Review: ‘Essential Judge Dredd – The Apocalypse War’ Is Still One Of The Best Of The Epic Dredd Tales

by Richard Bruton

With 40+ years of Dredd tales to choose from, the new Essential Judge Dredd has opened with an impressive one-two punch. First, there was America, John Wagner and Colin MacNeil’s classic where the hopes and dreams of democracy are crushed beneath the wheels of MC-1’s Justice Department. And now we get one of the finest hours of John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Carlos Ezquerra, with the world-changing epic of ‘The Apocalypse War’.

This most essential of the Essential collections, 2000 AD‘s most recent repackaging and republishing effort, collects the entire ‘Apocalypse War’, including the ‘Block Mania’ storyline that kicks it all off, with material from 2000 AD Progs 236-267 and 269-270.

I have to say, ‘The Apocalypse War’ was the thing that got me into Dredd and 2000 AD. Not when it first appeared, either with the essential prequel, ‘Block Mania’, or with ‘The Apocalypse War’ proper that kicked off 1982 in such fine style. No, I was still a mere 12-year-old at the time, just getting into Marvel super-types at the time. It was actually seeing either the Eagle Comics reprints (with all those gorgeous Brian Bolland covers) or the Titan Books reprints of the saga once I’d started working at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham, from the age of 16. But whichever it was, I can still remember being absolutely amazed by the sheer unbelievable scale of the thing. And that’s a feeling that continues right to this day.

It’s a tale of two halves and three parts, brilliantly interwoven by Wagner and Grant, who guide us through just another crazy Mega-City One happening as the Blocks go to war, through the introduction of a East-Meg One plot through the Sov assassin and spy Orlok, all the way through to the nuclear devastation and all-out war of The Apocalypse War. Like I say, those three strands run through the two storylines so well, with the writers hitting all those essential beats to make this one of my all-time favourite Dredd storylines.

Everything kicks off in the most unassuming fashion – a dropped ice cream – that triggers the start of the first Block War, with the rival MC-1 Blocks’ simmering hatred of each other magnified into out and out violence, seemingly with no real cause, growing and spreading to take in the whole city, with even Judges affected.

Of course, Dredd’s on the case and eventually uncovers the cause – this is no random accident, this is deliberate, an attack on his city. However, not even Dredd can imagine the instigators of the Block Mania, not until he comes up against Orlok, the Sov assassin spreading the Mania through MC-1’s water supply.

The ‘Block Mania’ storyline gives us an artistic treat as well, opening up with those delicious double-page spreads we used to get where Dredd got two pages of colour in the centrespread each week. You’ll get to see some of Mick McMahon and Brian Bolland’s finest work on Dredd here, as well as plenty of pages from the much-missed Steve Dillon and Ron Smith.

And then you get this – the final page of ‘Block Mania – and you know there’s trouble to come. It’s just that, when it first came out, you had no idea of just how high the stakes would be, no idea that Wagner and Grant would go that far.

With that page, we’re propelled from ‘Block Mania’ straight into ‘The Apocalypse War’, with the Sovs raining down nuclear devastation on MC-1, seemingly not caring that the Meg has its own missiles launching in retaliatory strikes.

And when ‘The Apocalypse War’ kicks off, with Carlos Ezquerra on art duties, it’s everything you want it to be – absolutely breakneck-paced, beautifully drawn, and chillingly brutal in the manner in which Wagner and Grant depict this mass-murder of millions.

We’ve suddenly gone from the typical crazy MC-1 storylines of ‘Block Mania’, through the investigation and espionage elements involving Dredd uncovering the Sov plot, right into a full-blown old fashioned war story, albeit a war story that, at the time certainly, gave us a dire warning of what could happen if ever our own political masters decided to go ahead and press the button themselves. It’s difficult to imagine that now, but back in the 70s and 80s it was a real fear for us all and one that Wagner and Grant played on for all it was worth here.

It’s a storyline of real wow moments, the launching of the nukes, the devastation caused, the Sov’s plan to escape certain destruction through their new tech, and the moments where there’s the realisation that the nuclear strikes were just the beginning and that MC-1 is about to be invaded.

And of course, Wagner and Grant also hammer the point home, again and again, that this isn’t a simple good guys against the bad guys sort of war story either. Even though the Sovs struck first with a callous disregard for the lives they knew would be lost on both sides following the first devastating round of nuclear strikes, it’s made very obvious to us that those in power in MC-1 and Dredd, in particular, are no different.

There’s a wonderful deliberate comparison made by Wagner and Grant in the early stages of the War, with the Sovs being so typically cold and heartless, not caring one whit about the Sov cits who are about to die…

And then, mere pages later, Wagner and Grant show us exactly the same thing happening in MC-1, with Dredd’s cold reaction mirroring that of the Sovs.

The sheer unrelenting nature of ‘The Apocalypse War’, the brutality of it all, the absolute destruction, the millions of deaths, it has a shock element to it that still works today, all these years later. Yes, there are moments when the whole thing veers too much into the plucky MC-1 Judges fighting back against the bad guys, but there’s still those moments where the writers jolt themselves, and us, back to the brutal reality. Moments such as this chilling moment…

And this…

And, of course, this…

Throughout it all, Ezquerra’s artwork is superb, but there’s two things I remember so well and still impress. First, it’s Ezquerra’s stunning renditions of the many, many missiles and bombs flying around the planet in devastating fashion – every time I read Apocalypse War, I’m still astonished by the sheer variety, the destructive design perfection that Ezquerra shows on these.

And then there’s those iconic images throughout. The double-page spreads summarising the chaos and introducing the next bout of destruction, the iconic imagery of Dredd and Kazan, just a few magnificent moments amongst a strip that, thanks to Ezquerra, was full of them.

In the end, this is still one of the biggest and best Dredd epic storylines, the one that set the tone for much that would follow, Wagner and Grant deliberately heaping chaos and destruction on both sides and, just as deliberately, making it quite clear that Dredd has far more in common with the Sovs and their brutal, callous disregard for their citizenry than he has for those poor bastards who live in the city whose streets he patrols.

You can get hold of this latest publication of the very best of the epic Dredds in Essential Judge Dredd, The Apocalypse War from 19th January 2021.

Essential Judge Dredd – The Apocalypse War. Contains the storylines Block Mania and The Apocalypse War, originally published in 2000 AD Progs 236-244, 245-267, 269-279.

Block Mania – written by John Wagner, Alan Grant, art by Mike McMahon, Ron Smith, Brian Bolland, Steve Dillon. The Apocalypse War – written by John Wagner, Alan Grant, art by Carlos Ezquerra.

Colours by Charlie Kirchoff, letters by Tom Frame and Steve Potter.

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