Daily Archives: 2 September 2012

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.