When Kevin Gosnell and Pat Mills named their new sci-fi-oriented comic anthology 2000 AD, they didn’t give it much thought. The name sounded futuristic back in 1977, and neither of them suspected that the title would actually last long enough to become outdated. Then when they introduced John Wagner’s new character Judge Dredd in the second issue, they had no idea he would grow to become Britain’s most-popular homegrown comic character. But here we are twelve years into the actual 2000 AD, and with Prog 1771, both Judge Dredd and the venerable and long-lasting British comic magazine 2000 AD mark their 35th birthdays.
Welcome to the future, gents. Glad it is not quite as bleak as you envisioned.
The name still sounded futuristic enough in 1983 when I got my first glimpse of the dark future of 2000 AD. Eagle Comics had begun coloring and re-printing the Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD as a monthly Judge Dredd comic book. This was a time when American comics were still somewhat…tame. Wolverine was about as badass as an American superhero got, and even then, he wasn’t let off the leash too much. Killing was done strictly off-panel, and even then was only implied and often denied. Even Conan had to bow to the Comics Code Authority. The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen were still a few years off. I had never seen anything like Judge Dredd before.
Thirty-five years later, a new film in the works, and the fine folks at 2000 AD and the companion Judge Dredd Megazine are still cranking out top-notch entertainment. If you have ever been interested in Judge Dredd, but just didn’t know where to start, here is a primer to the world of Judge Dredd and the Mega Cities.
Judge Dredd: Proud American
Japan is full of ninjas and giant monsters. France is full of melancholy lovers. And the U.S.A. is full of gun-toting, fascistic super-cops.
If you judge a culture solely on its movies, then you get some pretty strange ideas about that country. And that is what Judge Dredd is: a couple of British guys’ idea of what America is like. The idea for the Judge Dredd came from merging Clint Eastwood’s “tough cop” persona from the Dirty Harry flicks with the over-the-top sci-fi future of Death Race 2000. In fact, Judge Dredd wasn’t originally even set so far in the future. The original concept had the super-cop walking a beat in the mean streets of New York City—a place as legendary to cop dramas as Paris is to romantic comedies or Boot Hill is to westerns. It wasn’t until artist Carlos Ezquerra turned in his pages featuring a far-future city that writer Wagner renamed the setting Mega-City One.
Judge Dredd is still the ultimate American. In Dredd’s future world, all of the great countries have isolated themselves into giant mega cities, such as Mega-City Hondo (Japan), East Meg One (Russia), Euro City (France and Germany), Brit-Cit (England), and Sino City (China). In between the massive city fortresses is the Cursed Earth, a charred wasteland of mutants–remnants of an apocalyptic war.
2000 AD – Britain’s Got Talent
Let me just rattle off a few names of creators who have worked on Judge Dredd and 2000 AD: Alan Moore. Grant Morrison. Neil Gaiman. Frank Quitely. Brian Bolland. Garth Ennis. Dave Gibbons. Mark Millar. Steve Dillon. Alan Davis. Peter Milligan, Kevin O'Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl), Richard Starkings (Comicraft). And so many more.
As the biggest home game, 2000 AD has long been the proving ground for new British talent. It would be hard to find a British comic writer or artist who had not put their touch on 2000 AD and Judge Dredd at some time in his or her career. In fact, when the so-called “British Invasion” transformed American comics in the 1980s and 90s, it was essentially the gang from 2000 AD coming across the pond to re-make American superheroes in the image they had already established at home.
If you are only interested in picking up the famous names, 2000 AD has put together a few trade collections featuring the contributions of their illustrious alumni.
The Face of Dredd
One of the most honored tropes of Judge Dredd is that you never see his face. The established reason for this is that Dredd is more of a symbol than a man. Justice is blind, and the Law is faceless. But the true origin goes back to Prog 8, when the artist turned in a page with a helmetless Dredd. The editor didn’t think the face looked good enough, so slapped a big “censored” sticker over it as a joke. The joke stuck and passed into legend.
Oh, and an addition to this: Judge Dredd is a black man. At least, he was originally intended to be. In Carlos Ezquerra's original design, Judge Dredd was given African racial characteristics. But because the comic was in black-and-white, and no one bothered to pass this information on to subsequent artists, Dredd soon found himself transformed into a white guy. And when the issues were colored, Ezquerra’s original intent was officially white-washed.
Judge Dredd is Old. Really Old.
Another early established trope is that Judge Dredd ages in real time. For the past thirty-five years, he has gotten progressively older. That was a conscious decision by the creative team who didn’t like how Spider-Man managed to be a college student for thirty years. Judge Dredd’s current age is set at about 70, keeping him in line with the hero that he is based on, Clint Eastwood. But like Clint Eastwood, age hasn’t slowed him down, and the future-medicine of Mega City One keeps him going if not exactly as spry as he used to be.
And Dredd is not invulnerable. In one episode (Prog 1595), Judge Dredd was stricken with cancer of the duodenum. Fortunately for the law and for Mega City One, it was benign.
The 1995 Judge Dredd film with Sylvester Stalone
We don’t talk about that one…
Judge Death – The Dick Tracy Dilemma
For most of his career, Judge Dredd had what I call the Dick Tracy Dilemma; he killed off every villain at the end of the story, which meant continuing stories were impossible and that writers had to think of new and increasingly bizarre villains every issue.
Until Judge Death came along. Judge Death and his fellow Dark Judges—Judge Fire, Judge Mortis, and Judge Fear—were created in the Bizarro mold to give Judge Dredd a reoccurring villain to fight. The Dark Judges come from a parallel Earth where they decided that since all crime was committed by the living, then life itself was the originary crime.
Their first appearance, collected as The Life and Death of Judge Death, with interior art by Brian Bolland, remains one of Judge Dredd’s greatest adventures.
Ain’t that America
If there was a Watchmen for the Judge Dredd series, it would have to be the story of America Jara in the series America.
After years of writing over-the-top future stories
, there was a split in the house of2000 AD. Everyone had pretty much decided that parodying American action flicks could only take them so far, and that Judge Dredd needed some new direction. One group wanted to push the parody even further, taking Judge Dredd fully into the realm of British comedy and ridiculous ultra-violence. The other group thought that you could remove the parody and used Judge Dredd and the Mega Cities to tell more serious stories.
Fortunately, the “wacky Judge Dredd” group lost out, and writers started plumbing some of the depths of the worlds they had created. The result was a series of stories that started with “A Letter to Judge Dredd,” which featured a letter from a child who had been killed as part of a pro-democracy demonstration. The letter saw the first time that Judge Dredd questioned the fascistic authority he wielded and the Judge System he was a figurehead of. The story continued into “The Devil You Know” and finished with the brilliant America.
America fully explores Judge Dredd’s philosophy and juxtaposes the dark future-world with the tragic pro-democracy activist America Jara. The story is remarkable for showing Dredd as a symbol of faceless, uncompromising authority that upholds the system over individual human dignity and freedom. America and her fellow activists may have the moral upper ground, but they are a violent, bitter group who believe the ends justify the means.
Given the state of the country, and the various Occupy movements, America is even more relevant now than when John Wagner wrote it in 1990.
Getting into the Mega Cities
Even with my early love of Judge Dredd, I confess it has been a long time since I read his comics and only started getting back into him now that 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine magazines available in the U.S. I have also been going back and picking up the trades to see what I have missed out on since those days of Eagle comics long, long ago.
I found out that now is a good time to be a Judge Dredd fan, or to decide to become a Judge Dredd fan. Never has there been greater access in the U.S. to Britain’s greatest home-grown comic hero. The fine folks at 2000 AD have been working overtime making Dredd’s adventures available. Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files is exactly what it sounds like, chronologically re-printing every Judge Dredd story from 2000 AD. There are also individual collections featuring selected storylines or writers.
On top of that, a new film is coming out this year, staring Karl Urban. Dredd-creator John Wagner has given the film his endorsement. From what you can see online, it looks damn cool.
Like all great characters, Judge Dredd has grown over the decades. I couldn’t have imagined something like America back in the 1980s when Dredd’s hardline policies and wiliness to kill were exactly what I liked about him. But in thirty-five years, 2000 AD has grown up.
So happy birthday, 2000 AD and Judge Dredd! I raise a glass of synthi-hol in your honor, and I hope to God that your vision of the future never comes true.