Daily Archives: 1 August 2012

F is for Fargo (and Fargo clones)

Dredd 3D will be fairly unique as movie comic book adaptations go because it will be neither an origin story, incorporate an origin story or be the sequel to an origin story. The reason for this is quite simple: Dredd doesn’t really have one in the superhero sense. Because Dredd is essentially a walking high concept, the strip has never burdened itself with wasting too much time focusing on motivation. He’s a cop, he shoots people, he’s a clone and he spent his entire childhood being trained to do what he does; what more do you need to know?

To the extent that Dredd needs an origin, Eustace Fargo serves a dual purpose. Not only is Dredd a clone of Fargo (the so-called bloodline which has fuelled several Dredd storylines), but Fargo is the person responsible for establishing the judicial system in the first place. So it was inevitable that at some point they would get around to telling his story; what’s surprising is that it took them 30 years to do so.

Most of the background presented in Origins (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535, 2006-2007) was relatively unsurprising, and I’ve covered a lot of it in my entry on President Booth. The main revelations essentially exist to explain a number of continuity glitches which had appeared in the strip over the years. So it emerges that Fargo had an illicit affair in 2051 and attempted to commit suicide. A cover up ensued and his injuries were sufficiently serious that they felt the need to announce his death – announced as a brutal murder. He recovered however and was kept alive to act as his successors’ secret advisor and as Chief Judge at large. He lives for another 20 years, thus allowing him to do all the things past stories had said he had done after his official death, but eventually his injuries prove too much and he is put into suspended animation whereupon a renegade group kidnap the body.

It isn’t entirely clear when the decision to establish that Dredd is Fargo’s clone was made. It is first announced in A Case for Treatment (prog 389, 1984), but is slipped out in such a casual manner that it is almost as if the writers had assumed they had already revealed it. Indeed, a clone foetus of Fargo’s appears briefly in the previous story Dredd Angel (377–383, 1984), but no explicit link is made then. Indeed, Fargo’s face is shown in Dredd Angel, implying the artist had no idea about his lineage (Dredd’s face is never shown as a matter of convention) – although it is fair to say that the face does feature a rather Dredd-like chin.

Either way, making Dredd Fargo’s clone seemed to fit perfectly. Ever since, the series has explored the idea of bloodline and whether it is nurture or nature that makes Dredd the man he is repeatedly. Aside from The Return of Rico (prog 30, 1977) in which Dredd’s clone brother returns after 30 years on a penal colony to wreak revenge, it is first explored in a significant way in the Kraken story arc, which begins in Oz (progs 545–570, 1988) and ends in Necropolis (progs 674-699, 1990). Kraken is a Judda, a tribe of judge-like warriors founded by renegade judge and founder of the cloning programme which created Dredd, Morten Judd. When the Judda are defeated, the Justice Department attempts to rehabilitate a handful of them and Kraken shows real promise. Dredd however detects an arrogance in him and fails him in his final assessment to become a judge (Tale of the Dead Man, 662-668, 1990). When Dredd goes into exile however, the Chief Judge decides to suppress this news and secretly replace him with Kraken.

It is left ambivalent as to whether Kraken fails and ends up responsible for releasing the Dark Judges because of an inherent weakness or because the power of the Dark Judges is too strong. The next time a Fargo clone appears it is in happier circumstances. The clone foetus which appeared in Dredd Angel has grown up and Dredd is again in charge of assessing him (Blood Cadets, 1186-1188, 2000). This clone passes the test, adopts the name Rico in honour of Dredd’s brother and has been a mainstay of the comic ever since (rumours that Rico was created simply to replace Dredd with a younger model – possibly by way of a body transplant – have proven to be false). Yet another clone to appear has another future. Dolman is a model cadet but dislikes the discipline associated with being a judge and ends up resigning (Brothers of the Blood, progs 1378-1381, 2004). For a full list of Fargo clones which have appeared in the Dredd series, see wikipedia.

It is fair to say that in the world of Judge Dredd neither your genetic heritage or your upbringing are particularly good factors for predicting whether or not you are going to end up as a hero, villain or something in between.

Both Fargo and Rico are major characters in the 1995 Judge Dredd motion picture. Confusingly though, despite all sharing the same genetic code with Sylvester Stallone’s Dredd, none of them look alike (why they didn’t make Rico look like he does in the comics given how neatly it would have solved the problem of Stallone having to play two characters I will never understand).

Highlights include:

  • Origins (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535, 2006-2007). Reprinted in Judge Dredd: Origins.

F is also for…

Fergee
Not to be confused with Rob Schneider’s Fergie in the 1995 film, the Duchess of York or the Black Eyed Peas singer, Fergee is a simple minded lunk who Dredd discovers in the Undercity (the underground network of tunnels and caves underneath Mega City 1 which was formed when it was concreted over) while on the run from Cal. Befriended by Dredd, Fergee is ultimately responsible for killing Cal, killing himself in the process. As a subsequence, hundreds of Fergee monuments are erected across the city (The Day the Law Died, progs 89-108, 1978-1979).

Francisco

Dan Francisco is the 10th Chief Judge of Mega City 1 (or 9th depending on whether you count Fargo who was technically the Chief Judge of the whole of the USA). He takes over from Hershey after the failure of her attempts to reform the anti-mutant laws in favour of a more permissive policy which enables thousands of mutants to move into Mega City 1 – a policy which Dredd effectively blackmails her to adopt. Francisco is elected mainly on the basis of his popularity – he is the host of top rated reality television programme the Streets of Dan Francisco.

From the beginning, Francisco is portrayed as a puppet of Judge Martin Sinfield, who becomes his deputy. However, Francisco insists on adopting a more liberal approach towards removing the mutants living in the city than Sinfield is prepared to accept. Frustrated with this, Sinfield resorts to drug Francisco with a hypnotic drug (developed by mass murderer P. J. Maybe) and persuades Francisco to resign (Tour of Duty, progs 1650 – 1693, 2009-2010).

Eventually Sinfield’s crime is exposed and Francisco is restored to full office and full health. However, shortly after this the events leading up to the Day of Chaos (progs 1743–1789, 2011-2012) occur, eventually leading to most of the city’s population being wiped out. Francisco has since resigned and Hershey has been reinstated on a temporary basis.

An African-American, clear allusions to Barack Obama were made within the comic when he became Chief Judge. However, it should be noted that Francisco is actually the second African-American Chief Judge to have lead Mega City 1, with Chief Judge Silver being the first.

E is for Edgar

While Judge Death is a relatively well known Dredd antagonist with certain basic flaws, Judge Jura Edgar is an example of a less known antagonist who is done to perfection. Edgar was, for 22 years, the head of the Justice Department’s Public Surveillance Unit – a division which specialises in spying on the populace.

The Public Surveillance Unit (PSU) is used in several stories to explore the growing trend for universal surveillance in daily life but the obsessive, secretive and downright paranoid Edgar is more like a figure out of the Cold War. Part George Smiley, part Margaret Thatcher (artist John Burns clearly modelled her on the former Prime Minister) and, yes, part J. Edgar Hoover, she embroils Dredd in a number of intrigues, including holding out the possibility that Dredd may not be a clone of Fargo but actually his son (The Cal Files, progs 959-963, 1995). After her introduction, Dredd and Edgar rapidly fall out and Edgar becomes obsessed with bringing about his downfall, eventually using a partial account of Galen DeMarco‘s romantic proposition to Dredd as a pretext to discredit him (The Scorpion Dance, progs 1125-1132, 1998-1999). This fails, but so too does an attempt by Dredd’s allies – including then newly instated Chief Judge Hershey – to convict her with criminal charges for secretly keeping sensitive information on senior judges. Despite this, Hershey removes her from the head of the PSU and transfers her to head a penal colony in the Cursed Earth (The Cal Legacy, progs 1178-1179, 2000).

Years later, with Edgar dying, she attempts her final revenge on Dredd and Hershey. She passes Dredd information about the Citizen’s Court, an illegal execution squad set up by a small group of judges in the 2090s. As per her plans, the surviving members of the squad attempt to kill Dredd as he carries out his investigation, but fail. The final twist however is that it emerges that Edgar herself was the ringleader of the Citizen’s Court – which is how she knew about it – but by the time Dredd returns to her penal colony to bring her to justice, she has died (The Edgar Case, progs 1589-1595, 2008).

While there are probably not enough of them, the Dredd strip has a fairly good track record in producing strong female characters, albeit with an occasional tendency to lapse into cheesecake (Anderson and DeMarco in particular appear to have managed to get the artists and editors into a lather). Edgar is relatively unique in being a female character where her gender is not made an issue of at all (the handling of McGruder, Hershey and Beeny is also quite strong, although the former tends to be presented as a crone while Hershey has had her cheesecake moments – particularly in her younger days). She has a character arc and was thankfully not overused.

She also marks a distinct change in John Wagner’s writing style. Between Necropolis and the Cal Files, Wagner had only written a handful of Dredd tales, including the arc which was kicked off by Mechanismo and ended with the Wilderlands. The rest of the writing duties particularly in 2000AD (Wagner and Grant mainly wrote for the Judge Dredd Megazine at the time) were handled by Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and Millar’s then occasional writing partner Grant Morrisson. None of these writers really “got” Dredd; Millar and Morrison never really got past the fascist overtones, while Ennis seemed to simply run out of ideas quite quickly.

It is fair to say however that even Wagner’s MechanismoWilderlands arc failed to really catch fire. It had any brilliant ideas within it but ended up less than the sum of its parts. Throughout the first half of the 90s, it really did feel as if Dredd was in terminal decline.

Ironically, it seemed to be the prospect of a film which in retrospect is widely regarded as a failure which appeared to turn things around. With The Cal Files, Wagner changed the whole tone of the strip from action-adventure to something more akin to police-procedural thriller.

It might seem obvious for a strip about a future cop to borrow from police TV shows, but at the time the change in tone seemed quite extraordinary. The Cal Files was immediately followed by The Pit and eventually lead to Wagner changing the style of the whole strip, expanding and deepening the supporting cast, focusing on cases rather than just shooting things and ramping up the political intrigue.

The bottom line was that after 20 years, we’d all grown up and needed a bit more from Dredd than zany fashions and future crime. John Wagner realised this and responded at pretty much exactly the right time.

Highlights include:

  • The Cal Files, progs 959-963, 1995. Reprinted in Blind Justice (out of print)
  • The Scorpion Dance, progs 1125-1132, 1998-1999. Reprinted in The Scorpion Dance Featuring Beyond The Call of Duty (out of print)
  • The Cal Legacy, progs 1178-1179, 2000. Not reprinted.
  • The Edgar Case, progs 1589-1595, 2008. Not reprinted.

E is also for…

Carlos Ezquerra
I’ve written quite a bit about John Wagner thus far but failed to write about his co-creator, Carlos Ezquerra.

Spanish born, Andorra (via Croydon) based Ezquerra was a celebrated artist in the 70s even before 2000AD was first published, mostly due to his work on Action and Battle. Chosen by editor Pat Mills to design Dredd, he developed the leather biker look quite quickly (while Wagner may have had half an eye of the Dirty Harry films, Ezquerra had been watching Roger Corman’s 1975 film Death Race 2000). But it was arguably his city scape designs that really elevated the project to a new level. Up until that point, the idea had been to set Judge Dredd in a future version of New York; it was Carlos Ezquerra who created the deranged vision of Mega City 1, with a cityscape that more resembles a series of giant termite mounds than high rise buildings.

Ezquerra however grew disenchanted with the development process of Judge Dredd and eventually peeled away. He was further put out by the fact that his replacement, Mick McMahon, was extremely good at copying his style – although he very rapidly developed a style which was unique to himself.

Ezquerra was to walk away, instead focusing on developing Strontium Dog for 2000AD’s sister publication Starlord (also in collaboration with John Wagner). He didn’t return to the strip for five years but when he did, his illustration of The Apocalypse War (progs 245–267, 269–270, 1982) was magnificent. The character design had developed significantly since he had left the project, but he instantly made it his own.

Ezquerra has subsequently become established as one of the main Dredd artists. He is the only artist other than Ian Gibson to have worked on the character in every decade since it’s creation and while Gibson is limited to the odd 6-pager these days, Ezquerra’s work rate remains extraordinarily high, albeit with the help of his son Hector. He remains active despite being treated for lung cancer in 2010.

D is for Death, Dark Judges and Democracy

I can’t really get away with reaching D and not mentioning Judge Death and the Dark Judges. Judge Death and co come from a parallel universe in which life itself is deemed to be a crime on the unarguable basis that only the living commit crimes. Sidney De’ath is a judge on that world and he and and his colleagues become undead killing machines in order to carry out their deranged policies.

Death first appeared, alongside Judge Anderson, in the eponymous story in 1980 (progs 149-151). Designed by artist Brian Bolland, the story was an instant hit, leading to a follow up featuring the rest of the Dark Judges – Fear, Fire and Mortis – in 1981 (Judge Death Lives!, progs 224-228).

Since then, the characters have appeared on numerous occasions, ranging from Anderson’s first solo strip and two of the four Batman crossovers to three Judge Death solo series: Young Death – Boyhood of a Superfiend (Judge Dredd Megazine vol 1 #1-12, 1990-91), My Name is Death (progs 1289-1294, 2002) and The Wilderness Days (JDM #209-216, 2003-2004). The latter appears to feature the unkillable Death’s death, but somehow that seems unlikely to be permanent.

The problem with Death and his brothers in arms is that they are basically personality free. Not so much characters as cyphers, they look great but essentially have no motivation other than to kill as many people as possible. Attempts to deepen their characters have not been wholly successful. Young Death explains his origin but ultimately ends up as broad comedy. A lot of subsequent stories have followed tack, with Death forced to wear a rubber chicken for a shoulder pad in Judgement on Gotham (1991) and going drag in Dead Reckoning (progs 1000-1007, 1996). Attempts to make the character darker and more explicitly horrific have not been entirely successful.

Where the Dark Judges tend to work best is in stories where the protagonists are forced to deal more with the destruction they leave in their wake than head on. The best example of this is probably Necropolis (progs 661-699, 1990), a 52 part saga (including prologues) in which the Dark Judges themselves barely feature. In many respects a rehash of The Day The Law Died (see Judge Cal), a heavily scarred Dredd returns from a self-imposed exile to find Mega City 1 and its judges under the control of the Dark Judges. He enlists the former Chief Judge McGruder, Judge Anderson and a group of Cadet Judges to retake control. Necropolis also features three more Dark Judges: the Sisters of Death Nausea and Phobia (whose psychic auras enable the Dark Judges to take control) and Kraken, a clone-brother of Dredd’s and former Judda who replaces him after he goes into exile and is corrupted by Death.

With Death apparently departed, John Wagner opted to bring back Fear, Fire and Mortis during the recent 35th anniversary mega-epic Day of Chaos (progs 1743–1789, 2011-2012). Many of the same problems remain in terms of tone, with the sub plot involving P.J. Maybe capturing them seeming remarkably similar to Death’s previous run-ins with Batman villains Scarecrow and The Joker. I remain to be convinced this will lead to anything particularly memorable, although apparently a new series reuniting the four Dark Judges with art by the excellent Greg Staples is in the works.

Speaking of heretical opinions, I’m also sceptical of the received wisdom that a future Dredd movie sequel should feature Death. Speaking personally, I think the film makers have enough of a challenge on their hands selling a lay audience the concept of Mega City 1, without getting into the messy business of alternative dimensions and the supernatural. Some simplifying will be almost certainly necessary, and that could lead to the same sort of mess which plagued the original Judge Dredd motion picture (1995). With Anderson in a co-starring role in Dredd 3D however, it may well be that they have already figured out how to make it work and that we will see some foreshadowing in the first (of hopefully several) film.

Highlights include:

  • Judge Dredd: Judge Death (progs 149-151, 1980) and Judge Death Lives! (progs 224-228, 1981). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 3 and 5.
  • Anderson, Psi Division: Revenge (progs 468–478, 1986). Reprinted in the Judge Anderson Psi Files Volume 1.
  • Judge Dredd: Necropolis (progs 674–699, 1990). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 14.
  • Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham (1991). Reprinted in the Batman/Judge Dredd Collection (not yet published)

Necropolis is not just a good example of John Wagner managing to make the Dark Judges work as a concept; it was also the culmination of the first arc of the Democracy storyline. Alongside the non-death of Chopper (and, if you’re counting, the Last American and Alan Grant’s decision to kill off Johnny Alpha in Strontium Dog), it was the development of this ongoing storyline which helped lead to the break up of Wagner and Grant’s writing partnership. Once again, Wagner wanted to adopt a more subtle approach while Grant wanted to simply deepen the idea of the Judicial system as little more than fascism and play the satire for all it was worth.

And once again, John Wagner proved to be correct.

As I touched upon in my B entry, at the heart of the Dredd strip, certainly for the past 25 years, is the dramatic tension which surrounds the very legitimacy of the judicial system. The Judges take over from a democratic system which has clearly failed (and one which rather resembles our own), but however justified those actions may have been, the result is a society in which most citizens have no responsibility over their own lives. Are they irresponsible, and is crime endemic, because of that removal of responsibility or is the judicial system necessary because people lack the capacity for it? In John Wagner’s hands (unlike the hands of many others), the strip offers no clear answers, merely more questions.

It really all kicks off in Letter from a Democrat (prog 460, 1986). This story juxtaposes the actions of a group of pro-democracy insurgents with the text of a letter by one of them, Hester Hyman, to her husband to explain her actions. The strip caused quite a stir and resulted in a sequel a year later, Revolution (progs 531–533, 1987). In this take, a group of non-violent democracy activists organise a march which a team of judges lead by Dredd himself methodically and brutally suppress.

In conjunction with the Chopper stories which ran in parallel, these two vignettes did far more to humanise the plight of the Big Meg’s citizens than any crude satire ever could. In Revolution in particular, no attempt is made to justify the judges’ actions – it just portrays what happens. As a 12 year old, I found the story quite chilling; as a 14 year old observing the Tiananmen Square massacre a couple of years later, it was revelatory (the older and wiser me would also cite the civil rights movements in South Africa, the US and Northern Ireland and the miners’ strikes); it is no exaggeration to say that these stories lead directly to my subsequent career in politics and campaigning.

Revolution has major consequences. It causes America Jura and her cohorts to adopt more violent methods. It adds to Dredd’s existing doubts about the system which eventually leads to his resignation and voluntary exile in the Tale of the Dead Man (progs 662–668, 1990).

This brings us back to Necropolis, where the system is shown to have palpably failed – possibly as a result of Dredd’s absence, possibly not (this is left open: the Dark Judge’s takeover is made possible because of the mistakes of Dredd’s replacement Kraken, but it is not clear whether Dredd could have resisted the Sisters of Death if he had been in the same position). Having saved the city, Dredd’s price is to force the judges to hold a referendum on whether or not to restore a democratic system. In the end, the citizens vote to reject democracy on 68%-32% on a 35% turnout. Apropos of nothing, this just happens to be almost identical to the result in the 2011 UK referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system, which I was closely involved with. 😉

Since this referendum, the more overt storyline about the quest for democracy have fallen into the background, with the exception of the ongoing America storyline. America Jura‘s organisation Total War returns in an eponymous storyline (progs 1408-1419, 2004) which satirises the counter-terrorism policies engulfing the UK and US at the time. In this story, Total War scale up their activities by detonating a series of nuclear bombs around the city and threatening to continue to do so until the judges relinquish control. Not surprisingly, these actions fail to win much public support.

The other main way in which democracy as a theme has continued in the latter years of the Dredd strip is the portrayal of Mayor Byron Ambrose. Ambrose is one of the most competent and popular mayors Mega City 1 has ever had, even winning the support of Dredd himself. However, it emerges that he is in reality the notorious psychopath and mass murderer P. J. Maybe. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what John Wagner is implying there.

But just as it looks as if the pro-democracy cause is dead and buried, the series took a left turn. The events of Origins (see Booth) again left Dredd questioning the system he has sworn to uphold. This time he uses his influence to force the Chief Judge to abolish the anti-mutant laws and adopt a more permissive policy which by Dredd’s own admission, doesn’t work out very well (Mutants of Mega City 1, progs 1542–1545, 2007 and Tour of Duty, progs 1650–1693, 2009-2010). More recently, the judicial system has come under renewed scrutiny in the Day of Chaos storyline (progs 1743–1789, 2011-2012). A series of intelligence failures and a total breakdown in public trust leads to the massacre of most of the city’s population. How this will play out remains to be seen, but it is clear by the end of that story that as far as the writer and main character are both concerned, the judicial system as we know it no longer exists. Is democracy on the way back?

Highlights include:

  • Letter from a Democrat (prog 460, 1986). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 10.
  • Revolution (progs 531–533, 1987). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 11.
  • America (JDM 1-7, 1990). Reprinted in Judge Dredd: America.
  • The Devil You Know and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (progs 750–756, 1991). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 15.

D is also for…

Dave
Before Letter from a Democrat, John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ron Smith chose to explore the theme of democracy from a different angle in Portrait of a Politician (progs 366-368). While lacking legislative powers, Mega City 1’s mayor and council continued to be elected. Dave the Orangutan shot to prominence, first as a sports pundit and eventually as the mayor himself, prefiguring Stuart Drummond‘s successful bid to get elected as mayor of Hartlepool while dressed as a monkey by 16 years (Dave himself more closely resembles Boris Johnson).

Dave is eventually assassinated by his owner and drinking partner. The post of mayor is left unfilled for a decade.

DeMarco
Judge Galen DeMarco is a street judge and key supporting cast member who first appeared in The Pit (progs 970–999, 1995-1996). Highly competent, she quickly wins the trust of Dredd. However, it is discovered that she is having an affair with a fellow judge and suspended (judges are prohibited from having sexual relationships).

DeMarco is eventually reinstated and recovers her reputation. Eventually, she is even made Sector Chief of Sector 303. At around this time, she develops a crush on Dredd and eventually propositions him. He rejects her but does not report it, something which Public Surveillance Unit chief Judge Edgar uses to undermine Dredd (Beyond the Call of Duty, progs 1101–1110, 1998). DeMarco is forced to resign, after which point she becomes a private detective. Before spinning off into her own short-lived spin-off series, DeMarco plays a pivotal role in exposing the plot which leads to the Second Robot War (The Doomsday Scenario progs 1141-1164 and JDM vol 3 issues 52-59, 1999).