February 25th, 2017
While I was preparing my piece on 2000AD‘s fortieth anniversary, I was reading through the new edition of Thrill-Power Overload, the history of 2000AD (a genuinely excellent book, incidentally – far more willing to criticise the comic and its publishers than you’d expect from an official celebration), and I came across what may be the wrongest thing Grant Morrison (a man who I admire hugely as a writer, but who has made more than his share of wrong statements) has ever said:
at least Batman also has Bruce Wayne, giving him all of two dimensions. Dredd is just Dredd. I think the character is now as relevant to the new century as Dan Dare was to the 1970s.
Now, leaving aside the number of dimensions the characters have, and whether that makes them better or worse for stories (though I think Dredd, as written by John Wagner and a couple of other writers who get the character, a list which definitely doesn’t include Morrison, is a far more nuanced character than is usually believed), who could really believe that a fascist authoritarian police state which exercises seemingly unlimited violent power, in a world where the citizenry are regularly gripped by senseless, meaningless, obsessions which destroy thousands of lives for no good reason is irrelevant to the twenty-first century? Perhaps it’s the way in which the world is hugely overpopulated but humanity has destroyed most of it and clustered in crowded, angry, cities that is irrelevant?
But then, Morrison was saying this a few years ago, back when theses about the “end of history” didn’t sound cretinous, and when there was a sense of optimism that maybe Western society wouldn’t completely give in to its basest, crassest, instincts. So we can cut him a bit of slack.
But one thing I’ve been thinking of recently is a Judge Dredd story that seems more relevant to the current age than, frankly, everything Morrison has ever written (and, again, I love Morrison’s work. I’ve written two books about the man, or three depending how you count). It’s the first Judge Dredd story I ever read.
More accurately, the first Judge Dredd story I ever read was the very last part of it. I got into 2000AD oddly for a British kid – it always looked a little too childish for me as a kid, but then after the “Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids any more!” hype of the mid eighties, I slowly started getting into American comics. Only when I was thirteen did I realise that the writers whose work I was most excited by – at the time Alan Grant, Peter Milligan, and Alan Moore in approximately that order – were all 2000AD regulars or had recently written for the comic.
So I bought an issue to see what it was like. I still remember the issue:
Twilight’s Last Gleaming, the Dredd story that concluded in that issue, was written by Garth Ennis, but was the conclusion to a subplot that had been running for five years, started by Dredd co-creator John Wagner and his 80s writing partner Alan Grant, and continued by Wagner.
Judge Dredd is unusual in mainstream comics in that, for most of its most popular period, it changed registers quite freely. About half the time it was grotesque, over-the-top, farce completely unconnected to anything in the real world, while the other half it was attempting serious-minded, grim, action stories. The experience of reading it as a week-by-week serial could perhaps best be likened to watching a Batman film where half the scenes were from the 1966 series and the other half were from The Dark Knight. Letter From a Democrat had originally been intended as one of the grotesques. Under the title Letter from a Baffin Island Nudist, it had been planned as a story about nudists taking over a TV station and coming into conflict with Dredd.
2000AD editorial apparently decided that this was not appropriate for a children’s comic, and so Wagner and Grant took the idea of taking over a TV station and went in a different direction, ending up with pro-democracy activists taking over to protest the fascist regime of the Judges.
Over the next five years, particularly in stories by Wagner, Dredd came to believe that while the Judges’ fascist regime was the correct one, it had to show that it was ruling by the consent of the governed, and under increased pressure from the pro-democracy activists the regime eventually agreed to a simple, one-question, yes-no referendum on whether the citizens of Mega-City One wanted to continue with the Judges’ rule, or whether they wanted democracy.
The pundits were confident this would be a massive victory for the progressive side:
The public were largely uninformed and apathetic
And the result was a massive endorsement of the Judges’ rule. Only thirty-five percent of people in Mega-City One bothered to vote, and because so many of them pressed the wrong buttons, the Judges got sixty-eight percent of that vote. Which meant that eternal fascist rule was endorsed, “democratically”, in a two-option vote where only twenty-four percent of the population actually supported it. But this was, of course, the will of the people.
Obviously this is the kind of ridiculously over-the-top satire that may have seemed mildly amusing in the late 80s and early 90s, but which has no relevance to the new century.
Judge Dredd, at its best, has often been either incredibly funny or incredibly moving by projecting current fads and trends to the point of absurdity. (It’s also been incredibly offensive at times, in the same way – things like the Fatties, or the racist caricatures which populate some of the earlier stories (and for which Wagner, to his credit, apologises now)). But we are living in absurd times.
In a number of early Dredd stories, Dredd has to fight “futsies”, people who are suffering from “future shock” and have become floridly psychotic as a result. Every citizen in Mega City One has future shock, but the “futsies” have completely broken.
The term comes from Alvin Toffler’s classic work of futurism in which he argues that technological changes were causing a transition between industrial and post-industrial civilisations. Toffler argues that more things would become disposable, and that the rate of change would mean that knowledge work and services would overtake manual labour. He argues that this would lead to massive unemployment among manual workers, to massive movements of people to find jobs after jobs leave their area, and to a constant need among those who do have jobs to develop new skills. He says this will cause massive problems both on the social level – as institutions can’t adapt fast enough to cope with the changes in society – and on the individual level, as people have to live in a world where the certainties of their youth are erased and replaced with something unfamiliar and new, which is itself erased before they have time to get used to it.
If Judge Dredd as a series can be said to have a unifying theme, a worldview, it is this: future shock exists, and people don’t like it. They will do literally anything, up to and including nuclear war, when in its grip, and they will empower any amount of totalitarian thuggery if it offers even the slightest promise that they don’t have to deal with change any more. People want constant novelty, to distract them from their lives, but what they want even more than the illusion of change is the illusion of stability, and they are willing to go along with any brutality, any inhumanity, even their own torture and death, so long as it means they never have to think a new thought or have a new idea.
It’s a bleak, cynical, worldview. In many ways it’s an adolescent one (as befits a comic developed for adolescents). It’s not a wholly accurate picture of humanity – or at least, I have to tell myself so if I want to avoid succumbing to suicidal depression, and in my more mentally stable moments I truly believe it isn’t accurate.
But to say it’s not relevant? No. Judge Dredd is about the most relevant comic there is.
I hope one day it isn’t.
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