Judge Dredd Snapshots: War Games (prog 854)

Dredd to control request back-up…

We’ve got a nest of Sino-Cit Judges right here in Mega-City!

Judge Dredd

Date: 25 September 1993

Script: Mark Millar; Artist: Paul Marshall; Letters: Tom Frame

Summary

Judge Dredd finds himself under attack; first by Sino-Cit Judges, then Sov Judges and then finally zombie judges. It turns out that he is part of an experiment. Chief Judge McGruder and SJS Judge Stone explain that he has been given an experimental drug to heighten aggression. The people he attacked and killed are ordinary citizens who had been brought in for minor offenses, who they unleashed the drugged up Dredd onto as part of the experiment. McGruder explains that Psi Division predicts a major crisis to happen in approximately 18 months and that they need judges to “toughen up”.

Commentary

I’m struggling to write this installment, mainly because this is not only my least favourite period of Judge Dredd but this particular episode is possibly the worst of a bad bunch.

Mark Millar will presumably be known to the vast majority of people reading this and you will no doubt already have made your mind up about him. By any measure, he’s an incredibly successful writer. One of the things I find interesting about him however is that, despite having had so many of his works adapted for the screen, such as Wanted, Kick-Ass, Kingsman and, after a fashion, Captain America: Civil War, one of the first things those adaptations tend to do is make all the characters more likeable, punch up the motivations and generally make them less cruel. As a repository of great ideas, he’s rightly highly regarded. But you have to get past the extreme sadism first.

This story is a case in point. Dredd casually kills half a dozen basically innocent people on an extremely flimsy context and basically no-one, least of all Dredd, seems to care. One of the problems is, like Ennis, Millar seemed to have the caricature version of Dredd who shoots people for jaywalking and looking funny, and wasn’t particularly interested in exploring any other idea despite this being an increasing concern of John Wagner in the years running up to it. Unlike Ennis, his strips tended to lack any vestige of humanity at all.

It is, to be fair, a very 90s take. We are in the post-Watchmen period, which easily lasted until the mid-2000s, in which a whole army of British and American comic writers seemed to be determined to “deconstruct” any character they could get their hands on. What it tended to result in is a lot of sameiness: Millar’s Dredd is virtually identical in outlook to his version of Captain America in The Ultimates. It certainly became quickly clear to me during this period that edginess was generally a byword for saminess.

This is Mark Millar very early in his career; his only previous notable work was the Trident Comics’ Saviour and reviving Robo-Hunter, another John Wagner creation, in 2000AD.

He was the main Dredd writer in 2000AD from progs 829 to 880, although his work would continue to appear intermittently up to prog 1030 in 1997. During this period he co-wrote two stories with Grant Morrison. “War Games” in fact immediately follows “Inferno” (progs 842-853), which Millar wrote a seperate series leading into it, Purgatory (progs 834-841).

2000AD was really struggling at this point with a bit of a talent drain. There has always been a sense that British writers and artists would do their apprenticeships in 2000AD before moving onto bigger things in the US, but during this period 2000AD stalwarts were also to be found working at Deadline (created by Dredd artists Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon), Crisis (2000AD‘s “political” sister title) and Revolver (2000AD’s more “trippy” sister title heavily influenced by Deadline). There was of course the recently launched Judge Dredd Megazine, where John Wagner was focusing his Dredd energies. And finally, there was creator owned anthology comic Toxic!, set up by Wagner, Alan Grant, Pat Mills and artists Mike McMahon and Kevin O’Neill – a very explicit attempt to take on 2000AD on their own terms.

As a result, 2000AD was busy trying out new writers and artists, many of whom were frankly a little green. Some would go on to much greater things; a lot came and went. It would take the best part of a decade – and the cancellation of all of the aforementioned rival titles (except the Megazine) before the title began to recover.

Finally, this episode foreshadows a major upcoming crisis; one which, for whatever reason, never actually took place. It’s possible that this talk of a “crisis” starting “in the eastern blocks” within eighteen months is meant to refer to “Crusade” (progs 928-937), a strip Millar co-wrote with Morrison, but it doesn’t really fit. What’s most likely is that there was half an idea for another “mega epic” written by Millar to appear in a couple of years time, but it never really came to anything and he simply moved on. But, given that the only thing the judges seemed to do to prepare for it was give their top judge a bunch of psychosis-inducing experimental drugs, it’s probably for the best it never happened. An epic storyline would appear in 12 months time, but it would have nothing to do with Mark Millar and instead draw of plot threads which had been unravelling over at the Judge Dredd Megazine.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Muzak Killer – Live! part 1 (prog 837)

Music is only cool when it’s old.

Marty Zpok

Date: 29 May 1993

Script: Garth Ennis; Artist: Dermot Power; Letters: Annie Parkhouse

Plot Summary

Marty Zpok, a serial killer with a grudge against popular music is currently serving 60 years in an Iso-Cube for a previous massacre, where he is regularly beaten up by his fellow inmates. A gang of his admirers lead by Indiana Saddoe break him out. They are shot down, but Indy and Marty escape. After Marty expresses his distaste for Indy’s taste in modern alternative music, Marty spots a new vid show being aired called Word Up and announces his plan to take over the show.

Commentary

I was pretty critical of Garth Ennis in my last post, but to be fair he had his moments, and the two Muzak Killer stories, which started with “Muzak Killer” (progs 746-748) are some of them, even if they are a little on the nose. In that respect they are no worse however than, for example, Wagner and Grant’s “The Game Show Show“.

The first story is a vicious send up of the state of pop music at the time, and in particular Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s so called “hit factory“. Marty Zpok manages to massacre thinly veiled caricatures of pretty much all of the big pop stars at the time such as Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue and Bros. In “Muzak Killer – Live!” Marty turns his attention to the state of youth-targeted TV at the time, and in particular The Word – a magazine format show which covered music, film and celebrity.

It is clear from reading both stories that Garth Ennis is having fun, and has an axe to grind – not just at the state of pop music and youth TV but also at a certain type of cultural snob that will be all too familiar to anyone who grew up in Britain and Ireland at the time. Marty Zpok himself is clearly modelled on Morrissey (although he actually kills an even more thinly-veiled Morrissey in “Muzak Killer – Live!” part 2), while Indy Saddoe is modelled on Robert Smith, the lead singer of The Cure. As such, these strips have a certain energy that most of Garth Ennis’s scripts during this period sadly lacked, although I don’t think they have aged very well: aside from the digs at long forgotten celebrities, the scripts are peppered with misogyny and homophopbia.

As it turns out, this would end up being almost Ennis’s last published Dredd story. He would only write two more: “Goodnight Kiss” (progs 940-948), a fairly forgettable story which was presumably only delayed due to the time is took for Nick Percival to paint it; and, much later, “Helter Skelter” (progs 1250-1261). During this period, John Wagner would continue to write Dredd but for the most part his work was restricted to the Judge Dredd Megazine.

Dermot Power does the painted artwork for both stories, an artist probably better known now as a concept artist on Episodes II and VII of Star Wars, as well as many other films. “Muzak Killer” was actually only his second published 2000AD strip, and he went on to greater acclaim taking over as the artist on Sláine (my personal favourite strip of his being “The Treasures of Britain” in progs 1001-1010, 1024-1031).

Trivia

  • I’m not going to pretend to remember all the references this strip is peppered with, but the driver of the getaway vehicle Marty flees prison in, Karl Shamen, is clearly modelled on Kurt Cobain – and the Shamen were an band most famous for the song “Ebeneezer Goode” which mainly existed to prank music programmes into playing a song extolling the virtues of the recreational drug Ecstacy (you can also see a poster for a band called “Shame” on Indy’s wall which is another thinly veiled reference to them).
  • No idea who the fourth gang member is meant to be, sadly, but his name Bili Blur is similarly a reference to a popular music combo of the time.
  • Indy lives in a block called “Peel Acres”. Peel Acres was the nickname that Radio One DJ John Peel called his home. John Peel’s late night radio show was for decades the programme that people seriously into independent music would have listened to every week.
  • Other bands referenced are Judas Priest (“Judas Smith”), Cud (“Fudd”), Nirvana (“Montana”) and The Pixies (“The Fairies”).

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Judgement Day part 17 (prog 797)

Surrender? Oh yeah! Sure! You’ve got me bang to rights, officer!

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Sabbat

Date: 22 August 1992

Script: Garth Ennis; Artist: Carlos Ezquerra; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

On a mission to stop the mysterious Sabbat, who has unleashed a zombie army on the world, Judge Dredd, Search/Destroy Agent Johnny Alpha and Judge-Inspector Sadu have been captured and are being taken to Sabbat himself. Meanwhile, Sabbat reminisces on his past.

It is revealed that Sabbat was originally Soppi, an inhabitant of an alien planet, who was regularly bullied at school by a “Big Den” – a thuggish boy with thick spiky black hair and an black and white stripey jumper. Vowing revenge, Soppi met an old witch who promised to teach him about curses. But Soppi was more interested in her books on necromancy and, after killing her, used her books to kill, and then resurrect, Den as a zombie. After years of study, Soppi went offworld to learn from Murd the Oppressor. After this, Soppi becomes known as Sabbat.

The three captured men arrive and break Sabbat’s reverie. Dredd threatens to arrest Sabbat. Laughing this off, Sabbat turns to his old tormentor, a now skeletal Den, to ask him what he should do with them.

Commentary

By this point, Garth Ennis had been the main writer of Judge Dredd, in 2000AD at least, for over 18 months. “Judgement Day” (progs 786-799 and Judge Dredd Megazine 2.04 – 2.09) was the first crossover with the Judge Dredd Megazine, which by this point had switched from monthly to fortnightly.

The basic concept was that Sabbat, an evil necromancer from another world, had travelled back through time and decided to conquer earth, raising the dead in the process to form a zombie army. The Mega City One judges have to team up with other judge forces from around the world to stop them. Dredd orders the nuking of the various cities which Sabbat had already taken over, totalling two billion people including the inhabitants of Mega City Two.

Meanwhile, Johnny Alpha – a mutant bounty hunter from the future – has come back in time to bring Sabbat to justice. He teams up with Dredd and they hunt down and kill Sabbat.

And that’s pretty much it. It is, to it’s credit, an excellent showcase for the team of artists: Dean Ormston, who would go on to great success in the US; Peter Doherty, who would become a firm favourite Dredd artist; and of course Carlos Ezquerra, who is on particular form here (the final image of Dredd and Johnny Alpha walking off into the desert having defeated Sabbat is regarded as iconic). Less spectacular is the one issue drawn by Chris Halls, which is fine but little more than aping of the painted work of Simon Bisley (Chris Halls would go on to far greater acclaim as Chris Cunningham, a music video director best known for his collaborations with Aphex Twin and Bjork in the late 1990s).

Scriptwise, this is no great shakes. It starts well enough but quickly runs out of steam. The meeting of the various world judges amounts to little more than a parade of cultural stereotypes. Sabbat himself lacks a compelling motivation beyond boredom and his origin story in this episode, a thinly veiled parody of the Beano Dennis the Menace comics (Sabbat being Walter the Softie) is weirdly reminiscent of Judge Death’s origin story in Young Death (Megazine 1.01-1.12) which had concluded less than a year before (also drawn by Peter Doherty).

I wish I could say this script is atypical in comparison to Garth Ennis’s run, but sadly he seemed to run out of steam quite quickly on the strip after a strong start with “Death Aid” (progs 711 to 720). At the time, he was a very new writer, having emerged writing the critically acclaimed Troubled Souls for Crisis in 1989 (I say critically acclaimed as it was hailed at the time, but Ennis himself has disowned it as a cynical attempt to break into comics by aping the style of “politically relevant” comics that were popular at the time).

This quote is particularly revealing:

He never shifts from enforcing the law, and he’ll shoot anyone at the drop of a piece of litter. I didn’t grow up reading him… but he’s the sort of character that never changes – still the same old bastard, so it doesn’t really matter which period you grew up reading.

Although he always responds in the same way, he is a little more sophisticated than a one-note character – he definitely has a style of his own, but really that’s getting beyond the whole point of the strip.

Garth Ennis in an interview from Judge Dredd: The Mega History (1995)

Bear in mind that Ennis took over Dredd at a time when the title character had just returned from self-imposed exile because he very much had changed. I think this reveals that he never really “got” Dredd, and his work on the series never amounted to much more than a pastiche of Wagner and Grant’s previous work, particularly the height of their slapstick phase – after Wagner had spent the last few years very much stepping away from that approach.

This isn’t to say that Garth Ennis is a bad writer. Indeed, I was a huge fan of his Hellblazer run, Preacher and many of his war comics. And, as we will no doubt see in this series, his work by no means marks the nadir of Judge Dredd’s publishing history.

“Judgement Day” also suffered a bit from being told in across both 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine. Pacing in particular is a real issue, with the 2000AD episodes having to get a chunk of plot done in two episodes, and then for the Megazine to tell a longer story across more pages, and then back again. After a handful of attempts, they would stop trying to tell single stories across both publications simultaneously, and the last attempt, “The Doomsday Scenario” (progs 1141-1164 and Megazine issues 3.52-3.59), opted to tell two parallel stories instead which only occasionally intersected.

Johnny Alpha is, of course, better known as the lead character of Strontium Dog, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s second greatest 2000AD creation. This is in fact the second Dredd/Strontium Dog crossover, with Wagner and Colin MacNeil having previously worked on “Top Dog” (Judge Dredd Annual 1991). Slightly confusingly, Johnny Alpha had been dead for a couple of years in the pages of 2000AD by this point having controversially been killed off by Alan Grant and Colin MacNeil in “The Final Solution” (progs 600–606, 615–621, 636–641, 645–647, 682–687). Carlos Ezquerra, as well as John Wagner who had by that point handed the script-writing duties to Grant, strongly disagreed with the decision to kill off Alpha and had previously quit the strip. Years later, Wagner and Ezquerra would return to the strip, first in a series set before Alpha’s death, and later resurrect him.

Strontium Dog was never originally envisioned as taking place in the same continuity as Dredd, but it has become a part of both lores now, with Alpha’s father Nelson Bunker Kreelman appearing in a more recent Judge Dredd story as a young man, in “The Rubicon” (Megazine issues 380 to 381). Whether the two timelines will ever actually align is an intriguing prospect: Johnny Alpha is born in 2150 and the current year in Dredd continuity is 2142, so we ain’t that far off.

Trivia

  • Sabbat’s mentor, Murd the Oppressor, originally appeared in “The Judge Child” (progs 156-181). Needless to say, Dredd killed him.
  • For the avoidence of doubt, Dennis the Menace is a character which first appeared in the comic The Beano on 12 March 1951. He is a completely different character to Dennis the Menace, a syndicated newspaper comic strip character who coincidentally first appeared on 12 March 1951. The easiest way to understand it is that British Dennis would almost certainly have bullied the US Dennis.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Nightmares part 4 (prog 706)

You can squeal all you want – like it or not, it’s the way it’s going to be. And do you know why…? Because I’m right and you’re wrong. Because it’s the way I want it –

And which of you has distinguished yourself in the past months to go against me?

Eh?

Judge Dredd

Date: 24 November 1990

Script: John Wagner; Artist: Steve Dillon; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

With growing pro-democracy protests carrying on outside, Acting Chief Judge McGruder calls a meeting of senior judges to order to discuss what to do following the defeat of the Dark Judges who had taken control of the city and begun a process of mass execution of the populace. McGruder is allowed to continue as Chief Judge, despite some misgivings about her sanity.

Meanwhile, Psi Judge Anderson visits Yassa Povey, the boy who saved Dredd’s life in the Cursed Earth a few months ago but was blinded by the evil Sisters of Death in the process. Povey had been brought to the city to restore his eyesight, but in the process had been kidnapped for ransom by desperate survivors of the Dark Judge’s purges. Povey has been having nightmares of the Sisters of Death and Anderson uses her powers to help purge him of their psychic influence.

Meanwhile, Dredd fights through the protests to attend the meeting of senior judges. Finally there, he insists that they allow a referendum to establish the consent of the people for the judges to continue in control. This is met with widespread opposition, but Dredd plays his trump card: he was responsible for saving the city while most of the other judges in the room had been under the control of the Dark Judges. Dredd supports the judges continuing but insists that a vote of the people has to go ahead.

Commentary

So much has happened in the year since our last snapshot, much of which formed the culmination of 13 years of world-building. Dredd takes the Long Walk, a form of retirement in which judges go out into the wilderness to dispense justice in the Cursed Earth until they die in the attempt. This is due to a combination of factors: his growing doubts about the efficacy of the judicial system, his age (Dredd, in universe, is 46 at this point, meaning – I am horrified to realise – he retired at the same age I am now), and the fact that he had fallen out with the then-Chief Judge Silver over the decision to impose Kraken, a fellow clone of Fargo and former Judda (the bad dudes in Oz) who had been deprogrammed and retrained, to be Dredd’s successor.

Dredd’s final act as a judge was the assess Kraken for suitability to become a full Judge and deems him to be unfit to serve, but Silver overrules him, fakes Kraken’s death and brings him back passing him off as Dredd himself, whose resignation had been covered up. It is left ambiguous whether Dredd’s assessment of Kraken was correct; either way Kraken is manipulated by the Sisters of Death who use him to bring back the Dark Judges who had been lost in a limbo dimension years before.

The Sisters of Death soon realise that Kraken is not really Dredd and come after Dredd himself. In the depths of the Cursed Earth they find him and nearly kill him. Yassa Povey and his family find his horrifically burned body and restore him back to life, dubbing him The Dead Man. The Sisters return for him and Dredd fights them off, although they blind Povey in the process.

Dredd then returns to Mega City One to save the city and with the help of McGruder (who had also taken the Long Walk years before), Cadet Giant and a paralysed Psi Judge Anderson, succeeds.

All of which is a pretty curtailed summary of what was a truly exciting year of stories. The story is in fact told slightly out of sequence, with The Dead Man (2000AD progs 650-662) originally appearing in the weekly anthology as a wholly seperate story; the Dead Man’s true identity was only revealed at the end. It was a delicious twist and one that could only be pulled off in a weekly anthology comic willing. It’s a trick 2000AD would go onto repeat with Lobster Random and Sinister Dexter pulling off essentially the same twist in the 2000s, but it was not until “Trifecta” (progs 1803-1812) that 2000AD managed to pull off a twist reveal like this that had anything like the same impact.

Dredd’s retaking of Mega City One, told in the story “Necropolis” (progs 674-699) is a bit of a letdown compared to the amazing build up it received, but it still has some wonderful moments, such as Dredd’s climactic showdown with a corrupted and utterly broken Kraken.

Back to “Nightmares”, this final part has some nice touches as well. In particular I like the suggestion by McGruder, left ambiguous, that not all the judges who worked with the Dark Judges were under their control; some may have simply gone along with it. We also get the introduction of Niles – who goes on to become a recurring character and trusted Dredd ally after some stumbles – and Grice – who goes on to become a villain.

This story ends with the judges deciding to allow a referendum on their continued existence to go ahead, a plot point which goes on to be explored in “The Devil You Know” (progs 750-753) and “Twilights Last Gleaming” (progs 754-756). While the former was written by John Wagner, the latter was scripted by Garth Ennis. During this period, John Wagner would go on to step back from writing Dredd, leaving Ennis to take over – although both Wagner and his long time collaborator Alan Grant would continue to script Dredd in the Judge Dredd Megazine (or rather Judge Dredd: The Megazine as it was known as then), which was first published on 1 October 1990.

Indeed, it is interesting to contrast the Dredd in “Nightmares” and in the run up to “Necropolis” with the Dredd we see in America, a spin off strip which had just started in the Megazine (issues 1.01 to 1.07). In America, Dredd is very much the villain and the main antagonist in a series which explores the rise of the Democracy Movement and their struggle against the Judges. This is much more in keeping with the Dredd we saw back in “Revolution“. There is a clear tension between the Dredd who stands for law and order and considers democracy to be dangerous, and the Dredd who recognises that the Judge system has massively failed the people and this is a theme that in different ways would go on to dominate John Wagner’s solo writing from this point forward, culminating in an impressive connected storyline which ran from “Origins” in 2007 (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535) until “Day of Chaos” in 2012 (progs 1743–1789). I don’t think this tension ever really gets resolved, and since Wagner stepped back as the lead writer at the end of “Day of Chaos” subsequent writers have been less interested in exploring it, but it has certainly lead to many of the most interesting strips to come out of the series.

I should mention Steve Dillon briefly, as this is the first time I’ve covered an episode featuring his artwork in this blog series, despite his Dredd art first appearing in 1981. This is very much Dillon at the height of his powers, shortly before he would break into the US with his run on Hellblazer (working with Garth Ennis, who he would go onto first work with on Dredd a few months after this story was published). Not many artists could make a 6 page episode focused on a bunch of people arguing in a council meeting visually interested, but Dillon pulls it off here.

Trivia

  • I’m not convinced that the repeated jibes about McGruder’s facial hair (a cis woman in late middle age) which appear here, in “Necropolis” and in most of her subsequent appearances, have especially aged well – or that they were that funny at the time. McGruder has an arc over the next few years which focuses on her declining mental health and paranoia. It’s interesting, but I do wish it had been more sensitively handled at times as the jokes about her needing to shave get quite old (and under writers other than Wagner, tend to get even worse).

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Young Giant part 1 (prog 651)

Being a judge’s woman never helped my mother, sir… Where were the judges when she needed them? Where was my father?

Cadet Giant challenges Dredd

Date: 4 November 1989

Script: John Wagner; Artist: Carlos Ezquerra; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

Dredd is given the task of assessing a cadet judge, the son of his old colleague Judge Giant. Cadet Giant, it emerges, is the child of Giant and an interior designer Adele Dormer, who was killed while a refugee following the fallout of the Apocalypse War. The boy has anger management issues and Dredd tries to get through to him. On a routine patrol, they come across a man selling illegal vi-zines (magazines depicting graphic violence and murder). Dredd decides to follow this up, while Giant’s memories of his mother’s violent death is triggered by flicking through one of the zines.

Commentary

I decided to temporarily pause writing this series at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, feeling that it wasn’t an appropriate time to be blogging about a comic strip portraying police brutality no matter how satirical (and, to be clear, Dredd is satirical) at the time. And then I started going physically back to work again and having a lot less free time and before I knew it two months had passed!

Cadet Giant is a legacy character. Despite the comic only being 12 years old by this time, he is actually the third generation in a line which began with John “Giant” Clay, the lead character from the strip Harlem Heroes. Harlem Heroes originally ran from progs 1-27 and featured a team of “Aeroball” players (think Quidditch but with jetpacks instead of brooms) modelled on the Harlem Globetrotters.

In “The Academy of Law” (progs 27-28), Dredd assesses Rookie Judge Giant, John Clay’s son, for suitability to become a full judge. Giant would go on to become a recurring character, playing a pivotal role in helping Dredd defeat the tyrannical Cal in “The Day the Law Died” (progs 89-108). He would go on to die at the conclusion of “Block Mania” (progs 236-244), infamously shot in the back by Sov assassin Orlock.

The murder of Judge Giant was a matter of some controversy at the time, with many feeling the treatment of the death of such a fan-favourite character was poorly handled, and in this episode of “Young Giant” the story is sort of retconned, with Dredd implying that Giant had been distracted by his feelings for the mother of his child (I didn’t say it was a great retcon…).

This third Giant would go on to play a pivotal role in “Necropolis” (progs 674-699), which like “The Day the Law Died” also features Dredd trying to overthrow a tyrant who has taken control of the judges and has condemned the city to death. Giant would eventually become a full judge and continues to crop up in the strip from time to time. Indeed, the controversy surrounding his father’s death appears to have granted him a certain amount of plot armour as he has managed to last as a supporting cast member for over 30 years by this point.

Although this strip is a fairly compelling character essay, with Giant learning to accept his role, it is a shame that it has remained the last bit of character development he has received. By the time “Necropolis” starts just a few months later, Giant seems perfectly well adjusted to his life as a judge and we never see him harbouring any rage or resentment later. This is a bit of a pattern sadly; there are numerous times where a character has been introduced with a compelling arc only to have them be little more than background characters in subsequent stories.

I feel that I should talk a bit about race here. 2000AD has a mixed record when it comes to dealing with racism and reflecting racial diversity. On the one hand, the aforementioned Harlem Heroes featured a group of black protagonists as far back as the first issue. On the other hand, after 43 years, I can only think of a single black protagonist to feature in a long running strip (Ramon Dexter in Sinister Dexter). Particularly in the early days, racism and colonialism was dealt with repeatedly in 2000AD, but indirectly. In place of stories dealing with the experiences of real people of colour, we had strips tackling discrimination via the conventional sci-fi lenses of robots, aliens and mutants (in the case of Dredd all three, while Strontium Dog would focus on mutants, Ro-Busters would focus on robots and Nemesis the Warlock focused on aliens).

For a comic aimed at 8 year olds that’s okay; it contains the lessons without directly confronting the scary reality. But modern 2000AD is aimed at adults and while a political streak continues through most strips that are published, in a lot of ways it shies away more from real world issues than it was doing 40 years ago.

It is no more a thorny topic than in Judge Dredd in which the judicial system is shown to be pretty progressive when it comes to both race and gender, but which we are also supposed to understand as being fascistic and authoritarian. Most definitions of fascism include the subjugation of women and racial minorities as key criteria and there comes a point, for me anyway, where not dealing with this issue feels like an omission.

(As an aside, I feel similarly to how the Galactic Empire and First Order is presented in the Disney-era Star Wars, where they occasionally acknowledge that the regimes are racist against non-humans but are at pains to show how racially diverse the military is at every level)

I’m always reminded by the time when I used to work in a comic shop almost 30 years ago when I used to serve a police officer who on numerous occasions would tell me that “Judge Dredd has the right idea”. That was a teachable moment. It’s a depressing fact that for many people the satire goes completely over their heads, as does the fact that by almost all criteria the judicial system is shown as a failure. And I wonder to what extent that sci-fi veneer gives people an opt out to think of all this as a power fantasy, and to what extent I’m complicit in that.

I don’t exactly know what my preferred solution would be, or even if there is one. In Nemesis the Warlock, Pat Mills would often include sequences to remind the reader that the sci-fi fascists in the strip are direct analogues to fascists and racists in the real world, but that was often very on the nose (such as the “Seth Efricen Chief Bigot”) and I’m not sure would work here. I’m not sure what having judges suddenly embracing white supremacy in universe would really achieve. But for now, I think I should just acknowledge that it is an issue that readers should bear in mind when reading the strip; it’s certainly something I personally ponder a lot.

Westworld Season 3: how not to portray a global crisis

So I binge watched Westworld Season 3 this weekend, as the riots in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd across the US unfurled and with the global coronavirus pandemic in the background. And it felt weirdly out of time, a weird mash up of media from the past which hasn’t dated well.

Spoiler warning in case you don’t know and do care, but this season of the TV show centres around the idea that an AI has been built which can predict everything everyone will ever do (with a few exceptions, the “outliers”) and has been used to secretly control the world. Delores, the android “host” who is the main protagonist of the first two seasons of the show, is now wandering around the real world and attempting to disrupt the plans of this AI and its controller-slash-puppet Serac. Maybe she wants to end humanity. Maybe she wants to free it. Who knows? You get the drill.

The season seems to enjoy cribbing from every sci-fi film you’ve ever watched. There’s a lot of Blade Runner, or more precisely Blade Runner 2049 (particularly in the soundtrack, which I have to say I was not a big fan of). We get plenty of Robocop. Incongruously, the AI Rehoboam’s graphical interface looks like the language the aliens use in Arrival. But the core concept, that a computer can perfectly model everything about you by reading your search history and social media posts – itself an expansion on the idea in season two that you can understand everything there is to know about someone by how many people they rape and murder at a novelty theme park – is one plucked straight out of failed Battlestar Galactica spin off show Caprica.

I thought it was a dumb idea on Caprica and I think it’s a dumb idea here. But I guess you could say that about a lot of sci-fi ideas – what matters is the story you tell with it. The problem with Westworld (and Caprica as far as I can remember) is that all of the social implications such technology like that would have in the real world is left in the backdrop in order to focus on the idea of a bunch of protagonists having a metaphorical and literal punchup.

I’m reminded of a Scientific American article from last year which talked about how Game of Thrones went from telling sociological stories to psychological ones – at a huge cost. To be clear, Westworld has always been more interested in psychological storytelling, but as it moves out of its themepark origins and into the wider world, it seems quite striking that its focus hasn’t also widened.

But it isn’t just that the huge sociological implications of a macguffin that can, um, control social progress, is kept in the background – it’s the way it is done. Because at the midpoint when Delores and conspirators manage to release the data so that everyone has access to their personal data telling them when they’ll die, how their marriage will fail, etc., the response of the general public is to riot.

At this point, the comparisons shift from Caprica to another Jonathan Nolan scripted piece of media, The Dark Knight Rises. If you recall, that film rests on the premise that if you cut a city off from the mainland and lock the police underground then it will immediately descend into chaos, and this is analogous to what happens in Westworld as far as we can tell (as I said, it’s left in the background and thus not really explored). At the time, people including myself lambasted The Dark Knight Rises for being a rightwing edgelord wank fantasy in which the public are essentially one meal away from descending into barbarism and that it is up to Great Men to maintain control. This is essentially the same idea in Westworld. It ends on a hopeful note with the character Caleb entrusted with the control of Rehoboam and the possibility that it won’t immediately lead to the end of civilisation, but the odds given are not that great and even then its all down to Caleb as one of the few individuals capable of True Free Will (which the story illustrates by the fact that he is capable of shooting people in the face a lot but resists the temptation to rape Delores in a flashback when he receiving military training in the theme park).

Westworld isn’t the first example of modern media to espound this thesis; indeed its part of a trend and some examples aren’t even written by Jonathan Nolan. But the last few months highlight how flawed this thesis is and how hollow this drama subsequently rings.

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and although it is far too early to write the history books on it just yet, a few things appear to be emerging. Firstly, the response of the public hasn’t been to riot but to help. Secondly, governments which put the most stock into the Great Man Theory have, to put it mildly, been struggling. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Dominic Cummings have built their careers on the idea that the public is a rabble to be controlled, but when an actual crisis has come along they have been shown to not be up to the job.

And as for the riots? Well, there’s no doubt that people do riot. But much of the rioting in the US right now, as opposed to the protests, seem to have been deliberately provoked by the police – and that’s even if you leave to one side the fact that the protests were kicked off by flagrant police brutality in the first place and the numerous attacks on journalists. You know where there aren’t riots right now? In the cities where the police have joined the protests.

Watching these fictional riots while cities across the US are facing very real crises was uncomfortable, mainly because they appeared to just exist in the background while white people debate the future of humanity. In fact it is striking at how this season hasn’t dealt with race at all. You can arguably justify it in the first two seasons as they were set on a theme park, but with the focus switched to the wider world it wasn’t a topic that seemed to come up at all, which for a show purporting to bombard us with truth bombs about human nature seems more than a little cowardly. It does touch on class, even if it is much more interested in the wealthy than the poor, but I just can’t see how you can decouple race from class these days. Even the strong black characters of the past seasons, Maeve, Charlie and Bernard, were relegated to relatively background roles this season. Maeve spends most of the season out Surac’s dirty work for fairly unconvincing reasons, Charlie has been replaced by a duplicate of Dolores before she goes rogue herself (again, for not entirely clear reasons – her story just sort of runs out). Meanwhile Bernard just… wanders around.

Maybe this is making a smarter point than it first appeared, and they’ll show up next season to fix the mess everyone else has now left – but I’m sceptical. Fundamentally, I’ve had enough of media feeding me this pessimistic vision of humanity: it isn’t rooted in the world I see around me and it feels increasingly like an agenda to shape how people perceive it. If all that Westworld has to say to is that humanity is doomed without strong leaders to tell us what to do, then I for one have had enough. The first season was a fun enough little story which played around with time and neatly subverted the plot of the original film, but it has struggled to have anything to say ever since.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Banana City part 2 (prog 624)

Look at them – running like frightened rabbits!

Don’t they know they’ve nothing to fear from us?

What’s that…?

Not unless they make running like rabbits a crime…?

Yes… then we’d have to deal with them!

Renegade Judge Kurten / “Diablo”

Date: 29 April 1989

Script: John Wagner; Artist: Will Simpson; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

Dredd is in the city of Ciudad Barranquilla in former Argentina after receiving a tip off that the renegade judge Kurten is operating out of there. He is in disguise as a local judge. Separately, Judges Hershey and McBride are on a diplomatic mission to arrange to get Kurten extradited. Dredd’s informant tells him that he thinks Kurten is the judge who the locals know as “Diablo”. We switch to Kurten, who is dispensing his form of justice on the streets of the city, casually blowing up a car for illegal parking. Meanwhile, Hershey and McBride are being kept waiting by “Judge Supremo” Batista as she demonstrates his corrupt idea of justice in the city’s Grand Hall. Hershey is happy for the delay as it gives Dredd more time to track down Kurten. Eventually Dredd tracks down Kurten who is harrassing the clientele of a bar. He sends a man in to tell Kurten that there is a man outside who intends to kill him and Kurten emerges from the bar to confront Dredd.

Commentary

The first noticeable thing about this strip is that it is in full colour. In fact, the strip switched to colour back in prog 589 with the second part of “Twister” (progs 588-591). That story, a homage to the film Wizard of Oz (1939), switches to full colour when Dredd receives a head injury when getting caught in a twister and begins to hallucinate (he is on a mission to rescue Jug, the Supersurf 10 champion who we met in “Oz” who is known as the “Wizard” – just in case those allusions were too subtle for you).

Unfortunately for Will Simpson’s beautiful painted art, while printing process had been significantly upgraded, the paper most certainly hadn’t. So while the art really pops in its subsequen reprints, in the original progs it looks muddy and indistinct. It isn’t clear in this episode, but in the third part when we see the demonic imp Little Mo appear, I remember barely even being able to see the character in the original comic whereas you can really see Simpson doing a good job on the character in the reprints.

This is a problem that would continue to plague 2000AD for years, exacerbated by the fact that so many artists, and editorial, were keen to switch to painted artwork rather than use simpler and more established colourisation processes. Much of this seemed to be rooted in the increasing profitability of producing trade paperback reprints, with the weekly comic being seen as simply a way of subsidising production (remember, this is the period shortly after Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus were enjoying mainstream popularity and critical acclaim). Indeed, “Banana City” (progs 623-625) would actually be the last Dredd strip to appear in colour for a few months as Slaine “The Horned God” took its place as the colour strip, a story very much designed for graphic novel publication.

Unfortunately, there was also a tendency among emerging artists to copy the painted styles of more experienced artists – often before polishing their figurework and pencilling styles first. In that respect, artists such as Will Simpson probably inadvertantly lead them astray. Suffice to say that painted artwork was extremely popular amongst both artists and readers, which meant that for the 90s, much of 2000AD looked very brown.

“Banana City” is actually a sequel to “Crazy Barry, Little Mo” (progs 615-618), which was drawn by Chris Weston (in a very different style). That story establishes that Kurten is a regular street judge who undergoes a psychosis causing him to start seeing and hearing Little Mo, his invisible childhood friend, who urges him to commit increasingly criminal acts. He is found out but manages to escape, which leads into this story.

It is worth noting that, as I alluded to in my last article, this episode is written solely by John Wagner, who by this point has been writing most of the strip for the best part of a year – with just the occasional one shot being written by Alan Grant. And this is a fairly good illustration of how Wagner slightly shifts the strips tone, becoming somewhat grittier but retaining its flare for the absurd.

It would be remiss of me to not talk about how the judges and citizens of Ciudad Baranquila are presented here. It isn’t the greatest, drawing largely from a very Hollywood idea of South Americans being all superstitious, snivelling and corrupt. North American chauvanism is briefly touched upon in the final episode, but not really explored. Indeed, it is only now that we’re starting to see 2000AD explore modern US foreign policy being reflected in how South America is treated in Dredd’s world, which given that the strip has always been more about the modern day than the future, feels like a bit of an oversight. Indeed, just six months earlier Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Brought to Light (1988) had been published, which dealt with the Iran-Contra Affair, suggesting that such ideas were being discussed by comic creators at the time.

It should be clear that it Judge Dredd tended to present all cultures in a fairly caricatured manner, not least of all British and mainstream American culture, but these days I guess that we’d draw comparisons to “The Problem with Apu” in The Simpsons. Suffice to say that if makes for uncomfortable reading in 2020 and I’m glad that 2000AD is now dealing with the topic in a more nuanced way.

Now is also a good moment to discuss the idea of judges outside of Mega City One. We meet our first judge from Texas City, and with him the notion that there is more than one city which has adopted the “judicial model” of governance as far back as “Showdown on Luna 1” in prog 43. This is quickly followed by Soviet Judges in “The First Luna Olympics” (prog 50). But it would be another 8 years before we see judges from any other city, in this case Brit-Cit judges in “Atlantis” (progs 485-488). This seems to mark the start of a trend to explore other parts of the world, with Australian judges in “Oz” (progs 555-581), Japanese judges in “Our Man in Hondo” (progs 608-611) and now Argentina in “Banana City”. Interestingly, the costume design for all of them other than the Ciudad Baranquila judges (and I could be wrong about that), were designed by Brendan McCarthy, prefiguring his career as a respected concept artist in the movie industry.

It has always been fun to see how judges differ around the world – although some designs are stronger than others – but it does pose one big question to me: why does this system of government take over the world so ubiquitously? In “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535) it is established that the judges take charge in the United States by the Supreme Court citing the Declaration of Independence – but that doesn’t really explain why the Sovs quickly follow suit. Perhaps one day we’ll see an explanation.

Trivia

  • It isn’t directly relevant here, but two months after this episode was published the film Batman (1989) would be released. Just as the rise of the graphic novel a couple of years before would lead to Dredd being published in full colour, this film would usher in the modern comic book movie – not least of all Judge Dredd (1995). That mainstreaming of comic book culture is going to be something that 2000AD wrestles with over the next decade or so, as we may well end up exploring in this series.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Oz part 12 (prog 556)

I’d … I’d like a piece of Mr Armstrong with a sprig of parsley and lemon sauce, just like you did him for the captain. It… it sounded so good but I… I don’t suppose you’ve got any left.

Well yet supposes wrong! I’ve got a whole half torso right here in me freezer!

Chopper and Cookie

Date: 9 January 1988

Script: John Wagner & Alan Grant; Artist: Will Simpson; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

Fugitive Supersurf champion Marlon “Chopper” Shakespeare is attempting to get to the Sidney-Melbourne Conurb in “Oz” from South America by hover board, but is forced to land on a mysterious ship in the Pacific Ocean. The sole occupant of the ship is an insane robot chef, Cookie, who killed the ship’s crew and put them in his stew. Having enraged the robot, Chopper fends off the robot’s attacks with a meat cleaver by using his power board as a shield, damaging it. He is overwhelmed but fools the robot into granting him a final request: a serving of Bosun’s Broth, the meal that Cookie made out of his first victim. Trapping Cookie into the ship’s freezer, Chopper attempts to flee but Cookie escapes. Eventually Chopper manages to overwhelm Cookie by firing a flare gun at him and throwing the robot overboard. The danger over, he programs the ship to take him the rest of the way to Oz and makes some rough repairs to his power board. Making the final part of the journey on his hover board, he is positively identified by the Oz judges. Judge Dredd, who is awaiting the fugitive there, allows a hint of admiration to cross his face.

Commentary

Although it doesn’t seem to be seen as one of the classics, I love “Oz” (progs 555-581). Partly because it was the first Dredd “epic” that I read in the weekly comic (and is in fact the first story of that length since “The Apocalypse War” way back in 1982). Partly because Chopper is such an engaging character. And partly because it combines a return of a popular character, which could have simply been a rehash of his previous appearance, with a story focused on Dredd himself which significantly expands the strip’s lore.

I’m also a big fan of this two part story involving Cookie. It’s a perfect little fairy tale inserted in the middle of a much bigger story, with Chopper here playing the role of Jack and Cookie the giant he has to defeat more with guile than fighting ability. Cookie is a classic bonkers robot that you see popping up in any number of 2000AD strips, particularly Dredd and Robo-Hunter (also created by John Wagner and largely co-written with Alan Grant). And the story resolves satisfactorily how Chopper manages to traverse the Pacific Ocean on little more than a flying plank. Finding a boat in the middle of nowhere is a little convenient, but this story makes it feel earned.

I should however explain the wider context. First of all, Chopper. Marlon Shakespeare first appears in “Unamerican Graffiti” (progs 206 & 207), a short story in which Chopper is a graffiti artist on a mission to become “King Scrawler” of Mega City One. It’s a relatively simple story, alluding to the growth of street art which was entering into public consciousness at the time, elevated by a sense of pathos when it emerges that the disaffected teen’s rival The Phantom turns out to be a renegade maintenance robot. For neither the first or last time in the strip, going back to the first multi-part storyline “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17), the plight of how robots are treated in Mega City One are compared to topical issues about discrimination, civil liberties and dehumanisation.

At the end of that story, Chopper is locked up. He eventually reemerges in “The Midnight Surfer” (progs 424-429) in which Chopper has apparently reformed and is teaching kids to skysurf – fly around on hover boards roughly analogous real world surfing waves. Eventually it emerges that Chopper is planning to take part in the race Supersurf 7, highly illegal because it takes place on the streets and endangers civilians. Dredd and the judges try to stop the race, shooting down many of the participants, but before being arrested Chopper manages to win the race and becomes a folk hero.

“Oz” takes place three years later. Supersurf has been legalised in the Sydney-Melbourne Conurb and Mega City One is gripped with Supersurf fever and a protest movement emerges demanding that the judges release Chopper so he can take part in the race. Chopper escapes, crossing the Cursed Earth and Pacific Ocean to take part in the race. Dredd is sent to Oz to arrest him should he arrive but is stopped from arresting him by the Oz Judges. Chopper ultimately joins Supersurf 10, with Dredd’s permission – although he vows to take him down if he tries resisting arrest after the race. Chopper takes part, ultimately to lose in a photo finish with his rival Jug. He tries to make his escape, expecting to be shot by Dredd, but at the last minute Jug gets in the way and allows Chopper to escape.

But that’s only half of the story because Dredd hasn’t simply been sent to Oz to pick up Shakespeare. After an attack in which a number of senior judges are assassinated by a group calling themselves the Judda, a teleporter signal is traced back to Oz. It emerges they are followers of Morton Judd, a renegade judge and geneticist who decades ago had sought to take over Mega City One and, having failed, went missing. Using stolen genetic samples, including from Chief Judge Fargo, of whom Dredd himself is a clone, Judd has bred a private army of soldiers called the Judda who worship him as a god. And now they intend to return to Mega City One to take over.

Suffice to say, Dredd doesn’t let them. He locates their base hidden inside Uluru (in the story still called Ayers Rock) and blows it up, taking most of the Judda with it.

“Oz” was originally meant to be illustrated by just two artists: Cam Kennedy, who drew “Midnight Surfer” and Brendan McCarthy who had come up with the idea of a lost tribe of Judges in the Australian Outback while working there. In the end Kennedy wasn’t able to draw it so he was replaced by a whole range of different artists. Despite this, the art doesn’t suffer too much from having too many competing visions on the project.

The artist who drew this episode, Will Simpson, would go on to tie with Brendan McCarthy for drawing the most episodes in this 26-part story (6), and contributed one of the most striking images of the saga: a painted double page spread of Uluru being nuked superimposed by the head of Morton Judd cursing Dredd. The two part story involving Cookie would actually be his first Judge Dredd contribution, although he had drawn some episodes of Anderson: Psi Division shortly before. As 2000AD increased its colour pages, he would become known for his painted art, particularly for the Rogue Trooper reboot “War Machine” written by Dave Gibbons (progs 650-653, 667-671, 683-687). It is fair to say that the poor paper quality at the time didn’t do his painted artwork many favours (a common problem with 2000AD at the time).

“Oz” also marks the end of John Wagner and Alan Grant’s writing partnership, although they would continue to work together on the odd script after this including Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham. As well as disagreeing over their mini-series The Last American for Epic (a Marvel imprint at the time), they came to blows over whether or not to kill Chopper at the end of this story or not, with Grant insisting that Dredd needed to kill him. Eventually John Wagner got his way but this is the last time the two worked together on the weekly strip, with Wagner writing most of Dredd, and Grant taking on Anderson: Psi Division and Strontium Dog.

As well as the occasional appearance in Judge Dredd, Chopper would return in his own series – the most memorable being “Song of the Surfer” written by Wagner and drawn by Colin McNeill (progs 654-665) in which Marlon Shakespeare apparently dies when a maniac turns Supersurf 11 into a massacre. To be honest, that probably should have been where it ended, but Brendan McCarthy has recently memorably returned to the character with “Wandering Spirit” (Judge Dredd Megazine issues 395-399).

The format of putting these two very different plot threads into one here mostly works, but is probably not exactly how the story would develop now. These days, a story like this would get broken up into smaller chunks and spread over a longer amount of time, a trend established with the very next mega epic “Necropolis” where the main story (progs 674-699) is foreshadowed by several shorter stories in the months running up to it. I wonder if this shift was partly because the nature of Wagner and Grant’s partnership style didn’t lend itself very well to the sort of more complex storytelling that we would subsequently see. While the period of their partnership is rightly seen as a high watermark for the strip, for the most part the stories that came out during that period would be no longer than 8 episodes.

As for the Judda, this is the last we see of them. To be precise, Morton Judd appears in flashback in “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535) and one of the Judda clones, Kraken, is apparently reformed and replaces Dredd himself for a time (although as I alluded to in my last article, that doesn’t end too well). I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen small pockets of Judda popping up in the strip every few years, although given the unfortunate tendency in Dredd for characters to be brought back well past their use by date, it is possibly for the best.

Trivia

  • It’s a small thing, and you barely see it in this episode, but it always annoys me that Will Simpson draws Chopper’s smiley face tag with a nose.
  • Brendan McCarthy’s most famous dip into Australian culture is of course Mad Max: Fury Road, for which he received a co-writer credit after decades of development work on the Mad Max franchise. He has worked as a concept artist for numerous other films and also helped develop the animated show ReBoot.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Revolution part 2 (prog 532)

Democracy is a cancer eating at the heart of our society. Any action we have to take to stamp it out – however regrettable – is justified.

Judge Dredd

Date: 25 July 1987

Script: John Wagner & Alan Grant; Artist: John Higgins; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

Judge Dredd has been tasked by Chief Judge Silver to discredit the leaders of the Democracy Movement, which has called for a Democratic Charter March which is due to take place the next day. He raids the home of Kenzal Davitcek, leader of the Sons of the Constitution, and they arrest him for a library vid slug which is two days overdue. Meanwhile, Bethann Rosie, leader of the Committee for the Restoration of Civil Liberties, has been arrested on four counts of bigamy. Her former husbands line up to denounce her to the media, claiming to have not been coerced (although the bruises on their faces suggest otherwise). Morton Phillips, chairman of the Freedom League, is accused of collaborating with the Sovs during the Apocalypse War and a photograph of him dressed in a Sov uniform at a fancy dress party is leaked to the media. Two undercover judges claim in front of cameras to have witnessed him working with the Sovs.

Dredd pays a personal visit to Gort Hyman, the widower of Hester Hyman whose martyrdom the previous year sparked the recent calls for the restoration of democracy. He blackmails Gort, threatening to induct his children into the Academy of Law to train as judges, unless he backs out of the march. He relents and agrees to make a statement urging people to not attend the march. Ultimately only two of the leaders of the movement are left: Kenzal Davitcek, who has been kept up on his feet all night by the judges, and Blondel Dupre. Despite the media storm, 16 million citizens descend on Boulevard 14 to march on the Hall of Justice…

Commentary

So, this is roughly where I came in as a regular 2000AD reader. My first prog was 497, although I had been into the roleplaying game and picking up the odd Titan reprint for a while before then. I had a pretty fixed idea in my head that while Judge Dredd was very fun, with cool future tech, weird mutants and lots of humour, it wasn’t especially deep. This strip really opened my eyes, and broadened my perception of what the Judge Dredd strip could be.

It is, to be clear, a particularly mean and horrible story. Dredd behaves absolutely despicably throughout, with no comeuppance. Good people have their lives ruined and we see a hopeful popular movement fatally undermined. Things get worse in the third episode; they use low frequency sonic waves to lower the crowd’s mood, plant undercover judges to start a riot and then send in the riot squad. Completely absent from this story are any high tech doodads; it’s entirely rooted in methods existing regimes use to undermine popular protest. 12 year old me didn’t really know much about any of that, but this strip has a ring of discordant authenticity which really resonated for me and helped shape my future politics. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s probably the most influential piece of media of my life.

This isn’t the first time that the strip adopted a more serious tone; it is after all the sequel to “Letter from a Democrat” (prog 460) which tells of how the judges massacre Hester Hyman and other pro-democracy protestors. Up until this point, probably the most striking “serious” set of stories was the triptych of “A Question of Judgement”, “An Error of Judgement” and “A Case for Treatment” (progs 387-389). That story however is strikingly different in that it explores Dredd’s own self doubt in the judge system – in “Revolution” he is firmly the bad guy.

The third part of “Revolution” finishes with the legend “The end… of the beginning”. In fact, we don’t see this story developed much for some time until Dredd’s doubts come to a crisis point as he is forced to assess his possible replacement, a clone called Kraken, in “Tale of the Dead Man” (progs 662-668). At the end of that story he releases Blondel Dupre, apparently regretting his actions in “Revolution”. Dredd goes into exile into the Cursed Earth and, during his absence, the Dark Judges taking over Mega City One (with Kraken’s help), in “Countdown to Necropolis” (progs 669-673). He returns to save the city but insists on a referendum to decide whether or not to restore democracy (“Nightmares” progs 702-706).

Less directly, “Revolution” is the prototype on which the celebrated “America” (Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.07) is modelled, which similarly tells a story which highlights the totalitarian nature of Dredd’s Mega City One. In that story, or rather its sequel “Fading of the Light” (Judge Dredd Megazine 3.20-3.25), the eponymous character’s daughter is inducted into the Academy of Law, a plot thread that would do on to pay off many years later (one of the things I love about Judge Dredd and how long the strip has been running is how plot lines can have pay offs over decades).

The tension between judges and the democracy movement has continued to pop up as a theme in the strip over the following few decades, sometimes with democrats presented sympathetically, sometimes less so – and with varying degrees of humour. Dredd’s assertion, that democracy is a threat to society, goes to back to the very foundation myth of the judge system, which is explored in “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535). The judges, after all, take over after a despotic US president causes a nuclear war which wipes out most of the United States. It remains an open question to what degree this myth is true, or to what degree it is an excuse used to justify their continued rule. After all, by 2142 (the year in which current Judge Dredd episodes are set), the vast majority of Mega City One has been wiped out by a successive wave of disasters, with the population going from a high point of 800 million down to 35 million by the end of “Day of Chaos” (progs 1743-1789). It remains an open question to what extent the judges are the last bulwark against annihilation or the cause, although there is no doubt that many of the enemies Dredd confronts are a whole lot worse.

Finally, a word about the artist John Higgins. Higgins’ first Dredd strip is “Beggars Banquet” (prog 456), although he was also the artist on the aforementioned “Letter from a Democrat” a month later. Most famously, Higgins was the original colourist for Watchmen (1986) and Batman: Killing Joke (1988) and he has gone on to work as both a writer and artist on many projects including his own creation Razorjack. He continues to draw, and occasionally write, Judge Dredd.

Trivia

  • You may have noticed that this is the first strip to appear in this series written by John Wagner and Alan Grant but not credited to “T.B. Grover”.
  • Two of the three episodes of this story have 2000AD covers dedicated to them. Of course that doesn’t include part 2, so I’ve used the cover for 533 as the image for this article instead!
  • From prog 520 onwards, the paper and print quality for the 2000AD was upgraded, and the page size changed. Unfortunately, the painted double page spreads which tend to frequent most Dredd episodes during this era don’t tend to look very good in black and white reprints. This is the first of several changes to the comics format to take place over the following few years.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Gribligs part 1 (prog 464)

Chee chee cheee!

Cleopatra the griblig

Date: 5 April 1986

Script: John Wagner & Alan Grant (as T.B. Grover); Artist: Barry Kitson; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

While processing Anwar Duglan at a local Justice Department Sector House for posession of vi slugs (illegal violent videos), the perp attempts to plea bargain by ratting on his fellow shipmates on the spaceliner Larvik, where he works as a steward. After naming several crewmembers, he mentions in passing Third Engineman Hud Priestley who had smuggled some kind of animal into the city.

Meanwhile, Priestley arrives at his girlfriend’s apartment to give her not one but two animals – gribligs – which are named Cleopatra and Nelson. The adorable little animals are intelligent and, starving, perform tricks for food. They are being kept in seperate cages to prevent them from reproducing but after the humans go to bed they manage to free themselves and are reunited…

Commentary

So, in case it isn’t clear from the summary, this is basically the Judge Dredd take on Gremlins, which came out in cinemas just over a year before, and the tribbles from classic Star Trek – even the name is smooshing together of the two words. The gribligs go on to breed like wildfire, eat Priestley and his girlfriend and while most are exterminated a handful escape, leaving open the possibility of a sequel.

In fact, we don’t see gribligs in a Dredd strip for years later until Whatever Happened To…? “The Gribligs” in Judge Dredd Megazine 219, 19 years later. Fans of the original Judge Dredd roleplaying game however (and this is how I discovered Judge Dredd) will know that the gribligs appear again in the scenario “A Night in the Death of Sector 255” by Hugh Tynan, which appeared in White Dwarf issue 88 (1987). The scenario is illustrated by another Judge Dredd artist from the era (who also illustrated a lot of Games Workshop products at the time) Brett Ewins. In that scenario, Ewins draws gribligs very differently, looking much more goblin like and much less like the cute little furballs that Barry Kitson draws in this strip.

Barry Kitson is another artist to appear in the mid-80s – in fact this is his first Dredd strip. He doesn’t make a huge contribution to the strip; his most famous contributions are his co-creation of the villain Death Fist (real name Stan Lee, a clear nod to both the famous Marvel comics writer and Bruce Lee the martial artist), and “The Hour of the Wolf”, the third Anderson: Psi Division story (progs 520-531). This established Anderson’s relationship with Orlok the Assassin, a sov agent who precipitated the Apocalypse War, which would become a recurring plot point throughout the 90s. After a few years, Barry Kitson moved on to draw US comics, particularly DC.

Because I’ve opted to randomly select an episode from each year, the samples I end up focusing on can end up being quite unrepresentative. The fact that both this and the previous “Ugly Mug Ball” are somewhat by-the-numbers is somewhat telling however. While plenty of excellent strips appeared during this time, the “Midnight Surfer” (progs 424-429) and “Atlantis” (progs 485-488) both spring to mind, many of the one-shots do tend to feel less inspired – and inevitable outcome of producing a 6-page weekly strip (as well as a newspaper strip) for almost ten years by this point. There is perhaps a notable shift in style during this period; the silly strips stay silly, but we also start seeing a much more serious tone in others, such as “Letter from a Democrat” (prog 460).

Trivia

  • To reinforce the links to tribbles, in the second episode it is revealed that the captain of the ship on which Priestley serves is called “James Krik”.