I’m always leery of reading comic books in an electronic format. While novels can make the transition because they only need to focus on their text, comics need to display pictures and narrative flow between panels that don’t always fit on a screen. Hence, I usually just buy paper copies of the comics I think I’d like.
When I saw this particular comic go on sale, however, I made an exception.
Now, I’m not too much of a fan of Judge Dredd overall. It’s not that I dislike it, but rather never really had a chance to let it grow on me – but I did pick up some things here and there. One of which was the awesome villain that is Judge Death. An undead, unkillable monster who believes that life is inherently criminal and must be eradicated (hence his kickass catch-phrase “The crime is life! The sentence is death!”). So yeah, when I saw that there was an origin-story for this badass, I was hooked.
Judge Death: Young Death – Boyhood of a Superfiend is a ninety-eight page PDF file of the comic. I usually cringe at comics as PDFs, and this was the case here. The front and back covers are placed side-by-side as the opening page, making it twice as wide as all of the other singular pages; this means that when you try to use the “fit to screen” option, it fits it so that that double-page fills the screen, and the others are still filling half of it. You can still resize them up more, but it’s a bit awkward and unwieldy. There weren’t any bookmarks either, but I’m letting that slide because they’d be an awkward fit for a comic with no narrative breakups in the story.
The comic itself is full color, and done in a muted “portrait” style – rather than cartoonish heavy borders and bright colors, the entire comic has a more shaded feel to it. It works quite well, lending a very gothic feel to an already gothic story.
In terms of continuity, this story takes place after the Necropolis story arc, and before Judge Death sets out into the Cursed Earth. The story itself is actually told in two (or, depending on how you look at it, three) separate parts. The first is Judge Death giving his life story to a reporter in hopes that the people of Mega-City One will come to understand what he’s offering them – the innocence of death – which is juxtaposed with the flashbacks of his time among the living. Across from this is a separate story of the Judges investigating a murder. The connection between these two is made early on, and creates a nice point-counterpoint to the story; the end results of both Judge Death’s narrative and the murder investigation are known to us – we’re being taken along parallel journeys to see how things got there.
Judge Death’s story is a fairly depraved one from the outset. His home dimension (before he turned it into Deadworld) is shown as a place where life was always regarded as cheap. We see the young Death is shown to be sadistic and sociopathic from a young age, and at first we’re given to believe this is because of his father (who is shown to be completely off-the-wall psychotic), and initially think that he’s a bad seed from a bad tree. All too soon, however, we quickly come to realize that he’s as much the product of his environment as he is just born evil. When he murders twenty-seven people who appear in his court on his first day as a probationary judge, and the head judge expresses only a mild exasperation at this, it’s clear that it was only a matter of time before someone like him came along.
In a way, I found this aspect of his origin to somewhat lessen the character. I can understand why the writers did it, since it’s a new spin on the old “natural-born psycho” that a lot of villains start as. But even so, showing him as being only slightly beyond the norm for his bloodstained society makes him seem less monstrous – he’s simply the natural conclusion of his cultural values.
Ultimately, like a lot of origin stories, the ending feels inconclusive, if only because it ends where the character’s “on-screen” history begins. When he reaches the point where he transitions to becoming Judge Death, the story is pretty much over. There’s the story that takes place in the present, the one dealing with the murder case, but it also lacks a real climax due to the fact that, once the origin tale is over, it exists only to showcase how the meta-plot for the book concludes. This isn’t something I can really hold against the book – it did what it promised to do, after all, which was tell us how Judge Death became who he is – but its still a weakness of the story.
Of course, one weakness doesn’t undercut the book’s overall strengths. The tale is a long and gruesome one, and whether it’s by nature or nurture it still highlights what a monstrous figure Judge Death has always been, even as a little boy. Filling in the gaps of his history gives us a more thorough understanding of his character, and makes him all the more enjoyable. This graphic novel brings Judge Death to life (crime as that may be).