He’s Still the Law…

May 1st, 2019

Guest contributor Strontium Cat takes a look at how Judge Dredd arrived at the most recent John Wagner penned epic, Machine Law.

A typical day in the Big Meg...

2000 AD’s recent Machine Law (progs 2115-2122) is one of my favourite ever Judge Dredd stories and deserves some attention. The Galaxy’s Greatest comic and its signature strip have now been going for forty two years, so it’s easy to take it for granted and overlook what remarkable, interesting work John Wagner continues to do with his creation.

The effortlessly readable earlier strips he wrote with Alan Grant over the first decade or so remain the best known, tales of a city of orang-utan Mayors, block wars, ugly clinics, dinosaurs, muties, Sky surfers, Dark Judges, a head-butting virtuoso and competitive eating contests. Just as important to the strip’s appeal was the art. No other comic character has been blessed by such an amazing and diverse array of artists, most influentially, the quartet of gritty Carlos Ezquerra, hyperdetailed Ron Smith, expressionistic Mike McMahon and meticulous Brian Bolland, though dozens of others, including Steve Dillon, Brett Ewins, Cam Kennedy and Henry Flint have done equally fondly remembered extended stints as well.

Rereading the beginnings, you can see its organic evolution from ‘Dirty Harry, but in the Future!’ conception. The first year of tales are mostly nothing special (although Bolland’s art shines), but there’s a growing enthusiasm as the writers and artists started to explore the possibilities of Dredd’s vast city, 800 million citizens, mostly unemployed, alternately terrified by the endless calamities or bored enough to succumb to the current fad. Ron Smith, Dredd’s most prolific artist doesn’t get nearly enough of the credit deserved for turning the city and its residents into the true star of the strip.

18 years before Hartlepool elected a monkey mascot for mayor in 2002...

Equally importantly, that other iconic 2000AD writer Pat Mills did a stint on the strip, writing the first Dredd epic, a tale exploring the irradiated Cursed Earth beyond the metropolis and giving Dredd’s world a rich history and geography. At which point, Wagner and Grant realised they had stumbled onto something special. Dredd quickly became Britain’s most iconic comic character (despite being an American) and during the following decade they gave us hundreds of very good, frequently brilliant, funny, violent, wildly imaginative stories. Dredd could be a hero or a bastard or barely even appear at all in stories that spanned science fiction, crime, religion, pop culture, horror, politics, westerns, war and the just plain endearingly ridiculous. It was written primarily for the comic’s early teenage readership but with plenty of social satire of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America to keep the older readers equally entertained. Also, unusually for satire, a lot of it has aged very well, such as this example of a despotic leader making ridiculous demands from Judge Cal….

Judge Cal, dememted despot

Wagner and Grant dissolved their writing partnership, going solo by the time Judge Dredd Megazine was launched in 1990. Wagner wrote some bracingly different stuff for it, including America, about America Jara, a young woman fighting for democracy against the tyranny of the judges and her friend Bennett Beeny. It’s from that period when comics were trying too hard to show how grown up and literary they could be but it’s an impressive attempt to do something different with the strip, vividly showing Dredd at his terrifying authoritarian worst and how horrible it would be to live in MC1.

Anyway, you’ve probably read loads of these Dredd strips and don’t need me to tell you that they’re some of the greatest comics ever to come from this island. Sadly 2000AD lost its way during the later 90s for various reasons, various other inferior writers took over Dredd in the prog and most of us stopped reading it. What’s less frequently appreciated are the Dredd stories since.

Wagner returned to writing the strip for 2000AD, rescuing it and has been writing different but equally good Dredd stories for the last twenty years, strong enough to carry the strip though occasional patches of uneven artists including that period of really bad Simon Bisley imitators. The readership who remained were getting a bit older so the storytelling became more sophisticated and often more serious minded although never without humour. An early and very enjoyable example of this approach was The Pit, one of the longest ever Dredd stories, but very different from the previous epics, it’s an intricately plotted but small scale police prodedural story of Dredd leading a squad of judges to clear up a corrupt sector. Various other great stories followed including 2006’s Origins, a quest which reveals the messy secret history behind the foundations of the fascist judicial system and Mandroid, about Dredd trying to help a war vet, more machine than man, (not unlike Dredd these days) returning to the city.

Then there’s the longest epic of all, 2014’s year long epic, Day of Chaos, in which the Sovs decimate Dredd’s city in revenge for Dredd destroying their city during Garth Ennis’ favourite ever comic The Apocalypse War thirty years before.

Mega City 1's darkest hour

It was written in 2014 but unlike most politically inspired fiction written prior to 2016, it remains more relevant than ever. The situation escalates partly due to the efforts of the Sovs but also because the trust between the Judges. The media and the citizens has broken down so completely that it doesn’t take much to cause things to fall apart. It get so bad that when the Dark Judges turn up, they’re almost comic relief compared to the horrors unfolding around them. It’s genuinely terrifying at times and not for everyone, but if you want to read relevant genre fiction that has perceptive things to say about our current era, then I’ve yet to see anything better in any medium.

And during the course of all these tales (and countless equally enjoyable one-off stories), Dredd has been aging in real time with us. Actually physically he hasn’t changed so much due to a combination of the wonders of 22nd century technology and most artists still prefer to draw him as a younger man but his attitudes have definitely changed over the decades.

It’s often said Dredd doesn’t really have any personality. This has never really been the case but in his earlier years, he was a fairly straightforward character, the archetypal cop. These days he’s more reflective about his work, aware that brutal behaviour of the judges has sometimes backfired horribly. in particular his attitude towards mutants has softened over the years after meeting some mutant relative clones (incredibly they have even more prominent chins than him) in the Cursed Earth. He knows he’s becoming a dinosaur, but he also understands that the judges have let the city down too many times and have to change their ways; he’s fiercely supportive of his protege, Judge Beeny, a young comet of a Judge who believes the judges are a bunch of fascists in dire need of reform and is probably going to become chief judge before too long.

Interestingly she’s oddly reminiscent of esteemed fellow nerd and rising US politician Alexandria Occasio Cortez, but any similarity owes more to Wagner’s prescienct plotting than borrowings from the headlines. Beeny is the daughter of the aforementioned America Jara and Bennett Beeny and we’ve seen her inducted into the Academy of Law, grow up and her relationship with Dredd (who killed her mother) unfold over thirty years. I’m generally allergic to sentimentality in my comics, but having watched Beeny slowly and persistently try to reform the system, coming back undimmed after setbacks, her hard earned victories have an emotional power you don’t often see in comics, all the more uplifting for occurring within such a relentlessly unforgiving city.

There are some good writers contributing stories these days, (particularly playful newish find Rory McConville) but no one nails older Dredd’s nuances like Wagner. He writes it less these days but he’s still the guiding architect of the strip. As Pat Mills says ‘John IS Dredd’. Despite their differing politics (Wagner is a lifelong socialist) they’re taciturn and sceptical and they both know what it means to be in your seventies. Ageing characters are a rarity in comics for reasons which generally owe more to commerce than storytelling. It’s something that limits the sorts of stories that are told within serialised comics. It means they usually lack the sort of emotional power that long running soap operas achieve at their best, from the cumulative effect of seeing across the lifetimes of Tracy Barlow or Ian Beale over the decades. Wagner’s refusal to allow time to stand still is the reason Judge Dredd stories retain a freshness even now, as we see him getting older and events having consequences many years down the line.

Which brings us to Machine Law, the latest chapter in the Mechanismo saga. This began as a bit of revenge plagiarism from the Paul Verhoven’s Robocop film in the early 90s. The judges started trialling robot auxiliaries to assist the overstretched Justice department. Dredd was against it, believing only humans were capable of enforcing the law and was proved right when they started slaughtering innocent citizens. But due to various ongoing disasters, judge numbers have remained stubbornly depleted, so there have been periodic attempts to roll out more sophisticated robot judges over the years. We’re now at a point where the techies have finally ironed out the bugs, to the point where even Dredd (grudgingly) concedes they do a very good job despite maintaining his increasingly hard to justify conviction that only human judges should be entrusted the job. Some personnel changes occurring in the Justice department at the start of Machine Law bring this issue to a head and the eight part story follows the fallout from that.

Community policeman

But the story isn’t really about whether the robo-judges are up to it (they clearly are, technically at least, showing far more empathy than the hardly perfect human judges) than Dredd struggling to make sense of the changing times. Serving the law has been his whole life. He does occasionally try to behave like a normal human being nowadays; he’s fond of his niece Vienna, although he sometimes forgets he’s supposed to be off duty and, from force of habit, accidentally interrogates her boyfriends. But mostly he lives like a monk and isn’t given to introspection. He doesn’t have a lot of friends (he’s barely sure what friendship even is) so when he discovers one of them is diagnosed with a terminal disease, he doesn’t really know how to respond but is touchingly awkward in his support.

That encounter in the hospital is stunningly well done, and an extremely moving moment, especially for longtime readers so it would be unfair to spoil it here. A fictional character who’s been around for most of my life isn’t going to be around for much longer. It’s one of the most poignant things I’ve ever read because it’s clearly also the creators channelling their feelings about the recent death of Dredd’s artistic creator, Carlos Ezquerra. Colin MacNeil (the longest serving artist still regularly working on the strip) delivers some of the best art of his long career, in sympatico with the script. The facial expressions are particularly good, especially considering Dredd and robots aren’t the most expressive of characters.

Meanwhile, the city’s getting very upset about the Mechanismos and the ‘humanist society’ plan big protest marches while senior judges plot a coup. The decency of the Mechanismos put most of the humans to shame. Beeny saves the day with some help from Dredd, who may be getting on a bit, but he’s still thrillingly relentless whenever his city is threatened. Disaster is more or less averted for a pleasant change, the city returns to ‘normal’ and the Mechanismo saga edges forward. There’s a lot going on in the multi stranded story but it never feels hurried and MacNeil even manages to fit in a few stunning splash pages. This is a very different story, with different concerns, from the Dredd of thirty years ago although the clarity of Wagner’s storytelling remains unchanged, unobtrusively providing all the information any new reader needs to understand everything.

There’s an elegaic tone to ‘Machine Law’ but Dredd will probably keep going for a good few years yet and continue to evolve. 2000AD and Dredd were created in 1977 as a way of cashing in on the massive popularity of Star Wars. It’s amazing enough that its still going and the creator of the strip is still contributing stories in 2019. But what’s really incredible is that John Wagner’s not got stale and continues to have new things to say about the human condition after all this time. If you liked Dredd but haven’t read any for a long time or if you like good science fiction or just appreciate good comics, then you really ought to be reading some of these Judge Dredd stories.

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