During their far too-long leave of absence (brief sojourn to the inside of a wine bottle in Day of Chaos aside), it's been a while since Judge Death and his Dark Judges graced the pages of 2000AD. That changes for Dark Justice, in which John Wagner resurrects his popular supervillains to set the fearsome foursome on a gruesome vengeance trip against Dredd and Psi Judge Anderson... this time, in deep space. Although maybe 'resurrects' is a poor choice of words. You cannot kill that which does not live, after all.
Hopes were high for Dark Justice, with Wagner overcoming his famous reticence at writing another Dark Judges story, promising a return to the characters' scarier roots (fair point: Judge Death as a time-travelling old lady did no-one any favours). With the wonderful Greg Staples on art duties, it should have been must-read Dredd, for new, faithful and lapsed readers alike. And, in terms of art and action, it certainly doesn't disappoint: Dark Justice might just be the best looking mainstream superhero comic book (both terms used lightly) you'll read all year.
Lushly hand-drawn and painted and looking impressively cinematic (modelled in real life by the Judge Minty team for Staples), it's the next best thing you'll get to a live-action Dredd vs. Death movie. There are places (mostly around Anderson's face) where it approaches photorealism, and that extends to the violence and action too. Not since Brian Bolland's original stories have Death and his cronies looked so good – from Fear's Game of Thrones-esque fur cape to the burning hot Judge Fire (who must have been a pain in the arse for Staples to draw and paint), the attention to detail is perfect. Dredd and Anderson's encounters with the creatures are even better – most notably a headbutt from Dredd to Death that would have made the Mean Machine himself proud.
Alas, it's on the story front where Dark Justice falls short. Wagner speaks in the foreword of his boredom with the Dark Judges – of wanting to avoid yet another tale in which the monsters wreak havoc for a while before being incapacitated and captured by Dredd. Unfortunately, while it might all unfold in outer space, that's still the case here. We're teased with appearances from the Sisters of Death and PJ Maybe, but these all come to naught – what we have instead is a simple tale (inspired quite a bit by Aliens) of vengeance and violence. Even the setting isn't that original – an isolated, lawless capsule, full of citizens escaping the oppression of Mega City One – entirely reminiscent of the pleasure dome of Batman/Judge Dredd: Die Laughing (which Wagner had a hand in co-writing, so should have remembered). The writing, too, is slightly disappointing. While Dredd, Anderson and the cannon-fodder supporting cast are fine, Death and the Dark Judges seem to have very little to say, spouting the same old lines we've heard them do so many times before.
Dark Justice is too fun and too good to look at to be considered a failure – not by a long shot – but it does feel as though it could have been so much more. In spite of some fantastic action and the hilarious use of a woodchipper, it makes for lively but inconsequential reading. The game remains resolutely unchanged by the events depicted here, but, oh, what a game it is.
JUDGE DREDD: DARK JUSTICE / AUTHOR: JOHN WAGNER / ARTIST: GREG STAPLES / PUBLISHER: 2000 AD GRAPHIC NOVELS / RELEASE DATE: JULY 16TH