If you’ve seen inside the latest Judge Dredd Megazine, issue 439, with its seasonal cover from Lee Carter, you can’t have missed the brilliant new strip in there from the creators of Blunt – Death Cap.
It’s all fungal threats, Cursed Earth nightmares, and a disgraced Judge with revenge in mind… so, isn’t it about time that we learned more with a chat to TC Eglington and Boo Cook?
Tom, Boo, the first we saw of Death Cap was is the single panel trail in that Thrills of the Future teaser… the vibe I got from that, which I mentioned to you at the time, was something very Wild West – a run-down town, someone who may or may not be a Judge – she’s got part of the Judge’s uniform on at least – riding in on a mutie horse… so I had a guess that it was something set in the Cursed Earth with a Judge, possibly on the run, certainly not the most conventional of Judges.
So, now that the series is out, can you let us all know a little bit more – what’s Death Cap all about?
BOO COOK: Death Cap is primarily about disgraced ex-(Texas City) Judge Anita Goya, who, after a bad judgement call takes the long walk into the Cursed Earth sometime before our tale begins and is now raising a small family in a windblown typical wild-west rad-back town. Cue mutant marauders!
These aren’t just any muties though – they have been infected by a further mutated variant of the old Grubbs Disease from back in the post Apocalypse War story Fungus by Wagner/Grant and Ezquerra. The marauders, led by the hideously infected Wayde are on the search for something specific and burn Goya’s town to the ground while she is away.
She returns to find her family murdered and goes on an angst fuelled warpath to track the muties down but in the process…
[At this point Tharg stepped in, wagging fingers and muttering darkly about SPOILERS.]
TC EGLINGTON: Yep, that’s pretty much it! Like Boo says, Death Cap follows the fate of disgraced ex-judge, Anita Goya. Having taken the Long Walk many years ago, Goya has made a life for herself in the rad-back, raising a family and making a home. But her life is upended when Wayde, a deranged mutie transformed by a fungal infection, ransacks the town with his gang of muties in a search for a prized relic. Goya’s family is murdered. She is left for dead. Old instincts stir, however, and she retrieves her lawgiver to carry out one last act of justice.
Bloody revenge and fungal horror collide, as Judge Goya tries to hold onto her last scraps of humanity amid the brutal acts gradually turning her into a monster.
And of course, all of that explains why it’s called Death Cap as well!
BC: Yes, the connection between the fungal peril involved and the mighty Death Cap toadstool – when we were trying to think of a title for the strip Tom threw that one up and it was obviously a no-brainer to use it… perfect!
TCE: We wanted to revisit a classic Judge Dredd story and Fungus was a big favourite for both of us. We wanted to expand on the original short strip, but have the feel of a gritty, western-era revenge story, where the protagonist loses their humanity in their thirst for blood. Death Cap had the perfect ring to it: fungal and deathy.
So, I wasn’t too far off with the little breakdown of the Thrills of the Future panel then?
TCE: The teaser panel didn’t show a lot, for obvious reasons. There is a lot we want to unfold naturally for the reader. if anything, the Thrills of the Future panel is one of the nicer, calm-before-the-storm moments. But you definitely hit the nail on the head with the Western theme. And Goya is unconventional. She’s someone that made a mistake for being too human in a situation where she needed to be cold and practical. She is haunted by that blurred line of when to have the killer instincts and when to be human. That said, we take her on a bizarre and bloody journey that pushes her character to the limits.
BC: Well, Goya definitely has a mutant horse. After I’d drawn the horse with a human hand at the end of its snout and firmly cemented it into the strip, it suddenly dawned on me that this could only have been the result of some unspeakable DNA mixing. That, thankfully, does not make it into the story although I’ve only read the script for parts 1-3 so far, so zoophiles could still be in for a treat!
As for the rest of your conjecture about the story, yes, Goya was indeed a Judge. a very good one by all accounts but at the time of her big error of judgement she was quite young and hesitated in a moment of moral decision making with deadly consequences. She takes her guilt in this matter very seriously and it goes a long way to shaping who she becomes in maturity… you wouldn’t want to mess with her that’s for sure.
Although the strip begins in her small town it quickly becomes a classic Cursed Earth quest featuring many crazed scenarios and characters along the way with some lovely set pieces and inventive psychedelic mayhem courtesy of Tom’s warped mind.
How many parts are we looking at for Death Cap?
BC: it’s 8 episodes, 10 pages in length each, which makes some room for some nice big panels for me to get stuck into, and some more experimental story telling techniques.
TCE: Yes, since we’re in the Megazine we have more pages than in the prog. This has allowed us to have a bit more space to play with and we’ve used that to convey some of the atmosphere and vastness of the Cursed Earth.
What is it about Dredd’s world that means it’s just so open to exploration? After all, it’s been four decades plus… and we still haven’t explored much of the world and its stories yet!
BC: I’ve been a massive fan of Dredd and his world for over forty years so it’s always an immense pleasure to dive into it and create some new stuff – there are so many areas to explore and twist and add new directions to.
Drawing the elements of familiarity with that world always gives me a thrill and I especially like subverting them a bit – in Goya’s case for example she still retains some useful elements of her old uniform but her judge gloves have become fingerless over time, she’s lost a kneepad somewhere in the rad-back, and wears a respirator prised from an MC-1 Judge’s helmet round her neck in case of emergency. That kind of stuff is always fun and hopefully serves to flesh out her background non-verbally.
With some of the Judge tech in the strip there’s a vibe of repurposing and even revitalising the old ways in which things are used and done which also filters nicely into some of the fungal consciousness aspects of the story and how such changes could assist humanity. There are theories that as we roamed the ancient plains in early primal hominid form we ate fungi found growing on the dung of prairie‑dwelling animals and that injection of boosted awareness from the mushrooms helped evolve our brains. You could say that Arthur C. Clarke’s famous monolith in 2001 is a great metaphor for psychedelic fungus in our evolution.
TCE: We both love the Dreddverse, particularly the aspects of it that allow you to elaborate or expand on what has already gone before. I always loved the Cursed Earth as a location, as it has that nightmare quality of apocalyptic landscapes but peppered with the remains of America.
We wanted to explore that with Death Cap, that feeling of a journey through the heartlands of the Cursed Earth, where locations become a character all of their own. instead of the Bible Belt, there is the Trash Belt, where entire sub-cultures of muties have developed.
Boo’s artwork for this strip is stunning. He’s managed to create new, original visions that feel in step with the traditions of the Cursed Earth we know and love.
You were last together with Blunt, three series way, way out in the boondocks of the universe, telling a fascinating tale of genetics, Gaia theory, planet-wide ecosystems, and all pulled together with a backdrop of Mega-City colonisation.
Here, in terms of proximity to MC-1, it sure looks like you’re a lot closer to home. Does that limit the sorts of flights of fancy you can deliver at all?
BC: Well the Dreddverse is so full of crazy shit already that it sets the bar pretty high in terms of flights of fancy, but Tom and myself are always up for the challenge of trying to crank things just a bit further and Death Cap hopefully won’t disappoint!
TCE: This is definitely more rooted in the Dreddverse, both with the location and the Grubb variant. That said, we have found a way to work in some of our obsessions in a way that gives the strip its own distinct flavour.
Part of the attraction to the idea of referencing the original Fungus storyline was some of the knowledge that has been gathered about fungi since John Wagner first wrote it – and a huge shout-out to his genius for getting to that idea long before anyone else.
The advances in science surrounding fungi are incredible and have been a great source for inspiration. To some degree, it allows us to briefly touch on ecosystems and genetics once again, although of the mycelium-inspired variety.
If you ever want to give yourself nightmares just look up cordyceps zombie infections, where fungi have evolved to manipulate insects, hijacking their brains and making them superspreaders.
Oh yes, the zombie ant fungus – truly the stuff of nightmares.
It’s perhaps slightly different to the work involved with Blunt, in that there’s a lot more of the structure, the worldbuilding, done for this sort of setting already – does this mean the prep work for Death Cap was in any way easier?
TCE: Yes, definitely. I think this felt a lot more familiar territory for us. We had a lot of ideas about aspects of the Cursed Earth that we wanted to explore. And it has been a genuine joy to be inspired by one of our favourite Dredd strips. So much of the world and its mechanics are there, and for my part that helped things a lot.
BC: Yeah, I think it actually took several years and many incarnations to come up with Blunt and his world but in the case of Death Cap, once we knew the setting and the character it was just a case of feeling out who the lead needed to be physically. I do like my heavy hitters but Goya is more understated than Blunt – she would kick your head clean off if she needed to but she isn’t rippling with muscles – just a solid block of a woman with a soul that matches her physicality perfectly. then I just had to add the Texas City judge elements and figure out her look as she…
[Nope Boo, Tharg’s wagging his SPOILERS finger again, sorry!]
And in terms of Death Cap, I’m assuming you’re working here with the intent/hope that you’ll be able to develop this past the first series? Any hints of where we may be going that far into the future?
TCE: There is definitely a direction for future storylines. Goya is a great character to develop, as well as the landscape she inhabits. We’ve approached it by having a definitive arc for the first series but there are lots of characters and details that fit to a larger story. it is also a great topic to explore.
BC: Obviously it’s always great to keep a strip rolling, especially if you’re enjoying it as much as I am, and I think the usual intent with stories these days is to craft the arcs with a solid end but with scope for more.
As of now I don’t actually know the exact ending of this 8 episode arc – Goya certainly won’t be the person she was at the start of the strip! But there’s certainly a lot of scope for continuing the story.
Boo, your artwork on Blunt was a wonderfully organic style. What sort of shifts in the art will we see this time round for Death Cap? Has a change of locale meant a change in style at all?
BC: If my style on Blunt was ‘organic’ then Death Cap is ultra-organic in as much as I’ve opted for a much grittier vibe by eschewing the inked style of Blunt for some very heavy/dirty pencils which I’m painting over in Photoshop.
As such, it’s a bit more realistic than Blunt and I feel I’m able to bring a lot more nuances to the world and characters, plus I enjoy it a lot more – it feels more like it’s my natural style of art. Sure, it takes about twice as long to do, but ultimately if I’m more satisfied with the end results then I’m happy to take the hit time-wise.
Tom, Boo, you’ve got a few series of work behind you now. Let’s talk a little about the collaboration between the pair of you – how it works, the details, the arguments and fights!
BC: Tom is a big raging Scotsman so I don’t do too well in the fights, thankfully we don’t have too many! We have quite a nice loose working vibe these days where Tom will come up with the big idea then we’ll get together and have a good old brainstorming session to see how we could flesh it out.
As the process rolls along scenes or vehicles that might be cool to include will occur to me and I’ll run them by Tom and he’s usually gracious enough to whack them in if they fit his framework. I think we started out with Death Cap being a straight-up Fungal zombie skit but we wanted to distance it from ‘The Last Of Us’ game so the Grubb’s Disease idea was a perfect way of framing it.
With first Blunt and now the fungal delights found in Death Cap, there’s an enormous amount of exploring the idea of genetics, ecosystems, ethnobotany and the nature of symbiosis up to and including planetary level, something of the Gaia theory. Where did the interest come from? Is there a science background in there at all? Or is it just a healthy obsession with the unknown for you?
TCE: I feel that the science fiction genre is about imagining the future, and it is impossible to do that nowadays without considering ecological issues, be they climate catastrophe, ethnobotany, or evolutionary theory. With both Blunt and Death Cap, we didn’t want to do just do a doom and gloom aspect of that, but something a bit more dynamic and leftfield.
There’s definitely a big influence from developments in the ecological sciences from the last few decades. I’ve been an environmentalist since my teens and it spills into my work. James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia sits on my shelf, as does Merlin Sheldrake’s excellent Entangled Lives – an in-depth look into the world of fungi – and Suzanne Simard’s brilliant Finding the Mother Tree – charting the discovery of the complex mycelium networks that help trees communicate in what is dubbed ‘the wood wide web’. We play around with some of these ideas, always in a way that is more about fictional concepts and less about hard science, but it seems good to at least approach some of these subjects. Partly, it’s also to add something new into the mix.
BC: Yes, Tom and I are quite obsessed with the world of Fungi and the mycelium network that connects entire forests of trees together in that ‘wood wide web’ Tom’s already mentioned.
In fact, without fungus on this planet, life would never exist as we know it – for a start there would be nothing to break down dead matter and return it’s nutrients to the Earth.
Mushrooms and toadstools are basically the magick ingredient or key to life on this planet and have been long overlooked by science as they neither fitted into the animal or vegetable Kingdoms. They can absorb toxic waste, heal us physically and mentally and I think the time is ripe for a mycological renaissance, which could just be the key we need to survive many of the threats currently facing us as humans, so to do a strip that helped to put mushrooms on the map was something we really felt passionate about. I’ve done lots of research about them to the point where I’ve now ended up dreaming about wolfing down massive handfuls of toadstools. They are in us, on us and have been with us from the start…
TCE: I’ve worked with Boo longer than I’ve worked with anyone, so we’re definitely doing something right. We go back and forth with ideas. Sometimes Boo has an idea that I run with, sometimes I work from a sketch – Gunheadz was a drawing in his sketch pad that he challenged me to work into a story – and sometimes I come up with an idea and we brainstorm the details. With Death Cap, it has been a nice mix, partly because the inspiration was something we’re both obsessed about. if there is a key to good collaboration I think it is definitely mutual interest.
We work best together when it is a subject we’re both really into. it helps that Boo’s instincts are great. He’s put me on the right track with a few things, which has helped. I also try to work in the stuff I know he’ll love to draw. His range and skills as an artist are incredible and I feel that Death Cap is some of his best artwork to date. it seems to encapsulate all the best things we’ve been exploring in our strips over the years.
Also, in a fight, he has a low centre of gravity and he has been known to use a giant caterpillar as a weapon, so I know when to back off.
Let’s finish up with a standard – what sort of things do we have to look forward to you post Death Cap? Feel free to push anything you’re involved in!
TCE: I’ve been busy with a range of projects. Me and Simon Davis are currently putting together ideas for Thistlebone 3, and I have a few other writing projects in development. I’ve also been keeping my hand in with some art, mixing between illustration/comic art type stuff – www.instagram.com/tomtheeggeglington – and folk horror woodcuts/lasercuts – www.instagram.com/wyrdewoods
BC: I still have quite a massive chunk of work to do on Death Cap so beyond that I’ve only just started putting the mycelium feelers out, but if they bear fruit it’ll be a real psychedelic blast working with someone whose writing I’ve loved for years.
I always have painting projects going on the side which tend to get aired on www.instagram.com/boocook plus there’s the music angle with bands Motherbox and Forktail with Si Davis, plus my solo stuff under the name of Owlmask – funnily enough Tom drew the cover to the last Owlmask album! All of this can be found on the Menk Records label on Bandcamp if anyone’s interested… Menk Records
Thank you so much for Tom and Boo for chatting to us here. Death Cap already has that feel of a modern-day Dreddworld classic – you can (and dammit, you should) catch it in Megazine issue 439 and for most of 2022! And having seen the sneak peeks of what’s coming in Boo’s concept art that we just couldn’t show you (spoilers!), you’re all in for a nightmarish treat!
If you’re after that little bit more from TC and Boo, there’s more on ecosystems and infections in this interview on Blunt from 2018.
Now, we’ve already shown you some small versions of all those incredible Death Cap concept images, but they’re just too good not to show you the full set in full size… so here’s your chance to luxuriate in them and wonder exactly where these characters are coming into it all…