Monthly Archives: September 2012

Clegg and coalition six months on

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.The fact that Lib Dem conference is rapidly approaching means that I have a semi-anniversary of my own to mark. It’s now been just over six months since I left the Lib Dems.

Life after party politics

How do I feel? I’ve had a tough, and at times frustrating half year: negotiating the fineries of coalition politics when your full time job is focused on delivering democratic reform is not easy. But I can honestly say that I’ve been happier in myself during that period than I have been for pretty much any period in the last 12 years.

People who follow my blog, my twitter feed or my Facebook account will probably have noticed I’ve been exploring my non-political interests with far more gusto than I had before that period (and yes, I will finish my A-Z of Judge Dredd soon). Although I’ve never had much in the way of personal political ambitions, there has always been a tiny shiny suited version of myself in my head screaming at me to only ever present the world with a cookie-cutter version of myself. I’ve always been a geek and been quite open about it, but these days I feel I can let it all hang out a bit more: it’s heavenly.

Fundamentally though, I’ve felt less guilty. In fact, I’ve felt so much less guilty that I feel a little guilty about that in itself. There’s a significantly louder voice in my head that believes that it is important to feel the weight of the world and to do your bit to stop it from sliding into chaos, and that it is better to have tried and have got it wrong than to have not tried at all. But it would be a total lie for me to deny that the feeling of not coming home from a hard day’s work to angst about all the other awful things happen and what I can do to sort them out is anything less than bliss.

I know this feeling is temporary and that at some point I’m not going to resist getting back into the thick of things. But I’m less inclined to believe that will mean returning to the Lib Dem fold any time soon than I did back in March. Party politics feels so broken for me at the moment that while I am enormously grateful that there are still people working from inside the system, I can’t really imagine myself doing the same.

My quitting the party was a long time in coming. I haven’t been a shiny faced new believer since my disastrous party job in Leeds, which ended more than 10 years ago. Since then, things like party conferences have mostly been a chore for me: a place where there is work to do, and where some of my closest friends could be found, but something which I would escape from every evening at the very first opportunity I got. To truly love the Liberal Democrats in all its idiosyncrasies is to love Glee Club, and I haven’t been able to stomach that rather grotesque and self-congratulatory tradition for years.

I can think of no better way to sum up my six month “holiday” than to refer you to the lyrics of Blue Lagoon by Laurie Anderson (sorry, I did say I was letting my geeky side hang out more). Nonetheless, as it has been a while since I wrote about any of this and since we are about to enter the conference season, I did think it would be a good time to type up my thoughts on the party, its future and the state of politics in general. This has been somewhat precipitated by two things this afternoon: Richard Reeves’ new article in the New Statesman and Nick Clegg’s now seemingly ubiquitous apology:

Tuition Fees

On the apology, I think it fair enough, not too badly expressed and is relatively heartfelt. It’s long overdue. For whatever reason, the tuition fees incident is a running sore that has come to dominate pretty much everything the party has done in coalition since and it is hard to see how the party can move on without somehow getting over this incident. I’m not saying that Clegg’s apology will achieve that, but it will do more good than harm even if the short term effect has been to open up some slowly healing old wounds for some people.

There is a problem with it though, which is that Clegg is apologising for making a promise he was never in a position to keep. That’s not entirely true. He could have made it a dealbreaker for the coalition. I’m not saying that he should have done, in fact I think it would have been downright foolish, but he had a choice and made it. For the past couple of years, Clegg has been altogether too much in love with claiming there is no alternative to what he and the coalition have undertaken to do – as if he is some unwilling victim being buffeted along by events. If you listen to his speeches, you will rarely see him take responsibility for anything: everything is expressed as being either obvious or inevitable. It gets to the heart of his weakness as a politician, and why people find it so hard to like him any more.

So let’s have a short reminder of why he is very much the architect of his own destruction. Throughout his time in opposition, Clegg made no secret of his hatred of the Lib Dems’ policy on tuition fees. On two occasions he attempted to win a vote on the conference floor to scrap the policy; on two occasions he lost the vote. Anyone with any sense at all within the party could see that he was never going to be able to win that fight, and that there was little point in wasting his political capital in fighting that fight.

As an opponent of the policy, what he should have done is attempt to de-prioritise the policy and make it a negotiable add on to the manifesto rather than a core goal. In fact, in terms of the manifesto, he more or less achieved that and he probably could have gone further if he hadn’t raised so many people’s hackles (even a number of tuition fee supporters ended up turning on him in the end and his failure to respect the party’s wishes). The problem is, by exhausting so much energy in attempting to scrap the policy he caused a backlash. A number of parliamentary candidates, not to mention the campaigns department itself, was so determined to alleviate concerns that the party couldn’t be trusted on the policy that they ramped up its status in their campaign literature and their personal statements. Just to make things even crazier, Clegg ultimately went along with it, agreeing to be photographed signing the NUS pledge.

I have to say that the campaigns department was extremely foolish to put the party in this position – not for the first time it behaved like it controlled the party and knew better than the people in charge of the manifesto, the Federal Policy Committee (I still find it frustrating that the 2005 manifesto was essentially usurped by a 10-point pledge which had little resonance and was completely useless to those of us fighting seats in Scotland at the time). But Clegg went along with it. He bottled it. He made a calculation that he could get away with signing his name to a policy which he was personally hostile to. That doesn’t just represent weak leadership and poor judgement, but an outlook on life that raises serious questions about a fitness to hold public office. It reveals the inner core of a politician who, if you look at his track record, has never had to fight particularly hard for anything at all, and has always depended on political patronage (thanks to Leon Brittan who discovered him in the European Commission, Paddy Ashdown who championed his bid to become an MEP, Richard Allen who bequeathed his Sheffield Hallam constituency to him and Ming Campbell who kept the leadership chair warm while he got himself ready) and never really had to fight for anything. It is one of the reasons why I find his constant talking up of social mobility at the expense of tackling all other forms of inequality so empty and galling; I really do think he has fooled himself into believing that he’s got where he is today through his own effort and thinks that everyone else would have the same life chances if only they had a slightly better school.

But since I have been defaming Clegg, I will say this: whatever you think of his apology, at least he has apologised. You won’t hear anything even close to an apology coming from the lips of his fiercest critics on the left. And the left really do have a lot to be sorry about.

I actually think the new higher education policy marks a real step forward compared to the policy we had before that. Most students will end up paying less but over a longer timescale. It has been poorly presented, but it represents a tax on the relatively affluent which is not being paid out of poorer people’s income taxes. But even if it was the worst system imaginable, there is a real question of priorities. Why is it that the left, particularly the far left and those engaged with student politics, have been far more exercised about this single policy than they have ever demonstrated in terms of the NHS, welfare or Educational Maintenance Allowance?

Oh, and if you’re a lefty reading this, yes I’m quite sure you believe those things were equally if not more important. But you simply didn’t get the numbers out on the streets for those campaigns did you? The NHS reforms in particular were in a particularly vulnerable state in 2011 – yet the only people doing the running in terms of stopping that policy were Liberal Democrats – mostly the Winchester local party and the Social Liberal Forum. If even a proportion of the numbers who turned out for the student funding marches turned out for the NHS, it would have been a dead reform. Instead, they mostly sat on their hands.

The collective failure of the left to get its priorities even marginally correct during this period of economic uncertainty is going to be something academics will be scratching their heads about for years to come. I have no easy answers: all I hope is that a few more people would act (and speak/tweet/blog etc.) with a little more humility and responsibility than they do.

Richard Reeves

So much for Nick Clegg and the left; back to Richard Reeves. His article previewing the party conference is utterly bizarre, but manages to sum up both his success and his abysmal failure.

In terms of success, Reeves and his fellow “Orange Bookers'” greatest victory has been to frame the debate in the Liberal Democrats as a struggle between noble Liberals seeking to defend the tradition of Gladstone with sinister entryist Social Democrats. There is an irony there of course because it was entryism within Labour that the Social Democrat Party was in part a reaction against. But of course it is utter bollocks, not merely because it essentially writes off the entire Liberal Party history from 1900-1950 – including the party’s proudest moments in terms of establishing the welfare state – as an aberration. It also blithely ignores the fact that many Orange Bookers come from the Social Democrat wing of the party themselves – Richard Reeves himself was a Blairite loyalist (as he himself alludes to in his assessment that Clegg exists to fill “a Blair-shaped hole in British politics”).

It is very notable that in his rather long and rambling article, Reeves seems incapable of defining what he means by “liberalism” other than say that it is neither Conservativism or Labour. What Reeves calls “radical liberal[ism] of the political centre” emerges as little more than the triangulation of Clinton and Blair: take two extremes and position yourself between them. By sheer, breathtaking coincidence, this is the same triangulation of Cameron – and even though many of his leftwing supporters would prefer otherwise, of Ed Miliband. In short, Reeves’ answer to the Lib Dems’ ills is to simply continue obsessively pursuing the same agenda which has dominated Anglo-Saxon politics for well over two decades now and has lead to a disengagement with politics the like of which we have never seen.

For all my mocking, there aren’t any easy answers. What I can tell you is that the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to take Reeves’s advice and doggedly resume the politics of the centre ground. Nye Bevan’s warning of what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road applies doubly to third parties attempting to recover from a mortally wounding coalition. The fight for this tiny bit of political real estate has already reached its logical conclusion, with three virtually interchangeable parties finding themselves completely at the mercy of global, cultural and economic forces.

To talk with most party politicians, you would think this was the only game in town and in a sense they are correct. It is simply undeniable that to win a majority under any electoral system you need to be able to win over those undecided swing voters. Their mistake is to massively overestimate what you can achieve once you get there if you have done nothing whatsoever to prepare the groundwork for what you actually want to achieve. In short, unless you can answer how you can widen the Overton window onto your territory, you really are wasting your time.

Regardless of my earlier criticisms, at least the relatively sensible members far left get this. The purpose of UK Uncut and later Occupy was not to foist revolution on our doorsteps but to alert people to the possibility of change. While people are often quick to dismiss the anti-Iraq demonstrations as a failure, the fact that Bush and Blair were prevented from their headlong rush into attacking Iran was at least in part due to the enormous cost the protest movement forced them to pay in toppling Saddam.

The far right definitely get this: the Tea Party may be making Mitt Romney unelectable at the moment, but they’re successfully chipping away at issues which the left long presumed had been won such as abortion rights – and they have done a terrific job at putting the Democrats on the defensive on the economy despite the Republican’s own dire record. Obama’s own options in office have been limited precisely because the right have made it almost impossible to get any of his agenda through Congress without paying a blood price.

Thatcher, and the people behind Thatcher got this – and that it would take them decades to achieve. Every lobbyist worth their fee understands this. Yet, for some reason, it is a lesson which mainstream party politicians stubbornly refuse to learn – possibly because mainstream party politics is dominated by people who only seek power for themselves.

The future of the Liberal Democrats lies not in obsessively worrying about mainstream acceptance and chasing the centre ground, but in winning the argument across the country. That means that any future Liberal Democrat party is going to have to agree pretty darn quickly about what it wants to achieve. It is hard to see what the Orange Bookers achieve by remaining in the party when the best chance for implementing their policies lie in the Conservatives and Labour. If post-coalition Liberal Democrat politics is dominated by the same fissure which came to dominate the party over the past eight years, then annihilation will be all but inevitable. If by contrast it can rally relatively quickly around a clear vision of society that it wants to achieve, then it will be in a position to make a slow and painful recovery – and if it acts smartly it will see the political ground shift in its direction long before it gets another sniff of power.

Clegg and coalition

There are two questions which I suspect will dominate the late night conversations at the Lib Dem conference next week: when Clegg needs to go and when the coalition needs to end. One of the reasons why I’m better off out of it is that my head and my heart tell me completely different things in answer to both.

I’ve come to loathe Clegg and his style of leadership with a passion. At the heart of his leadership bid was a dishonest failure to come clean about his agenda; something which he attempted to impose on the party indecently soon after his narrow victory. One of the reasons the coalition has been quite the failure it has been is that Clegg negotiated a deal which he and his narrow base of allies in the party felt relatively comfortable with, knowing full well that at the same time they got to junk all the policies they never supported in the first place. During the first few months of the coalition, it was very clear that Clegg was enjoying the fact that he’d managed to get one over the party enormously (and we should admit at this point that the left of the party failed prevent this and must bear heavy responsibility as well). He didn’t govern as the leader of the party but as its usurper and it was only once he had been made painfully aware of quite how unpopular his own policies truly were that he suddenly rediscovered the “progressive” concern which he normally reserved for bluffing his way through elections.

So yeah, I’d quite like to see him out on his rear. I’d like to see that quite a lot. My big problem though is that I’m pretty non-plussed by leadership at the best of times and find the choices on offer to the party to be remarkably poor.

Dismissing out of hand the option of the Lib Dems selecting a rightwinger like David Laws or Jeremy Browne as Clegg’s successor (I suppose it could happen; suffice to say it would be political suicide), there appear to be two real choices available:

  • Vince Cable: despite stumbling over tuition fees and then being stripped of his media regulation powers by indiscreetly claiming to be at war with the Murdochs, Cable has had quite a good couple of years. He’s made little secret of his disdain for the coalition or for George Osborne’s economic policies in particular. The problem with Cable though is that he is very much his own man. A vote for Vince Cable is a vote for the party going down the Conservative Party route of having all party policy decided by the leadership – this in spite of the fact that Cable’s attempts at autonomous policy development have consistently ended in disaster. The man is simply not collegiate and has an ego the size of a planet. And let’s not forget the fact that he was fully signed up to Clegg’s project; it is only Clegg’s unpopularity and Cable’s own unpopularity within the Conservatives which has lead him to reinvent himself since joining government. There has been a lot of reinvention going on which he has largely got away with – such indulgence will end the second he becomes leader.
  • Tim Farron: Tim is charismatic and charming, and decisively leftwing. He’s a contemporary of mine, which makes his rise particularly interesting on a personal level. My problem with Tim is threefold: firstly, he has a notorious tendency to speak before thinking and to rhetorically overreach in a way that is veritably Clegg-like – he hasn’t come a cropper in the same way that Clegg regularly does, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t simply because he is subject to less scrutiny at the moment. Secondly, he consistently wobbles on cultural liberal issues, whether it is regarding homeopathy or his links with gay cure supporting CARE organisation. And finally, there is the fact that I simply haven’t been very impressed with his time as party president. I can see very little evidence that his crusade to bring back community politics (but without all the “it’s worth doing for its own sake” nonsense) has come to anything; similarly his membership pledge has come to nothing. What I see in Tim is a lot of dynamism, a lot of charm and heaps of rhetoric – but very little substance.

The only other person who I can conceive could take the mantle is Steve Webb. But while Steve has, by all accounts, done a great job at keeping in touch with the parliamentary party, he has been all but invisible to those of us outside the Westminster bubble. He appears to have done a competent job in terms of pensions reform inside the Department of Work and Pensions, but it simply isn’t clear how great an extent he takes responsibility for many of the more controversial welfare reforms being lead on by Iain Duncan Smith. So as a leadership contender he would have to deal with both his disappearance from the public gaze and serious questions about his own complicity: even if he tackled himself well in both respects, I somehow doubt he’d get a look in.

In short, I don’t think the Lib Dems have all that much in the way of talent on their benches, and that makes getting rid of Clegg an especially risky premise. The fundamental problems pre-date Nick Clegg, which is why the last leadership election in 2007 was fought by two former MEPs who had only taken their seats in 2005. Sadly, this dearth of talent is a natural outcome of an electoral strategy which has focused so much on casework and community work at the expense of vision and clear strategic thinking.

The other issue is when the coalition should end. Many would like it to end tomorrow, or even sooner – as articulated by Nick Barlow. I find it hard to argue against Nick’s charges against the coalition: to call it fundamentally dysfunctional would be generous.

But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.

The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.

If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.

None of this is pleasant to say and the counter-argument that this coalition is so uniquely awful that it simply can’t be allowed to continue carries a lot of weight. But again, the question needs to be asked about how effective the alternative would be. A majority Conservative government is still just about conceivable if an election were called tomorrow: the Tory argument that they need a mandate to finish the job, and that Labour aren’t fit for office will carry substantially more weight than the polls suggest. Such a government would be an utter disaster.

And a Labour government wouldn’t be much better. Labour simply do not have an economic policy at the moment and under Ed Balls it seems inconceivable that they will want to adopt one. A Labour government would probably spend a bit more, and have somewhat better priorities, but it would be a mistake to think that they would be drastically different in terms of the coalition. So destroying a long term gain (not just for the Lib Dems, but for pluralist politics as a whole) in favour of a short term highly marginal improvement simply doesn’t appear very enticing to me.

Finally, there is the question of confidence and supply. Many coalition supporters cling to this as if it would be the answers to all their problems: yet all it would mean is that the Tories would be able to speed up their spending cuts with the Lib Dems voting their budgets through. And even disregarding how votes in the Commons would be likely to go, the damage a solely Conservative government would do would be immense.

I simply don’t see an easy way out; merely a long, painful haul. Having made this bed (which I have to accept some personal responsibility for), the party is going to just have to lie in it. Instead of worrying too much about the next couple of years, the Lib Dems ought to be thinking bigger, and what they will be doing during their wilderness years. Fundamentally, they need to get over their obsession with winning parliamentary seats and start thinking much more about the sort of society they want to see. Ultimately, the problems are far bigger than simply Nick Clegg’s own incompetence and dishonesty.

U is for Urban, Karl [Dredd 3D preview - no spoilers]

Gaze into the Film of Dredd (credit: John Spelling)
Credit: John Spelling.

U is a pretty tough letter to write about, unless I want to spend an evening writing about U-fronts, which in Dredd’s world are inexplicably the equivalent of Y-fronts. In the late mid-80s, this “futuristic” underwear featured in a number of stories, something which you would almost certainly never see in a US comic.

Fortunately, the producers of Dredd 3D (2012) had the foresight to cast Karl Urban in the lead role, enabling me to not only talk about him but Judge Dredd’s cinematic appearances more generally.

For British cinema goers, Dredd’s first big screen appearance was in an advert for the Mega King Cone, a knock off of the Cornetto which was available at the concession’s stands in most cinemas. A poorly drawn and animated Dredd would turn to the audience shouting “IT’S HERE! IT’S MEGA!” As a young Squaxx, this would excite me tremendously, almost to the extent of wanting to go to the cinema for that advert alone (and of course the Kia-Ora one, but I digress).

Robocop (1987) of course was clearly influenced by Judge Dredd, but was just different enough to avoid legal action. Hardware (1990) was not quite so fortunate. While not featuring a knock off of Dredd himself, this low budget horror film about a war robot retrieved from a wasteland which goes on to run ransack inside a young woman’s apartment so closely resembled the short story SHOK! (Judge Dredd Annual 1981) that it very quickly became the subject of legal action.

Fortunately, the situation was resolved amicably, with a credit to the story appearing in the end credits. The subsequent DVD release even made a virtue of the fact, including the original story as a bonus feature. Based in Mega City One and the Cursed Earth, this can be regarded as the first time the world of Judge Dredd appeared in the cinema.

So much for the rip offs, what about the official films? The first Judge Dredd film came out in 1995. While some defend it as an undemanding action film which can be enjoyed in its own right if you can get past the liberties it plays with the source material, it was not a success with either the critics or the fans (commercially it was a flop in the US but did not do too badly internationally).

The plot essentially mixes elements from The Day The Law Died (progs 89-108, 1978-1979) with Dredd’s own origins, but with a backstory that reduces both the scale of Mega City One (in the film it has tens of millions of citizens, not hundreds of millions), and the history (Fargo, still the judges’ founder, is the current Chief Judge).

More than anything else, it is the film’s unevenness of tone which is its greatest failing. Some elements, such as the look of the city itself and the ABC Warrior and Mean Machine Angel, are taken straight from the source material. These are both grotesque, larger than life characters, yet rather than continue in this vein and give us the comic’s horrific portrayal of Rico Dredd, Armand Assante’s Rico is quite dapper and, well, normal looking – and looks nothing like Stallone despite the two of them supposedly playing clone brothers whose identical DNA is a major plot device.

The comic’s Fergee would probably never have worked on screen, yet at some point during the script writing process the decision was made to replace him with Rob Schneider’s Fergie, one of those comedy sidekicks straight out of central casting. The idea of Schneider’s character was presumably to give the audience a relatable character who could guide them through an otherwise quite extreme and bizarre world, but his effect is to utterly kill the films suspension of disbelief every time he appears on screen.

The film can’t decide if it is an action adventure or a comedy send up. It can’t even decide if we’re meant to be on the side of the judges or not. The conflict is rooted in a tension between the “good” borderline fascist (but portrayed as sorta liberal) policemen, the bad, extremely fascist policemen and the mad, former fascist policeman who wants to create his own, even-more-fascist-than-the-fascists clone police force. The “lesson” of the film appears to be that authoritarian state control is good, as long as only well meaning people are in charge, and that a few of them like Judge Dredd need to be a bit nicer to ordinary people and become better kissers.

In short, pretty much every scene exposes the fact that the creative process was dominated by a committee of movie execs who had absolutely no idea what they wanted.

With the failure of the 1995 film, 2000AD and Judge Dredd had reached their nadir. While it is easy to blame the poor support of the publishers and the monopolisation of UK magazine distribution, the simple fact is that by that stage 2000AD and Dredd in particular had been distinctly sub-par for years. However poor the film was, many of the comic’s stories were far poorer. It very much looked for a time as if we had reached the end of the road.

Fortunately, two things happened. Firstly, John Wagner returned as the head writer of Dredd and effectively rebooted the strip in the form of The Pit (progs 970-999, 1995-1996). Secondly, starting with David Bishop a series of new editors took over, all of whom were determined to get back to the comics’ roots and restore it to its former glory.

David Bishop not only managed to raise the quality threshold of the comic, introducing a number of new series (including Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, the strongest 2000AD strip to emerge in years), but he proved instrumental in getting 2000AD sold to computer games company Rebellion, it’s current publishers.

Over the past decade under the stewardship of the current editor Matt Smith (not, not that Matt Smith), 2000AD has really turned itself around. The quality of its strips has been consistently high and while I have no idea about sales figures, it has certainly lived beyond 2001, the date at which previous publishers Egmont were expected it to cancel it once it had become unprofitable. Taking reprint publishing in-house has been a tremendous success, with most of the best of 2000AD’s strips over the past 35 years now kept permanently in print and in the stock of most major bookshops.

Rebellion itself has also grown, moving into publishing original fiction and roleplaying games. The fact that 2000AD’s parent company is a veteran of working with the film industry, producing a series of critically acclaimed Aliens’ vs Predator computer games, has almost certainly helped it in is goal of finally persuading someone to make another film.

So, then, what to make of Dredd 3D (2012)? One of the things that is notable about this film is quite how low budget it is compared with most comic book adaptations. Over the past few years, comic book fans have grown accustomed to a certain kind of marketing of comic book film. It involves being told very little, major announcements and stock footage at the San Diego Comic Con, adverts on billboards pretty much everywhere… in short, serious amounts of hype and ruthless efficiency. By contrast, the production of Dredd 3D has almost resembled a cottage industry at times.

First announced back in December 2008, the film has taken seemingly forever to finally appear. Yet it has been in the can (or whatever it is digital films are stored in these days) for months, having its debut in Cannes back in May. Despite this, production stills and footage has been distinctly thin on the ground. The extremely limited UK billboard campaign began last week, just a week before its UK release.

This isn’t a criticism. The lack of information (especially for those of us who avoid magazines such as Empire) has been tantalizing in the extreme. The screenings at both Cannes and San Diego have helped to generate some of the best word of mouth for a film in years. What is very clear is that the film makers have been extremely businesslike indeed, making the most of their marketing budget and limiting their ambitions about the film itself, very much with a view to ensuring the film is profitable enough to justify a franchise (they’ve been quite open about this, citing the need for the film to make $50m in the US to justify a sequel).

For me, this hard headed approach to the business side of the film has been very encouraging. The involvement of Alex Garland was similarly encouraging, as he was closely involved in not just the writing but the production side of films such as 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007). At one point, Garland’s enthusiasm for the project started to look like it may have got to be a problem, with rumours of him throwing director Peter Travis out of the editing room. If there was a rift, Pete Travis isn’t saying, but in the marketing of the film Garland does appear to be performing the role you would normally expect the director to do.

And what of Karl Urban? On a superficial level, Urban doesn’t appear to have the chops – or rather the chin – for the role. But he manages to combine two important things. Firstly, he’s a decent and workmanlike actor. You can’t imagine him striding around the set demanding changes to the script to suit his ego, which is how Sylvester Stallone reportedly behaved during the making of the 1995 film. I admit his performance failed to excite me in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), but he has been the best thing about many of his films, especially Doom (2005). He managed to capture the essence of DeForest Kelley’s portrayal of Dr McCoy in Star Trek (2009) without drifting into caricature – quite a feat.

The second thing about him is that it is quite clear he is a proper geek, almost to his detriment (I refer again to Doom). It is fair to say that his career would not have taken the trajectory it did if he didn’t actually enjoy this sort of thing. In his interviews he has been quite emphatic about his fannish love of the Dredd comic, claiming to have not only agreed to not remove the helmet (actually not that big a deal for me), but insisting on it.

I simply haven’t seen enough of his performance at this stage to decide whether he has managed to pull it off, although many including John Wagner himself, believe he has. If this film is a success, it certainly appears that Urban will be returning for any sequels.

Like, I suspect, most fans, I’ve been preparing myself for the worst with this film. There’s a part of me that still isn’t quite convinced that Judge Dredd’s odd combination of satire, sardonic humour, violence and downright awkwardness could work within what are well established cinematic conventions. Dredd doesn’t have an origin story per se and can’t really be pigeonholed as either a hero, villain or even anti-hero. The best strips which capture the essence of the strip, typically revolve around the lives of ordinary people – great for kitchen sink drama, not to hot for a special effects laden blockbuster. The “big scale” stories which are often the best known, don’t really work without the context of the smaller scale ones (having the first Dredd film feature the Dark Judges, the Sovs or the Judge Child for example wouldn’t make much sense – it is too much of a clash of genre). I agree with the makers of the new film’s attempts to root the film somewhat more in reality, doing away with the flamboyance of the comic strip’s uniform, but consider it fiendishly difficult to strike the right balance and avoid dropping the essence of the character and the world he inhabits in the process.

In short, I don’t envy the task of the film makers in keeping the fans happy while making a commercial film at the same time. Yet the word of mouth suggests that they may have done just that. At the time of writing and after 27 reviews, Dredd 3D still has a critics’ rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. John Wagner is happy. The fans who have seen it all seem happy.

It may be that this is the film that Dredd fans have waited for for so long. In a couple of hours, I’ll be finding out myself.

R is for Robot Wars

Call-Me-KennethI’ve already written several times about pivotal moments in the development of the Judge Dredd series; points which proved decisive in the survival of the strip and its development. Robot Wars (progs 10-17, 1977, with a prologue in prog 9) is the first of these pivotal moments.

It is easy to forget given how it came to dominate the comic, but in the early days there was no reason to regard Judge Dredd as different to any other strip running in 2000AD. It was not “featuring Judge Dredd” – indeed the character only first appeared in prog 2. If anything, it was “featuring Dan Dare”, the 1950s space pilot who editor Pat Mills had revived to spark interest in the new comic. True, it is clear that Pat Mills felt he was onto something with Dredd, which is why its development process ended up being quite so tortuous, but that was no guarantee that the character would survive if it couldn’t prove itself.

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s decision to walk away from their creation was a severe blow. The first seven Dredd strips to appear in 2000AD were written by Peter Harris, Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Charles Herring and in particular Malcolm Shaw. With the exception of Judge Whitey (prog 2, 1977), Dredd’s first appearance, none of these stories are remembered with any particular affection.

Robot Wars was the first multi-part storyline. More significantly, it was also the first story written by John Wagner to appear in print (and the first story drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, albeit only for one episode). The difference in quality is quite striking.

The story revolves around a robot called Call-Me-Kenneth, a carpenter droid (and yes, that is a Biblical reference) who kills his brutal master and leads a rebellion amongst the robots. Dredd defeats this rebellion, assisted by his robot servant Walter, who is granted full citizenship at the end of the story but chooses to continue working unpaid for Dredd anyway.

This is the first time the satire in the Dredd strip really bites. The analogies being drawn between African slavery and the brutal treatment of the robots by the humans are pretty easy to spot. Call-Me-Kenneth is enjoyably villainous, but the humans and in particular Judge Dredd don’t exactly come off well in this story either. It is the much put upon robots caught up in between we are really being invited to sympathise with.

Robo-HunterThe both the theme of robots-as-oppressed-people and the comic potential of robots were to go on to become recurring themes in 2000AD. Killer Car (progs 53-56, 1978) recycles a lot of the comedy in Robot Wars, and Wagner went on to collaborate with Ian Gibson, artist on both Robot Wars and Killer Car, on Robo-Hunter. Meanwhile, Pat Mills went on to make the plight of intelligent robots a theme in Ro-Busters and ABC Warriors.

Back in Judge Dredd, Walter would go on to be a recurring character for many years, even getting his own series of one-page strips drawn by Brian Bolland. Rejected by Dredd, Walter ends up founding a Call-Me-Kenneth worshipping cult in Giant (Megazine 2.50-52, 1994). And there was a second robot war, this time lead by crimelord Nero Narcos, as recounted in the Doomsday Scenario (progs 1141-1164 & Megazine 3.52-59, 1999).

Robot Wars was a triumphant return to the Judge Dredd strip by John Wagner which set the tone of the series for years afterwards. While simplistic by today’s standards, it’s quality shines through. As with The Pit almost 20 years later, if Wagner had not returned to write was in effect a manifesto for the strip at this point, it is very unlikely that the strip would have lasted the year, let alone 35.

Q is for A Question of Judgement

Cover to Prog 389The vast majority of Dredd strips throughout the 80s were basically comedy. Even the Apocalypse War was laced with irony and satire. Just occasionally a story touched on more serious themes. One of these was the six page A Question of Judgement (prog 387, 1984).

A Question of Judgement was in fact the first of three short, consecutive vignettes, the other two of which were An Error of Judgement (prog 388) and A Case for Treatment (prog 389). Combined, these stories threatened to rock the strip to its foundations, only for the themes contained within them to crawl back into their shells and not reappear for years afterwards.

All three stories have one thing at the heart of them: Dredd is having doubts about whether the judicial system is really in the people’s best interests. In A Question of Judgement, Dredd meets up with Judge Morphy, the judge who assessed him for his suitability for becoming a full judge after his graduation from the Academy of Law. Morphy is presented as a mentor figure for Dredd and Morph’s advice to Dredd is simple: wear tighter boots. His reasoning is that if Dredd were to spend all his time suffering from the effects of wearing boots a size too small, he would have less time to worry about whether he was actually achieving anything (as bad advice goes, this must rank pretty highly – how could Dredd be expected to do his job properly hobbling about in pain?).

In An Error of Judgement, Dredd gets emotionally involved in a welfare case, but his assistance goes awry and he ends ups assaulting a fellow judge. This leads directly into A Case For Treatment, in which Dredd is forced by the Chief Judge to undergo hypnotherapy in an attempt to get to the root of his doubts. It ends inconclusively, with the Chief Judge deciding to give Dredd a special mission to get his mind back on the job, as recounted in The City of the Damned (progs 393-406, 1984-1985).

That was all we got to see of Dredd’s doubts for many years. In retrospect it is clear that this was a side of Dredd that John Wagner was keen to explore while Alan Grant was keen to focus on the satirical elements of the strip. So it was not until their writing partnership came to an end that this plot thread was picked up again, in the Tale of the Dead Man (progs 662-668, 1990), which in turn lead to the Necropolis saga.

In this story arc, Dredd’s doubts lead him to taking self imposed exile in the Cursed Earth only for him to return to save the city upon discovering that the Dark Judges have returned. Merging with the democracy arc, this plot line reaches a modicum of conclusion with the referendum storyline.

The Dredd who returns from the Cursed Earth however is a subtly different character (at least the way Wagner writes him). He is more thoughtful and significantly more forceful when he feels the judges are doing the wrong thing. This gets him into trouble during the Mechanismo/Wilderlands story arc. His dealing with Edgar, a judge he admires but whose methods he disapproves of, is also typified by this, as is his support for both Volt and Hershey as modestly reforming Chief Judges.

Every so often we would also get a story which reveals the softer side of his character, such as the fan-favourite Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart (Megazine 2.46, February 1994) which deals with some very unDreddful themes such as old age and dying with dignity.

These aren’t stories about Dredd wracked with guilt however; the Dredd in these stories is demonstrates very little in the way of internal conflict or self-doubt. Rather, they are about the nature of justice from the perspective of a man who has revised his views considerably.

This theme continues into Origins (progs 1505-1519 & 1529-1535, 2006-2007) and the revelation that Fargo himself had concluded that the judicial system he had created was flawed. In turn this leads to Dredd revising his views on the anti-mutant laws and the events covered by the Tour of Duty story arc.

In conclusion then, while A Question of Judgement and its immediate successors are not in themselves enormously successful stories, they sewed the seeds for the sort of development which has gone on to dominate the series for the past 23 years. There is a tendency to focus on the sprawling epics which percolate the Dredd series, but sometimes the odd six-pagers can be equally significant.

P is for The Pit

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I would argue that there are four main eras of the Judge Dredd strip. The first, which ended at the conclusion of the Judge Child saga, was mainly focused on world building and having the strip find its identity. During the second era, dominated by John Wagner and Alan Grant’s powerhouse writing partnership (and Ron Smith’s art), the strip had a very clear identity. The “golden age” of the strip, this was the era of future crime, zany crazes and at times very broad comedy. It sort of came to an end when their partnership ended, but staggered on until the conclusion of the Necropolis saga, which wrapped up a number of plot threads which had been developing throughout that era.

The third era nearly killed the strip. This is the era dominated by Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison; three writers who, regardless of their individual qualities as writers elsewhere, completely failed to understand the world John Wagner, Alan Grant and Pat Mills had established. The series declined as a series of worthless and often downright offensive stories took their toll.

Wagner and Grant have to take their share of the blame as well. While Alan Grant’s strips at their worst were better than the best Mark Millar certainly could conceive, they were hardly groundbreaking. While treating the character with somewhat more respect, his vision of the character as little more than a fascist who shoots litterers proved too limiting. John Wagner’s work during this period stands out as consistently superior but despite that they are generally unimpressive with even the Mechanismo/Wilderlands story arc failing to rise above average.

In short, the Dredd strip was in the last chance saloon even before the 1995 film failed to shine. Fortunately, it would appear that John Wagner realised that and on his return as head writer of the series, decided that radical changes were needed. This lead to The Pit (progs 970-999, 1995-1996) and the start of the fourth era of the strip (which may be ongoing or have possibly just ended; it’s too soon to tell).

Arguably, the shift in style can be dated back to The Cal Files a few progs earlier (progs 959-963, 1995); but The Pit is where it all came together. The story was a departure in two ways. Firstly, it shifted in emphasis from action adventure to police procedural – this may seem obvious for a strip about a future cop, but this sort of story had in fact been relatively rare until this point. Secondly, it shifted away from being just about Dredd himself to being more of an ensemble piece. Over the years, Dredd had acquired quite a large supporting cast but this was the first time they were presented less as sidekicks and guest stars and more as teammates.

The overall plot of The Pit is small scale in comparison with the other so-called mega-epics. Concerned by the suspicious death of its Sector Chief, the Chief Judge appoints Dredd as Acting Sector Chief of Sector 301, the eponymous Pit so named because of its high crime rates, high corruption and use as a dumping ground. Dredd sets up a team of disaffected judges to investigate the old Sector Chief’s murder and eventually helps the local force uncover a widespread conspiracy being coordinated by the Frendz Crime Syndicate.

Such a simple plot for a series famous for its nuclear wars and supernatural threats. And yet it was the most enthralling Dredd story to appear in years – quite possibly for precisely that reason. For the first time in years the strip had relatively rounded characters and actual drama (as opposed to simply blowing lots of things up). It was a winning formula.

The story introduced three significant recurring character. In addition to Galen DeMarco, there was Buell – who would go on to become the head of the internal affairs-style Special Judicial Squad – and Guthrie, a Wally Squad operative forced to go underground who Dredd decides to bring in from the cold. The story ended up having a direct sequel, Beyond the Call of Duty (progs 1101–1110, 1998) – which blended the threads left at the end of The Pit with the developing Edgar story arc, and eventually Doomsday, in which the head of the Frendz Nero Narcos decides to declare war on the judges, frustrated by their repeated attacks on his crime syndicate.

Before The Pit, it was starting to look worrying as if the Dredd strip had simply come to a natural conclusion and that there was nothing left to do with it. After The Pit, the series has never really looked back. It marked a significant change in style and tone for the strip which Wagner has now turned into a fine artform (to the extent that while Day of Chaos is superficially a retelling of Block Mania and the Apocalypse War, in style and tone it could not be more different).

Indeed, it is possible to read The Pit as analogous to the fate of the strip itself: neglected for years, Wagner returned to give the strip a new sense of purpose and pride in itself.