Thursday, May 9, 2013

201. Mega-City Justice

July 2010: Is there anything, and I mean anything, more satisfying in fiction than watching a great villain finally get his comeuppance? You've got to emphasize "great," though, otherwise it doesn't mean as much. See, for me, part of what makes a bad guy a classic is that I can believe in them. I need to see a real motivation, and I need to see a character who inspires real loyalty on the part of his underlings, who are also practical and believable characters. The best villains don't surround themselves with morons and squabbling dunderheads. The best villains force the hero to change plans and strategies. I could fill this entry and ten just like it with the names of classic criminals from films and comics and TV shows who just leave me bored and you might be amazed who I'd have on my list of shame. Gene Hackman's portrayal of Lex Luthor. All those laughable dweebs from 1980s American cartoons like the Shredder and Cobra Commander. John Simm's Master. Dr. Doom. Voldemort. Especially Voldemort.

2000 AD gets it right more often than not, although in at least one case I am in the minority. I really have to grit my teeth to make it through "The Day the Law Died" because Judge Cal is just too ridiculous for words. I know. And I hate dogs, too. I'm a bad person.

But if you want to see a villain who really does work, who really is one of the all-time classic bad guys in Judge Dredd or any other work of serial fiction, whose comeuppance is the most air-punching, fantastic bits of awesome ever, I respectfully submit the name of Deputy Chief Judge Martin Sinfield. He is a majestically awesome foe, whose crimes are far from legion. In fact, as near as I can remember - and please correct me below if I've missed something - he's only actually guilty of one actual crime. He's not a genocidal terrorist or a megalomaniac with a crazy body count. No, he is guilty of drugging Chief Judge Dan Francisco with a compound called SLD88 that leaves the victim incredibly susceptible to suggestion. He just suggests that Francisco continue to take some considerable time off recovering from his many injuries and leave the running of the city to him.

That's it, isn't it?

The two years of Judge Dredd episodes prior to the climax of the epic "Tour of Duty" established that the senior ranks of the aging, administrative judges are completely filled with stodgy old bureaucrats who do not like mutants, and who are in no hurry to have their lifetimes of bigotry toppled by Dredd and his wacky ideas about reform and human rights. Really, ever since it was hammered home so cruelly in April 2009's "Backlash" that the rank-and-file were never going to support these reforms and resented Dredd's position, it has been obvious that the two sides weren't going to meet without amazing compromise.

So Sinfield just wants the city back to normal. He wants the mayor to start coughing up some new revenue to pay for walking back all of Dredd's reform, and he wants pretty boy Francisco to stay out of his way and let him and his buddies run things, and he wants that liberal Dredd and his aggravating proteges out of his way, assigned to details far from the center of government, where he won't have to look at them. If Dredd likes mutants so damn much, let him police them in the Cursed Earth, not the city. That's where decent, normal people like him live.

Of course I can believe in Deputy Chief Judge Sinfield and all his toadying cronies. From where I sit, we had to put up with that guy for eight damn years, only his name was Vice President Dick Cheney. I had to deal with him for two years of high school, too. He was an assistant principal whose name escapes me, but who hit the ceiling and suspended every punk who came in the day after the Circle Jerks played Atlanta wearing one of their T-shirts, screaming "obscenity!" No doubt British readers have their own equivalents in their government or their backgrounds. He's that guy. He's that growling, compensating, bureaucratic asshole who doesn't quite have the center stage, but he's just close enough to it to make a huge and ugly influence on policy while keeping social progress and human achievement stunted, giving positions of power, influence, and profit to all his mercenary friends (Halliburton, if you're losing the metaphor), and, basically being an unreasonable jerk to your friends and heroes.

This is why, when Dredd finally - finally! - gets proof that Sinfield has broken the law, and a squad of SJS officers march down the corridor to take him in for questioning, no exclamation points are needed and no thunderous narration appears in the captions. It's just simple justice, coming to take down somebody we just wish would go down in the real world with as much satisfaction.

That image is so awesome that we can totally forgive Carlos Ezquerra for only half-drawing the people in the offices on the side. One real crime - the SLD88 - but one much bigger crime: being that guy.

But let me walk this back just a little and talk about how this buildup works so incredibly well. It started when Sinfield started making bureaucratic, municipal demands of the city's beloved Mayor Ambrose, the great philanthropist who'd been at the right place at the right time when one of the city's political parties needed a figurehead. Just Sinfield's bad luck that Ambrose was actually the serial killer PJ Maybe, who everybody thought was dead. A couple of botched assassination attempts convinced Sinfield to swallow his pride and demand that Dredd investigate who was after him. Conventional wisdom was that Sinfield was being paranoid and ridiculous, but no, it turns out somebody really was coming awfully close to killing him.

Maybe's mistakes led to his undoing a few episodes prior to the climax of the story, which seemed to bring his part in the narrative to a close. Dredd, finally able to make a formal complaint against Sinfield's machinations, had no luck convincing the Council of Five - Sinfield's hand-picked fellow bigots and toadies - that this guy had made strategic errors in assigning personnel to the mutant townships. He, grim as ever, was ready to return to his distant assignment when some of his allies, led by Judge Niles, persuaded him that the only real way to get Sinfield out of power was to force an actual election for the position of chief judge.

PJ Maybe got the news along with the rest of the city, and requests that Dredd visit him in his death row cell, where he sits waiting execution. Maybe - who is no damn slouch in the "classic villain" category himself - knows that Dredd no more wants to be chief judge than he himself wants to die, so he proposes a "life for a life" deal. He'll save Dredd from the chief judge chair if Dredd will spare him in return. Dredd is very skeptical as he listens to Maybe's oddball story: he absolutely believes that Francisco was doped with SLD88. He should know; he's an expert in the stuff, having used it in stories dating back twenty-two years.

Dredd thinks it's hogwash, of course, a desperate delaying tactic by a condemned man, and, frankly, the sort of wild, hairbrained story that PJ Maybe would come up with. He leaves, not really appreciating the waste of his time.

Except, you know, all these years on the streets, you get these instincts.

I love the way that Wagner and Ezquerra punctuate episode six of "Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice" with a silent panel as Dredd remembers certain odd connections from earlier in the story, Sinfield covering up his actions. We don't need thought balloons of Dredd thinking "Wait a minute, what if...?" because we're past that. Wagner uses the narrative captions to do such a good job getting into Dredd's head that when the narration stops, we fill it in ourselves naturally.

Sure, I understand that lots of people name Judge Death as Dredd's arch-enemy. Sixty million plus dead, a terrific design, and lots of great dialogue, it's easy to understand that. Killing all those toddlers and babies like he did in that Frazer Irving story back in 2002, that'll help. But Martin Sinfield, for the crime of being that guy, when Dredd finally digs in and investigates him, and gets the SJS to back him up and march down that corridor, I don't know there has ever been a villain that I've enjoyed seeing facing judgement so much.

Next time... The lonesome death of Feral. See you in seven!

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