Monday, 27 June 2016

The Dead Man (2000AD #650-662)

"I don't know why or what I've done... but I've no right to inflict it on you good people" - The Dead Man

In 1990 2000AD ran a year long storyline called Necropolis.  This epic tale bought back the always popular Dark Judges - Death, Fear, Mortis and Fire, and introduced the "Sisters Of Death" the magic using  Phobia and Nausea.  What was interesting in retrospect was how much build up there had been prior to the start.  Although there was a strip that lead into it clearly marked "Countdown to Necropolis" pretty much all the several months worth of Judge Dredd strips in previous months had been setting the scene and introducing characters who would go on to play a major role in the storyline.  And then there was this story, "The Dead Man".  A quiet story to start with about a mysterious, badly burned and scarred man who is found out in the Cursed Earth by friendly natives. And who, in the company of a child from the village that takes him in, goes on a trek to discover who he is and how he ended up where he did. And slowly it starts to dawn on the reader that what seems like a stand alone story about a new character, is actually the lynchpin story of the whole mega-arc.  I'll try and preserve the mystery of The Dead Man until the reveal towards the end in this post in case you want to try and figure it out for yourself as we go.  Long time UK comics artist John Ridgeway provides the delicate, fine lined artwork making the Cursed Earth feel as arid and desert like as it ever has.  Keef Ripley scripts it with a well paced and sensitive hand.

The Cursed Earth is the expansive area outside Mega-City One.  It is a wasteland mostly populated by criminals, bandits, monsters and mutants.  But as the radioactivity has lessened it's also become home to small communties of normal human beings just trying to scrape out of a living of their own, and it is one such community that finds The Dead Man.  The story is narrated by a young black teenager called "Yassa" who introduces the story:

Yassa: "It wuz me who found The Dead Man... It was me who touched him - felt his skin.  All cracked and baked like a bad stretch of the Cursed Earth.  It wuz me looking right into his face when The Dead Man's eyes opened."
Yassa finds the Dead Man.
As this narration plays out we're shown Yassa, a friend and his pet dog called Dog discovering the wreck of a man and soon the whole village has come out to see him.  Yassa's mum gives him some water then they take him back into the village, "Bubbletown".  They load The Dead Man into a buggy to get him there and Yassa reflects:

Yassa: "Me I wuz praying for him.  I dunno why. I guess I kinda owed it to him. me being the one who found him. What I didn't know then wuz who he wuz - or why he had to stay alive. And I never dreamt of the evil he would bring down upon us all."

They take The Dead Man back to Yassa's house and lay him on a bed and bandage him up. The note the old bullet wounds on his body.  The local mad preacher, Larry, says he's "A man of violence!  A creature of evil!"  but the folks just ignore his rantings. Eartha, Yassa's mum says maybe The Dead Man won't survive to see the morning, but what kind of people would they be if they didn't give him a fighting chance?  And she chases everyone out the house.
Yassa's folks take the Dead Man in.
Mad Larry bellows she's bought "Doom!" upon them as he goes.  Yassa reflects if they'd known what was coming maybe they should have paid more attention to Larry. The Dead Man has a restless night and talks in his sleep.

The Dead Man: "Servants of Evil!  I know you...! What devilment is afoot?  Damn you!  I won't.. huuuhhHH! - Die for you!"

A pall seems to descend on the house.  Dog starts barking and in his room Yassa wakes up to a prescence that seems passes through him and as it does so he feels it "more full of blind evil than anything you could imagine"
Yassa's first nightmare.
His mum and dad come in and comfort Yassa who is shaking and crying.  He says he heard it scream, like a "saw scraping on glass".  His father says maybe The Dead Man will be able to tell him what it was when he wakes up. Two days later The Dead Man's fever recedes under Eartha's tender care.  The Dead Man finally comes around but when they ask him who he is he responds, "I remember... nothing."

A week passes and the fear everyone felt in Bubbletown the first night The Dead Man stayed there didn't come back, but it left Yassa feeling jumpy, looking at shadows and thinking he could hear screams. They ask The Dead Man about the things he said when he was feverish but he doesn't know what he meant, his whole life is a blank.
The whole town comes for a gawp.
Eartha says to Yassa that his memory would start to come back in time and she wasn't going to throw him out of the house just because everyone said she should.  Larry keeps protesting outside of their house saying "they're bringing doom upon us all!"  The rest of the town come and ask questions of The Dead Man but he can't answer them.  When they leave he says to Yassa, "They all stare at me - like some.. monster.  Am I that ugly?"

He then picks up a rifle and starts examining it.  He asks what it is and Yassa says it's dangerous.  Then he says that as far as he is concerned if Dog thinks The Dead Man is OK then that's good enough for him, "smart animal" says The Dead Man and he and Dog shake hand and paw.

The Dead Man is recovered enough to go outside.  Yassa takes him to where they found him in the hope it triggers some memories.  It doesn't, but Dog picks up a trail and they follow it.  It leads further into the canyon and suddenly they are ambushed by a group of sub-humans called "Grunts".
The Dead Man discovers his gun skills.
There is a struggle and the rifle is knocked from Yassa's hands.  The Dead Man picks it up and with precise efficiency kills several of the Grunts with pin-point accuracy. With all of them dead, Yassa is amazed that this morning The Dead Man didn't even know what a rifle was, now he's  crackshot with one.

Yassa: "Maybe I can't tell you who you are Dead Man.  But I know one thing - you're the meanest shot I ever saw!"

He tells the folk of Bubbletown but they aren't too pleased at the proof The Dead Man is a killer.  They tell The Dead Man that ever since he arrived in town things haven't been right with the animals, the rains are late and more Grunts have been coming down close to town like they've been spooked.

They come right out and tell Eartha they don't want The Dead Man in town anymore.  That night he stands outside Yassa's house thinking.  Yassa watches him and thinks he hears that terrible scream again, "as if it too had learned something about The Dead Man".
Another nightmare.
That night Yassa has a nightmare that he is being chased, a crowd of hands grab at him and a shadow bears down on him and he wakes with a start.   But in the room with him is a hooded figure who pulls her cloak back to reveal a bueatiful woman.  She reaches for him saying "where is he?  You'll tell me won't you boy" and then she transforms into a hideous monster.  And he wakes for real this time screaming his head off.

As he tells his parents and The Dead Man what he saw there is a banging at the door.   An old man had taken fright and died of a heart attack and the villagers blame The Dead Man for bringing the terror, "he brought a curse down on us all!" The next day The Dead Man tells Yassa and his parents he is leaving as he feels responsible for what has happened since he arrived.

He asks to take Dog as he wants to retrace his steps and thought Dog had his trail the previous day.  But Eartha says Dog stays with Yassa and Yassa won't be going with him.  She packs him some supplies and Yassa's dad gives him a rifle and a map.  The villagers turn out to see him off, though they are glad to see the back of him.  Yassa and Dog surruptitiously follow him through a corn field and catches up with The Dead Man at the canyon saying his mum changed his mind about him coming along.

Yassa: "Scared as I were of the terror.  It sound like too good of an adventure to miss. Fool that I wuz".

They carry on and when Dog loses the trail, they wait for him to sniff it out again.  Dog returns with a scrap of material which Yassa identifies as the same kind burnt onto The Dead Man's body when they found him.
Yassa and Dead Man make camp.
That night they make camp and The Dead Man says he knows Yassa is there without permission and that tommorrow he goes home.  Yassa says he can't send him back, he needs Dog. He says The Dead Man said it was important he found out what happened to him and who he is, and at that The Dead Man decides to keep Yassa and Dog with him.

They are ambushed by Grunts the next day, but The Dead Man sees them off and they arrive at a place with several burnt out dwellings.  Yassa comments:

Yassa: "Funny, you coming all this way when you were so near dead. Musta been somethin' mighty powerful drivin' you on."

They realise the trail leads directly into Grunt country. When Yassa says no one is ever stupid enough to go in there to find out how many Grunts are there, The Dead Man says, "maybe I was".  So through there they must now go.
More grunts dispatched.
They reach a wooded area and Dog finds more of the material.  The Dead Man says he recognises the place.

The Dead Man: "I have a picture... a memory cloaked in shadow. I'm staggering - lurching blindly. Pain exploding in my head - every step - but.. something's driving me.  I've got to keep going.  I've got to get away."

For some reason the Grunts didn't attack him then, which Yassa finds strange as he was already cooked.  But the Grunts aren't holding back now and they walk into a trap.  The Dead Man is yanked upwards via a rope trap.  He fires on the attacking grunts and gets himself free but not before they have carried Yassa off.

Yassa is tied up as the grunts light a big fire.  They grab him and Dog and drag them towards the flames to cook them.  Then they all hear the eerie scream and the grunts flee in terror and the hooded figure appears before them.  Yassa uses the knife he was going to be killed with to cut his bonds then he and Dog make a run for it.
Grunts take Yassa.
The Terror keeps chasing him.  The Dead Man lights a flare to guide him but Yassa stumbles and falls to the ground.  Dog leaps at the hooded figure but just passes through it.  Yassa is too scared to move, but before the hooded figure can do anything to him, The Dead Man appears and fires on it.  "You!" The figure says, "put that toy away you cannot hurt me."
The "Terror".
The Dead Man asks what it wants of him. It tells him when he knows himself it'll be back for him and disappates into thin air.  They follow the trail out of the grunt woods and come to country Yassa doesn't know about.  He reflects on what happened:

Yassa: "Even funnier to think the Terror had saved me from being eaten by grunts.  But I didn't feel like laughing.  I didn't feel good at all. I had a feeling it had only saved me for something worse."

They come to a river that is made of acid.  The Dead Man's memory is triggered again, he remembers stumbling through it, feet burning as he did so and he falls into it, "I'm on fire.  Pain.  The pain is unbearable."  But something stronger was driving him on, he could not die.  He thinks the final answers to his identity is over the river, but how to get across?
Fractured memories return...
The Dead Man says this is as far as Yassa goes, there is real danger over the other side of the river and he's already exposed him to far to much already.  Yassa pleads with him but The Dead Man says his mind's made up.  Then he fires his rifle at a tree on the other side and it falls making a temporary bridge across. 

But as he crosses, Yassa and Dog follow and can't go back as the tree burns away.  The Dead Man is annoyed by this and tells Yassa not to follow him, but Yassa refuses to comply and trails behind him.

Yassa: "Why did I go? What damn fool notion made me so eager to go rushing headlong into disaster?  It's a question I've asked myself many times in the madness where I now dwell;  when I awake screaming, reliving the terrible events of that day - remembering her face, her touch upon me..."

They finally happen upon another village called "Crowley" although there are no signs of life.  This is where The Dead Man will find the answers to his questions and discover who he is and what happened to him.
Crowley, where the answers lie.
Outside the town Dog lies down and will go no further, "he could smell the evil waiting for us there." Yassa still feels compelled to follow The Dead Man to find out who he is, caught like a whirlpool in events surrounding him.  They find several dead bodies, all burned to a crisp, there is no one alive in the town.

The Dead Man is lost in a mass of flashbacks, him confronting something evil, saying "I won't... die for you!" to his attackers.  "Servants of Evil I know you!" he says to them.  He and Yassa explore further, and find a helmet and the remains of a motorbike and finally a badge with a name on it.  "Who are you?" urges Yassa.

The Dead Man: "I am... Judge Dredd".
Best cliffhanger ever.
Even Yassa has heard of the legendary Judge Dredd.  But what is he doing here?  Dredd says he took the Long Walk (which is when a Judge retires, he goes out into the Cursed Earth with just his gun and bike to dispense justice until he or she is killed).

Dredd: "A hundred days bringing law to the Cursed Earth and then... they came... Creatures with hearts so dark and twisted nothing on this earth could have spawned them!"

He says they are denizens of a world where living was judged a crime and the population wiped out, Judge Death's world.  And the creatures who attacked him were "The Sisters Of Death!" I wrote about the origins of them in my coverage of "Young Death: Memoirs of a Superfiend."

The Sisters of Death.
Then the Sisters appear and approach them.  Dredd fires on them but one says "you cannot kill what does not live".  Dredd tells Yassa to run, but Yassa is frozen to the spot in terror.  And we get a full on look at the two sisters "Phobia" and "Nausea".  Dredd struggles with Phobia while Nausea takes a hold of Yassa and says she wants him to suffer and presses his face to her manky bosom.

Yassa: "Oh yes, I learned who The Dead Man was that day. But the price I was to pay would be terrible."
Dredd yells to Yassa that they can't hurt him if he doesn't believe in them.  But Yassa is terrified and Nausea rams her fingers in his eyes and blinds him.  Dredd curses them saying Yassa is unimportant to them.

Phobia: "All life iss important!  All mussst be punissshhhed!"

Dredd says they couldn't kill him the first time, and they can't now.  Phobia says they have damaged him physically before but Dredd says that was a momentary aberration. He grits his teeth and tells them:

Dredd: "You're not here! You're just an illusion- a nightmare... your power was strong enough to hurt me - even kill me.  But only if I surrended to it.  You're somewhere else! Yes! If you'd been here you'd have made sure of me."

Dredd resists and they find they cannot hurt him anymore so they leave and Dredd says, "tell your brothers I'm comin' for them".  Yassa had blacked out which Dredd says it what saved him from further harm.

The Sisters were currently elsewhere and using projection to attack people's minds.  Allowing them to inflict physical harm by tricking the mind into making it real.   Dredd picks up the blinded Yassa and says sadly, "what have I done?"  And takes him back to Bubbletown.
Dredd takes Yassa home.
All the folks in Crowley had died because they thought what was happening was real, but Dredd just refused and that's why he survived.  Back in Bubbletown, Yassa's mother says she can't forgive Dredd for what happened to Yassa.  Dredd says there may be a way to help him in the future and he is now going to head for Megacity One where he believes the danger originates from.  He leaves a traumatised Yassa, trapped in a cycle of nightmares and terror.

Yassa: "Dear God, I wish I could forget - lose my memory - become a Dead Man too. But I don't suppose is wise to envy The Dead Man.  Somewhere out there he's got his own nightmare to face."
And a new quest begins...
And that brings "The Dead Man" storyline to a close.  It leads directly into "The Tale Of The Dead Man" which relates the story of how Judge Dredd came to become disillusioned with the Justice system and the reason he decided to take the Long Walk into the Cursed Earth. I shall be covering that story in my next UK comics month. This story however is a really nice little tale, building up a solid mystery and leaving you feeling much sympathy towards Yassa, a brave young man who just wanted to help Dredd find his memories.  I remember being legitimately surprised at the reveal of who The Dead Man was at the time, this story was running at the same time Dredd strips also were in the comic so there was no reason to connect the two.  It also was our first glimpse of The Sisters of Death and the first major clue that something was going terribly, terribly wrong in Megacity One.  There was still many weeks to go before the Necropolis storyline started properly and the sense as "The Dead Man" story drew to a close that something big was on the horizon for the Dreddverse was palpable.  Dredd's promise to Yassa's family that he will find a way to help him is not forgotten, but there are more dreadful things to deal with right now. John Ridgeway's art is beautiful here, imbuing the human characters with dignity and strength while giving us a repulsive look at Phobia and Nausea.  His and Keef Ripley's Dredd is just the right blend of vulnerable and badass in this story and his bond with Yassa, even though it dooms the poor boy is well conveyed.  All-in-all a triumph of serial storytelling that is stil an enjoyable read when you know the twist ending.  Good stuff.


  1. 'Keef Ripley' was in fact John Wagner, who disguised his identity so that canny readers wouldn't guess that of the Dead Man.

  2. Oh! I didn't know that! I did wonder why "Keef" wasn't someone I had heard of before or since. Truly you are the fount of 2000AD wisdom. A mystery finally solved, thanks :)

  3. Gosh, you are kind. Most of what I know I learnt from Tony. Brain the size of a planet, that one.

    I hope you read the later story where Yassa was given bionic eyes and had all his psychological problems eradicated by Psi-Judge Anderson.

  4. I have jumped back to the start of my 2000AD collection but I definitely recall Dredd making good on his promise to help Yassa, which I thought was cool of him. It's funny to contrast the Dredd of this era, with the younger Dredd of "America" isn't it? He definitely went through a mellow phase when I was reading regularly.

  5. sounds like a really awesome time to be reading Judge dredd!