by Jarrod Jones. Nasty criminals, vicious beasts, nightmare monsters—who in their right mind would invite such things into their homes, let alone pay for the invasion? You would. Oh, yes you would. And you’d pay for it, too.

2000 AD has released its summer special, and this one’s gonna put you through the grinder—in a riotously fun sort of way. It’s the Villains Takeover Special, assembled by Tharg himself and priced at a tantalizingly low price of 99p/99¢. Featuring such nefarious malefactors as Nu-Earth’s Brass and Bland, Tyrus Stix, The Lord Weird Slough Feg, this Villains special has them all. More. It’s a deal. A steal. You’ve… already bought a copy, haven’t you. (If you haven’t, rectify that. You’ll be safe. Promise.)

The first story in this most unruly of editions features perhaps the worst nemesis in all the publication’s storied history: Judge Death. And which creator droids did Mighty Tharg deem worthy to deploy for such a tale? Writer Rob Williams (whose latest Judge Dredd mega-saga “The Small House” decimated expectations last year) and concept artist (and admitted squaxx dek Thargo) Henrik Sahlström. This is the very first work Williams & Sahlström have done together, but if you flip through these expertly-coordinated pages, filled with dread and shadow and pain and fear, you’d think they’d been doing this together for years. Their story will give you the willies.

The set-up: ISO Block 666 is on lockdown. Alarms are blaring. Someone’s escaped their cell. Judge Death. Red floodlights bathe the halls in a deep crimson. Panic’s set in. But Death isn’t out for a rampage, or revenge. He’s having trouble sleeping at night, and Judge psychiatrist Hiser might be his only… well, I don’t want to use the word “hope,” now do I?

“That seemed an unexpected way of coming at a Judge Death story to me,” Williams says. “The thought of him having a very twisted vulnerability makes him a bit more three-dimensional to me. But his logic’s just terrifying. You can’t mend Judge Death. The moment our psychiatrist character thinks she might be able to do that…” He does end up finishing that sentence, but we already knew what he was going to say. With Judge Death, the only inevitability is in his name.

DoomRocket spoke with Rob Williams and Henrik Sahlström about their first-ever collaboration for this year’s Villains Takeover special and their insights into what makes this hideous Judge such an essential part of the Dredd mythos.

10 things concerning Williams & Sahlström's viciously good "The Judge Who Laughs"
Cover to ‘2000 AD Villains Takeover Special’. Art: Greg Staples/2000 AD/Rebellion Publishing

1. If you would, please share with our readers how the two of you came together for this ‘Villains Special’.

Henrik Sahlström: I had just finished illustrating a strip for The Vigilant book when [my] editor asked me if I was interested in illustrating Rob´s story so it was pretty much a simple case of getting paired up.

Rob Williams: Keith Richardson, our editor, asked if I was up for writing a Judge Death one-off. I’d never written the toothy horror before so jumped at it. Keith suggested Henrik for that art and he’s done a killer job. It’s the first time I’ve seen his work and it’s clear he’s one to watch in the future.

2. As the first story in the ‘Villains Special’, one suspects “The Judge Who Laughs” needed to establish a mood. What kind did you want for this strip?

RW: It’s a psychological horror, I guess. The idea of Death breaking out of his cell, but not trying to escape, instead sitting down with the Judge psychiatrist to discuss why he’s having trouble sleeping. That seemed an unexpected way of coming at a Judge Death story to me. Hidden depths.

HS: I wanted to make it feel familiar to the character, by going back to the same classic horror mood as the first time we were introduced to Judge Death, while at the same time push how expressive he can be.

3. What made you settle on Judge Death for this special, aside from his obvious popularity? Was it the opportunity to delve somewhat into the villain’s psyche, daunting as that may sound?

RW: You always try and come at a character in a way that’s hopefully a little unusual while staying true to who they are and have been all these years. It’s digging down and trying to work out what makes them tick and what makes them interesting to write. Death just showing up and killing everyone—okay, we’ve seen that, we expect that. Hopefully you provide a perspective that adds a layer. The thought of him having a very twisted vulnerability makes him a bit more three-dimensional to me. But his logic’s just terrifying. You can’t mend Judge Death. The moment our psychiatrist character thinks she might be able to do that—that’s a mistake.

4. After all these years, what is it about Death that continues to make him such a viscerally appealing character?

RW: The design’s just terrifying. [Brian] Bolland nailed it. And a character who has decided that “all life is a crime”—that’s a screwed-up concept. He’s the bogeyman in Dredd’s world. The stuff of nightmares.

5. Reading through the strip, it’s difficult to evade a sense of unease throughout the story. Henrik, you employ dutch angles for the first couple pages of the story, then assemble a sense of order the closer we get to Dredd. Was this intentional on your part? To illustrate the dichotomy of wanton chaos and strict order between Death and Dredd?

HS: You´re not too far off at all here but I was focusing more on Death alone. I wanted to visually play on the journey in his mind throughout the story, going from uncertainty and the chaos to then clarity and order. However, your interpretation works fine for me too so I´m not really going to try and talk you out of it.  

6. What does illustrating stories featuring characters like Judge Dredd and Judge Death bring out of you creatively? What challenges are put before you with the short story format?

HS: I grew up reading Dredd so, as you can imagine, it was a joy to get to draw these characters now—and having this specifically be a dark Judge Death story with a bit of layering to it was a bonus. As for the short story format it´s not really that much of a difference to drawing a longer story but it does tend to make you focus purely on the storytelling rather than tempting you to wander off into illustrator territory where you start wanting to do flashy stuff like splash pages. Some might find it frustrating but I think it can be quite freeing with limitations.

7. Rob, I wanted to bring up the title, “The Judge Who Laughs”. The similarities between DC’s current ‘Batman Who Laughs’ character and 2000 AD’s enduring Judge Death are indeed unmistakable. Was this strip an opportunity to take a small poke at this?

RW: A very small poke. Maybe. Possibly.

8. Is this why Death speaks to a criminal psychologist in “The Judge Who Laughs”? A small, twisted, nod towards Harleen Quinzel, perhaps?

RW: No, that wasn’t in my thinking at all. I have a friend who works in prisons and deals with some of the prisoners. That was the inspiration, really. Someone would decide that they could get into Judge Death’s head. That seemed good fodder for a horror tale. No good can come of trying to work out how Death’s mind works.

9. 2000 AD has a wide array of malefactors, plenty enough for a summer special of their very own, clearly. What makes these villains stand out from the pack of other mainstream four-color baddies?

RW: There’s an askew, messed up, often satirical, visceral nature to some of 2000 AD’s rogue’s gallery. The comic always had that nasty, violent edge when I was growing up. That was part of its appeal to a teenager used to reading Marvel and DC growing up.

HS: I won´t pretend to know everything about all of them but when I think of the ones I know and love, such as Death or Weird Slough Feg, to me they are nightmarish. Besides that they of course have depth to them, which is what creates the interest in them as characters, and for instance I´d say that Weird Slough Feg comes across as quite a sad and tragic figure in Sláine: “The Horned God” at the same time as he´s pulling off pretty much being the face of evil.

10. Let’s say the pair of you re-teamed for a longform Dredd tale somewhere down the road. What fabled Mega-City ne’er-do-wells would you like to tackle in the future, and why?

HS: The world of Dredd, with all its Mega-Cities and cursed earth, is just a fascinating character in itself with so much potential for great and varied stories[. So] I´d feel pressed picking just an established character when it´s all so interesting to me. That said, if there was a great Satanus story I wouldn’t mind that at all.

RW: I’ve not written the rest of the Dark Judges. That might be fun. Chuck a Mean Machine in too and a Satanus and we can talk!

The 99p/99¢ ‘2000 AD Villains Takeover Special’ is available at all good comic book shops, as well as the 2000 AD webshop.

Check out this 2-page preview of “The Judge Who Laughs”, courtesy of ‘2000 AD’ and Rebellion Publishing!

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