppable. There’s a perfect example of this in chapter 16, where a group of cadets are chased by Dark Judge Mortis. It’s straight out of the horror movie playbook, in which the monster keeps coming no matter how many obstacles are put in its way. Mortis is framed closer in panels as this sequence progresses. Starting with the whole body, the reader can feel him closing in as subsequent ones show him taking up more real estate until you can only see his hand.
On the visual side, Necropolis is some of Carlos Ezquerra’s best work. For those who are not familiar with 2000 AD’s most-celebrated artist and Judge Dredd co-creator, he had a distinct style. As you can see, his figures contain a thick outline, often with a sawtooth-like quality. The detail is then filled out with smaller linework. As discussed in great detail a few weeks ago, it’s a style that remained consistent but adapted as 2000 AD evolved.
For Necropolis, Ezquerra is entrenched in the painted era of the anthology. He implemented his signature style to the characters and foreground with painted qualities, such as watercolour washes (more on that soon) and detailed backgrounds on the top of it. In these instances, these backgrounds don’t have the defined lines the characters do but instead rely on shape and colour to create form. An excellent example of this is in the cityscapes, ranging from Bladerunneresque to a polluted haze. These depictions of Mega-City One are detailed but don’t get mixed in with the foreground.
As mentioned earlier, colour is handed through watercolours. However, instead of colouring each element on the page individually, Ezquerra washes a panel in one or two colours. This is used to set the mood and to tell the story. For instance, panels featuring the Sisters of Death are often washed in a sickly purple or green. This helps to give them an uneasy aura and make them more unnatural. Other times, a panel showing someone being shot is drenched in red for emphasis. The inverse can also be true. Select panels are absent of the colour completely, such as headshots of the Dark Judges. These detailed panels give a chilling sensation as if the lack of colour was like blood had instantly drained from the reader.
Necropolis stands out from other Judge Dredd stories through its panel economy. Most 2000 AD stories, especially the era, are tightly packed with panels because each chapter has only 5-6 pages to communicate the story. However, Necropolis bucks the trend by having a lot of splash pages and pages with fewer panels than usual. Of course, Ezquerra can get away with this as the story is 26 chapters (plus a 5-chapter prelude) long – there’s plenty of room to breathe. It would feel wasteful in a shorter tale, but in Necropolis, it adds to the scale and impact of events.
Necropolis deserves its place in the pantheon of Dredd stories. It’s a massive story, drenched in horror, that gives Carlos Ezquerra plenty of room to do some of his best work. You’re in for a good time, as long as you’re not concerned about continuity.