I first heard of Judge Dredd in 1987, but it wasn’t through a comic book. I didn’t even know there was a comic book. Instead, it was heavy metal that introduced me to Dredd, a band named Anthrax, specifically. Their 1987 album Among the Living was replete with references to all kinds of interesting stuff: horror fiction and comics, namely. The album’s title track and cover were inspired by Stephen King’s The Stand (as was the song “Skeletons in the Closet), but to me, the stand-out track was a little ditty called “I am the Law“. This was my introduction to Judge Dredd:
They call him Judge
His last name is Dredd
So break the law
And you wind up dead
Truth and justice
Are what he’s fighting for
Judge Dredd the man
He is the law
Mostly it just confused me. I mean, I got that Judge Dredd was a bad mofo – that was clear – but what’s all this stuff about Mega City and mutants and guns and motorcycles? I didn’t know, but I was a 14 year-old metalhead and it sounded cool to me.
I completely forgot about Dredd until the cinematic abortion that was 1995’s Judge Dredd. I laughed my head off and filed Mr. Dredd and his world (as well as Sylvester Stallone – at least until 1997’s Cop Land) away as laughable kitsch. Ever since then, I’ve not been able to think about the character or his world without dredging up old memories of $1.00 movie nights and Anthrax singer Joey Belladonna’s shrill howl.
I had heard that they were making another Judge Dredd film (Dredd) earlier this year, and the same old familiar feelings of snark started to rise again. I considered a new movie a doomed enterprise, until last month at San Diego Comic Con I when saw a few Judge Dredd cosplayers. Now I’m wondering if maybe the movie has more of a chance than I thought. Maybe I wasn’t fair to the material. Maybe much of America hasn’t been. While the character Judge Dredd is American, he’s a British creation. Maybe I needed a different perspective.
To get a more authentic sense of Dredd (pun intended) I sought out the opinion of my friend Joe Gordon, a bookseller and comic book reader living and working in Scotland. Here’s what he wrote to me in response:
He is the Law
So, with the new, apparently much more true to the source comic Dredd movie due soon, what’s all the fuss about? Who is this British comics character and why should anyone outside the UK care? Dredd didn’t quite make that first Prog of 2000 AD (2000 AD issues are called Progs) that my eager, ten-year old hands picked up back in 77, he appeared in the second. And for quite a while he wasn’t the most popular character in the now venerable powerhouse of British comics (thirty five years old this year), that honour went to the revamped Dan Dare, a new incarnation of the classic 50s ‘pilot of the future’. In the early days he was a sort of superior cop, empowered to dispense instant justice and sentencing on the street, but working alongside regular police. But Dredd and his world of Mega City One (’the Big Meg’) grew, the ordinary cops vanished but a whole slew of new structures grew around him, from specialist Judges ( like the Psis, psychic judges, or the SJS, Special Judicial Squad, like Internal Affairs crossed with the Gestapo), supporting characters appeared and grew – and often died. Right from the early days we learned not even the best of Dredd’s companions were safe and that made things more interesting, as did the increasingly complex life of the vast future city (MC-1 and its oddball citizens were characters in their own right by now).
But what tipped Dredd from being an enjoyable strip to being brilliant (and, for my money what moved him to the status of the UK’s biggest comics character for over three decades) was the epics. There was a short multi-part tale about the robots revolting against their masters which got readers more interested, but then came The Cursed Earth, his first true epic. West coast Mega City Two was dying from a mysterious plague, MC-1 has the vaccine, but with the spaceport out the only way to deliver it is for Dredd and a select team to do a coast to coast land crossing over the Cursed Earth, the vast radiation desert that is what’s left of most of what used to be America after the Great Atom Wars. On the way we encounter mutants, slavers, Las Vegas run by Mafia judges, even dinosaurs brought back to life in genetic parks before the war, now roaming loose, and we got our first hints of the back history that lead to America becoming what it now was in the Mega Cities. There have been some cracking one-off tales, but it is the epics that have really made Dredd: he’s gone across the stars with the Judge Child quest, been marshal of the Lunar Colony, fought a tyrant (judge Cal who usurps leadership of the city), in the middle of the Cold War half the city was nuked out in the Apocalypse War as the Sov-Block invaded, he’s even had to deal with a warped version of undead judges who come from a dimension where all life is a crime (crime is committed by the living, so life becomes a crime..).
These epics and standalone episodes often share a wonderfully dark sense of humour (not least in the enormous cityblocks, practically self-contained cities with in the city, all with great names – the rich folk like in Ricardo Montalban Block, a defensive missile block is named the Al Haig Silo) and throughout there is a regular form of comment on current events in our own world, filtered through the science fiction of Dredd’s, that gives it a resonance. And then there’s the fact Dredd isn’t always the hero – yes, he stands for law, order, but this is a state with no democracy, a state where law is absolute, and while he might protect citizens he’s just as like to arrest them for almost anything. An absolute stand-out story arc, reprinted in the Complete America, sees a violent, fundamentalist democratic group prepared to kill judges – and citizens – to achieve their aim of a return to democracy. It’s dark, brooding and years after it was penned it seems even more relevant to our post 9-11 world of draconian new security laws ‘for our protection’. It also isn’t afraid to show Dredd as a total fascist bastard. Another reprint collection, Dredd: Origins, was the story for the 30th anniversary of 2000 AD and with its flashbacks to the final days of the USA and the dawn of the Judge system it is a perfect introduction to the new reader as well as filling in history for the long-time fan. Even now, three and a half decades on the venerable lawman is still keeping us gripped, with a recent epic running weekly in 2000 AD seeing former Soviet-city survivors of the Apocalypse War taking dreadful revenge on MC-1 for the destruction of their city decades before. With a roster of creative talent that has included Brian Bolland, Brendan McCarthy, Cam Kennedy, Colin MacNeil, Mick McMahon, Steve Dillon, Carlos Ezquerra, Pat Mills, Alan Grant and of course, the Dreddfather himself, John Wagner, the cream of British comics talent has worked on this landmark series over the decades. You may not have read much Dredd in the US (yet) but you’ve read many of those who have worked on his tales – 2000 AD’s top creators have been borrowed by the big US comics publishers for decades now.
I’ve been reading Dredd since I was ten. I’m still reading him now. That’s about as big a recommendation as I can give to any comic.
Thanks, Joe. I think it’s maybe time I give the Judge his day in court.