Category Archives: A-Z of Judge Dredd

W is for Wally Squad [MINOR SPOILERS]

Note the first: this post contains minor spoilers regarding a current 2000AD storyline.

NaBloPoMo November 2012Note the second: back in August, I attempted to write a personal A-Z of the comic strip Judge Dredd during the run up to the release of the new Dredd 3D film. I got fairly far in but due to work pressures (and getting slightly bored of it, if truth be told), I failed to get it all done before the film came out. So one of the tasks I’m setting myself during NaBloPoMo is to get it finished off. If you’d like to read my other efforts in this series, see the index page.

Prog 390The Wally Squad is nickname of the undercover subdivision of the Justice Department. As any Brit can guess, the word “wally” is a pejorative term to mean a foolish person and thus implies the respect and reverence that judges treat the people they serve. Once again, this is an example of how the strip rather liberally inserts British slang into the future East Coast of North America (see my previous comment on U-fronts).

First appearing in an eponymous story oddly inserted between “A Case for Treatment” and “City of the Damned” [1] (progs 390-392, 1984), artist Brett Ewins [2] drew the Wally Squad with great aplomb, drawing on the portrayal of the Mega Citizenry by Mick McMahon and Ron Smith, as well as the punk psychodelia of Ewins’s occasional collaborator Brendan McCarthy who went on to design the Judda.

Ever since that story, the Wally Squad have been a mainstay of the Dredd strip – the only real surprise being why it took them seven years from the creation of the strip to introduce them. Probably the most prominent Wally Squad character to appear in the Dredd strip itself was Guthrie, a deep cover agent who goes rogue in “The Pit” due to the deep corruption in the Sector House at which he is based.

But it is in the various spin-offs of Judge Dredd that the Wally Squad has really come alive. At the heart of this is the inherent problem the Judge Dredd Megazine has faced over the years in establishing sustainable and popular spin-offs of the series. Most Dredd spin-offs fit into one of two categories: judges from other countries or cities (Armitage, Shimura, Pan-African Judges, Missionary Man) or other Mega City One judges (Anderson, Hershey). There are only so many cop stories you can write, or shoulder pads you can draw, before it all starts to feel a bit samey. The advantage of Wally Squad spin-offs is that they not only allow artists to draw more original looking protagonists, but they allow writers to explore a rather more grey area of law enforcement where the nature of the cops’ work means that they are unable to live the monastic life that street judges must adopt. All in all, those grey areas can lead to some solid storytelling.

Lenny ZeroThe first Wally Squad strip appeared almost by accident. In order to afford commissioning Sin City and Dark Knight Returns writer-artist Frank Miller to draw a cover for the 10 year anniversary issue of the Judge Dredd Megazine, then editor Andy Diggle wrote a 10 page script for free. The Frank Miller cover was, ahem, not very good and ended up not being used but the strip Diggle wrote, Lenny Zero (Meg 3.68, 2000), was a runaway success and would lead to Diggle finding a long time collaborator in artist Jock (see Vicious Imagery and 2000AD Covers Uncovered for more details). Lenny Zero has recently returned to 2000AD (“Zero’s 7”, 2012).

Jack PointThis was soon followed by The Simping Detective, originally written and drawn by Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving respectively. Jack Point, the Simping Detective in the title (yes, the name is a reference to the Dennis Potter TV drama with a similar name) is a deep cover judge who hides behind the persona of private detective who dresses like a clown. It manages to mix Mega City lunacy with a wry, ironic Chandler-esque narrative. In some ways it is the quintessential Si Spurrier strip, with his love of sick humour and overwrought puns.

Dirty FrankMost recently we have Low Life which was originally created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint, although D’Israeli has been its exclusive artist over the last few years. Low Life, initially at least, focused on a team of Wally Squad judges but more recently has revolved around its most charismatic character Dirty Frank, who was originally modeled on Alan Moore.

Superficially, these three strips look rather similar. In the hands of their respective writers however, they are in fact quite different in tone and style. Lenny Zero has the look and feel of a rather groovy heist movie. The Simping Detective is pure comic noir. Low Life, perhaps the hardest to define, is much more absurdist (in the Simping Detective, Jack Point may be weird but the other characters are quite straight laced – in Low Life, everyone is distinctly odd).

Despite their differences, these strips (Lenny Zero excepted, at least thus far) have recently come together with Judge Dredd to form a rather unique crossover storyline. Completely untrumpeted, and initially starting as three completely different stories, the current storyline has Dredd investigating the disappearance of computer file which has major implications for both Jack Point and Dirty Frank. The high point so far was Prog 1807 when the three strips literally all flowed into each other.

Normally, crossovers in comics get announced in advance in huge neon letters, so it is a credit to the creators and editorial team that they opted to keep this little treat a secret. As surprises go, it is up there with the big reveal at the end of The Dead Man.

Nonetheless, at the time of writing the fate of the Wally Squad judges is undetermined. In many ways however, the Wally Squad typifies the genius of Dredd: taking a fairly common trope of cop shows and cinema and giving it a futuristic and cynical twist.

Notes:

[1] It is clear from the script that the latter was meant to follow on from the former – but presumably they were having problems with the artists on Damned, as you can see from the wide range of different artists who worked on it.
[2] For more on Brett Ewins’ unfortunate life since his 2000AD days and recent incarceration, see here. I for one wish him well – his treatment by the police appears to be typically heavy-handed and appalling.

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.