Grant Morrison has done pretty much everything. In a career spanning 4 decades, starting from their late teens into their now early-sixties, Morrison has trekked across most of the Western comics landscape. They’ve done a great deal of work, both big and small. Whether it be redefining major flagships like The X-Men or Batman in Big Two superheroes, helping pioneer the Vertigo weirdness with The Invisibles and The Filth, or being part of the wave of new creator-owned books of Image and Boom in the early 2010s with Nameless and Klaus, they’ve been around and done it. They’ve done Original Graphic Novels, they’ve done mini-series, they’ve done maxi-series, they’ve done one-shots, and lengthy ongoing series, and they’ve even done zines. They were a Musician, with much music of their own, they’ve performed with Gerard Way in MCR Music Videos like Na Na Na and SING. They were even a comics critic and columnist back in the day. And now they work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, as they have done for over a decade now.
Much has been, and continues to be, said about their work.
And yet there is a gap.
There is an odd little gap.
A gap that exists not because nobody’s noticed it, but because it is seen and then brushed past.
Grant Morrison’s Judge Dredd.
People seem to go ‘Oh! They did that!’ and then they move right on. They tend to forget, more often than not. Those that remember, particularly 2000AD lifers, have already gotten an established consensus that hangs in the air, so it’s not something paid much attention to. It’s a thing of the distant past, like a vague shape that exists. You recall it, but then forget it.
The 2000AD work by Morrison that instead seems to really register is their long-running series Zenith with co-creator Steve Yeowell. A book that is very much a British Superhero Comic. Of all their work on 2000AD, it is the superhero work, echoing their eventual American superhero work, that seems to really stick with people.
But what about their Judge Dredd?
What the hell was it? What on Earth was Morrison’s take on Judge Dredd? And why is it something that seems to almost never come up when people talk about their work? Why is it almost buried and forgotten? What did they even try to do there?
We’ll explore that here.
The Roots Of Morrison
Grant Morrison came into American Comics like most of their peers – through that rigorous British Comics boot-camp that is 2000AD. It is The Galaxy’s Greatest Magazine, wherein writers hone their craft and learn to tell a complete story in very few pages. It is a science-fiction anthology where a wild frenzy of ideas is not just encouraged but is a necessity. A perfect breeding ground for a series of generational talents like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and plenty more. A wave of talent that came through the house that legendary British icons Pat Mills and John Wagner built over at IPC (International Publishing Company), back when 2000AD was still owned by them.
Back in the 1970’s, IPC (London) and DC Thomson (Dundee) were the two big rival comics publishers of the United Kingdom. While most know IPC as the house from which 2000AD sprang, DC Thomson too had rich history, being the home of classics like The Beano and war-magazines like Commando, which Garth Ennis adored as a child. Both were competing big time, and in fact, Pat Mills and John Wagner were both freelancers who’d worked at DC Thomson. That’s where they learned to edit and honed their skills as writers – skills they would put to use when helping build what would become The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.
It was here at DC Thomson that a young Morrison was trained and whipped up into shape, taught how to tell a story in a professional manner, and to put together a comic for a wide commercial market. They wrote stories in magazines like Starblazer, weaving tales of space-opera and strangeness, and learned how to be a professional comics creator. And they would, eventually, like all of their peers, go on to work at 2000AD. They’d do plenty of sci-fi short stories in the magazine (dubbed Futureshocks), but their success would end up being on Zenith
with co-creator Steve Yeowell, their effort about a young legacy hero who was akin to a self-centered pop-star in Thatcher’s Britain.
From there, Morrison was off and away, moving onto American Comics and the world of Big Two superhero publishing. The success of a British Superhero Comic had ended up a stepping stone to get to the root of superhero stories – the American figures such as Superman and Batman who Morrison read voraciously. Morrison would enter the DC Universe they’d so adored, penning short-stories in anthologies like Secret Origins, doing runs in titles like Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and even crafting original graphic novels such as Arkham Asylum in the year of the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman.
But they would consistently have a toe dipped into British comics, too, as they worked on under-discussed works such as St. Swithin’s Day (perhaps the finest Morrison work of all time) with Paul Grist, about a boy who wanted to kill Margaret Thatcher (which made waves enough to be discussed in the British parliament at the time). They’d take classic British sci-fi icons and heroes like Dan Dare and deconstruct them alongside Rian Hughes in Dare, examining the pulpy sci-fi hero of the 1950s-1960’s era in the age of Thatcher’s Britain. They’d do even more controversial works like The New Adventures Of Hitler with Steve Yeowell, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
While Morrison penned a new vision and revival of the superhero in America inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, surrealism, Dada, and absurdity, their more ‘minor’ British comics work seemed to be of a very different mode. There was a perpetual sense of grime and dirt that Morrison portrayed in these books in a way their American works never quite touched. There was a spirit of wild abandon that one would not find even in their most ‘cut-loose’ American mainstream work. No, these works felt different. They felt distinctly small press, with an air or provocation that felt like it would be snuffed out far sooner in the American Direct Market.
And as all things do, Morrison’s time in British comics, this balancing act, seemed to approach a crescendo.
And the big final blow-out party would be in the summer of 1993. Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and John Smith would take over 2000AD for 8 whole issues across July and August of 1993. This would be dubbed The Summer Offensive.
It was finally going to happen.
Grant Morrison was going to take their big swing at Judge Dredd.
And everyone would get to see it.
It was time.
The Morrisonian Judge Dredd
2000AD was a classic institution of British comics. Everybody knew of it, and they knew of Dredd. Creators like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis were famously devout readers of the magazine, and that’s not an uncommon sentiment, as even the likes of modern creators like Al Ewing grew up reading the magazine religiously. And that meant reading Dredd, obviously, which most did. How could they not, given the legions of talented creators working upon the enterprise? Everybody who was anybody in British comics seemed to at one point have a hand in that pie.
This wasn’t the case for Grant Morrison, who did grow up on British comics, but not 2000AD’s brand of action sci-fi. Instead, they primarily read and enjoyed British Girls Comics, particularly titles Judy and Diana from the 1960’s, both published by DC Thomson, and titles like Misty from the 1970’s (which had the legendary Pat Mills on it!) published by Fleetway, which would eventually become part of IPC. Morrison’s long said that they preferred these girls comics and their diversity over those British boys comics, which they saw as being far too centered around war, violence and masculine figures that they didn’t find appealing. Pretty much in stark contrast to Garth Ennis, who loved DC Thomson’s Commando and its tale of soldiers.
So they had a different basis when it came to ‘British comics,’ and a vastly different set of interests. And beyond that space, they had largely grown up with American Superhero comics (which many British readers did, particularly via reprints) featuring the colorful casts of characters like Superman, The Flash, and Batman. And they loved them – they loved the American superheroes dearly. They found them life-changingly potent and powerful, with Superman in particular being crucial to them:
What is it about superheroes that fascinates you?
They came along when I most needed them. My parents were anti-nuclear activists, so the bomb was a big frightening specter in our household. Then I discovered superhero comics and realized that here was an idea that was bigger than the bomb. Superman can withstand an atom bomb explosion. They literally saved me from the horror of the atom bomb.
And so those were Morrison’s loves of youth, their fascinations, which did not veer anywhere near the 2000AD landscape or Judge Dredd in the slightest. They had more fealty towards the comics of Jim Starlin, Steve Englehart, Don McGregor, Steve Gerber from the 1970’s America than any Prog of 2000AD prior. They had no special love or childhood obsession or nostalgia in the slightest for the Galaxy’s Greatest Magazine or The Lawman Of The Future.
And they were quite honest about that truth in the press as well:
Morrison: I mean, I didn’t ever read 2000AD when I was younger. I wasn’t particularly interested in comics at that time. I’d seen 2000AD and I was aware of Judge Dredd but it just seemed like a load of old toss, as far as I was concerned. First time I actually read one was in 1985, when I was trying to get work and someone loaned me a pile of Alan Moore ‘Future Shocks’ to give me some idea of what was required. I was never particularly impressed but I like the idea of 2000AD being in some sense a punk comic when it started out. As far as I can gather, it had a certain radical edge and that’s something we’re trying to capture for a different generation. We’re looking for a sense of danger and recklessness and cheap thrills. Whether we’ve achieved it is something the readers will have to decide. Obviously, I think we’ve succeeded amazingly.
They came to it with a detachment and distance, a lack of attachment that can be quite useful. They were not a fan. They could be critical, and they wouldn’t be precious in the way a diehard lifer might. They were almost in the precise opposite position as Garth Ennis, who was a devout fan, and spoke about the difficulty that brought to then doing Judge Dredd:
Ennis: I can’t do Dredd right because I’m too close to it, too reverential. I like it too much. The instinct that allows me to go in and piss all over American superheroes and end up writing quite entertaining stories about them – where Batman and Green Lantern turn up in Hitman and are thoroughly pilloried or where Wolverine and Spiderman and Daredevil appear in Punisher and have a terrible time – that instinct to go in and tear characters apart and come up with entertaining if controversial stories, that just isn’t there for me when it comes to Dredd.
Morrison, it seemed, had the same benefit and advantage that Ennis had with the American superheroes, but just with Judge Dredd. That offered possibilities, it was reason to be excited.
What would Morrison do? What would it be like? How would it build or differ from what had come before? What would it add?
The answer would come in the form of 3 stories, one penned solo by Morrison, and the other two co-written with Mark Millar. Each would be be 6-page serials and would run through multiple Progs of 2000AD to tell a larger story. And together, they would layout the Morrisonian vision on Judge Dredd.