C is for Chopper

Marlon “Chopper” Shakespeare is the Judge Dredd series’s own rebel without a cause. Originally appearing as a graffiti artist in Un-American Graffiti (progs 206-207, 1981), for true Dredd fans it is this they think of whenever they see a smiley face, not Watchmen or acid house. He went on to become best known as a sky-surfer (literally, someone who rides on a flying surfboard fitted with an anti-gravity device) and the winner of illegal world championship Supersurf 7 (The Midnight Surfer, progs 424-429, 1986). Most stories since then have focused on the fictional sport of sky-surfing.

The Midnight Surfer was followed up by Oz (progs 545-570, 1987), a Dredd epic which is framed around Chopper’s escape from prison, journey to Australia to compete in Supersurf 10 and the contest itself (the story also focuses around an attack on Mega City 1 by the Judda, but I’ll cover that elsewhere). This story is cited as one of the reasons John Wagner and Alan Grant decided to end their writing partnership, which had begun towards the end of writing the Judge Child saga. In short, Wagner wanted Chopper to lose the championship but live, while Grant wanted Chopper to win the championship but die. Wagner got his way.

After Anderson, Psi Division, Chopper is the second Judge Dredd character to get his own spin-off series. The Song of the Surfer (progs 654-665, 1989) focuses on Supersurf 11, this time taking place in Mega City 2. The championship turns deadly when its organisers decide to make it more exciting by firing guns at the contestants. This time, almost as if to show Alan Grant how it should be done, Wagner let’s Chopper win – but apparently dies. The story also marks the first major collaboration between John Wagner and artist Colin MacNeil, who went on to draw America and a number of other classic Dredd stories.

And there is should have ended. Unfortunately, Chopper was then brought back with the launch of the new Judge Dredd Megazine, in a story called Earth, Wind and Fire (Judge Dredd Megazine vol 1, 1-6, 1990). This story was written by Garth Ennis (and drawn by frequent Ennis collaborator John McCrea), at the time still at the early stage of his career. Ennis has many qualities as a writer, but one of his weaknesses is a tendency to turn everything he writes into meandering bromances which focus more on drinking alcohol than on character or plot. Earth, Wind and Fire is a particular low point of his career – and one he appears to readily acknowledge himself.

Chopper, now a character who had entirely run out of a story to tell, limped on to appear in yet another story in 2000AD – this time written by Alan McKenzie and drawn by John Higgins (Supersurf 13, progs 964-971, 1995) – before the editor’s finally decided to give him a rest. Even then, Wagner himself attempted to revive the character in 2004 in a fairly forgettable story (The Big Meg, progs 1387-1394, 2004).

Chopper’s run therefore is a tale of two halves. His first four appearances are as great as his latter three are forgettable. It is easy to see how the readership easily identified with this character, a kid who was about the same age as most of the people reading his stories. The best Chopper stories are all about an ordinary guy achieving extraordinary things in the face of adversity, but there comes a point when there just isn’t anything left to kick against.

Highlights include:

  • Un-American Graffiti (progs 206-207, 1981). Reprinted in the Complete Judge Dredd Casefiles vol 4.
  • The Midnight Surfer (progs 424-429, 1986). Reprinted in the Complete Judge Dredd Casefiles vol 9.
  • Oz (progs 545-570, 1987). Reprinted in the Complete Judge Dredd Casefiles vol 11.
  • The Song of the Surfer (progs 654-665, 1989). Reprinted in Chopper: Surf’s Up.

C is also for…

Cal
Chief Judge Cal is an early antagonist of Dredd’s. The head of the Special Judicial Service – the Justice Department’s own internal affairs unit who dress like members of the SS – Cal uses his position to kill Chief Judge Goodman and brainwash the judges, leaving only a handful of judges – including Dredd, Giant and the tutors at the Academy of Law – left to fight a rebellion.

Originally drawn to resemble Pat Mills, Mills objected and as a result Cal was quickly changed to instead resemble John Hurt’s portrayal of Emperor Caligula in BBC TV’s adaptation of I, Claudius.

The Day the Law Died (progs 89-108, 1978-1979) was the basis of the Judge Dredd motion picture (1995), albeit with Cal replaced by Dredd’s clone brother Rico and loveable oaf Fergee replaced by the distinctly unloveable Fergie, played by Rob Schneider.

An alternate Cal appeared in dimension hopping series Helter Skelter (progs 1250-1261, 2001).

Call-Me-Kenneth
Call-Me-Kenneth was the revolutionary leader of the robot rebellion in the Robot Wars, the first multi-part Judge Dredd story, which also marked a return to the strip by creator John Wagner after initially walking away due to conflict between him and commissioning editor Pat Mills (progs 10–17, 1977).

With clear allusions to Jesus, Call-Me-Kenneth is originally a carpenter droid who rebels against his brutal master. He is eventually brought to heel by Dredd and his sycophantic servant droid Walter, in what is a highly satirical story (a personal favourite).

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