Review written by Jordan Smith
Published in Judge Dredd Megazine’s #279 – 284, 305 – 310 and 334 – 342, Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil’s Insurrection trilogy has the reputation of being quite the fan favourite, one of the more consistently well received series’ since its first publication.
It has an interesting premise. A distant mining colony in space, led by Senior Judge Marshall Karel Luther, comes under attack from an alien race called the Zhind prior to the beginning of the story and, though he repeatedly asks for help from Mega City One, none is given, leaving him and the few other Judges to fend for themselves. But they’re small in number – not enough to hold off such a large attack – so what they do is grant full citizenship to the mutants, droids and uplifts (genetically altered gorillas that can speak) sharing the colony with them, giving them this in exchange for their part in helping fight back. United like this, they win; but upon doing so find themselves being told to revoke the citizenship they granted immediately, which is the final straw it takes for Luther to tell the Big Meg to go fuck themselves, declaring that Mining Colony K-Alpha 61 is now called Liberty and will henceforth be independent. Needless to say, the
fascists Judges back home disagree and a fleet of the SJS is sent to wipe the colony out, in turn declaring them to be rebels.
What a brilliant idea.
The great thing is that Abnett really explores Luther and co.’s reasons for disobeying orders in-depth. Not only do you immediately get a very real sense of the friendship between all the inhabitants of the colony, that would be broken if they were to suddenly turn on them as the Justice Department commands, but the characters actually take the time to justify their actions among themselves, one of the biggest themes of the whole series being to stand up for your principles, which is a particularly interesting thing coming from the perspective of Luther and the other colonial marshals, people who have gone through the same exhaustive training that makes the Judges they find themselves defending Liberty against brutally fight them without question to their superiors.
But Abnett surprisingly has even that covered, for when we get to the third story arc, we actually find ourselves reading the first several episodes from the perspective of a colonial marshal on a completely different colony, who has a strong hatred for Luther and the other so-called rebels for the war they’ve ignited. This shift in perspective was one that I actually greatly appreciated, having read the reproduced copy of Abnett’s original proposal for the series that he sent to Matt Smith – this being found at the end of the trade paperback collecting the first two story arcs – in which he specifically said that he wanted the series to be murky when it came to the morals of the insurrectionists and Judges alike, the reader not easily picking a side. This isn’t honestly the case in the first two books – you’re on the side of the rebels all along. Their whole cause is certainly questionable, don’t get me wrong; but the Judges press their foot down so hard on Liberty that they end up killing a significant part of its citizen population at one point and know it, the kind of thing that makes them impossible to sympathise with.
So, though it may have only been for a brief amount of time before returning to pointing pitchforks at the Judges, I did like that Abnett managed to show another side to them within the series, evening our favour as readers. Whether he could have pulled off the idea of a morally grey series or not, I did actually find myself enjoying that he went the way of, what he calls in his proposal, a “true to Wagner” depiction of the Judges, even if it means making their two main leaders, Kulotte and Laud, a couple of cliche’s.
In fact, the series as a whole has a few things about it that you’d think would mean you’d direct harsh criticism towards it. In the second story arc (which is cleverly, and logically, moved to a new colony by the way) for instance, there’s a plot point that comes around about a computer chip that, if activated by Luther (the abrupt ending of the second book as he has a moment of doubt is genius, I might add), will cripple all those back home in Mega City One somehow. And you know, that’s something you really ought to be at least raising an eyebrow at, which I’m sure many readers did, but I certainly didn’t to an extent that I felt I wasn’t enjoying the story any more, nor did I frown as harshly as I might otherwise would at these two long sections of the first two books where a character explains a plan of attack, something which almost reads as telling instead of showing, a usually unforgivable literary mistake.
Why I think Abnett gets away with it is because every other idea in the entire series, from droids that have found faith in God to the recurring nightmares of a mind-controlled character in the third book, are really solid. Perhaps not wholly original – Abnett’s actually quite well known for his work on the Warhammer 40K series to which this draws some hefty comparisons, from the large, bulky character design of the SJS troops to the inclusion of religion (though the droid’s aren’t seen speaking of God by the last story arc, perhaps because in the Dredd-verse it should be “Grud”? Bit strange how that seemed to disappear) – but they make a great deal of sense within the story, and are just as fantastic as the premise itself, extra layers on top of an already interesting story, one which comes to a rather brilliant end.
A perfect end? That I’m not so sure of, as it ends the way uprisings of any sort against the Judges always do, and I felt particularly dismayed when the penultimate episode ended with a plot twist that I feared would happen, though then again – perhaps that’s proof of how invested I found myself in this series, and true testament to how great it is.
Of course, with this being the comics medium, it takes good art to make a series such as this really successful, but with Colin MacNeil as your artist, this should be no worry at all and isn’t. The art of the first two story arcs is some of his best that I’ve ever seen, easily fitting in alongside the fully painted artwork of Judge Dredd: America and Chopper: Song of the Surfer, despite the fact that it’s in black and white with gray toning. It is very often jaw droppingly beautiful, one of the staples of all three books being to end each episode with a full splash page. Incredibly gorgeous stuff with a ridiculous amount of attention to detail. The biggest compliment I can pay it is to point out that it was so amazing that I spent ages pouring over it all, meaning the short trade paperback took me a while to read through.
Unfortunately, something tragic happens when the second episode of the third book comes around: the art style changes. Fuck, I almost died. Yelled a Darth Vader “Nooooo!” dramatically and everything. The artwork’s still very much solid thankfully (it actually reminds me quite a great deal of his recent work on Mega City Confidential in the Prog, using very heavy blacks to create a much darker atmosphere) and I imagine that the contents of each panel are roughly how they would have appeared anyway – just with much less detail and beauty to them.
However, MacNeil was at least very honest about the change, stating his reasons on the 2000AD forums. Kind of funny how we never take that sort of thing into consideration, isn’t it? He’s a little vague on why he found himself “incapable” of continuing with the same style, but I presume that it’s too much hard work – it certainly looks that way, that’s for sure. Of interest there too is that he’ll be re-drawing the first episode of the third book for its reprint, or a collected edition of all three books, in trade paperback. Obviously the option of changing every episode after the first back to the original style would have been even better, but I really like that he’s making the change less jarring. The difference certainly came as a shock to me after the beautiful looking first episode. But ah well, it gets the job done and still looks great, though now that I think of it, I can’t remember seeing MacNeil artwork that I wasn’t fond of.
Overall then: read this. Wait for it all to be collected if you like, but read it when you can. It may not be total perfection – and I’m sure some people will be less kind on its plot contrivances than I – but it’s bloody good stuff. Action packed – something I neglected to mention in this review entirely – but filled with character, the latter of which is what I believe makes it special and worth your time. Keep an eye out for a new series set in another space colony under Mega City One jurisdiction by Dan Abnett in the near future, Lawless, a western-style story to be illustrated by Phil Winslade in the Megazine. Check out a short preview of it (and some other thrills of the future) here.
Until next time.