Advance Review: ‘Judge Dredd: Guatemala’ – More Wagnerian Dredd Epics, Long And Short

by Richard Bruton

Summary

The return of John Wagner to Dredd, with a collection of important moments – the seeming death of Judge Hershey, and the final coda to the entire America saga. This is Classic Dredd, this is classic John Wagner, the very best from the very best. Not just that though, you also get the final two Dredd strips from another master, the much-missed, gone too soon Carlos Ezquerra.

Overall
10/10
10/10

An increasingly rare treat for Judge Dredd fans, as Guatemala collects the John Wagner written Dredd strips of the past couple of years; the death of Hershey, the end of America, and a lot more!

I had thought, originally, that this was going to simply be a collection of the most recent of Wagner’s Judge Dredd storylines in 2000 AD, the tale of a death bed request that sent Dredd on a diplomatic mission down to Guatemala, the dictatorship ruled by the despotic (and robotic) El Presidente.

So it was a genuine surprise to see that this was, instead, a lot more, with the mid-length ‘Guatemela’ run just the start of it. There’s also a trio of great Wagner done-in-one Dredd strips and, with ‘The Victims of Bennett Beeney, we have the final coda for possible the finest moment in all Dredd history, the America saga.

One thing that you see, crystal clear, in these pages is just how good the artistic talent on Dredd is these days, with all four top-notch artists here representing something of the past, present, and future of Dredd artistry, with Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, Henry Flint, and Dan Cornwell, each one of them doing some sterling, impressive work. Sadly, of course, the two Ezquerra strips in this collection were the last Dredd from Carlos before his all too early passing in 2018.

So, let’s begin with Guatemala, the story from 2019, and John Wagner’s main storyline that year. Increasingly, we’re coming to terms with the fact that Wagner written Dredds are a rarity, and we’re moving towards the time, unthinkable years ago, that we’ll be seeing Dredd without the guiding hand of Wagner.

But until that day happens, it’s well worth celebrating any and all of his contributions.

And make no mistake, this is a classic bit of John Wagner, full of import right from the off, as he writes what looked, at the time, as the finale for former Chief Judge Hershey.

Wagner had already delivered the body blow of having Hershey step down as Chief Judge, under a death sentence due to the pathogen riddling her body. But the first chapter of ‘Guatemala’ sees Wagner doing his best to break out hearts, writing her death bed moment, with Dredd by her bedside, waiting for her scheduled termination.

“He spends what time he can with her, those last few days. Reminiscing on old times – watching her slowly fade away.”
“Not a death he’d chose for himself, or anyone he cares for.”

That moment, that “Goodbye, old friend,” that’s such a powerful moment, with Dredd showing the sort of unexpected tenderness that makes it all even more painful.

(And yes, knowing that this isn’t the end for Hershey, that her adventures continue down in South America in the new Hershey series, it does somewhat dilute the moment somewhat, but let’s take this for what it’s meant to be, the end of an era, a death in everything but the end.)

It’s in that first chapter, everything is set up, the end of Hershey, that deathbed moment, the passing of the torch to Chief Judge Logan, and the mention of one final thing she wants Dredd to do.

And with that, we’re off to Guatemala and the threat of El Presidente, the deranged robotic despot, claiming to have nukes aimed at every part of MC-1. Dredd’s mission, to sort out the problem.

But there’s also the question of Hershey’s mysterious last request, as we follow Dredd, Beeny, and one of the new Mech-Judges, Ronald, down to Guatemala, with Wagner going deep into the political, warmongering, brinkmanship, and also getting to develop more of his on-going exploration of Dredd’s relationship with robots in general and Mechanismo units in particular.

It’s all very familiarly Wagnerian, wonderfully so, mixing his slow-burn storytelling with bursts of action, a brooding thoughtful Dredd, a ridiculous enemy allowing for moments of humour, a mix Wagner’s always been just so good at getting right.

There’s a switch, partway through, all to do with the Humanistas, the last bit of human resistance in this robot-ruled country, where we finally get to see just what Hershey and Dredd were cooking up.

And oh boy, it’s a cracker, as Judge Beeby finds a mystery woman in the slums of Guatemala – whether Wagner will return to those dangling plot threads at a later date though – well, that would be interesting to say the least.

And alongside that, there’s one of those perfect bits of action, with Wagner twisting everything round, giving us a wonderful moment of Dredd the tactician, as well as some great writing that pulls so many little threads together; the Mechanismo Mark 8 drama, the death of Hershey, new Chief-Judge Logan showing his steel at last… all perfectly done in a slow-build tale that rather explodes as Dredd makes his move towards El Presidente.

What ‘Guatemala’ does leave us with is a sense of Wagner moving pieces around his own personal chessboard. It’s a great little story, and proof of a master at work, a classic example of the old adage of quality over quantity. We may not have that many Wagner Dredds in any given year, but every time we get one, we just know it’s going to be good, just as it was with ‘Guatemala’.

In the middle of the two bigger tales, we get those three single Prog Wagner written Dredds, again pointing out to us just what a master he is at doing this sort of thing.

First, there’s the chance to see Carlos Ezquerra’s final Dredd artwork in ‘By Private Contract’ and ‘Get Jerry Sing, as well as Henry Flint’s art in ‘The Trouble With Harry’ – all of them wonderful little things, but the stand-out is obviously ‘By Private Contract, the most recent of those Dredd team-ups with Johnny Alpha, The Strontium Dog. It’s a time job, a price on Dredd’s head, and it’s a wonderful little tale, complete with a very unexpected enemy – well, enemies. And a fish. Let’s not forget the fish.

And then, to end the volume, ‘The Victims of Bennett Beeny, a major moment from 2020, with Wagner, MacNeil returning to the saga of ‘America’, still one of the all time great moments of Dredd.

It might seem a strange addition in some ways, something that deserves a bigger spot than the last story in a book named for another tale. But, it was a mere three episodes long in the Megazine, so it really couldn’t have supported its own book – and let’s face it, at some point in the very near future, you can expect to be seeing it in some form of complete ‘America’ collection.

But here, it’s something special to end a volume of brilliant Wagnerian storytelling, this slight return, this small coda to the legacy of America Jara.

It begins simply enough, just a simple Judges against Total War democracy rights activists / terrorists (depends which side of things you’re on really) sort of thing, with Total War taking over the ultra-rich Bennett Beeny Block. But it doesn’t take too long before it’s transformed into something else, to the final word on the ‘America’ storyline – after all, the rich folk dying here are far from the only victims on Bennett Beeny.

Artistically, this was meant to have Colin MacNeil doing all three parts, but he bow out on the art here, unable to continue due to illness, but Dan Cornwell stepped in, having already established himself as one of a new breed of great new Dredd artists after first working with Wagner on Rok of the Reds. And damn, he did a bloody good job on finishing this last moment of the whole ‘America’ saga.

Like I said at the start of this, one day we’ll get Wagner’s final Dredd. It might be announced, it might be that we’ll simply look back and realise that something six months or a year back was his swansong. And if that’s anywhere near as good as ‘The Victims of Bennett Beeny’, then you know that it will have been a wonderful moment to bow out on.

JUDGE DREDD – GUATEMALA – written by John Wagner, art by Colin MacNeil, Dan Cornwell, Carlos Ezquerra, Henry FLint, colors Chris Blythe, letters Annie Parkhouse. Cover by Will Simpson.

Published by 2000 AD on 22nd June 2021.
(Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 2000, 2023, 2150-2157, and Judge Dredd Megazine 400, 424-426.)

Guatemala – written by John Wagner, art by Colin MacNeil, colours by Chris Blythe, letters by Annie Parkhouse. (Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 2150-2157)

A Private Contract – written by John Wagner, art by Carlos Ezquerra, letters by Annie Parkhouse. (Originally published in 2000 AD Prog 2000)

Get Jerry Sing – written by John Wagner, art by Carlos Ezquerra, letters by Annie Parkhouse. (Originally published in 2000 AD Prog 2023)

The Trouble With Harry – written by John Wagner, art by Henry Flint, colours by Chris Blythe, letters by Annie Parkhouse. (Originally published in Judge Dredd Megazine 400)

The Victims of Bennett Beeny – written by John Wagner, art by Colin MacNeil and Dan Cornwell, colours by Chris Blythe, letters by Annie Parkhouse. (Originally serialised in Judge Dredd Megazine 424-426)