Democracy is a cancer eating at the heart of our society. Any action we have to take to stamp it out – however regrettable – is justified.Judge Dredd
Date: 25 July 1987
Script: John Wagner & Alan Grant; Artist: John Higgins; Letters: Tom Frame
Judge Dredd has been tasked by Chief Judge Silver to discredit the leaders of the Democracy Movement, which has called for a Democratic Charter March which is due to take place the next day. He raids the home of Kenzal Davitcek, leader of the Sons of the Constitution, and they arrest him for a library vid slug which is two days overdue. Meanwhile, Bethann Rosie, leader of the Committee for the Restoration of Civil Liberties, has been arrested on four counts of bigamy. Her former husbands line up to denounce her to the media, claiming to have not been coerced (although the bruises on their faces suggest otherwise). Morton Phillips, chairman of the Freedom League, is accused of collaborating with the Sovs during the Apocalypse War and a photograph of him dressed in a Sov uniform at a fancy dress party is leaked to the media. Two undercover judges claim in front of cameras to have witnessed him working with the Sovs.
Dredd pays a personal visit to Gort Hyman, the widower of Hester Hyman whose martyrdom the previous year sparked the recent calls for the restoration of democracy. He blackmails Gort, threatening to induct his children into the Academy of Law to train as judges, unless he backs out of the march. He relents and agrees to make a statement urging people to not attend the march. Ultimately only two of the leaders of the movement are left: Kenzal Davitcek, who has been kept up on his feet all night by the judges, and Blondel Dupre. Despite the media storm, 16 million citizens descend on Boulevard 14 to march on the Hall of Justice…
So, this is roughly where I came in as a regular 2000AD reader. My first prog was 497, although I had been into the roleplaying game and picking up the odd Titan reprint for a while before then. I had a pretty fixed idea in my head that while Judge Dredd was very fun, with cool future tech, weird mutants and lots of humour, it wasn’t especially deep. This strip really opened my eyes, and broadened my perception of what the Judge Dredd strip could be.
It is, to be clear, a particularly mean and horrible story. Dredd behaves absolutely despicably throughout, with no comeuppance. Good people have their lives ruined and we see a hopeful popular movement fatally undermined. Things get worse in the third episode; they use low frequency sonic waves to lower the crowd’s mood, plant undercover judges to start a riot and then send in the riot squad. Completely absent from this story are any high tech doodads; it’s entirely rooted in methods existing regimes use to undermine popular protest. 12 year old me didn’t really know much about any of that, but this strip has a ring of discordant authenticity which really resonated for me and helped shape my future politics. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s probably the most influential piece of media of my life.
This isn’t the first time that the strip adopted a more serious tone; it is after all the sequel to “Letter from a Democrat” (prog 460) which tells of how the judges massacre Hester Hyman and other pro-democracy protestors. Up until this point, probably the most striking “serious” set of stories was the triptych of “A Question of Judgement”, “An Error of Judgement” and “A Case for Treatment” (progs 387-389). That story however is strikingly different in that it explores Dredd’s own self doubt in the judge system – in “Revolution” he is firmly the bad guy.
The third part of “Revolution” finishes with the legend “The end… of the beginning”. In fact, we don’t see this story developed much for some time until Dredd’s doubts come to a crisis point as he is forced to assess his possible replacement, a clone called Kraken, in “Tale of the Dead Man” (progs 662-668). At the end of that story he releases Blondel Dupre, apparently regretting his actions in “Revolution”. Dredd goes into exile into the Cursed Earth and, during his absence, the Dark Judges taking over Mega City One (with Kraken’s help), in “Countdown to Necropolis” (progs 669-673). He returns to save the city but insists on a referendum to decide whether or not to restore democracy (“Nightmares” progs 702-706).
Less directly, “Revolution” is the prototype on which the celebrated “America” (Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.07) is modelled, which similarly tells a story which highlights the totalitarian nature of Dredd’s Mega City One. In that story, or rather its sequel “Fading of the Light” (Judge Dredd Megazine 3.20-3.25), the eponymous character’s daughter is inducted into the Academy of Law, a plot thread that would do on to pay off many years later (one of the things I love about Judge Dredd and how long the strip has been running is how plot lines can have pay offs over decades).
The tension between judges and the democracy movement has continued to pop up as a theme in the strip over the following few decades, sometimes with democrats presented sympathetically, sometimes less so – and with varying degrees of humour. Dredd’s assertion, that democracy is a threat to society, goes to back to the very foundation myth of the judge system, which is explored in “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535). The judges, after all, take over after a despotic US president causes a nuclear war which wipes out most of the United States. It remains an open question to what degree this myth is true, or to what degree it is an excuse used to justify their continued rule. After all, by 2142 (the year in which current Judge Dredd episodes are set), the vast majority of Mega City One has been wiped out by a successive wave of disasters, with the population going from a high point of 800 million down to 35 million by the end of “Day of Chaos” (progs 1743-1789). It remains an open question to what extent the judges are the last bulwark against annihilation or the cause, although there is no doubt that many of the enemies Dredd confronts are a whole lot worse.
Finally, a word about the artist John Higgins. Higgins’ first Dredd strip is “Beggars Banquet” (prog 456), although he was also the artist on the aforementioned “Letter from a Democrat” a month later. Most famously, Higgins was the original colourist for Watchmen (1986) and Batman: Killing Joke (1988) and he has gone on to work as both a writer and artist on many projects including his own creation Razorjack. He continues to draw, and occasionally write, Judge Dredd.
- You may have noticed that this is the first strip to appear in this series written by John Wagner and Alan Grant but not credited to “T.B. Grover”.
- Two of the three episodes of this story have 2000AD covers dedicated to them. Of course that doesn’t include part 2, so I’ve used the cover for 533 as the image for this article instead!
- From prog 520 onwards, the paper and print quality for the 2000AD was upgraded, and the page size changed. Unfortunately, the painted double page spreads which tend to frequent most Dredd episodes during this era don’t tend to look very good in black and white reprints. This is the first of several changes to the comics format to take place over the following few years.