October 28th, 2008
A lot of people don’t really ‘get’ Judge Dredd. They know he’s ‘Britain’s premiere comics character’, but they’re not sure why. Perhaps the idea of a fascist cop as a protagonist is difficult to reconcile, although ‘Dirty Harry’ and his subsequent filmic spawn don’t seem to suffer that problem. Maybe the uncertainty of tone is the problem; Dredd veers between comedy and violence, satire and pathos, often within the same six pages. Dredd is neither hero nor villain. He just is. Reader sympathy is constantly challenged – for every story depicting the brutality and absurd intolerance of the Mega City 1 Justice system, there’s one depicting the lunacy of the denizens of the city itself, a city that demands a bastard like Dredd to sort shit out.
A lot is made of Dredd’s punk rock origins, and he is undoubtedly a product of that spirit of anger and brattish rebellion – what could be more offensive than a snarling leather-clad super-fascist as the hero of a boys weekly?. He is also equally a pure exploitation character, designed to thrill, shock and offend. Part Clint Eastwood, part Berlin-era Lou Reed.*
+ = DREDD INNIT?
From the ashes of Action, the notorious ‘banned’ boys comic of the mid-70′s rose 2000ad, substituting the contemporary pulp splatter of ‘Hookjaw’ and ‘Dredger’ (which riffed on popular movies for their appeal) for science fiction and futuristic fantasy. But 2000ad retained the keen desire to transgress and offend that had so driven it’s predecessor. Dredd stories were far more lurid in tone than the stiff space-colonialism of Dan Dare, or Nu-Roman glamour and classicism of Don Lawrence’s Trigan Empire, and employed shock violence and blackly comic nihilism to wow a new generation of disenfranchised young earthlings.
His continued longevity is down to the skilful handling of his primary writers, John Wagner and Alan Grant. The artfulness in creating reader engagement and sympathy for a character as complicated and contradictory as Dredd is entirely due to their creativity and energy. They expanded his world and populated it with colourful grotesques and wonderfully unhinged ideas, ensuring that if you found the titular character uninteresting there was always something else to hook your interest. What could have been a one-note cash in character has become an institution of British comics, and the strip has travelled into some pretty diverse areas in it’s 30 year(!) history.
But like I say. People don’t always seem to get Dredd. And I aim to fix that. In one panel. And if you already know Dredd – you know which panel…
First a bit of background; Early on in Judge Dredd’s career he lacked something that most successful characters require – recurring villains. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that there weren’t any juicy bad guys created – one look at the ‘Cursed Earth’ epic or ‘Judge Caligula’ will attest to that. No, the problem was that they nearly all ended up with a bullet in the cranium. Part of Dredd’s appeal lies in the brutal finality of his judgements. Jaywalking? Kneecaps blown off. Sugar hustling? Life in the cubes. Stookie gland running? One way bullet train to RESYK. But, as amusing as this is, it leaves his rogue’s gallery somewhat…dissipated.
Enter Judge Death – dessicated walking corpse; undead executioner from another world; grinning, sadistic genocidal interdimensional scumbag. Unusual in the Dredd canon in that he’s supernatural in origin. Generally the tone of the strip is kind of gonzo sci-fi with the nastiness mixed up with a good dollop of satire and black humour, but Judge Death tips it over into outright pant-shitting horror. Believe me, when you’re making the transition from Beano and Transformers comics, shit like this:
is the stuff of nightmares. This asshole killed his entire planet, and still wasn’t satisfied. So he made his way to our dimension, bringing the rest of the Dark Judges with him (Judge Fire – flaming skeleton judge with a lethal fire spitting trident, Judge Mortis – rotting cadaver, with a killer touch and a sheep’s skull for a head, and Judge Fear – cloak wearing ultra-goth with a portcullis helmet that houses a visage so demonic it kills people stone dead) ‘Judge Death’ and ‘Judge Death Lives’ were fairly unique stories for the strip at the time. As I said earlier, the usual tone of the strip was one of parodic, highly stylised science fiction and while in it’s first few years it lurched around in tone somewhat it rarely enters the realms of outright horror (‘City of the Damned’ was another later example, presenting a nightmarish future version of Mega City 1 populated by zombies and vampires, in which a blinded Dredd fought an undead version of himself – it was pretty intense). So the Dark Judges arrival in MC1 was presented as a real and lethal threat. The tone was serious, palpably macabre and pretty damn violent for the time. Certainly a far cry from fatties with belly wheels, or Otto Sump’s Ugly Clinic. Mega City 1 was in peril, make no mistake. This is a city that regularly found itself chewing on a shit sandwich, but necrotic bizarro judges from death’s dimension was a new twist.
Now a big part of Dredd’s appeal is his unchanging attitude, his absolute certainty that what he’s doing is a) correct and b) the only way. He’s the arch literalist, battling against the forces of lunacy and corruption – an unquestioning instrument of justice in a world teetering on the brink of collapse. Sometimes his rigidity is played for laughs, with Dredd the butt of the joke; sometimes it’s played dead straight, with Old Stony Face presented as the ultimate deliverer of FUCK YEAH!-ness. And this is one of those times.
And if you need to understand why a nation of young Squaax became transfixed by this taciturn leather-clad crypto-fascist…
So the chips are down. Shit has hit the fan. Dredd and Judge Anderson (super sexy blonde Psi-Judge – part ‘Atomic’-era Debbie Harry, part Jean Grey) are the last hope for the doomed metropolis.The scene; Dredd and Anderson are confronted by Judge Fear. Anderson is taken out with a mantrap to the leg – ouch! Fear pins Dredd down, with his familiar chilling refrain ‘Gaze into the face of fear’…
POW! That’s the ticket! That’s how you settle a pan-dimensional fucktard’s hash! One more time?
That’s the moment that crystalises Dredd’s persona and fundamental appeal for me. Because essentially it’s the moment you realise that no matter how much of a bastard Dredd is, he’s our bastard. Mega City 1 is his city, and it’s denizen’s are under his protection. It’s also a great refutation of the supernatural threat presented by the Dark Judges. There’s nothing so scary it can’t be stopped with a giant justice-shaped fist to the face, and strangely there’s something comforting about this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not describing some masochistic need for Big Brother-style state supervision. Rather, that Dredd’s world is often so confounding, so perverse, and so downright unsettling that his unyielding, rigid presence is a reassuring, and above all necessary, thing.
A quick word on the art itself. Brian Bolland is generally held up as the quintessential Dredd artist, and his work on the strip is undeniably fine. You’re unlikely to find as much sequential work from the man than these early years of Dredd (barring Camelot 3000, which is quite frankly a ripe turd of a comic, and totally unworthy of his skills). For my money, Mike McMahon is the definitive Dredd artist however. His ‘big boot’ style and loose yet frenetic linework, and his eye for the exaggerated grotesqueries of Mega City 1 are far closer to the spirit of the strip than Bolland’s highly rendered, slightly stiff work. That said though, Bolland totally fucking nails it in this panel – the kineticism and force of Dredd’s punch, the shock in the body language of Judge Fear, the sheer violence of the situation, the fragments of shattered helmet. It’s just ace, and a brilliant visual punchline *ahem* to the set up.
But you know what really makes that panel work so well?
It’s fucking funny.
One more time?
And if it doesn’t float your boat, then maybe the strip isn’t for you. But trust me you’re missing out on one of the most restlessly inventive, funny, disturbing and highly original spins on the ‘futuristic cop’ story ever to have graced a comic. As well as the aforementioned Bolland and McMahon some of the most stellar comic artists have worked on the strip over the years, including Steve Dillon, Carlos Ezquerra, Cam Kennedy, (the Godhead) Brendan McCarthy, Henry Flint, Kevin O’Neill, Simon Bisley, Brett Ewins, Jock, Sean Phillips, Will Simpson and Chris Weston. In recent years it’s slipped slightly into formula, and in truth my Dredd-love has dimmed slightly, but if you pick up any of the recently published phonebook-thick Archive tomes you’re pretty much assured a good time.
Prepare yourself to meet the fist of Dredd.
*Fun fact – In attempting to realistically capture the sound of children crying for a track on his miserabilist opus ‘Berlin’, Uncle Lou and producer Bob Ezrin actually locked Ezrin’s kids in a cupboard, and told them their Mum was dead. So that crying you hear? Real tears of infant anguish. Which means Lou just about pips Dredd in the bastard stakes.