|I grew up in England reading 'Judge Dredd', albeit collected in the pages of 'The Best of 2000 AD Monthly' rather than in '2000 AD' itself, but I probably haven't read anything new in the last couple of decades. I'm also a Japanophile who hasn't missed a Phoenix Matsuri in ten years, so I was eager to immerse myself in 'Hondo City Justice', a set of tangential stories from the Japanese city in the 'Judge Dredd' universe, collected this year but first published in 2005, 2006, 2012 and 2013.
I shouldn't need to introduce 'Judge Dredd', given that he's been continually in print in comic books since 1977 and has expanded to novels and even to films, Hollywood having attempted two separate adaptations. The 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle, 'Judge Dredd', isn't as bad as it's made out to be, but it's far from good because it takes some serious liberties with the source material, not least through the heretical idea of Judge Dredd taking off his helmet (he deliberately never has in the comic books, because he represents the facelessness of justice). When the franchise was revisited in 2012 with Karl Urban as the title character in 'Dredd', the results were much better, even if the story was ruthlessly pinched from the utterly amazing Indonesian action flick, 'The Raid: Redemption.'
Just in case, here's a quick rundown. In the future, after a set of world wars, the planet has become a nuclear wasteland, with humanity confined, for the most part, to a set of vast enclosed cities such as Mega-City One, which sprawls from Boston to Charlotte and has contained up to 800 million people in blocks - skyscrapers that house 50,000 citizens each. With most work done by robots, almost everyone is unemployed, which makes crime a massive problem. Countering that are the Judges, a highly trained and massively armed police force which governs the cities as judges, juries and executioners. Judge Dredd, initially based on Dirty Harry, is merely the toughest, most successful and most uncompromising of all the judges, which means that a succession of writers have been easily able to write contemporary social comment through his character.
Hondo City, as might be imagined, is the equivalent of Mega-City One on the remains of the islands of Japan. This book collects four stories set in Hondo City, with each sourced from elements of Japanese history and culture. Judge Dredd does appear, but only as a peripheral character. The leads are Judge Inspector Aiko Inaba, an inevitably tough judge, the first female one in Hondo City, and her protege, Cadet Judge Junko Asahara, who has psionic abilities. On paper, they sound like Japanese takes on Judges Dredd and Anderson, but they're approached differently in the stories. Asahara, in particular, doesn't really get that much to do, at least in this volume.
The strongest story of the four is everything I wanted out of this book. It's 'Revenge of the 47 Ronin,' in which reverent art from Mike Collins and Cliff Robinson backs up a thoughtful story by Robbie Morrison which neatly explores both the past and future of Japan with a host of highlights in both the sweep and the detail.
It begins in 1701 with the ritual suicide of Asano Naganori and succinctly outlines in two pages the history of the 47 warriors who refused to serve the man who prompted that act, leaving as ronin and returning two years later to massacre him and everyone else in his entire fortress. They themselves were ordered by the shogun to commit mass seppuku, to be buried in Sengakuji where they commenced to pass into legend.
Fast forward to the future and they're back, resurrected in full battle armour by the Black Sun as zombie warriors tasked with stealing souls during Tora Nagashi, the last day of the Obon festival, in which the spirits of the dead walk among the living and the Japanese float lanterns to guide them back to the land of the dead.
This is a wonderful story that provides us a cross-section of everything that's so magnetic about Japan. We see the samurai past, drawn with a strong eye for the detail of costumes and the muted tones of classic Japanese art. We see the future, a wild neon riot of colour, mixing organized crime with sexual perversion. And we see the two mix through the resurrection of the 47 ronin with a demeanour and speech bubbles reminiscent of the Dark Judges in classic 'Judge Dredd', battled by judges kicking ass with hi-tech weaponry. What's not to love?
Unfortunately, the other three stories don't come remotely close to the quality of this one, even though the creators are often the same. Robbie Morrison wrote three of these four stories, for instance, and the next best is probably the one he didn't write: 'Tiger Sun Dragon Moon', a story of legendary swords from Steve Parkhouse. His writing is notably better than his artwork, which lets his story down, but even the story pales in comparison to 'Revenge of the 47 Ronin' which came before it.
Morrison's other two stories are 'The Harder They Come' and 'Project Behemoth', the first two chronologically. The former works well in providing some back story to Judge Inaba, given that the main character is her teacher, Shinaba, legendary former judge turned ronin. He has a lot of potential as a character and he plays out darkly but everything needs work, from the pacing of the story to the simplistic art of Colin MacNeil. It doesn't help that this is the only black and white story in this book. Nonetheless, it's an important one in the world of Hondo City because it sets up the whole place and the key characters who occupy it.
The latter is by far the weakest, more of a superhero story than a 'Judge Dredd' tale, albeit spun through iconic Japanese characters, ensuring that we have assassins and kaiju and the like, along with the only real exploration of Asahara's psionic powers. I was shocked to realize that the writing and art credits are the same as for 'Revenge of the 47 Ronin,' which was created shortly afterwards, because everything that's right about that story is wrong about this one. It felt like it was created by people with a strong understanding of Japanese culture and who approached their filtering of a story through it with all due reverence. This doesn't - at all. How both stories could have come from the same minds, I have no idea.
There are more stories set in Hondo City than just these four and I'd love to read more of them. However, if these are anything to go by, the city's exploration had a rough start with one gem of a story highlighting what the others could have been. ~~Hal C F Astell