5 Reasons I love Judge Dredd, by James Aggas

02/02/2015 | Fan Post

1. Mega-City One

Seriously, the city is probably one of my favourite things about the strip, or at least, it’s the source of many of my favourite little things about it. It’s not the design or the post-apocalyptic setting of it that makes it so great. To quote the Office (the original one): “It’s the people.” In all their insane glory.

I say ‘insane’ because that’s exactly what Mega-City One – it’s a constant flow of insanity, especially collective insanity, in all its various forms. Every week, perhaps even every day, there’s a different fad going on that people go crazy about before they get bored quickly and then move on to the next one. Activities like food eating and even sex have been turned into sports, while people risk their very lives just for a thrill in a city with a shockingly high unemployment rating.

The most frightening thing about all of this is, of course, that it’s already alarmingly close to our own society. Hardly accidental, of course – a key part of Judge Dredd has always been its satire, after all – but in the age of social media and reality television, the exaggerated future shown to us thirty years ago doesn’t seem quite so exaggerated now.

But it’s the fact that, out of all this insanity, there are so many stories to be told of individuals in Mega-City One that really make this comic stand out. Guys, I’ve read so many of the Complete Case Files now, and while there’s hardly any “epics” (i.e stories in 20 parts or more) from volumes 6 to 11 (I genuinely can’t think of any true epic stories in between The Apocalypse War and Oz, and that’s amazing to think about considering there were 4 in the first 5 years), those years are still, to me, some of the best (along with the past decade worth of strips, anyway). Because in all those short stories that last from 6 to 30 pages tops, John Wagner and Alan Grant fleshed out a number of truly believable and multidimensional individuals, people with lives, with families, with hopes and dreams, with jo- OK, maybe not jobs, I mean this is drokking Mega-City One after all, but really incredibly developed characters that a lot of the time you really felt sympathetic for, so it always comes as a gut punch when so many of them are either killed or, just as likely, arrested by Dredd anyway. Now, considering Wagner and Grant did this practically every week together, that just drokking astounds me. (Wagner has stated that he does prefer the epics because it means starting out from scratch much less, but the guy was drokking gifted when it came to the art of the short form.) All the best writers over the years have truly contributed to this amazing world that’s both fantastic and all-too believable, and that’s usually due to a really great solid grasp of its citizens.

More than that though is that what really helps sell this incredible world is simply the fact that…

2. The comic doesn’t have continuity – it has a history

The first thing I tend to think of when I think of ‘continuity’ in a comic is that a lot of the time it’s messy, due to either the heroes never aging over the decades the stories are told in or the fact that almost near complete resets happen once in a while (especially in DC’s case). This gets especially frustrating when a number of key stories or parts of mythology get completely ignored or flat out erased while other parts still happened, either because the writer of those stories still wants to develop them or because they were just too damn big/awesome to ignore. Frankly, this is one of the key things that puts me off checking out some of the major US comics, at least regularly (although I will admit, Marvel doesn’t seem quite so bad in the messy reset case, it’s just the lack of aging for everyone while the world changes around them that’s a little off-putting).

Dredd and his world though are a little bit different, in that there are no resets. There are major events that shake both Dredd and his city to their core, but there’s also always huge long-term consequences afterwards. In fact, when I first read stories like The Apocalypse War and Necropolis, there was something that really appealed to me afterwards – yes, those dark, gritty, shocking, violent and epic stories were great by themselves, but I always asked myself: what happened next? How would Dredd and the citizens of Mega-City One possibly recover from something like that (especially considering that in both those epics, the body counts were incredibly high)? When I first checked those stories out as one of a few special collected editions, only published because they were the major stories when it came to Dredd, I was disappointed, to say the least. It was always clear that in all those stories, there were not only consequences for the long-term, but there was already an established history right there, and I really wanted to find out as much as I could. This need to read more stories only exacerbated when I read America (which I’ll go into more detail later), and realised that, as brilliant and perfect a story it was by itself, there was still a side to the Dredd universe that I had never seen before – the struggle between the Judges and democracy – and that there were so many great stories I was missing out on simply because, at the time, they were just too short to be printed on their own.

So thank you, thank you so much Rebellion, for coming up with the idea of collecting and re-publishing every single Judge Dredd story from the start in order. Yes, this had been done before by both DC and Marvel with a number of their key characters, but this was the first time that bumper editions had been collected for Judge Dredd. And what a brilliant idea it was too: the series has been so successful that there are now currently 23 volumes published, with each volume being more or less focused on the equivalent of one year’s work (up to volume 15, anyway, because after that point, the Megazine material needed to be included too).

So why has this series been so successful, and why is it important to my original point? Because a key part of its success, I think, is due to the fact that the writers have genuinely rewarded long-term readers with a rich and full history of Mega-City One that constantly develops. There are always consequences, not just to major disasters, but to major decisions taken by Dredd, too. Key storylines sometimes take years to pay off (notable examples include a prophecy of Mega-City One that Dredd has to stop that’s only truly resolved four years later, and Dredd’s disillusionment of the system that begins in Oz and is eventually resolved three years later in Necropolis). In the world of Judge Dredd, there are no resets. No do-overs. This really helps sell to us that Mega-City One really does have its own sense of history, a history that’s still ongoing. One more thing that helps sell that, though?

3. Both MC-One and Dredd age in real-time

Perhaps rather ironically, considering the future setting and how a number of stories could be told in perhaps even one year of that setting, both Mega-City One and our title character have aged in real time, meaning that for every year that passes in our world, a year passes in Dredd’s, as well. So unlike a lot of comic book protagonists, Dredd really isn’t as young as he was more than thirty-five years ago.

Perhaps even more ironically, Dredd didn’t exactly start out as a fresh cadet when the comic started, having already been on the streets for over a decade and already in his mid thirties. Even as relatively as early as more than ten years into the comic, fears and doubts that Dredd might be getting too old for the job was a common theme, and one that regularly crops up every once in a while, especially now that Dredd is approaching his seventies. He may still be the best damn Judge on the streets, but that won’t last forever.

In short, the simple fact is this: Judge Dredd, both the comic and himself, have an end date. And this is a good thing.

Because having a hero who ages helps reinforce the idea that they’re vulnerable, that they’re mortal, and none more so than Judge Dredd. I pointed out in my earlier blog about the 2012 Dredd movie that one thing I loved about that film was how it showcased how vulnerable Dredd is compared to many other action movie heroes, and this was something that was carried over very successfully from the comics. Knowing that our hero’s not only isn’t bulletproof but also, unlike so many comic book heroes out there, vulnerable to time itself like the rest of us allows a stronger belief that he really could be killed at any moment and makes his stories that much more thrilling.

Of course, I don’t think that 2000 AD are going to kill off their favourite character anytime soon. I also don’t think that the end of Judge Dredd in 2000 AD would mean the end of Judge Dredd altogether – IDW started their own interpretation a couple of years back, based on some of the key storylines of the original comic, and a comic series based on the grittier universe of the recent movie has also been doing rather well – and besides, there’s still plenty of stories of prime Dredd to explore before he was first introduced to us, something that is already being explored in the series of Year One novellas. Not to mention the high number of spin-off series that could still continue without Dredd, such as Judge Anderson, Low Life, The Simping Detective or any others to come that could begin set in Dredd’s world. And as I’ve said – Dredd himself still has plenty of life in him that I don’t think it likely he’ll be killed off just yet, not even within the next decade.

But still, it’s good to know that the crucial vulnerability to his character is always there.

4. Dredd loves his job

There are many angst ridden protagonists who fight crime only because they feel they have to, not because they want to. This isn’t just limited to comic book characters, this extends to a lot of detective characters, as well.

Dredd doesn’t have such angst. He may have the occasional doubt, maybe even something more serious, but when it comes to fighting crime on the streets, he has no problem dealing with it on a regular basis. In fact, he loves it.

To me, what makes Dredd such a fascinating character is that, in every way possible, he was born to be a Judge. Being cloned from the DNA of the founder of Justice in Mega-City One probably helps, but it’s more than that. He knows that fighting crime is an endless ongoing task, and that there’ll never be enough hours in the day to help fight every crime in the city. And that’s exactly the way he likes it. He loves cleaning up the street whenever and however he can. He loves the streets, so much so that he has refused the position of Chief Judge (a position that would have him stuck behind a desk all day dealing with paperwork and meetings with other senior Judges, something that he would probably describe as ‘hell’) at every opportunity. (And, perhaps unsurprisingly considering how regularly he has saved the city, there have been many such opportunities.)

It’s refreshing to read about a character whose focus isn’t pure angst all the time, who does something that he genuinely loves, even if he doesn’t exactly show it through smiles or giving the citizens a thumbs up while saying, “Have a nice day, citizens!” (Be honest, that just left quite the image in your head, didn’t it?) Yes, Dredd has faced many hard choices, and there have been times when he’s felt disillusioned about the work he does, and these have made truly great stories. But it’s just great to read about a character who loves what they do.

Even if it’s uncertain whether what they do is morally right.

5. Dredd’s not just a hero – he’s a fascist, too

I had been a fan of Dredd as a character for quite some time before checking out America. Every so often, I would go to my local library and pick out a full-length Judge Dredd epic. These were usually stories like The Cursed Earth, The Judge Child Quest, The Apocalypse War – stories of Dredd at his most heroic, fighting against the odds to save his beloved city at any cost.

Then I stumbled across “The Complete America”, a story I’d known to be rather popular with other fans of the comic and that I’d heard gave us a rather different viewpoint on Dredd and his universe. Curious, I picked it up and read it in one night.

Oh. My. God.

This was a story that completely changed my view on comics, not just Judge Dredd but in general. Because in this story, Dredd wasn’t the ‘hero’, in fact in many ways, there were no heroes. There were no villains, either, not really. There were just a lot of people believing that they were doing the right thing in an impossible situation, and that lead to a lot of difficult choices with a lot of terrible consequences.

What made America work for me on so many levels was that it wasn’t focused on Dredd, although certainly, he and the Judges were a big part of the story. Instead, the viewpoint was on two ordinary citizens, America Jara and Bennett Beeny, and their relationship with the Judges (the former struggling for freedom and the latter trying hard to find a good life in the circumstances and reluctant to change things,) and with each other. It’s a beautifully tragic story about friendship, love, freedom, tyranny, and all the shades of grey in between. Years later, it still remains one of my favourite graphic novels ever written (and yes guys, I have read Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which are both drokking brilliant), and truly highlights that, while sometimes Judge Dredd is a good man doing his best to save his city, he’s still part of a fascist system.

But the best part about this is, although America is still one of the greatest Judge Dredd stories out there, highlighting Dredd and the Judges as fascists really wasn’t anything new. In fact, it had been part of a major story arc that had gone on for a while.

To me, Judge Dredd is one of the most morally complex and interesting characters because of that key conflict. He’s a man who’s a part of a fascist system, but he and many other Judges aren’t doing what they do for power’s sake, they’re not doing what they do because it suits them. No, the Judges – especially Dredd himself – do the job they do because they believe that it’s right. That, under the circumstances, there really is no other way. That they put a harsh leash on the citizens, but only because the previous system of democracy lead to Armageddon.

I have often said that Dredd and the Judges share a lot in common with Darth Vader and the Empire – both fascist systems, both helmeted lead characters doing what they think is right, both total drokking badasses who show no mercy to those who break their laws. But whereas Vader is clearly presented as the bad guy who still does have a craving for power, with Dredd, there are no easy distinctions. He does what he thinks is right, and if he genuinely believes the Judges are no longer doing the right thing, he will challenge that system or walk away. In fact, after facing a few harsh truths, he did exactly that…before losing his identity and facing the loss of 60 million citizens after he left. It’s difficult to really judge whether all those deaths were directly or even indirectly caused because he wasn’t there, but all he knows is that tragedy did strike when he left, and so he goes back to his job, more determined than ever at upholding the Law, no longer certain if he had made the right choice of quitting in the first place or if things would have gotten worse if had been there.

In the end, there are no easy choices to make in the world of Judge Dredd.