Longbox Graveyard #66
Judge Dredd is back!
Judge Dredd returns to movie screens this week in a hyper-violent, slow-motion action picture that promises to deliver 3D thrills … if your idea of thrills is getting splattered with gore in the front row of a movie theater.
But before this new Karl Urban take on the ultimate urban cop fantasy … a dozen years before Sylvester Stallone nuked the character for a generation with his turgid 1995 star vehicle … back before the closest you could get to a Judge Dredd movie was a Robocop and Dirty Harry double-feature … I was already a Judge Dredd fan.
And I was still late to the party!
Judge Dredd was new-to-me when Eagle Comics brought his adventures to American shores with Judge Dredd #1 in 1983, but he was already old news in the United Kingdom, having headlined the weekly 2000 A.D. in merry ol’ England since his debut in 1977. A distinctly-British cocktail of violence, action, farce, science fiction, and social commentary, Judge Dredd was one of my favorite comics of the era, and along with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen, highlighted a brilliantly creative “British Invasion” of the superhero comics field.
Here I was, an American comics fan all up my own backside puzzling out the monthly continuity of characters like Captain America and Batman, only to have these Brits come along and take the piss on the whole superhero field.
It was great!
So before we indulge in Dredd 3D … let’s take a look back at “Dredd 2D,” which is still one of the finest, funniest, and most entertaining comic book runs of all time.
Judge Dredd tells the story of an uncompromising lawman who patrols a dystopian future where survivors of atomic war have crowded into massive American “Mega Cities” that sprawl along the entire coastlines of the continent. It is a fast-paced, funny, and uncompromising look at an American culture of celebrity and violence run amok.
Dredd himself is a no-nonsense futuristic lawman, literally empowered to be judge, jury, and executioner in one man. Armed with this Lawgiver pistol and super-macho Lawmaster motorcycle — as well as an infallible and encyclopedic knowledge of Mega-City One’s many bizarre laws and regulations — Judge Dredd, as he is fond of reminding us, is the law. A paragon even to the lesser Judges of Mega-City One, Dredd strikes terror into the hearts of criminals everywhere, not least because of his direct approach to his job.
I bought this thirty-five issue Eagle Comics reprint run as it came out in the 1980s, and went into them with no knowledge of Dredd and zero expectations. I loved the world that revealed itself in each issue — the familiar surprises; the stupid, celebrity-obsessed society unearthed layer by layer through stray dialogue or a road sign in the background; and of course the weird and twisted citizens of Mega-City One, fighting off their ennui with extreme cosmetic surgery or propping up their bloated guts with belly wheels. It was a sarcastic, vitriolic take on America by acid-tongued Brits, refreshing and insightful and fun. Judge Dredd seemed something new while simultaneously harkening back to Golden Age crime comics or EC Horror stories — with it’s past-tense captions, thought balloons, and expository dialogue — or (especially) EC’s original run of Mad, with its dense visual humor and a sight gag lurking on every page.
Having no background in the series, I didn’t mind that Eagle’s reprints jumped around in Dredd’s timeline, cherry picking the best stories for American audiences. The first few issues were all by John Wagner and Brian Bolland, and they were a good launching point for the book — the original series art and design by Carlos Ezquerra might have more properly been introduced first if the books were sticking to the Dredd canon, but I would require time to admire Ezquerra’s style, and might have bounced off the side of this series if he’d been my introduction.
Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd
So, too, is the timeline all scrambled up — for example, Dredd’s robot servant, Walter, is introduced in issue #2’s “Let The Land Race Begin,” while that character’s earlier origin would not come to our shores for a year, when “The Robot Wars” was reprinted in Eagle’s Judge Dredd: The Early Cases #2.
But so what, really? After a misspent life obsessing over comic books, I’ve come to regard continuity as over-rated, and at times a deadly impediment to creativity and the joy a fresh take can bring to entrenched comics properties. There is a history here if you want to tease it out — and the text features accompanying these Eagle reprints do a nice job of mapping in the blanks — but for the most part I was happy to go along for the ride with a series that had so much to show me that I would have been frustrated by a sequential storytelling in any case.
death to continuity!
Further supporting the “greatest hits” approach of Eagle’s Judge Dredd was another aspect of lost comics craft — the single-issue story. Originally published in Britain’s 2000 A.D. weekly, Judge Dredd stories concentrated on one-and-done tales, and these early Eagle reprints often have two or three unconnected stories. Dredd would have its longer runs — and epic, continuing storylines like The Apocalypse War and the Cursed Earth are high points in the series — but the backbone of the book are these shorter stories, made stronger for concentrating on the weird science-fiction concepts of the society of Mega-City One, and only indirectly illuminating our hero, who reveals his core tenants by doing things like threatening a suicidal jumper with arrest for littering the sidewalk, or ticketing a citizen for driving too slow.
There’s a throw-away reference to the Judge Cal war in issue #1, and other threads of trailing continuity here and there, but rather than confuse the narrative they served to sharpen my attachment to this crazy new world, promising that there were depths and histories to explore in each new tale. Maybe it wasn’t wise to lead off with Judge Death in the very first issue — a story that might require some knowledge of Judge Dredd and his world to fully appreciate — but I was still hooked, mesmerized by Brian Bolland’s awesome pencil work and hey, zombies are always welcome!
(And that the supernatural menace of Judge Death is arrested, however temporarily, by application of “Boing, The Miracle Spray” is our first and earliest indication that this series is playing by its very own rules). Frankly, I loved the book, and I think the series was more exciting for me in that it was all over the place and kind of sloppy, rather than being locked down, pre-packaged, and all singing off the same sheet.
For me these comics are inextricably interwoven with the 1980s, and the movies roughly from that era — I think of Judge Dredd and pictures like Robocop, Terminator, The Road Warrior, and The Hidden all-in-one, and as the red shift of memory sets in I’ve expanded that frame to include earlier pictures like Logan’s Run and Death Race 2000, too. Of course Dredd came to his own sad end in the Slyvester Stallone film of 1995, a profoundly disappointing misfire that nailed the look and feel of the comics, then perversely wasted it all on a story that concentrated on less interesting aspects of the franchise, and almost entirely excised a vital aspect of Judge Dredd — the biting sense of black humor, replaced by Stallone’s action-star muggings and Rob Schneider schtick that still sets my teeth on edge.
I remain cautiously optimistic for the new film opening this week, but the lack of humor in the trailers is a concern, as if the filmmakers took the wrong lesson from that earlier failure. Dredd shouldn’t be slapstick, but neither should it be all grim and serious, and while the comics found the right mix, in this case film seems unable to capture that more nuanced view.
(Strangely, Stallone was closer to getting it right in 1993’s Demolition Man, a largely-forgotten future cop science fiction movie that works better for Dredd than did Judge Dredd — at least it got some of the humor and tone, with a politically incorrect cop from the past running riot through a hermetically uptight society of the future, and an appropriately psychopathic villain in Wesley Snipes who could have walked right out of Mega-City One).
splash screen for the Demoltion Man videogame, which I helped design, back in the day
It is that sense of humor that best distinguishes Judge Dredd, and is just so darn hard to get right, in film or in comics. Dredd himself is not funny — he’s the ultimate straight man — but his unrelenting grim and serious approach is itself funny, such as the matter-of-fact way that he tells telepathic Judge Anderson he is without guilt in “The Coming of Judge Death” …
… or how he can without a trace of irony shoot a man through the head, then place him in suspended animation until his wounds can by cured by future medical science and the “perp” revived to serve his sentence in “The Forever Crimes.”
Throughout the series the citizens are bizarre, the culture is fractured, and the bloodshed is extreme (though rarely gory). When criminals attack the Moon’s Luna-1 with Tranq Gas in “The Oxygen Board,” 53,000 citizens are killed, but both we and the judges shrug it off, and the story is more memorable for it’s conclusion — when the bad guys are suffocated by an indifferent lunar oxygen utility for failing to pay their bill — than for its body count.
This casual indifference to life and the ever-present menace of mayhem is key to Judge Dredd’s world — all that matters is being right. Winning the day, or correcting a social dysfunction is of no consequence to Judge Dredd. He seems physically bulletproof in the books, but he’s just as emotionally and intellectually invulnerable, harboring no illusions about the nature of the society he polices. Dredd sticks to the playbook, does his job, and upholds the law. He is the law! It is left to the reader, and the occasional viewpoint character, to question the wisdom and morality of that law, and wonder at the virtue of protecting a society so desperate, arbitrary, and dysfunctional as the one we witness in these stories.
just another tricky day in Mega-City One
In the meantime, Judge Dredd sleeps like a baby. (Probably with his helmet on.)
There’s no telling if this subtext will make it onto the screen in the newest film version of Dredd, and if I am alarmed that there’s little trace of it in the trailers, I have fortified myself against disappointment by re-reading this remarkable comics series, re-familiarizing myself with Umpty Candy, Block Mania, and Psi-Judges. Truly there are rich grounds for a franchise here, and I hope this new Dredd picture gains traction with movie audiences, if only so we can visit Mega-City One beyond the single Block that seems central to Dredd 3D, and maybe experience some of the series’ sardonic shades of grey.
But even if this movie is another one-and-done, I hope you will book time to patrol those future streets with Judge Dredd in this superior comics series, which can be purchased in any number of formats, including the remarkably inexpensive back issues I’ve reviewed here. The second half of this Eagle run dips a bit in quality, but even second-rate Judge Dredd is worth reading. If this will be your first encounter with The Angel Gang, Satanus, Ugly Clinics, and Sob Story, then I envy you the adventures in your future, and if you are returning after decades away from Judge Dredd, then take my word for it that these books are just as good the second time around (and maybe even better).
Now all that remains is to hope Dredd 3D doesn’t break my heart the way Conan the Barbarian and John Carter did. Hope springs eternal!
Here we go again!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #67 Guide To Comic Books On Pinterest