Category Archives: Dredd Stuff

Judge Dredd Snapshots: The Blood of Satanus Part 2 (prog 153)

Another innocent citizen dead – and all because of STUPIDITY!

But, Judge Dredd – there was nothing we could do… nothing SHE could do.

She could have left a forwarding address!

Dredd talking with a fellow judge

Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Ron Smith; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot summary

The unfortunately named Rex Peters, who had been transformed into a half-man-half-tyrannosaur monstrosity in the last episode, kills and eats his wife before moving on to do the same to Cyril J. Ratfinkle, the lab assistant who was responsible for tricking him into drinking the eponymous blood of Satanus which was responsible for the transformation. After discovering the bodies, Dredd goes off in pursuit of Peters only to find him in his office where is was attempting to hang himself. But the tyrannosaur takes hold of him once again and attempts to kill Dredd.

Commentary

As luck would have it, this is the third of my first four articles which feature an episode scripted by Pat Mills. “The Blood of Satanus” would go on to be Mills’ last Dredd script for 15 years until “Flashback 2099: The Return of Rico” (progs 950-952).

Legend has it that in the original script of this strip, Mills intended for Rex Peter’s wife Lynsey to be an ex-girlfriend of Dredd’s, but it was decided that Dredd wouldn’t have any romantic relationships. Presumably this was changed quite late in the process because Dredd’s body language on discovering Lynsey’s corpse suggests that he is rather more distraught than the callous dialogue (repeated above) would suggest. So this is another example of Mills attempting to inject Dredd with a little more humanity.

Initially, this no romance rule seemed to just be because the comic was aimed at prepubescent boys who don’t like kissing – in other words, the characters might be screwing in the background but we just aren’t bothered with such things. It isn’t a universal rule – Dredd is even seen attempting to seduce one of his captors in “Battle of the Black Atlantic” (progs 128-129), albeit in an attempt to evade capture rather than to get his rocks off (although I believe this is the only story to feature Dredd actually groping someone). Eventually it evolved to become a part of the lore itself, with it implied in “Love Story” (prog 444) that judges are prohibited from having romantic or sexual relationships – a story played for laughs – and then further explored in “The Falucci Tapes” (progs 461-463) – a somewhat more sombre story in which a judge is blackmailed over his secret affair. It’s a theme that comes back from time to time, especially in the 90s when recurring character Judge DeMarco falls for Dredd (“Beyond the Call of Duty”, progs 1101-1110).

The “Satanus” in the title is a significant recurring character, both in Judge Dredd and across 2000AD. Satanus first appeared in “The Cursed Earth” (progs 61-85), which we have already touched upon. Satanus is a black Tyrannosaur who is cloned from a fossil and was the star attraction of a dinosaur theme park before going on a rampage and killing his keepers, and yes, the parallels to Jurassic Park are undeniable (which is not to say that Michael Crichton took the idea from 2000AD – early Dredd is stuffed with sci-fi concepts that had been mined from elsewhere).

However, that’s only half of the story. It goes on to emerge that Satanus is the son of Old One Eye, the tyrannosaur antagonist of Flesh!, a strip which ran in the very earliest days of 2000AD (progs 1-19). Mills would go on to reincorporate Satanus numerous times. His son, Golgotha, appears in the ABC Warriors (“Golgotha”, progs 134-136), shortly before “The Blood of Satanus” appeared in print, and would go on to appear in Nemesis the Warlock from “Book Five” (progs 435-445) onwards. “The Blood of Satanus” would even go on to get its own spin-offs/sequels in the Judge Dredd Megazine, although they are pretty tangential (“Blood of Satanus II: Dark Matters”, Megazine 214-217; “Blood of Satanus III: The Tenth Circle”, Megazine 257-265).

Finally, this is the first time we have met Ron Smith in this series, who after Mike McMahon would go on to become the iconic Dredd artist for the early-to-mid 1980s. Ron Smith first worked on “The Day the Law Died” (progs 89-110), drawing four of the episodes, and he quickly became a regular artist on the strip. His humourous (not not especially cartoonish) style complimented the more comedic direction the strip was go in during that period, particularly when John Wagner began his co-writing partnership with Alan Grant. He would also go on to be the main artist for the weekly Saturday Judge Dredd strip which appeared in the Daily Star from 1981 onwards (when the format switched to a shorter strip appearing in the weekday editions of the newspaper, he stepped back), which was more overtly comedic.

Here we see a fairly early example of Ron Smith’s work. He hasn’t quite settled into the style that he is best known for; particularly the inking is much heavier and occasionally more sketchy compared to his later work.

Trivia

  • One of the things Ron Smith is known for is his tendency to reuse character art in his Dredd work. Ratfinkle’s boss, who shows up in this episode, is the spitting image of a Russian spy who appeared in “Battle of the Black Atlantic” (progs 128-129), and years later appears again as an android in “Casey’s Day Out” (prog 422).
  • Wisely, Smith doesn’t opt to give the man-tyrannosaur the short arms that tyrannosaurus rex is famous for; nonetheless, the creature design doesn’t look very much like the original dinosaur – neither is it believed to have the prehensile tail that it uses to choke Dredd at the end of this episode! But then, the idea that drinking dinosaur blood would turn you into man-monster seems a little hinky, so perhaps its a little futile trying to understand the science behind this story.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Christmas Comes to Des O’Connor Block (prog 144)

It’s from Judge Dredd! He’s going to forget about all that killin’! He says I can murder anyone I like! Whoopee!

Hunk Smythe

Script: John Wagner; Artist: Mike McMahon; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot summary

Dredd is alerted to huge traffic jams outside of the Des O’Connor apartment block. Investigating it appears that all of the residents have been sent presents, and that the couriers have been ordered to dress up in Christmas regalia, despite it not being Christmas. It emerges that Barney, the City Hall Computer, has malfunctioned and in a misguided attempt to make all of the residents of Des O’Connor Block happy, is giving them all what they want. Attempts to shut down Barney fail, but ultimately the computer realises that he has ended up making people more unhappy than before and so he shuts down.

Commentary

The first two episodes I covered in this series are fairly atypical for Judge Dredd, not merely because they were written by Pat Mills, but also because one was part of a so-called “epic” story while the other explores Dredd’s backstory. This episode, by contrast, is much more focused on Mega City One life, and Dredd takes more of a backseat. Unusually perhaps, this is true in the case of most Dredd strips.

The more common episode has some crime committed, the situation escalates, and Dredd sort of turns up at the end to sort it out (normally with a bit of violence thrown in). This episode follows that basic structure, although it is unusual because it doesn’t actually get resolved by Dredd either shooting anyone or beating them up (although he gets to do that as well!). Instead, the story ultimately sorts itself out as Barney discovers that he has made a grave error of judgement.

Barney originally appears in “Father Earth” (progs 122-125), but stories about robots and computers going haywire go back as far as “Krong” (prog 5) and is a central part of the strip’s first multi-part storyline “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17). It’s a theme that John Wagner would return to again and again, arguably most significantly with the introduction of robot judges in “Mechanismo” (Megazine 2.12–17) – a plot element that has been returned to repeatedly over the last 25 years.

This is also one of the first stories to feature the idea of the city block, or “block” as they are more conventionally known. Although the idea that everyone lived in massive skyscrapers is a concept that is established on the first page of the very first episode “Judge Whitey” (prog 2), it was only really with “City Block” (prog 117-118) that the strip began to explore what every day life for the citizens of Mega City One was really like and look at blocks as a sociological perspective. “City Block” is also where the convention that most buildings are named after famous people from the 20th Century was established, normally for humourous or ironic effect. It also quickly became a norm for blocks to be named after British celebrities that very few Americans would have ever heard of – Des O’Connor being a case in point!

It is also significant to see how Mike McMahon’s artwork here has evolved compared to “The Return of Rico“. That in itself is already significantly different to his early work when he essentially copied Dredd creator Carlos Ezquerra’s style (to Ezquerra’s chagrin), but by the time we get to Des O’Connor Block, McMahon has settled into the style he is perhaps most famous for, the cartoonish, gangly Dredd with massive boots. He’d continue to adopt this style for a year or so, but his style continued to evolve. He only draws occasionally for the strip now, but when he does his style is far more abstract to the point of being almost cubist in style.

Trivia

  • If you don’t know, Des O’Connor was a light entertainer who was a staple part of British television from the 1960s-2000s.
  • Although this story is not set at Christmas, it did in fact appear in an issue of 2000AD that was published around Christmastime (it has a cover date of 22 December, which at the time meant that it was due to be withdrawn from sale on that date). This is a minor break from the tradition in the Judge Dredd strip that stories typically take place 122 years after publication (making this episode set in 2101 AD and the current date in the strip being 2142).

Judge Dredd Snapshots: The Cursed Earth Part 5 – The Mutie Mountains (prog 65)

No! No! Not… the teeth!

Mutant Brotherhood goon

Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Brian Bolland; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot summary

As part of their mercy mission crossing the Cursed Earth to save Mega City Two from the deadly 2T(fru)T virus, Dredd’s crew reach Mount Rushmore (which has been relocated to be closer to Mega City One). There they discover that an extra head has been carved on the iconic monument, that of the head of the Mutant Brotherhood Brother Morgar. The Mutant Brotherhood attacks Dredd’s party and captures two of his fellow judges, but Dredd manages to outmaneuvre them and threatens to blow up Morgar’s sculture unless he frees the judges. The judges are freed, but the Mutant Brotherhood live to pursue the crew…

Commentary

By the time “The Cursed Earth” started in 2000AD (progs 61-85), Dredd’s popularity had been come firmly established sufficiently that he replaced Dan Dare as the leading strip in 2000AD. At the time, 2000AD was predominantly black and white with the exception of the cover and centre pages. Becoming the lead strip meant that each episode would lead with a colour splash page, and this chapter includes one of the most iconic examples of this.

The art is by Brian Bolland, although most “Cursed Earth” episodes were illustrated by Mike McMahon. Bolland is known as one of the most iconic Dredd artists and it is easy to see why – although at this stage his art is still developing and we are yet to see him at his height. This is a good example of the sort of project Bolland was given at the time; an opportunity for his imagination to run riot with all sorts of different character designs.

“The Cursed Earth” is the first so-called “mega epic” in the strip’s history, although it is predated by the much shorter “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17) and the Luna-1 cycle (progs 42-58), which is more a series of interconnected stories. Taking place almost immediately after Luna-1, it means that for almost the entirety of Dredd’s second year of publication, the action takes place outside of Mega City One.

The idea that Mega City One bordered on an irradiated wasteland inhabited by mutants was established as far back as “The Brotherhood of Darkness” (prog 4), and the Brotherhood of Mutants and Brotherhood of Darkness share a number of similarities – indeed both seem to have their roots in “The Family” which appears in the Charlton Heston “kill all hippies” film The Omega Man (1971) – itself an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954). That said, the overall plot of The Cursed Earth is acknowledged to be strongly influenced by the novel Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny (1967) and its film adaptation (1977).

This episode makes extensive use of the all terrain vehicle which features in “The Cursed Earth”. The Judge Dredd strip, especially in the early days, commonly featured exciting new technology. The Land Raider is a bit unique however in that it is actually a tie in with a range of Matchbox toys which were launching at the time called Adventure 2000. This episode is the first to properly show the vehicle in action as it seperates its two sections and the rear section scales the face of Abraham Lincoln (damaging his nose in the process).

This is another strip by Pat Mills, and it is interesting to see how Dredd is presented in this arc. Early Dredd strips see the main character as quite unapolegetically violent and cruel, whereas here he is presented as much more just and merciful. Indeed, the action revolves around the fact that they are attempting to avoid a confrontation with the mutants. He comes across as a veritable bleeding heart liberal in this episode in his attitude towards mutants, refusing to kill them even after they capture two of his fellow judges (a fact which comes back to bite them in the bum in the very next episode).

Overall, Mills tended to humanise Dredd as much as possible in all of his early strips. The characterisation of Dredd has varied greatly over the years as different writers have tackled him, but for the most part the main writer John Wagner adopts a somewhat less sadistic version in future strips than he did in the earlier strips, suggesting that Mills influenced him somewhat in this respect. Indeed, “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535), which is a sequel of sorts to “The Cursed Earth” sees Dredd start along a path in which he becomes advocate for mutant rights, a plot point which goes on to dominate the strip for the following three years.

A final point, since this is the first time he has cropped up, about Tom Frame. Frame would end up becoming the main letterist for Judge Dredd and his tight, efficient script ended up becoming a part of the strip’s personality itself.

Trivia

  • Yes, that is indeed a carving of President Carter on the left of Mount Rushmore. Anachronistic pop cultural references played for laughs are a very common trope in Judge Dredd.
  • Dredd’s main companion throughout this run is Spikes Harvey Rotten, an outlaw punk biker who orignally appears in “Mega City 5000” (progs 40-41). Notably his character design is completely different in that story, resembling a Hell’s Angel than a punk. I’m guessing original artist Bill Ward didn’t have a clue who Johnny Rotten was, and missed the reference.
  • The appearance of a can of Heinz baked beans is only the first branded item we see in “The Cursed Earth” – indeed the story famously features two arcs – “Burger Wars” (progs 71-73) and “Soul Food” (progs 77-78) – which for many years were banned from being reprinted for fear of the various trademark holders suing them. Those episodes were scripted by John Wagner and Chris Lowder respectively, and not Pat Mills.
Rico Dredd

Judge Dredd Snapshots: The Return of Rico (Prog 30)

He-he ain’t heavy – he’s my brother!

Judge Dredd

Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Mike McMahon; Letters: Tony Jacob

Plot summary

A mysterious figure arrives as the Kennedy Space Port and tries to make contact with Joe Dredd, claiming to also be called Judge Dredd. Dredd immediately realises that Rico has returned. He returns to his apartment to find Rico waiting for him, having shut off the oxygen and heating. It is revealed that Rico and Joe are both clones who were inducted to the Academy of Law from birth. Rico ultimately graduated top of the class, with Joe a close second. But Rico ends up being corrupt and, after killing a man, Joe arrests him. Rico is sentenced to 20 years on the Penal Colony of Titan, from where he has just returned. He reveals that in order to survive the harsh climate on Titan, his body has been adapted and horrifically disfigured. He proposes a shootout to the death, but Joe is too quick for him and Rico is killed.

Commentary

Although I have selected this episode at random, I couldn’t have picked a better one to start with! During the first year, the lore surrounding Judge Dredd, not to mention the creative teams, underwent a lot of revision. Although it is now seen as a fairly core part of the strip, this is actually the first time it is established that Dredd is in fact a clone.

Indeed, it is an idea that doesn’t get explored very much for a long time. Rico doesn’t come up again until nearly two years later when it is revealed he has a daughter (“Vienna”, prog 116), and it isn’t even established that he is a clone of Judge Fargo, the founder of the judge system, until 1984’s “Dredd Angel” (progs 377-383) – although I believe it was mentioned in a timeline that was published in an annual before then. After that, however, this aspect gradually became more of an established part of the lore, and eventually a younger clone of Dredd would adopt the name “Rico” in “Blood Cadets” (1186-1188), a story which contains a partial flashback to this one. This Judge has not turned out to be corrupt.

Possibly Rico’s most famous appearance was as the main antagonist in the 1995 Judge Dredd motion picture. In this case he is presented as being genetically identical, and even has the same fingerprints, but is played by the Armand Assante as opposed to Sylvester Stallone who was in the lead role.

The other concept introduced in this story is the idea of the Penal Colony on Titan where corrupt judges are sent. This would go on to become a central feature in “Inferno” by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Carlos Ezquerra (progs 842-853) and later still in “Titan” by Rob Williams and Henry Flint (progs 1862-1869).

It is worth noting that this episode is written by Pat Mills. Pat Mills is the founding editor of 2000AD, but the main Judge Dredd writer at the time (and for most of the strip’s history) was creator John Wagner. In fact, the sum total of Judge Dredd strips written by Pat Mills is very small – essentially it comprises this and “The Cursed Earth” (progs 61-85), but his influence during the strip’s early development is hard to under-estimate. Pat Mills would go back to revisit this story in 1995, with “Flashback 2099: The Return of Rico” (progs 950-952). This is essentially the same story, padded out. I have to say I think it is the inferior of the two tellings, as the original is a masterpiece in efficient storytelling. The remake includes lots of ellipses about how the judicial system is essentially fascist which, firstly, we sort of knew without having it spelt out, and secondly, doesn’t really justify Rico committing extortion and murder – so it’s hard to see what point is being made.

More typically for this era, it it illustrated by Mike McMahon. McMahon became the default Dredd artist following creator Carlos Ezquerra’s departure citing creative differences. This is still very early McMahon, at a time when he was essentially hired because of his ability to replicate Ezquerra’s art style. McMahon’s style would develop significantly over the following years, and this isn’t rendered in the “big boots” style that became his trademark, but it still has some incredibly dynamic figure work. No-one has ever managed to draw a better Rico than the on page 5. It’s also worth noting that during this period, Dredd’s uniform was still undergoing a fair bit of revision; this strip still has him drawn with the “rounded visor” style of the early days. Eventually McMahon would go on to develop the more angular version of the helmet that is more familiar during the “Luna-1” cycle of stories (progs 42-58, wherein Dredd is made temporary “Judge Marshall” of a lunar outpost) and other artists would go on to adopt this style.

Trivia

  • The “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” quote is of course a reference to the Hollies’ pop song from 1969.
  • One curiosity is that at one point Rico overwhelms Maria, Dredd’s housekeeper, and ties her up in the apartment, only to go on to remove all the oxygen from the apartment. How she survives is not clear – although she does appear on the last page (and in subsequent stories). Dredd’s servodroid Walter the Wobot does not appear in this episode – presumably he’s out shopping.
  • You actually see Joe and Rico Dredd’s unmasked faces as young men in a couple of frames, albeit as long shots. The tradition of never showing Dredd’s face actually began as far back as prog 8 when Dredd’s face is “censored” – apparently because it was too ghastly to show to readers.
Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd Snapshots

It’s been a while since I wrote anything 2000AD related on this blog, and I’ve been getting back into it recently, so I thought I’d start a new blog series and see how far I get.

The idea of this project is to take a random single Judge Dredd episode from each year and write about it, with a view to exploring a bit of the strips’ history and how it has developed over the years. As it will be random, sometimes I’ll be reviewing two stories that are fairly close together and at other times they’ll be quite far apart. I’ll obviously be missing a lot out, not least of all the various specials and the Judge Dredd Megazine, but I’ll try to give context where appropriate.

We’ll see how far I get! I have a tendency to not finish projects such as these, and even just one post per year of Dredd still amounts to 43 posts and counting. But hopefully I can have some fun with it.

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.

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.