Interviews: Matt Badham talks to Doug Wolk about taking Dredd west for Mega City Two
Douglas Wolk is an acclaimed author and critic. He has written about comics and music for publications such as Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two – a five-issue mini-series, the first issue of which sees release by IDW this month – is his first major comic book work. Judge Tutor Matt Badham chatted to Doug about his foray into one of the UK’s biggest comics characters for this interview which is being cross-posted here and on Down The Tubes:
Matt: I’m aware that you’re a journalist, but have you written comics before?
Doug: I’ve mostly been making my living as a journalist and critic for the past 20 years or so! I’d only written a tiny bit of comics before I started this project, although I’m doing some more now. I recently wrote a couple of mini-comics about some veteran social justice activists here in Portland, Oregon, for a project called Comics for Change.
Matt: What has the experience of writing this mini-series for IDW been like?
Doug: It’s been very, very interesting writing comics for real for the first time. In some ways it’s easy – it’s writing within a bunch of formal constraints, which I always like doing, and I have a pretty good sense of how the medium works, I think. Partly, it’s one mind-bending challenge after another – trying to let images carry a narrative, trying to get the story to flow in a way that’s satisfying, trying to make sure there’s something entertaining happening on every page. Writing Judge Dredd is particularly tricky and fun, because there are very specific tonal and formal restrictions.
Dredd’s got a particular voice, for instance, and almost never does first-person narration. There are some later John Wagner stories where the captions are essentially Dredd’s point of view presented as third person, but that’s about it. (On the other hand, there are also things writers can pull off in the context of Judge Dredd that are nearly unheard of in mainstream comics. Like musical numbers! There are a couple of those in Mega-City Two, because we could, basically.)
Fortunately, I’ve also got it easy, because I get to work with Ulises Farinas on this one. He’s full of extraordinary ideas – most of the most fun parts of Mega-City Two to write have been things he suggested. He’s also got a great sense of how to make stories flow on the page; everything I’ve written for him has come back looking much cooler than I’d imagined it.
Matt: What has your previous personal relationship with the Dredd strip been like, as a reader and fan?
Doug: I started reading 2000 AD in earnest when I was about twelve. Having seen a few issues earlier, I was visiting London and snapped up about a dozen progs from Forbidden Planet right in the middle of “The Apocalypse War.” Good timing! And then I kept reading 2000 AD for twenty years or so (although not the Judge Dredd Megazine, which I couldn’t find in the U.S.). I drifted away from it when I moved to the West Coast in 2003 and couldn’t find copies any more. Then the Complete Case Files started up a few years after that, which pulled me right back in.
In 2011, I knew I wanted to do some kind of weekly blog about a many-volume comics project, just as an exercise in writing and an excuse for immersion. I thought about focusing on Tintin or Hellblazer or a few others but settled on Judge Dredd, partly because I knew that I’d enjoy the later volumes even more than the early ones. And that’s how Dredd Reckoning happened: between mid-2011 and early 2013, I got to read and write about every Dredd-universe comics story that had been reprinted in book form, often in discussion with various guests.
Matt: Has being a fan helped or hindered you in writing this new mini-series?
Doug: I think it’s helped, in part because I’m the kind of fan who generally dislikes ‘fan-service’, if you see what I mean. (There are a couple of Easter eggs in Mega-City Two for other people who’ve read a few thousand Judge Dredd episodes, but I hope I’ve camouflaged them pretty well.) One danger of writing Dredd when you’re as much of a starry-eyed admirer of John Wagner’s work as I am is trying to do a Wagner impression. I suspect that the best way for me to honour his gifts is to write something that builds on the foundation he established and takes advantage of some of the formal possibilities it opens up, but doesn’t look or read like his stuff at all. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, anyway.
Matt: How did you come up with the idea for Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two?
Doug: I decided I wanted to come up with a Dredd story that would make sense from an American creative team, specifically – one of the things I love about Dredd is that it’s a vision of American culture that’s historically been created by and for British people! I also wanted to figure out how I could give myself some latitude to do the kind of world-building I love so much in 2000 AD, while avoiding interfering with anybody else’s plans.
Then it hit me: Mega-CIty Two! The North American West Coast city in Dredd’s world first appeared in “The Cursed Earth,” but just on a couple of pages. It had turned up a couple of times after that, but not for very long either and Garth Ennis had of course blown it up twenty years ago. Nobody had really gotten to explore it in its original form, and now nobody was going to be able to – but the fact that IDW’s Judge Dredd series was set in 2100 meant that I could play around with the pre-”Judgement Day” era [*] without stepping on anyone’s toes. What would happen if we sent Dredd there, I wondered?
[*Mega-City Two was blown up during “Judgement Day” on Dredd’s suggestion when it was overrun by zombies. – Matt.]
Matt: I’ve just written an article for the Judge Dredd Megazine about IDW’s 2000 AD comics and we chatted for that. I was interested that your vision for Mega-City Two was as a kind of future Los Angeles.
Doug: I spent a very intense period in L.A. a few years ago, as part of a programme the Getty Foundation runs with USC Annenberg [School for Communication and Journalism]. I realized that what Mega-City Two had to be was a city that’s totally devoted to the image and to controlling images. (Like L.A., but much more so, in the same way that Mega-City One is like New York, but much more so.) That also helped with figuring out how the Mega-City Two setting could make for interesting comics – thinking about the most visually thrilling stuff that would be there and how those images would be created and controlled.
There’s a fascinating book by Mike Davis called City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles that’s about how L.A. has been systematically compartmentalized over time, and I tried to take some of his ideas and apply the Dredd tradition of pushing the reality of the present into something slightly ridiculous in the future. Mega-City Two is composed of neighbourhoods so deeply stratified that the laws are totally different in each one, but the judges still have to hold it together somehow.
The plot fell together pretty naturally out of that. Both [IDW Editor-In-Chief] Chris Ryall and Tharg’s representative Matt Smith had some very helpful suggestions, and when Ulises Farinas joined the project as artist, it started going in some amazing directions.
Matt: What directions did Ulises’ involvement prompt the series to go in? How would you describe his work and approach to Dredd?
Doug: I’d first seen Ulises’ work a few years ago, when he illustrated a piece I wrote for WIRED magazine. I’d written a sample script for the first issue of Mega-City Two without knowing who might draw it. (Which is kind of like writing a love letter without knowing who you’re writing it to.) Pulling in Ulises was Chris’s brilliant idea. Ulises did a sample piece based on my two-page pitch that completely nailed what I was going for, and pushed it in a much more exciting direction. It ended up being the cover of the first issue, and I rewrote that issue pretty extensively once I knew he was going to be drawing it. There’s an incredible two-page spread in the first issue that was just a paragraph or so in the script (basically “Here’s Carlos Ezquerra’s first big drawing of Mega-City One; this should be to present-day L.A. what Ezquerra’s image is to present-day New York City.”). Then Ulises and I batted some ideas for it around via instant message, and then he went to his drawing board and boom!
Matt: It sounds like a very close collaboration, with plenty of back and forth communication.
Doug: Ulises is a non-stop fountain of ideas; he and I email and text back and forth all the time. He’s incredibly good at world-building – very often, I’ll vaguely hand wave about some piece of future technology, and then he’ll figure out the mechanics of how it works, and that will cue me to figure out how those specifics can work in the story. Pretty much all the West Coast hip-hop stuff in Mega-City Two comes from him (you’ll see what that means a lot more in #2), and everything to do with transportation, and so much more. A few times he’s just sent me a sketch from his notebook and said “can we put this in there?” And of course it’s always exactly the thing I need to make the next script work. I also love that his work looks unlike anything that’s been seen in Judge Dredd before. That’s true of all my favourite Dredd artists.
Matt: What help/editorial support have you received from Chris Ryall and Matt Smith?
Doug: I’d always read about what an amazing story mechanic Matt was, and then I got to experience it myself. His notes on the early stages of Mega-City Two were all big-picture stuff – “Get rid of these elements, combine these elements, move these parts over here, find a way to connect these parts.” – and all incredibly helpful. Every one of them was an “Of course, why didn’t I see that?” moment for me. Chris’ enthusiasm for the project makes me even more psyched about it, and I’m very grateful to him for taking a chance on someone who’d never really written comics before. (Of course, now I’ve got the comics-writing bug, but I can’t blame him for that.) Denton Tipton, who’s editing the mini-series itself, has been doing a remarkable job of juggling all of its strange little components and putting up with my fussy specifications about things like how exactly word balloons are supposed to overlap.
Matt: What are your thoughts on Dredd and the various attempts the character has made to ‘break’ America? Do you think his character is a hard sell for the American market and, if so, why?
Doug: Imported action comics have almost always been a very hard sell in America, Naruto notwithstanding – I think the fact that there have been over 150 issues’ worth of American-format Dredd comics (between Eagle, Fleetway/Quality, DC and IDW) is actually pretty impressive. (Asterix and Black Jack aren’t quite household names here either, to our national shame.) That said, one way of reading Judge Dredd is as a brutal satire of American culture; the joke is on us, which makes the joke tough to sell to us en masse. For American readers who haven’t had Dredd around their whole lives but suspect they might be interested in the British comics, there’s also the “Where the hell do I start?” problem. Serials that catch on here, from Death Note to The Walking Dead, tend to have a very consistent look and feel, as well as a big bold #1 on the cover of the starting point. (One of my goals with Mega-City Two was to come up with a complete, self-contained, internally consistent book that a new American reader could enjoy without any other context but that would also reward long-time readers who do have context.)
As far as the films go: I enjoyed the 2012 movie enormously, but I simply don’t understand how cinema audiences work!
Matt: You’ve mentioned Ulises’ skill at world-building and future tech’ design. What else has he brought to the table?
Doug: Ulises is one of the great new-breed of American comic artists – people who grew up on cartooning (and character design) from a whole bunch of traditions and have a million ways to convey spectacle. (Have you seen that Gamma one-shot he did? It’s rad.) He’s also terrific at staging action. There are some scenes where he has to juggle way too many characters and he gets everybody’s individual personalities across beautifully.
Matt: For example?
Doug: There’s a scene in #1 where a character called Garbo Gubbins interrupts a Z-grade, space-opera movie shoot, interacts with three actors – one of them a gigantic alien – who all react to what he’s offering them in different ways; and then runs away as Dredd pursues him and a couple of other characters follow Dredd. That happens in four panels, on 2/3 of a page and Ulises not only nailed it, he managed to get even more stuff going on in it (and came up with the idea of Dredd vaulting out of the panel at the end of the page).
Matt: That sounds pretty amazing.
Doug: [Plus], there’s a panel in #1 that the script describes as “Dredd on his bike, on the streets of Mega-City One, in the middle of a firefight, wreaking havoc.” (One way I am trying to channel Wagner is by keeping panel descriptions as brief as I can, to give Ulises room to move.)
What Ulises drew was Dredd on his bike, which is at a 30-degree angle from vertical as he makes a hairpin turn on a litter-strewn, Mega-City One street whose detritus includes a frog, a drainage pipe and a sign reading “Overnight Camping 153 Km.”; steering with his right hand and shooting a perp with his left; as multiple people with radically different physical characteristics are firing at him from some kind of gigantic, insane, high-speed, 30-wheel death machine with a satellite dish on top, a “flammable” sign on its door and a bunch of different kinds of futuristic weaponry; and another perp who’s just been shot is in the middle of falling from said death machine; [all of this with] an Ezquerra-esque Mega-City One skyline visible in the background.
And then, on the next page, the action shifts to Mega-City Two.
There, Ulises tells us everything there is to know about one of the supporting characters, Kennedy’s secretary, in two panels’ worth of character design and body language; and gives us another jaw-dropping Mega-City Two panorama; and opens up a bunch of negative space that lets the page breathe, plays up the scene change for maximum visual contrast, and lets him pull off a perfect little visual gag focussed around an extension cord.
Which reminds me: Ulises is hilarious. Every time I see one of his covers for Mega-City Two, I cackle with delight.
(And three cheers, also, for colourist Ryan Hill. The script for #2 calls for an incredibly wide range of colour effects, including “’90s hip-hop music video” and “Brendan McCarthy, Saturday morning cartoon”. He pulls it all off with aplomb, even as he manages to make the lighting work as the clock of the 14 hours or so in which that episode takes place.)
Matt: That all sounds pretty cool. Finally, could I ask what you have planned for the future, comics-wise?
Doug: I have no idea, actually, but I’m itching to do more! I’m writing a tiny little story for a New York artist named Marion Vitus, and kicking around another idea with the artist Kel McDonald, and beyond that I’m trying to figure out what might be next.
Matt: Douglas Wolk, thanks for your time.
FPI would like to thank Matt and Doug for taking the time to do this interview; you can keep up with Douglas via his Twitter and website, and of course you can follow Matt’s Twitter and check his blog here. Thanks also to Kahlil at IDW for being kind enough to supply some art to cast our eyes over. The first issue of Mega City Two has just been published by IDW and is available in stores now. On a related note you can read more of IDW’s collaborations with Rebellion to bring 2000 AD characters to a new audience in Matt’s interview with Edinburgh author Brian Ruckley about his writing Rogue Trooper for IDW.