It’s a bumper 30th anniversary for the Judge Dredd Megazine with issue 424, out 16 September. And of all the strips inside, there’s only one that’s really going to be able to get under your skin and give you nightmares – and that’s the return of The Dark Judges in the new 10-part series Deliverance by David Hine and Nick Percival, with more of this sort of thing to wake you up in a cold sweat…

Death wantssss you… Nick Percival’s Judge Death in repose.

When we last left the Dark Judges at the end of The Torture Garden, we had seen Judges Death, Fire, and Mortis, later joined by Judge Fear (thanks to those oh so helpful marines coming to ‘rescue’ the colony), go through the colony on Dominion like a good dose of salts. By the end of that series, we had Dominion destroyed and Death was trapped in a Boing tube – and all seemed well.

Which is pretty much where we are when Deliverance opens – and you know it’s not going to be long before everyone involved is going to be getting the sort of bad dreams that Roscoe is getting…

Dreamssss of Dark Judgessss – not good for a hypersleep

So, what can we expect from this new series of The Dark Judges? Will Judge Death escape his Boing prison? (I’m going for a hard yes there) Will everyone live happily ever after? (Nope, not a chance) And perhaps most importantly, will we get the chance to see Judge Death extract suitable revenge on William Wordsworth?

Only one way to find out – time to sit down with series writer and artist, David Hine and Nick Percival and talk all things Dark Judgesssss. And this time, we even get a catchy theme song to sing along while we read…

Ssssssing along kids!

Okay then, David, Nick, the Dark Judges return in Megazine 424 with the next instalment of a tale that seems to be bringing them slowly yet surely to Earth. Or at least that’s what we thought until this first episode of Deliverance.

So, what can we expect this time around?

DAVID HINE: To be honest, I’ve been in a mellow mood recently. I’ve been feeling like there is too much hatred and violence in the world so I pitched a story that was all about love and peace. Editor, Matt Smith, got back to me saying “The story is fine, but can we have lots more people dying.”

I guess that’s what the readers want from the Dark Judges – so expect more death.

NICK PERCIVAL: You can eventually expect some more killing of course but there’s a lot to establish first. Since when we last saw him, Death was floating through space trapped in his Boing ™ bubble, forced to a tortured eternity of reading the entire works of Wordsworth. Once we get going, Deliverance drops the Dark Judges into a grim, new setting and introduces a fresh bunch of weird characters along with the return of the lead character from The Torture Garden, Rosco.

It’s a unique look at Judge Death, who is worshipped, almost as a God on this new planet inhabited primarily by a perverted Death Cult called the Mortarians. Dave and myself were thinking of ideas of how to continue the saga of the Dark Judges, so I initially pitched two very rough ideas to Tharg and the one of Judge Death crash landing on a planet where he’s seen as a God and worshipped before all Hell breaks loose was the one that was green lit– Dave being the excellent writer he is, completely improved this very basic premise by about a million which is what with now have with Deliverance.

There’s one of those lovely hmmm moments right on the first page of episode one, with Sergeant Santos uttering those oh so ridiculous lines, ‘The Dark Judges are obliterated, we’re coming home‘.

Oh Santos, poor deluded Santos.

Is this part of the fun of dealing with the Dark Judges, that notion that we all know, and you know, that that’s simply not going to happen, that the Dark Judges will always find their way back?

DH: There is a relentless inevitability about those bastards isn’t there? But hey, anyone who starts a story with a ludicrously optimistic statement like that is asking for trouble.

NP: Yeah. Whatever we do to them and however they’ve been ‘destroyed’ in previous encounters, they obviously can’t really die, so eventually return in some form or other. There’s always a process we have to go through to convincingly ‘resurrect’ them though. This time it ties in perfectly with the crux of the story, specifically the dark, twisted religious side of it and the agenda of the leader of the Death Cult. What’s cool is that I have the opportunity to tweak some of the design elements of the Dark Judges, since how they look is linked to what happens to them on the planet and the process of how they can be reborn, so to speak. I did some of that in The Torture Garden and I don’t want to give anything away here but there are some pretty interesting images to come…

So far in episode one, we’ve seen the survivors from Dominion making their way back to Earth and the ‘Navis Mortis’ – ‘Ship of Death’, the flagship of the Mortarian Death Cult, heading the opposite way. Can you give us some background on this particular group of certifiably insane folks?

DH: The Mortarians are Catholic guilt meets Jonestown massacre. I’ve always been interested in religious cults that are willing to follow their insane leaders into mass suicide. The Mortarians are a religious cult that sees life as one long trail of misery.

My main inspiration comes from a 15th Century religious writer called Thomas à Kempis who wrote a book called “The Imitation of Christ,” which is the most miserable piece of writing I’ve ever endured. His philosophy seemed to be that you have to spend your life suffering and doing penance so you can have fun in heaven after you die. If you enjoy life, you’ll be plunged into burning pitch and stinking sulphur. He says that “one hour’s punishment then will be more bitter than a century of penance on earth.” I named one of the Mortarians after Kempis and he comes out with lines like that. These people spend of lot of time self-flagellating.

When it comes to The Dark Judges, it seems that Nick has found a real home for his particular brand of artwork. It seems absolutely a perfect fit for his particular style.

How’s the working relationship between the two of you work outand David, how pleased are you with the series when you get to see Nick’s work?

NP: It’s great working with Dave. His scripts are so cinematic and visual, you never get bored as there’s always something cool to illustrate. I think because he’s an artist himself he understands the flow of a page and what works and what doesn’t in terms of what you can actually do with the storytelling process and how page layouts work. We chuck ideas back and forth and seem to have the same sick sense of humour and gravitate towards the same kind of themes and tone.

DH: I get a real surge of Thrill-Power when I see Nick’s art (I always wanted to say that). He’s particularly good with melting flesh and mutilation so these stories give him plenty to get his claws into. We’ve worked really well together. Nick often has suggestions for visuals, which I’m happy to incorporate into the story. I always try to play to an artist’s strengths. In Nick’s case I give him plenty of splash pages for the Dark Judges. He gets to re-imagine them with each story as they inhabit new bodies. In this series some of the Judges will be given alien host bodies, something I don’t think we’ve seen before.

Nick, when it comes to your artwork, how has it changed over the years to get to this point?

NP: It’s been evolving over the many years I’ve been doing comics to get to something like The Dark Judges. I’ve worked on a lot of horror themed projects in the past (Hellraiser, artwork for John Carpenter, etc.) so Judge Death and the gang were always a natural fit for me. If anything, working on The Dark Judges has just given me more of an opportunity to develop that dark, grim, moody style that I like to do – a lot of heavy shadows, cinematic lighting, textures, etc. The Dark Judges are perfect for that. What’s nice about these stories though is the variety of characters and environments, so I also get to design a lot of new stuff from scratch.

You’re one of the few artists working in, what I assume is, a fully-painted style that first really came to prominence in the pages of 2000 AD and the Megazine in the 90s. Is that how you started out, or is it something that slowly developed? 

NP: I started with painted art, working traditionally with acrylics way back in the day and it’s a technique that I will still do occasionally for private commissions but I moved over to fully painting digitally from about the year 2000, ironically enough. Back in the ‘90s all of us that painted were still learning our craft and to be honest the printing process wasn’t great for painted art back then, so everything looked like mud – we were also all fairly young and making our art mistakes in public, so to speak, but you keep at it and you get better over time.

I have such a structured approach to painting a page or cover nowadays, that’s it’s pretty much second nature but that’s taken years of working to get that process solid and reliable – Of course, you’re always limited by deadlines and other factors, so you do the best you can in the time allowed. You have to know when to leave a page and move onto the next one.

And why do you think you’re one of the few who still work this way? I suppose one of the others here is Dave Kendall on The Fall of Deadworld – is it something like the Dark Judges club?

NP: Painted art takes more time, so that’s one reason and to be honest, it does take a while to develop the skills to do it properly. Personally, I think for the Dark Judges, it’s a great technique to use. For me, Bolland’s art on the characters is always going to be the ultimate versions of them and will never be bettered. He was producing fantastic black and white line art when he did them and I would never try and compete with that, so it helps that I’m painting them.

I think that, because of their grisly nature, you can develop interesting colour palettes to depict them and you can exploit that in the rendering of each character – I’m a stickler for detail, so painted art gives me a style to add all the decay, texture and gnarly bits that look so cool on the characters.  Judge Fire, for instance is always great to use a dominant light source for any scene that he’s in and all the blood is red of course, which always looks good in colour!

Nick Percival’s art for Deliverance Episode 1 – Page 4 – from pencils to final art –
There’s a lot of work in between!

And whilst we’re talking about process, it’s always more fun to not only talk about your process (but please do) but also to see the actual process at work.

NP: I still draw out the pages traditionally – pencil on board – and I work quite large, about A1 in size. My pencils are extremely loose though. I’ll scan those pencil pages in and then paint digitally using Photoshop and Painter. I still use the same painting techniques as when I used ‘real’ paints but now I also have access to things that digital excels at – textures, lighting and FX touches. For me, it’s all about the final image and I don’t care how the art was produced. There’s some snobbery about painted digital art but that’s Grandad talk – use whatever tools you like to get the job done and produce a strong final image.

More of the pencil to finished art comparison – this time page 8 of Deliverance Episode 1

NP: I think you can see from those examples of my rough page layouts that I do them really quickly and it’s just to get the flow of the page worked out and where the focus will be. Things can change quite a lot between this stage and final paints but all the information I need is there for me to tell the story and get working on the final pages

How far have you thought about taking the Dark Judges saga – is it something that you’ve thought of as having a definitive ending for you or is it far more a case of giving us these fun series exploring the aspects of the Dark Judges and how their very existence alters others?

NP: I don’t have the final ending to Deliverance yet, so don’t know we leave things – they could all skip off happily together into the sunset for all I know but I’m always keen to continue with the Dark Judges. Whether they end up back on Earth or not – I don’t think there’s any immediate rush to do that. I may be wrong, I dunno. There’s only so many times they can face Dredd and lose (mind you that doesn’t stop Batman and the Joker) and I’m sure at some point they’ll both face off again but as with Dominion, The Torture Garden and now with Deliverance, it does show there’s a lot of mileage in having them come up against new characters, new threats and new places to discover – the Universe is a big place after all.

DH: The biggest challenge with these Dark Judges stories is to come up with a satisfying ending. As a writer you have to find some way to stop them killing, at least long enough for the human race to carry on. I’m still tweaking the ending to Deliverance (but don’t tell Matt).

I suppose the ultimate Dark Judges story has to be the one where they eliminate all life throughout the Universe so they can take a well-earned rest. I’d be up for that one.

What are your plans after this, both with the Dark Judges and other work?

DH: No plans beyond this for the Dark Judges, unless I really do get to write the Absolute Final Everybody Dies story. I have loads of other projects in the works, including more concepts with Brian Haberlin for Jim Valentino’s Shadowline Comics at Image and another graphic novel with Mark Stafford. I also have a very personal prose work on the back burner, but I’m not talking about that one yet.

NP: The nice thing about doing these Dark Judges series’ and one of the main incentives that keeps me going when painting all this art, is the knowledge that each series gets its own collected separate hardback volume down the line as we saw with Dominion. For me, it makes burning the midnight oil and putting all that effort in worth it, to see the individual collected books when done with all the extras and so on.

If Tharg wants more, I’m happy to continue with the Dark Judges and of course, it’s always fun to drop in on Dredd now and again. Maybe we will do some mega epic with Dredd and the Dark Judges at some point. Put a beat up, knackered Dredd, stranded and all alone onto a new Deadworld type planet with no tech and see how he gets on. That could be fun.

For other stuff, I’ll still do the odd private commission when time allows (just finished a huge Frankenstein canvas which was fun) but I’m actually also in the process  of developing a film that is pretty far along, so Covid-19 willing, that’s something that can hopefully move forward when everything is safe. Comics are my first love though and I don’t cheat on my first love.

And finally – Dave, what’s with the hatred of Wordsworth – a bad experience somewhere?

DH: Ah, now if you look at the end to The Torture Garden you’ll see that I’m actually a big fan of that particular poem (Intimations of Immortality). It’s Judge Death who has a deep loathing for Wordsworth. It’s true that in my youth I was forced to read “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” at school and hated it. I was more a fan of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, or the Beats. I still adore Ginsberg’s HOWL for instance. But I have also grown to appreciate Wordsworth’s yearning for transcendence. I find Judge Death’s reaction to Wordsworth hilarious. Uplifting poetry is the one thing that gets right up his nose (or would if he had one).

Three stages of Nick Percival artwork –
all to get to a horrific Death feeling majorly pissed at William Wordsworth.

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Thank you so much to David and Nick for filling us in on what those four undead scamps are up to. You can find the first part of the 10-episode Dark Judges – Deliverance series in Judge Dredd Megazine issue 424 – get it from the 2000 AD web shop now!

But, just in case what you’ve seen so far hasn’t been enough to give you nightmares, we shall leave you with this – a delightful close-up of Nick Percival‘s Judge Death from Deliverance episode one. Just imagine waking up and seeing this in front of you – yeah, have nightmares kids, have lots of them…