I’ve often found that when I see the word “Special” attached to a Comic or supplemental work, invariably, the word seems to usually be a misnomer, so naturally, I was hoping this supplement would not prove to be a disappointment.
Carlos Ezquerra played a very important role in shaping my mind as a Writer/Artist, as did the scripts of John Wagner, Alan Grant and Pat Mills, so it’s of particular encouragement to learn that it’s those 4 names that fill this wonderful tome, dating back through, well, not just Carlos’ career, but the 4 main people I consider as the heart and backbone of everything that was 2000 AD.
This isn’t to take away anything from the other fine creators that have worked on 2000 AD, from earlier stalwarts, like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Bret Ewins, Ron Smith, Kev O’Neill, Cam Kennedy, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Alan Davis, Simon Bisley, Clint Langley, to name just a few, all the way through to the present day, where such examples, David Hine and Nick Percival, grace this very issue of Judge Dredd Megazine, have all done remarkable work that continues to stick in the mind.
It was this “Fab Four”, however, that shaped my childhood, and the direction that 2000 AD would go. You see, Carlos Ezquerra was no ordinary Artist.
For one thing, Carlos just wasn’t like anyone else, his style was unique, back in the the 1970’s, you just didn’t see anything remotely similar. U.S. Comic Artists had these clean and simple-looking characters, and though they didn’t lack in dynamicism, characters were more “Cartoon-like”, where as Carlos was channelling more of a “Tough Guy Action Movie” feel to his work. For that matter, it also differed from most European work, for similar reasons.
Keep in mind that during this period, Clint Eastwood was on the rise as a film star, with other “Tough Guy” Actors, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Steve McQueen and Gene Hackman, they were becoming the new stars of action films, over-taking the dwindling popularity of the Gary Coopers and Audie Murphy’s of the world, now men were wanting to see more macho, gruffer-looking characters.
And as of the second issue of 2000 AD, that epitome of tough guys incarnated, Judge Dredd entered the scene, in a dramatic way, illustrated by Carlos – oh wait! Well, that was the plan, anyway.
Unfortunately, Carlos didn’t illustrate Dredd’s first adventure, it was Mike McMahon, as the John Wagner story, illustrated by Carlos, was pulled, after being considered too violent an opener for the series. Understandably, Ezquerra was incensed by this, and quit Dredd.
It’s perfectly understandable why too, it was Ezquerra’s designs that gave a far bolder and more futuristic look to Dredd than Wagner had planned, but it became the template, not just for Dredd, but ultimately for a large part of the direction 2000 AD would be taking.
And it’s this to which we open the special on, Wagner and Ezquerra’s “Bank Raid”. Okay, sure, the dialogue is immensely hammy, but a lot of Wagner’s scripts would have twee dialogue and flippancy in them, and it’s those qualities that made Dredd so fun to read over the years. On some level, I get why the story was pulled, but had I been in the same position, I might have done the same as Wagner & Ezquerra, it must have felt like a slap in the face. Happily, this would not be the last we’d see of Carlos on Dredd.
As a story in itself, “Bank Raid” isn’t mind-blowing material, but what it did do was act as a scene setter for what would define Dredd as a series, comparable to the opening sequence of 1971’s “Dirty Harry”, but taking a bit of a different direction from Eastwood’s Harry Callahan character, where Callahan was Cop who fought Dirty, Dredd was the polar opposite, embodifying the law to its most extreme levels.
That mentality is actually the reason Dredd gained popularity, sure, he was a tough guy, but also overtly serious and strict, which often made way for some very dark Comedy. It’s this aspect that carries over into our second classic story in this special.
Oh, but before we go into that, there’s also a nice little surprise at the end of the “Bank Raid” story, something lovely to see, provided by Rufus Dayglo for this special, naturally, I don’t want to drop a spoiler here, but it’s something very cool for the eyes!
Moving on to “Halloween”, originally published in Judge Dredd Annual, 1984, as I note, dark humour always had a very frequent place in the Dredd tales, and this wee yarn is a very good example of why John Wagner and Alan Grant have always made a great writing team.
While Wagner’s scripts were a lot of fun to read, as were Grant’s, Alan Grant gave Dredd the more serious elements, and was the blend of these two things that really filled out Dredd over the years, both Writers have whimsical humour in their works, but Wagner & Grant together have always made a powerhouse team, and provided possibly stronger work together, bringing us the classic Dredd stories, “Block Mania”, “The Judge Child Saga” and “Apocalypse War”, the latter being illustrated by Ezquerra.
These stories had depth, even when humorous, the humour was just very well placed within the serious elements of the stories. “Halloween” demonstrates this beautifully, but this time focusing upon the dark humour, where Mutants are in Mega City One on Halloween, the perfect night to blend in – and wreak havoc!!
Next up is the only thing that could follow – Strontium Dog. Man, I always loved Johnny Alpha, Wulf and Middenface McNulty, they, along with the Stix Brothers, were always my favourite Search/Destroy agents. Created again by Wagner and Ezquerra, Strontium Dog saw the more serious work of Wagner, the very essence focused on more issues like prejudice, as Alpha grew up in the Mutant slums of Milton Keynes.
Mutants were ostracised and exiled from Human populations and forbidden to own businesses. It’s this matter that also crosses over into Dredd and carries a deeper theme to it, so while “Halloween” demonstrated a darkly comical example about Mutants, Strontium Dog was more reminiscent in theme as a comparative to Nazi Germany, or, for that matter, Franco’s Spain, which Ezquerra saw much of the effects as a Spanish national.
This short story, “Incident On Zeta”, serves as a great little introduction to Johnny Alpha, showing the kind of jobs he’d get working as a Bounty Hunter, one of the very few jobs a Mutant could get, demonstrating the tactics and gadgets Johnny employs, and while it’s a pity we don’t get to see him using his Mutant abilities here as well, it’s a good case file to get an idea about Johnny.
If you want a solid recommendation, I can give no higher one than “Strontium Dog: Outlaw”, which can be ordered directly from Rebellion Publishing, and a mere £6.99 gets you 120 pages of one of my all-time favourite Comic stories, where Johnny and Wulf have been framed for murder by the Stix Brothers, seeking revenge for the killing of their sibling.
What I found interesting is the very few people that seem to realise what Dredd and Strontium Dog have in common, and about why both work so well; they’re futuristic Westerns, much like Rogue Trooper and the A.B.C. Warriors are war stories. 2000 AD reinvented the wheel, combining Sci-Fi and war stories, issue 1 being published shortly before the release of Star Wars, in February of 1977.
Many of the British Comics at that time, were either largely a ‘dime a dozen’ war stories, or Sci-Fi stories that felt..well..a bit dated, actually, which changed with the advent of 2000 AD and the short-lived Starlord magazine (where Strontium Dog started out), but 2000 AD and Starlord were more than that.
They were the shot to the arm that British Comics really needed. Many of the other Comics in the U.K. were dwindling in popularity, whereas 2000 AD was this beast that had much of what we loved in Sci-Fi and war stories, but with a complete “Punk” attitude to it, 2000 AD stuck two fingers up to the world and gave a big “f*** you” to Comics, doing whatever it damn well pleased.
Which brings us to the next fun installIment in this special; Tharg’s Future Shocks! This is a bit of a legendary one, featuring the tale of one failed Writer, Alec Trench (a pseudonym once used by Alan Grant). Trench attempts suicide, but while doing so, gets abducted by aliens, giving him the story of his life!
Trench reappeared in multiple stories along the way, but this is the one that started it, “A Close Encounter Of The Fatal Kind!”, and it’s a fine example of the humorous material that Grant and Ezquerra would come up with together.
This is followed by a joint Dredd and Strontium Dog jam, published in 2000 AD prog 2000 back in 2016, and it’s real treat. Judge Dredd has a bounty put out on him, and Johnny Alpha, Middenface and Kid Knee have arrived to collect, but at the same time, help Dredd find out who is behind the bounty, and why they’re gunning for him.
A few nice surprises in here, with the Stix Brothers..and the return of an old face. *winks ominously*
Another Strontium Dog tale straight after this, but a bit of a difference with this one, that’s going to tug at the heart a bit. If you’ve never read Strontium Dog and want to see it unfold as a series, here is your warning now;
Okay, now the obligatory bit is out of the way, this leads on from the Death Of Wulf Sternhammer, who was killed by Max Bubba. This story provides a different ending, where Wulf lives instead.
I couldn’t help but be moved by this one, making Carlos’ passing even sadder. The tale is heart-felt, perhaps bidding adieu to more than just one of our favourite and beloved of heroes.
And finally, to finish off with, another Tharg’s Future Shocks; “A Day In The Life Of The Mighty Tharg!” Again, it’s a bunch of fun, as TFS always have been, and it’s a great way to finish, especially given that Pat Mills’ self-referential humour shines through here, (credited as “TMO” on the credit card), and let’s face it, it’s nice to finish off with a Pat Mills tale anyway.
Overall, it’s a wonderful publication, closed out by a lovely illustration by Robin Smith of Carlos as an Art Droid, and it’s a very worthy tribute to the man’s legacy. It’s clear the stories have been well picked, and I’m glad this wasn’t just jammed up with filler, the dedications in the Megazine are enough of a tribute. Anything else you might care to know about Carlos Ezquerra can be easily looked up online, and it’s good to know that this special was set aside for his actual works.
I do have have one missive about it though, I would love to have seen an extract of “Cursed Earth Koburn” in here as well, the character only appeared in 16 issues of the Megazine, co-created with Gordon Rennie, he was a great character, a James Coburn/Major Eazy update, Judge Marshall Koburn roamed the Cursed Earth, a maverick with a ‘Wise Guy” sense of humour, bringing the law to the lawless.
While naturally, this has has continued in theme in “Lawless”, it’s a pity it’s not featured here, as this was another great character design of Ezquerra’s, but worry not, there are other publications available featuring him, but I really would like to have seen more of Koburn.
In the end, it’s been a pleasure to read, and certainly worthy of an industry legend. Carlos has influenced so many, I’d not met him myself, but in addition to the many tributes in the Megazine, I know a good number of people who knew Carlos personally, who speak of his kindness, warmth and humour, oh, and his Cigars, he loved his Cigars.
Carlos Ezquerra was more than just an Artist, he was an innovator, the most natural storyteller, and a one of a kind creator, influencing much of the talent you see on the scene today, myself included. If there is a legacy to be remembered for, it is in this very publication, a fine tribute to one of the most important industry figures, beloved by so many, and missed by even more.
Rest in peace, Carlos, and thank you for all you’ve done.
Judge Dredd Megazine review part 2 – “Hail To The King: A Celebration Of The Work Of Carlos Ezquerra” Special
Writers: John Wagner, Pat Mills, Alan Grant, TMO,
Artist: Carlos Ezquerra
Letters: Bill Nuttall, Tom Frame, Kid Robson, Peter Knight, Annie Parkhouse, Ellie De Ville
Reviewer: Scott Mack