Classic Dredd cover by Mike McMahon, showing Dredd and Uncle Ump, probably the saddest Dredd story, IMHO.

With less than a week to the North American release of the new Judge Dredd movie, I felt like I should say something about the franchise, perhaps as a primer for North Americans who aren’t familiar with this very British gem.

As an early teen and subscriber of the comic 2000AD, I grew up with a weekly dose of Judge Dredd. It was pretty much everything a British teenage boy wanted: action filled, imagination expanding, great lines and amazing artwork. I enjoyed every week and the variety of story lines – it went all over the place. Gang warfare, controlled substances, game shows, democratic protests, superhero vigilantes, communist city states, alien invaders and Dredd’s ever-present sardonic one-liners gave the reader a connection to its craziness – as unemotional as he was, Dredd is the person closest to our sensibilities, the quintessential “straight-man.”

A casual reader, perhaps someone who bought the comic on a news-stand – or actually read it in the newspaper since Dredd was a syndicated comic strip in Britain’s Daily Star newspaper – might dismiss the real depth of the content. Judge Dredd is much more than a hard-assed cop in a futuristic world, but a commentary on a future dystopia protected by a fascist police state, a dissertation on culture run-amuck, as well as a parody/prediction about the future of United States of America.

Dredd’s first appearance in 2000AD #2, 1977.

It is my understanding that Dredd’s creator, John Wagner, born an American but grew up in Scotland, wrote Dredd to be a satire of the trends of the USA’s culture, written with scathing Scottish angst and black humour. Wagner’s future America is one of rampant overpopulation, with hundreds of millions of people living in gigantic city blocks, enduring unemployment and depression, unable to deal with the day to day life without purpose or confused by futuristic developments and freaking out, taking to crime to relieve boredom, or just going plum insane. To combat the growing problems, the police forces become more and more totalitarian in terms of control until they are the only means of controlling the developing anarchy. Enter the Judges: highly trained, emotionally disciplined men and women who protect the citizens from each other and themselves. Where the Judges differ from current police forces lies in their amount of power, which is complete: a Judge is granted to the power to be Judge, Jury and Executioner. If a Judge believes you are a danger to society, you will be arrested or executed on the spot.

Dredd is, on many levels, a knee jerk reaction to the times in which it was created. The threat of communism, military over-spending, the xenophobic fears of outsiders, the conservative government of Britain, all of these can be seen on the pages, if only as caricature stereotypes. As the seventies bled into the eighties and Dredd evolved, it focussed on the stories of the time.

An obvious nod to American culture, another cover by Mike McMahon

With America being one of the forefronts of popular culture over the years, it has seen its fair share of strange trends: Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-me-Elmo, drug culture, art and music trends, clothing and so on, which is mirrored in Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. Constant nods to modern day culture pop up in the comic, with city blocks being named after famous actors or characters, usually appropriately named to carry a story, such as a block war between William Shatner and Harrison Ford blocks, or some-such, where the citizens only real allegiance is to their own homes. Bizarre Mega-City fads such as “Getting Ugly” where fans undergo horrific surgery to be as ugly as possible, use of “Boing” – a kinetic energy absorbing substance that can enable a human to survive a fall off a building top, Umpty Candy – the most addictive substance known to mankind which doesn’t have an addictive substances in it and many more. The fads and strange crimes have counterparts in the USA of today and yesteryear, with cosmetic surgery running amok and creating a different kind of ugly, or extreme sports such as base jumping, or the addiction of America to high calorie soft drinks… (Not just the USA, but the western world as well; however, since Dredd concerns the USA and its future Mega-Cities, I am referring to the US in particular)

The reader of Judge Dredd’s world identifies with the Judges themselves. With Dredd as the hero, the reader is always looking over his shoulder and seeing the chaos unfold, ultimately deciding that the Judges are a necessary evil to keep some semblance of order. Over the years, there have been many stories that feature the other side of the fence – the citizens and the criminals themselves – but more often than not the conclusion comes out the same: people are only human and often a threat to themselves, ultimately needing to be looked after. I remember one story in particular that dealt with the idea of a democratic protest. Under the rule of the Judges, the people are free to express themselves however they like, and so a rally to attempt to re-establish democratic rule is organized. Under the watchful eyes of the Judges, human nature takes over and the rally itself proves that the citizens just aren’t ready for it and the Judges are forced to break it up for their “own good.” Despite the tragedy of the failure of democracy unfolding on the comic’s pages, the reader can’t help but side with the Judges and agree with their conclusions, despite their own political leanings.

One must then look to today’s America and wonder if this satire is perhaps prophetic, or were they merely holding up a mirror to America’s dark soul? Since the attacks of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transport Security Administration, CIA and militant americans have definitely stepped toward Wagner’s dystopian vision, and not without cause at some level, but they have also trodden on the inalienable human rights of its citizens (not to mention tourists and other visitors to their country) in the process. One wonder if it continued would the Judges actually come into being. Some might argue they already have.

The Judge Dredd comic is not overtly political. These storylines have grown out of the development of the world that gave rise to the fictional Judge Dredd: how could a civilian populace willingly hand over power and control to a fascist police state and live with it. What is worse than being told what you can do, how to do it and punish you severely when it you don’t? Fear, anarchy, communism, terrorism…

With this in mind, it seems that Dredd is popular culture made manifest. It is filled with the mad creations of an oppressed humanity and was created by the same. Art imitating life imitating art? I’ll leave you to be the Judge.

Image Credits: 2000AD, Rebellion Publishing. Artists: Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra.