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).

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