Shooting people in the face isn't very heroic, but then Judge Dredd isn't really a superhero. Sure, he's got a costume, a flashy weapon, a cool bike and he has adventures with sidekicks in which villains of every kind are brought to justice, but most superheroes wouldn't sabotage a democratic protest movement to ensure the current authority remains in power. Most wouldn't sentence someone to six months in prison for littering. Most don't personally launch nuclear missiles at an enemy city and annihilate five hundred million people. And most superheroes don't believe that freedom is something to be sacrificed in the name of justice. On the rare occasions Dredd has actually met a real live superhero (Batman, or a thinly veiled version of Superman) he's usually kicked their heads in and then locked them up on vigilantism charges. Now that the (very good) film that bears his name has been out for a couple of weeks, you might want to try the comics. But with 1800 published issues of 2000AD (where Dredd has been appearing for just over 35 years), you’re spoilt for choice. You could just pick up the latest weekly issue of 2000AD, but if you wanted to dig into his backstory a little, with all that choice you’ll want to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Created in 1976 by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Dredd has been busting heads almost as long as I’ve been alive, and remains the biggest name in British comics. If you wanted to dip your toe into his world you could start at the very beginning, courtesy of the Complete Case Files series of attractively bound collections of every Dredd story ever published. It’s reached 19 volumes so far, and is in no immediate danger of running out of material. The early stories are all in black and white (later volumes are full colour), and the visions of the future are made from the dim and distant past of the mid-seventies. The tone of these stories is often uneven and uncertain, and Dredd is noticeably different to the iconic character that has solidified over the years. He started out a dedicated hero doing a difficult job, putting down a Robot Revolt, overthrowing the lunatic Judge Cal or doing the hard, violent work in the mean streets of the chaotic Mega-City One, home to eight hundred million people in an area that covered most of the eastern seaboard of the USA. His authority or right to sit in judgement was rarely questioned, and his ‘tough but fair’ attitude seemed a justified reaction to the crime around him and the insanity of futuristic life. Though the art on these early stories is often far better than the writing, featuring already impressive work from the likes of future stars Ian Gibson, Mike MacMahon and Brian Bolland, you're probably better off picking up later volumes, after the kinks had been ironed out.
Dredd stories are often short, punchy affairs that appear in a single issue of 2000AD, but every once in a while the strip turns in an epic that takes half a year to release. The first of these, The Cursed Earth Saga, saw Dredd cross the radioactive wasteland known as the Cursed Earth to take a vaccine to Mega-City Two. In The Judge Child, he leaves Earth and heads out into space on the trail of the Angel Gang, intent on rescuing a child prophesied to save the city in its hour of greatest need. This second story really saw the writing and art hit a peak after the sometimes rocky early years, with Mike MacMahon, Brian Bolland and Ron Smith at the top of their game, and by now the regular writing team of Alan Grant and John Wagner were settled into a remarkably consistent groove of polished quality. The enormous Necropolis saga saw Mega-City One enslaved under the rule of the Dark Judges, terrifying undead reflections of the Judges from another Dimension. But the best of the epics, the one that remains the finest long story to grace Dredd’s world, is The Apocalypse War. Mega City One housed eight hundred million people and covered vast tracts of land. To cut it down and make it less unwieldy a story that would reduce this sprawling mass in one fell swoop was created. First, the story Block Mania, featuring some of Mike Mahon’s most beautiful art, saw most of the population driven into violent, tribal conflict with neighbouring blocks after an enemy agent from a foreign power, the Cold War Soviet analogue city of East Meg One, doses the water supply. After this cripples the city East Meg One first attacks, and then invades Dredd’s home. A nuclear conflagration ensues that destroys half of Mega-City One and puts the rest under East Meg occupation. The war only ends when Dredd infiltrates an enemy missile base and orders a nuclear attack that vaporises the entire city of East Meg One, killing the entire population of half a billion people in the process. It’s a brutal ending to an excellent story: funny, action-packed, and gloriously illustrated by Carlos Ezquerra (who remains, for many, the definitive Dredd artist), and adroitly introducing a wide swathe of changes to Dredd’s world.
Dredd’s co-creator, John Wagner, has always said that he considered Dredd to be basically a bit of a bastard, but it wasn’t until his most famous creation clashed with democratic idealists that this really came to the fore. Dredd had always been a hard man, but mostly a fair one. When destroying the city of East Meg One his justification was that nothing else would have ended the war, and, as it was presented in the comic, he had a point. But confronted with citizens intent on overthrowing the Judges authority and returning government to the people, Dredd, following orders from the Chief Judge, actively sabotages the protestors, quashing the nascent democratic movement before it can take hold. Laws are broken, principles are ignored, and the system of the absolute power maintained by the Judges is nailed firmly in place. It was this clash of ideologies that led to Dredd’s most brilliant story: America. Bitter, violent terrorists utterly dedicated to the revival of democracy clash with ruthless, brutal Judges utterly dedicated to stopping them. Hints of Dredd’s suppressive tendencies had been glimpsed before, in such stories as the classic Midnight Surfer, but the insight into Dredd’s authoritarian ideology, and his willingness to stamp on attempts to promote freedom at the price of what he considered to be justice was shocking. Dredd was no longer simply a hero, or a Dirty Harry good guy who used unorthodox means to get results: he was, in many ways, the antagonist in his own strip, a villain helping keep a brutal regime in power. Later stories in this vein built on the theme, eventually culminating in an election in which the populace of Mega-City One decided between democracy and the Judges authority. Later stories softened Dredd a little, making him the driving force for the election, but kept him standing firmly for the familiar safety of the uncompromising system he’d been a part of since he was barely old enough to walk.
If epics and the more politically minded Dredd stories don’t float your boat you could do much worse than pick up the collected edition of the crossover stories that saw Judge Dredd meet Batman. Basically an excuse for two characters who were always going to hate each other at first sight to butt heads and entertainingly wind each other up, the first story of four eventual team-ups saw them do exactly that while Dredd’s enemies Judge Death and Mean Machine Angel teamed up with Batman villain The Scarecrow to wreak havoc in Gotham. Drawn by superstar artist Simon Bisley, it’s a beautiful piece of work, often played for laughs and as a showcase for Bisley’s gorgeous painted artwork. Three further team-ups saw them battle The Joker and the other Dark Judges (Fear, Fire and Mortis), The Riddler and sundry other faces from the two heroes rogue’s galleries, and while they lack the emotional weight and character development of America or The Apocalypse War, they are (the first and fourth especially) enjoyable romps.
With almost two thousand issues of 2000AD and several hundred of its sister title, Judge Dredd: The Megazine, Dredd’s world has a plethora of material to choose from. And that’s not even mentioning the spinoffs, the most notable of which has to be Judge Anderson (the psychic who is Dredd’s rookie in the new film. Anderson has been a leading character in her own stories for many years (collected in her own Complete Case Files series), and her adventures are certainly up to the standard of Dredd’s stories, with the added advantage that she’s a far more sympathetic lead than her stony-faced colleague.
John Wagner, widely accepted as the writer who set the standard for Dredd, continues to write most of his stories today. His writing on the strip has been an astonishing example of consistency and quality spread over more than three decades. The stories mentioned above are just some of the high points Wagner (along with Alan Grant, and the incredible artists that have drawn Dredd over the years) has created since the character was launched in the seventies.
Recommended reading list:
Complete Case Files Volume 4 (including the Judge Child Saga)
Complete Case Files Volume 5 (including Block Mania and The Apocalypse War)
Complete Case Files Volume 9 (including The Midnight Surfer)
Complete Case Files Volume 14 (including Necropolis)
The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection
Check out Nottingham’s three dedicated comics retailers, Page 45, Mondo Comico and Forbidden Planet for these collections, or buy the latest issue of 2000AD or Judge Dredd: The Megazine.
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