Category Archives: comics and geek culture

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Nightmares part 4 (prog 706)

You can squeal all you want – like it or not, it’s the way it’s going to be. And do you know why…? Because I’m right and you’re wrong. Because it’s the way I want it –

And which of you has distinguished yourself in the past months to go against me?

Eh?

Judge Dredd

Date: 24 November 1990

Script: John Wagner; Artist: Steve Dillon; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

With growing pro-democracy protests carrying on outside, Acting Chief Judge McGruder calls a meeting of senior judges to order to discuss what to do following the defeat of the Dark Judges who had taken control of the city and begun a process of mass execution of the populace. McGruder is allowed to continue as Chief Judge, despite some misgivings about her sanity.

Meanwhile, Psi Judge Anderson visits Yassa Povey, the boy who saved Dredd’s life in the Cursed Earth a few months ago but was blinded by the evil Sisters of Death in the process. Povey had been brought to the city to restore his eyesight, but in the process had been kidnapped for ransom by desperate survivors of the Dark Judge’s purges. Povey has been having nightmares of the Sisters of Death and Anderson uses her powers to help purge him of their psychic influence.

Meanwhile, Dredd fights through the protests to attend the meeting of senior judges. Finally there, he insists that they allow a referendum to establish the consent of the people for the judges to continue in control. This is met with widespread opposition, but Dredd plays his trump card: he was responsible for saving the city while most of the other judges in the room had been under the control of the Dark Judges. Dredd supports the judges continuing but insists that a vote of the people has to go ahead.

Commentary

So much has happened in the year since our last snapshot, much of which formed the culmination of 13 years of world-building. Dredd takes the Long Walk, a form of retirement in which judges go out into the wilderness to dispense justice in the Cursed Earth until they die in the attempt. This is due to a combination of factors: his growing doubts about the efficacy of the judicial system, his age (Dredd, in universe, is 46 at this point, meaning – I am horrified to realise – he retired at the same age I am now), and the fact that he had fallen out with the then-Chief Judge Silver over the decision to impose Kraken, a fellow clone of Fargo and former Judda (the bad dudes in Oz) who had been deprogrammed and retrained, to be Dredd’s successor.

Dredd’s final act as a judge was the assess Kraken for suitability to become a full Judge and deems him to be unfit to serve, but Silver overrules him, fakes Kraken’s death and brings him back passing him off as Dredd himself, whose resignation had been covered up. It is left ambiguous whether Dredd’s assessment of Kraken was correct; either way Kraken is manipulated by the Sisters of Death who use him to bring back the Dark Judges who had been lost in a limbo dimension years before.

The Sisters of Death soon realise that Kraken is not really Dredd and come after Dredd himself. In the depths of the Cursed Earth they find him and nearly kill him. Yassa Povey and his family find his horrifically burned body and restore him back to life, dubbing him The Dead Man. The Sisters return for him and Dredd fights them off, although they blind Povey in the process.

Dredd then returns to Mega City One to save the city and with the help of McGruder (who had also taken the Long Walk years before), Cadet Giant and a paralysed Psi Judge Anderson, succeeds.

All of which is a pretty curtailed summary of what was a truly exciting year of stories. The story is in fact told slightly out of sequence, with The Dead Man (2000AD progs 650-662) originally appearing in the weekly anthology as a wholly seperate story; the Dead Man’s true identity was only revealed at the end. It was a delicious twist and one that could only be pulled off in a weekly anthology comic willing. It’s a trick 2000AD would go onto repeat with Lobster Random and Sinister Dexter pulling off essentially the same twist in the 2000s, but it was not until “Trifecta” (progs 1803-1812) that 2000AD managed to pull off a twist reveal like this that had anything like the same impact.

Dredd’s retaking of Mega City One, told in the story “Necropolis” (progs 674-699) is a bit of a letdown compared to the amazing build up it received, but it still has some wonderful moments, such as Dredd’s climactic showdown with a corrupted and utterly broken Kraken.

Back to “Nightmares”, this final part has some nice touches as well. In particular I like the suggestion by McGruder, left ambiguous, that not all the judges who worked with the Dark Judges were under their control; some may have simply gone along with it. We also get the introduction of Niles – who goes on to become a recurring character and trusted Dredd ally after some stumbles – and Grice – who goes on to become a villain.

This story ends with the judges deciding to allow a referendum on their continued existence to go ahead, a plot point which goes on to be explored in “The Devil You Know” (progs 750-753) and “Twilights Last Gleaming” (progs 754-756). While the former was written by John Wagner, the latter was scripted by Garth Ennis. During this period, John Wagner would go on to step back from writing Dredd, leaving Ennis to take over – although both Wagner and his long time collaborator Alan Grant would continue to script Dredd in the Judge Dredd Megazine (or rather Judge Dredd: The Megazine as it was known as then), which was first published on 1 October 1990.

Indeed, it is interesting to contrast the Dredd in “Nightmares” and in the run up to “Necropolis” with the Dredd we see in America, a spin off strip which had just started in the Megazine (issues 1.01 to 1.07). In America, Dredd is very much the villain and the main antagonist in a series which explores the rise of the Democracy Movement and their struggle against the Judges. This is much more in keeping with the Dredd we saw back in “Revolution“. There is a clear tension between the Dredd who stands for law and order and considers democracy to be dangerous, and the Dredd who recognises that the Judge system has massively failed the people and this is a theme that in different ways would go on to dominate John Wagner’s solo writing from this point forward, culminating in an impressive connected storyline which ran from “Origins” in 2007 (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535) until “Day of Chaos” in 2012 (progs 1743–1789). I don’t think this tension ever really gets resolved, and since Wagner stepped back as the lead writer at the end of “Day of Chaos” subsequent writers have been less interested in exploring it, but it has certainly lead to many of the most interesting strips to come out of the series.

I should mention Steve Dillon briefly, as this is the first time I’ve covered an episode featuring his artwork in this blog series, despite his Dredd art first appearing in 1981. This is very much Dillon at the height of his powers, shortly before he would break into the US with his run on Hellblazer (working with Garth Ennis, who he would go onto first work with on Dredd a few months after this story was published). Not many artists could make a 6 page episode focused on a bunch of people arguing in a council meeting visually interested, but Dillon pulls it off here.

Trivia

  • I’m not convinced that the repeated jibes about McGruder’s facial hair (a cis woman in late middle age) which appear here, in “Necropolis” and in most of her subsequent appearances, have especially aged well – or that they were that funny at the time. McGruder has an arc over the next few years which focuses on her declining mental health and paranoia. It’s interesting, but I do wish it had been more sensitively handled at times as the jokes about her needing to shave get quite old (and under writers other than Wagner, tend to get even worse).

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Young Giant part 1 (prog 651)

Being a judge’s woman never helped my mother, sir… Where were the judges when she needed them? Where was my father?

Cadet Giant challenges Dredd

Date: 4 November 1989

Script: John Wagner; Artist: Carlos Ezquerra; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

Dredd is given the task of assessing a cadet judge, the son of his old colleague Judge Giant. Cadet Giant, it emerges, is the child of Giant and an interior designer Adele Dormer, who was killed while a refugee following the fallout of the Apocalypse War. The boy has anger management issues and Dredd tries to get through to him. On a routine patrol, they come across a man selling illegal vi-zines (magazines depicting graphic violence and murder). Dredd decides to follow this up, while Giant’s memories of his mother’s violent death is triggered by flicking through one of the zines.

Commentary

I decided to temporarily pause writing this series at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, feeling that it wasn’t an appropriate time to be blogging about a comic strip portraying police brutality no matter how satirical (and, to be clear, Dredd is satirical) at the time. And then I started going physically back to work again and having a lot less free time and before I knew it two months had passed!

Cadet Giant is a legacy character. Despite the comic only being 12 years old by this time, he is actually the third generation in a line which began with John “Giant” Clay, the lead character from the strip Harlem Heroes. Harlem Heroes originally ran from progs 1-27 and featured a team of “Aeroball” players (think Quidditch but with jetpacks instead of brooms) modelled on the Harlem Globetrotters.

In “The Academy of Law” (progs 27-28), Dredd assesses Rookie Judge Giant, John Clay’s son, for suitability to become a full judge. Giant would go on to become a recurring character, playing a pivotal role in helping Dredd defeat the tyrannical Cal in “The Day the Law Died” (progs 89-108). He would go on to die at the conclusion of “Block Mania” (progs 236-244), infamously shot in the back by Sov assassin Orlock.

The murder of Judge Giant was a matter of some controversy at the time, with many feeling the treatment of the death of such a fan-favourite character was poorly handled, and in this episode of “Young Giant” the story is sort of retconned, with Dredd implying that Giant had been distracted by his feelings for the mother of his child (I didn’t say it was a great retcon…).

This third Giant would go on to play a pivotal role in “Necropolis” (progs 674-699), which like “The Day the Law Died” also features Dredd trying to overthrow a tyrant who has taken control of the judges and has condemned the city to death. Giant would eventually become a full judge and continues to crop up in the strip from time to time. Indeed, the controversy surrounding his father’s death appears to have granted him a certain amount of plot armour as he has managed to last as a supporting cast member for over 30 years by this point.

Although this strip is a fairly compelling character essay, with Giant learning to accept his role, it is a shame that it has remained the last bit of character development he has received. By the time “Necropolis” starts just a few months later, Giant seems perfectly well adjusted to his life as a judge and we never see him harbouring any rage or resentment later. This is a bit of a pattern sadly; there are numerous times where a character has been introduced with a compelling arc only to have them be little more than background characters in subsequent stories.

I feel that I should talk a bit about race here. 2000AD has a mixed record when it comes to dealing with racism and reflecting racial diversity. On the one hand, the aforementioned Harlem Heroes featured a group of black protagonists as far back as the first issue. On the other hand, after 43 years, I can only think of a single black protagonist to feature in a long running strip (Ramon Dexter in Sinister Dexter). Particularly in the early days, racism and colonialism was dealt with repeatedly in 2000AD, but indirectly. In place of stories dealing with the experiences of real people of colour, we had strips tackling discrimination via the conventional sci-fi lenses of robots, aliens and mutants (in the case of Dredd all three, while Strontium Dog would focus on mutants, Ro-Busters would focus on robots and Nemesis the Warlock focused on aliens).

For a comic aimed at 8 year olds that’s okay; it contains the lessons without directly confronting the scary reality. But modern 2000AD is aimed at adults and while a political streak continues through most strips that are published, in a lot of ways it shies away more from real world issues than it was doing 40 years ago.

It is no more a thorny topic than in Judge Dredd in which the judicial system is shown to be pretty progressive when it comes to both race and gender, but which we are also supposed to understand as being fascistic and authoritarian. Most definitions of fascism include the subjugation of women and racial minorities as key criteria and there comes a point, for me anyway, where not dealing with this issue feels like an omission.

(As an aside, I feel similarly to how the Galactic Empire and First Order is presented in the Disney-era Star Wars, where they occasionally acknowledge that the regimes are racist against non-humans but are at pains to show how racially diverse the military is at every level)

I’m always reminded by the time when I used to work in a comic shop almost 30 years ago when I used to serve a police officer who on numerous occasions would tell me that “Judge Dredd has the right idea”. That was a teachable moment. It’s a depressing fact that for many people the satire goes completely over their heads, as does the fact that by almost all criteria the judicial system is shown as a failure. And I wonder to what extent that sci-fi veneer gives people an opt out to think of all this as a power fantasy, and to what extent I’m complicit in that.

I don’t exactly know what my preferred solution would be, or even if there is one. In Nemesis the Warlock, Pat Mills would often include sequences to remind the reader that the sci-fi fascists in the strip are direct analogues to fascists and racists in the real world, but that was often very on the nose (such as the “Seth Efricen Chief Bigot”) and I’m not sure would work here. I’m not sure what having judges suddenly embracing white supremacy in universe would really achieve. But for now, I think I should just acknowledge that it is an issue that readers should bear in mind when reading the strip; it’s certainly something I personally ponder a lot.

Westworld Season 3: how not to portray a global crisis

So I binge watched Westworld Season 3 this weekend, as the riots in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd across the US unfurled and with the global coronavirus pandemic in the background. And it felt weirdly out of time, a weird mash up of media from the past which hasn’t dated well.

Spoiler warning in case you don’t know and do care, but this season of the TV show centres around the idea that an AI has been built which can predict everything everyone will ever do (with a few exceptions, the “outliers”) and has been used to secretly control the world. Delores, the android “host” who is the main protagonist of the first two seasons of the show, is now wandering around the real world and attempting to disrupt the plans of this AI and its controller-slash-puppet Serac. Maybe she wants to end humanity. Maybe she wants to free it. Who knows? You get the drill.

The season seems to enjoy cribbing from every sci-fi film you’ve ever watched. There’s a lot of Blade Runner, or more precisely Blade Runner 2049 (particularly in the soundtrack, which I have to say I was not a big fan of). We get plenty of Robocop. Incongruously, the AI Rehoboam’s graphical interface looks like the language the aliens use in Arrival. But the core concept, that a computer can perfectly model everything about you by reading your search history and social media posts – itself an expansion on the idea in season two that you can understand everything there is to know about someone by how many people they rape and murder at a novelty theme park – is one plucked straight out of failed Battlestar Galactica spin off show Caprica.

I thought it was a dumb idea on Caprica and I think it’s a dumb idea here. But I guess you could say that about a lot of sci-fi ideas – what matters is the story you tell with it. The problem with Westworld (and Caprica as far as I can remember) is that all of the social implications such technology like that would have in the real world is left in the backdrop in order to focus on the idea of a bunch of protagonists having a metaphorical and literal punchup.

I’m reminded of a Scientific American article from last year which talked about how Game of Thrones went from telling sociological stories to psychological ones – at a huge cost. To be clear, Westworld has always been more interested in psychological storytelling, but as it moves out of its themepark origins and into the wider world, it seems quite striking that its focus hasn’t also widened.

But it isn’t just that the huge sociological implications of a macguffin that can, um, control social progress, is kept in the background – it’s the way it is done. Because at the midpoint when Delores and conspirators manage to release the data so that everyone has access to their personal data telling them when they’ll die, how their marriage will fail, etc., the response of the general public is to riot.

At this point, the comparisons shift from Caprica to another Jonathan Nolan scripted piece of media, The Dark Knight Rises. If you recall, that film rests on the premise that if you cut a city off from the mainland and lock the police underground then it will immediately descend into chaos, and this is analogous to what happens in Westworld as far as we can tell (as I said, it’s left in the background and thus not really explored). At the time, people including myself lambasted The Dark Knight Rises for being a rightwing edgelord wank fantasy in which the public are essentially one meal away from descending into barbarism and that it is up to Great Men to maintain control. This is essentially the same idea in Westworld. It ends on a hopeful note with the character Caleb entrusted with the control of Rehoboam and the possibility that it won’t immediately lead to the end of civilisation, but the odds given are not that great and even then its all down to Caleb as one of the few individuals capable of True Free Will (which the story illustrates by the fact that he is capable of shooting people in the face a lot but resists the temptation to rape Delores in a flashback when he receiving military training in the theme park).

Westworld isn’t the first example of modern media to espound this thesis; indeed its part of a trend and some examples aren’t even written by Jonathan Nolan. But the last few months highlight how flawed this thesis is and how hollow this drama subsequently rings.

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and although it is far too early to write the history books on it just yet, a few things appear to be emerging. Firstly, the response of the public hasn’t been to riot but to help. Secondly, governments which put the most stock into the Great Man Theory have, to put it mildly, been struggling. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Dominic Cummings have built their careers on the idea that the public is a rabble to be controlled, but when an actual crisis has come along they have been shown to not be up to the job.

And as for the riots? Well, there’s no doubt that people do riot. But much of the rioting in the US right now, as opposed to the protests, seem to have been deliberately provoked by the police – and that’s even if you leave to one side the fact that the protests were kicked off by flagrant police brutality in the first place and the numerous attacks on journalists. You know where there aren’t riots right now? In the cities where the police have joined the protests.

Watching these fictional riots while cities across the US are facing very real crises was uncomfortable, mainly because they appeared to just exist in the background while white people debate the future of humanity. In fact it is striking at how this season hasn’t dealt with race at all. You can arguably justify it in the first two seasons as they were set on a theme park, but with the focus switched to the wider world it wasn’t a topic that seemed to come up at all, which for a show purporting to bombard us with truth bombs about human nature seems more than a little cowardly. It does touch on class, even if it is much more interested in the wealthy than the poor, but I just can’t see how you can decouple race from class these days. Even the strong black characters of the past seasons, Maeve, Charlie and Bernard, were relegated to relatively background roles this season. Maeve spends most of the season out Surac’s dirty work for fairly unconvincing reasons, Charlie has been replaced by a duplicate of Dolores before she goes rogue herself (again, for not entirely clear reasons – her story just sort of runs out). Meanwhile Bernard just… wanders around.

Maybe this is making a smarter point than it first appeared, and they’ll show up next season to fix the mess everyone else has now left – but I’m sceptical. Fundamentally, I’ve had enough of media feeding me this pessimistic vision of humanity: it isn’t rooted in the world I see around me and it feels increasingly like an agenda to shape how people perceive it. If all that Westworld has to say to is that humanity is doomed without strong leaders to tell us what to do, then I for one have had enough. The first season was a fun enough little story which played around with time and neatly subverted the plot of the original film, but it has struggled to have anything to say ever since.