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, picking up where we left off….
Book Of The Dead- The Dredd Of Two Worlds!
Morrison’s second Dredd story was to be a collaboration with writer Mark Millar, alongside artist Dermot Power, and letterers Tom Frame and John Aldridge forming the creative team. And having done The Big Judge Dredd Epic in Inferno, with the legend Carlos Ezquerra drawing it, Morrison seemed to loosen up. What follows is a suite of stories that very much feel like two mates riffing and making each other laugh and having fun, and in this case those two mates are Grant Morrison and Mark Millar.
The only question is- Are we laughing with them, or are we laughing at them?
Spread out across 8 parts, each a 6 page story, Book Of The Dead would be Morrison and Millar doing their 2000AD take on the familiar superhero convention of The Alternate Version. Much like you had The International Batmen and The Intergalactic Supermen in Silver Age Batman and Superman comics, or even narratives like The Flash Of Two Worlds, here you had Judge Dredd coming face to face with The Judges Of Egypt from the city of Luxor. Dredd is picked as the representative for a cultural exchange program between the two cities and their Judge systems, and so Dredd heads off to Luxor, while Egypt’s representative Judge Ramses heads off to Mega City-One.
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And the end result?
A deeply Orientalist fantasy by two Scottish writers and Irish artist tackling Egypt. Which is to say, even as it is exaggerated future sci-fi, it feels like a very exoticized, Other-ing construction of a people and a culture that is more rooted in Western assumptions than it is in any material life or truth of the Egyptian people.
You have imagery like this which feels like it’s straight out of an Orientalistic painting, exoticizing the hell out of them, forever ossifying them in their ‘ancient’ culture and society which is defined perpetually by its otherness and ‘foreign’ nature rather than something humanized and rooted in reality of those people. Because the presumed audience and perspective the story caters to and is written to is one close to Morrison and Millar, to whom these are The Exotic Other to be observed and studied from a distance. Tellingly, despite the story being one of an exchange of two cities, we never get the perspective of Ramses in Mega City-One. And neither do we really get the perspective of Judge Kamun, who oversees and supports Dredd in Luxor. No, we see everything through Dredd’s perspective. And while some may very generously try to say that then the story is just satirically depicting Dredd’s own troubling Orientalist perspective and vision, that is very much not the case in my opinion, and would be ascribing far greater deliberation and intent to a story that is far too often deeply careless.
Instead, it feels like an indulgence in Orientalist aesthetics and ideas, particularly fetishizing ideas that exoticize the non-white cultures, which is very much a through-line of both Millar’s own long body of work, as well as particularly Morrison’s oeuvre as well. Hell, even in Inferno, Morrison introduces us to an Indian Judge named ‘Judge Bhaji,’ which roughly translates to ‘Judge Curry.’
One might as well make an Italian Judge and name them JUDGE PASTA or JUDGE PIZZA or a Japanese Judge named JUDGE SUSHI. And of course, Judge Bhaji is a exotic, shamanic figure of psychic/spiritual wisdom spouting off random tidbits of Hindu myth references that Morrison’s memorized. It’s shallow caricature and stereotyping that is tiresome in its lack of any real truth. It all feels deeply…white, and perhaps if one were being impossibly generous- tokenistic at best, but really in all honestly…downright insulting or fetishistic.
And just when you think you’re finished sighing, the story goes from dumb to dumber, as it reveals Judge Kamun to be an insane cultist obsessed with ancient Egyptian prophecies and myths of a Deathless Beast-Faced God, who hopes to sacrifice him and anybody else he wants to his depraved master. And all throughout, we’re shown sequences of this mummified monster figure that haunts the streets of Luxor and becomes the inevitable Big Bad and Lord and Master of the cultist monsters’ plot.
The whole affair breaks down into tiredly cliche stereotypical Orientalist storytelling centering the renegade White protagonist of the Western Civilization in a strange land of exotic, ancient Brown people, with strange gods and beliefs who are to be taken on and stopped, for they are barbaric forces that must be tamed. It’s the same old tired song you’ve heard a billion times, but written by Mark Millar and Grant Morrison this time. It’s deeply boring and hollow, before even getting to it being offensive.
One might be generous and say the idea of a typical superhero crossover/team-up being inverted, with The Judge Counterpart being a depraved monster is a clever twist and a fun spin on a classic superhero trope and idea. But even if one were to be that generous, here’s the thing: it’s not actually done well. Execution is everything, and here it is deeply lacking. There’s nothing really here to dig into or be compelled by. Anything and everything done here feels like the absolute bare minimum. And if one were to take the extra step of generosity and say the story is attempting to be a satire of the orientalist stories of the white hero vs the exotic other, a question worth asking is this:
What is this satire really saying or offering up for us? What is its keen, pointed insight? Or if it is merely dedicated to just taking the piss, what’s the biting bit that really clicks?
What one finds is a void in the case of a work like this. There’s nothing terribly fun or funny here to really enjoy, and if Inferno felt like watching someone tick off a check-list, Book Of the Dead feels like watching a bad comedy routine that should’ve stopped the second after it started…except it just keeps going.
And by the time you get to the end, when you get to the final punchline and ‘gag’ to close it out, with Judge Ramses being a cartoonish failure in bandages and a wheelchair, the stupid ol’ Egyptian guy who couldn’t hack it in the American system of the West? When you get to it all being a laugh about how he’s chump compared to the American Dredd?
It’s not very funny, or fun. It’s just tiresome and obvious, invoking a large sigh. There’s no point here beyond a juvenile action-movie ‘Dredd is so awesome, heh.’ It is the only way and the level upon which the story asks for engagement from its readership.
In the end what could have been a fun expansion and exploration of the absurdly horrific world of Judge Dredd world’s Egypt and its own policing system ends up being just a shallow Orientalist indulgence fable about exotic Egyptian cults and death-god figures that just others Egyptian people. And that’s ultimately what you’re left thinking about. What could have been. There could have been an interesting satire about the dynamics and comparisons between the policing ideas and mechanisms of America and Egypt, with their respective histories, through a wild sci-fi genre lens. There could have been a considered perspective from the Egyptian side that didn’t just reduce them to Orientalist caricatures and stereotypes. There could’ve been so much more, anything more, and yet there wasn’t.
What you ultimately get is Morrison, Millar, and Power’s Orientalist fun-house that feels as empty as the Orientalist constructs it presents. There’s not much the creators have to say here, and if there’s anything they do have to say- it’s that. Just letting you know how little they have to say.
It’s why it’s forgotten and buried.
[Book Of The Dead is collected in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 20]
Crusade– The Dredd Of Many Worlds!
And that brings us to the final Judge Dredd story by Grant Morrison, wherein they’re once again co-writing with frequent collaborator and once apprentice Mark Millar. With the terrific Mick Austin onboard as their artistic collaborator, and Tom Frame lettering, what we get is a farewell party for Morrison in the world of Dredd.
Split across 10 parts, all 6 pagers, Crusade is a tale that follows a hunting mission that involves Judges from numerous parts of the globe competing to win. They’ve all been deployed by their respective cities to be the one to retrieve the remains of a space-ship. They’re all here to do it, which means Judge Dredd is, too.
Building off their ‘The Hero Meets Their Other Counterpart’ story in Book Of The Dead with the Egyptian Judges of Luxor, this was the inevitable next step for Morrison and Millar. They took the conceit to the natural endpoint, going all in on that sort of Silver Age-y ‘International Batmen’ notion by going beyond just one international colleague. These time you had a whole veritable league of them. And if the prior story was a shock-driven setup wherein the Egyptian Judge betrays Judge Dredd rather than prove to be his peer in a team-up, this time around that notion is laid bare. It’s clear cut from the jump that these people are not here to team up and have a joyous ‘crossover.’ No, they’re not fighting with each other. They’re fighting against each other, and they’ll do anything it takes to win. They’ll do anything and everything they have to get one over the other guy, and walk away with the prize they’ve been asked to collect. They’re like bounty hunters after the same target, and thus it is a game of backstabbing from the start, and you know to be naturally wary and suspicious.
And if one had higher hopes and dared to raise expectations from the previous effort by Morrison and Millar, this ‘let’s take it to the next level’ story of escalation…would very much disappoint. One need only look at the Japanese Judge (who is a woman) being named JUDGE SHOJO. Shojo means Girl. It is a name that quite literally means Judge Girl.
And, of course, we also see the return of the one-note-gag character of Ramses, the Egyptian Judge from Book Of The Dead, too. He continues to exist to solely be that dull gag of The Chump extended on for another whole story. The story is, after-all, the inevitable successor to Book Of The Dead.
And what follows is by and large, a cavalcade of caricatures or stereotypes put together from all across the globe. Perhaps best expressed by the introduction of Judge Sharma, who talks about how Indo-City and his fellow Indians are only interested in the spiritual significance of the matter at hand, because of course they are. And they somehow seem to even more ludicrously believe that this space-ship, housing a White American named Eckhart, is carrying the new avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, with Eckhart being The One. Morrison and Millar are clearly gesturing to the Kalki myth here, but it’s not an evocation/gesture or idea any actual Indian writer familiar with these myths or grew up with them would make in this context, because it is utterly laughable. It’s one that only a White creators with a very distant outward understanding and reliance on stereotyping would go for.
However, even amidst this rubble of poor caricatures and messes, there IS however one standout addition and creation that Morrison and Millar help bring to the table. And that is Judge Cesare, aka The Vatican Judge, who boasts an absolutely sick design from Mick Austin. He looks like a heavy metal gothic religious Batman, which is to say he looks a hell of a lot like Azrael, but by way of Judge Dredd’s aestheticism. And the end result? An absolutely fun and sick character design and idea that feels like the first cool thing Morrison’s really brought to the table here. If you’re going to go for simplistic shallow action movie thrills inspired by superhero fare, and if you’re going to make global counterparts to the Judges, this at least feels more fun. Making a brutal agent of the Church feels like a much more natural terrain for Morrison and Millar to tread rather than touching Indian, Egyptian or African Judges. It feels much more like their lane.
And while the story itself isn’t very good good, and he doesn’t make it out of the story alive, much like most of these international Judges here, the very idea of such a Vatican Judge as imagined wonderfully well by Mick Austin is a solid enough addition to the enterprise of Dredd.
But beyond that? It’s tough. It’s disappointing.
The Many Failings of Grant Morrison
Looking over at the whole set-up, the best summation on all these international judges and their cities across the global map of the Dredd world? One is reminded of 2000AD and Judge Dredd’s historic limitations and failings, the insular and isolating nature of its British perspective that Others so many so casually, and operates in broad stereotypes or caricatures:
“It is one viewed through a late twentieth-century post-colonial British gaze, reflecting the knowledge and priorities of a worldview dominated by classroom lessons about ‘the Commonwealth,’ news headlines from the 1970s and 80s, and both reading of tales of and assumptions of the ‘exotic other.’ The way other mega-cities are designed and portrayed betrays attitudes about the world beyond the English Channel that have not moved with the times.” – Michael Molcher, 2000AD
That’s largely the case, and a fairly correct analysis of the material. And the fact of the matter is, per Morrison, both they and Mark Millar understood these historic problems, limitations, and failings of 2000AD itself and its material as a magazine. And when they took it over for the Summer Offensive in 1993, it was something very much on their mind. Here is Morrison in an interview just from this year reflecting on that period, that takeover of 2000AD, with the context being a discussion of their controversial Big Dave series:
2000 AD was so uptight. It’s like, they were really manly masculine guys with all of these masculine characters and people forget what it was like. We really thought we were satirists and we were poking fun at the racism and the sexism of 2000 AD as we actually genuinely saw it.
Back in that day though, it felt more like we were operating on these super levels of irony in order to point out that 2000 AD has been incredibly racist and bigoted throughout its history. It felt like we were doing a moral duty or something I suppose. – Grant Morrison
While Big Dave is not the subject at hand here, the idea and understanding that Morrison and Millar were creators coming from a fundamental place of recognizing the many failings and problems of 2000AD’s material up to that point is useful. They knew, even back in 1993, and it’s not some newly discovered or found wisdom of the past decade that these comics were or could be bigoted or racist. And that Morrison and Millar wanted to actively take aim at and poke fun at and even satirize that poor history of the magazine at that period? That’s useful to keep in mind.
It’s useful to keep in mind because both Morrison and Millar’s own works had up to that point been full of plenty of casual bigotry and poor handling of race, and as discussed here, they would have that issue in the material here of this period too. And crucially, they would have plenty of bigotry even afterwards, after 1993, full of careless choices and poor decisions going all the way into the modern era. And the key is, they’re not deliberately vile bigotries of the right-wing kind. They’re a different kind. They’re poor racial stereotypes and caricatures, deployment of tired, terrible, offensive tropes that service certain troubling narratives and ideas, that reduce or dehumanize the characters at hand and even resort to fetishizing them.
At its ‘best’, it often veers into a sort of Complimentary Racism aka Complimentary Caricature, a sort of ‘benevolent’ racism, the kind of ‘complimentary’ rhethoric that acts like Asians must automatically be very good at Math and Martial Arts or like Black people all collectively and naturally just being gifted athletes, destined to play basketball. It’s a flattening that reduces you down in cheap and insulting ways based upon stereotypes, regardless of the supposed intention. It’s how you get the above Judge Bhaji/Curry, the Indian man with the spiritual wisdom.
It’s how even 10 years after this, well into the 2000s, where you’d expect Morrison to perhaps have learnt more and be better, you get Morrison and Philip Bond’s Vimanarama, which is their (British) take on Desi characters in modern day Britain. A creator-owned work published at Vertigo, it was a 3-issue mini-series. It is as Morrison puts it:
It’s a nice Arabian Nights update, and I guess it does make its little comments about the situation in the Middle East. It uses the old mythology of Pakistan and India, the Ramayana, talks about the mighty Rama empire, which fought the Atlanteans using these flying machines or vimanas. It’s quite ridiculous and quite timely.
And if that quote betrays deep, deep ignorance, with Morrison lumping together both Arabian Nights and the Middle East and Pakistan and India together, because hey, Arabs, Indians, it’s all the same, it’s all Brown people amirite? Then the book itself betrays even further ignorance. There’s the fact that describing The Ramayana, a myth of Hindu text (with a political context Morrison clearly does not understand or grasp) being described as ‘the old mythology of Pakistan and India’ is absurd and ludicrous, it being a broad strokes 1001 Arabian Nights and Middle East thing on top of all that? It is pretty much the definition of Orientalism, with all the horribly dreadful and careless cultural mishmash done by a European outsider looking in to exoticize while talking about Arranged Marriages and other things they have no clue about.
It’s a horribly broken and inaccurately exoticized butchering of virtually everything it believes it is riffing upon. The Desi leads are framed in accordance with terribly nonsensical sci-fi vision of an Orientalist Pantheon and Mythology rooted in whatever disastrous mishmash Morrison sought between very broken fragments of Hindu Mythology/Arabian Nights, and it feels cheap. There’s no truth or resonance here. It’s an outsider using their Orientalist lens in a way that is deeply tiresome. And when you have to see Muslim leads named Ali in relation to super-gods named ‘Ben Rama’ of The Rama Empire, along with the lettering even trying to cheaply evoke Hindi in orientalist ways? The whole thing is a reductive disaster that would feel shocking to see exist if not for the fact that this is Morrison and their work has plenty of examples like this. It’s Morrison being deeply out of their lane and face-planting hard and not even knowing that they’re doing it. It ends up a work that is deeply Orientalist and insulting- a poor attempt to write about The Other by White creators in a celebratory fashion that is the farthest thing from celebration. It just others even more.
And that’s just one example. The list goes on and on, whether it be the magical Honor Jackson in Batman R.I.P. who exists solely to service Bruce’s narrative and never ever pops up again, or Morrison’s incredibly offensively blatant Jezebel Jet or the misogynistic racist mix of Dragon Lady + Brown Peril nonsense with Talia Al Ghul or their many mishandlings in New X-Men (from the racial context of Xorn-Magneto to their disaster with Magneto in the end to everything with Angel Salvadore and more) amongst a whole plethora of problems. Morrison’s had a poor history with many characters of color, but it’s especially true of their Women Of Color in particular. It’s where Morrison’s failings as a writer and their perspective become most clear. They have been consistently very poor there.
And all of the above is how and why you get them doing a Black Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman: Earth One in the 2010s, with the reasoning revolving around Black people knowing what it’s like to be bound by chains, which really feels like a disastrously poor situation of a well-meaning White Progressive attempt at writing about solidarity and intersections of oppression. Steve is largely a complementary caricature that lacks interiority and exists more like a prop to make a ham-fisted point, whilst Morrison’s messy handling of Race continues. Once again, both deeply out of their lane (especially so given they have little of actual value or meaningful quality to say via Steve about the oppression of Black people) and ultimately relying upon and leaning on obvious stereotypical ideas that often reduce rather than illuminate. It’s a common thread across much of their work, which you’d have to be blind not to notice, or at least willfully ignorant.
And this is all just keeping to fairly modern material, wherein you’d expect them to fare much better, without getting into The Invisibles back in the 1990s, which followed the Dredd work here and is also is loaded with plenty of dated disastrous choices, particularly with race. You’d think if a writer like Morrison could read and learn from monstrous and deeply racist figures like Aleister Crowley, they could also read Edward Said and Chinua Achebe and learn and grow in doing so, understanding their clear critiques of Western White Society’s view of Race and the reduction and treatment of The Other. If Morrison can discuss Guy Debord’s concept of The Spectacle or Francis Fukuyama’s End Of History and Post-Modernism, then they can certainly, at the very least, be considerate of Said’s work in Orientalism. There is simply no excuse here for a writer granted the respect, stature and literary credit that they are. You’d expect better from a writer like Morrison. But that’s the thing isn’t it? Expectations are not reality. The fact is, Morrison’s work (but it applies to Millar’s work too, who’s often even worse with Race) has long indulged in Orientalism and the above mentioned Exoticizing, both fetishistically and in more cruel fashion, with the work happy to lean into Complimentary Racism/Complimentary Caricature, as illustrated in just these stories alone. And this is all just the tip of the iceberg. One could keep going and never stop, given the wealth of material these creators have, and the sheer number of times they’ve messed up carelessly.
Point being: Morrison and Millar are creators who are very much guilty of the very things they say they’re railing against. It’s nice to have good intentions, critical intentions, but the work is not the intention. The work is the work. The intention does not negate or absolve the outcome at the end of the day. And even if they claim the license of satire and the label of being satirists, they’re not particularly good ones here, not really. And their wider body of work displays their limitations and failings even outside of these ‘satirical’ attempts at being critical of racism, sexism and bigotries.
In the end, Morrison and Millar are just as much a part of the very problem they identify, and they’ve actively indulged in that which they criticize, helping perpetuate it. They’re just as guilty. And while they critique the founders and forefathers of British Comics here, their predecessors at 2000AD, they are and they have been, whether they realize it or not, just as poor as them. They don’t get a free-pass or the benefit of being above it all. They are not absolved and neither do they get to play holier-than-thou with the legends of the past. It’s akin to the pot calling the kettle black. They’re just as complicit here.
By the time Crusade ends, with The Vatican Judge dead, and Dredd seemingly victorious, there’s perhaps only one kernel worth really addressing. It’s wherein Judge Wilde, the Irish Judge, is revealed to be the real threat, working secretly for The Vatican as a back-up agent. The Irish Judges of Emerald Isle (Ireland) are a specialty in that they’ve actually gotten to be done by Irish creators like Garth Ennis and Michael Caroll. And here, whilst Wilde is initially presented as a caricature happy to be there just for the drink, the story tries to elevate him from that, calling into question that assumption. And given Morrison is second-generation Irish, the choice feels like it has some weight over most of the other things done in the book.
And once it’s all said and done, Dredd is rescued by good ol’ Judge Bhaji (aka Judge Curry), because of course that was going to be how it all ended.
If Inferno felt obligatory, like checking off a list, and Book Of The Dead felt like a poor gag between mates stretched too long, Crusade feels like a kernel of a neat idea wrapped up in too much nonsense that takes away from it. So there are little kernels of spirit and fun, like The Vatican bits, particularly because of Mick Austin’s stellar design-work. But those are bound to and wrapped up in so much other poor nonsense that drags down the whole effort or is broached and handled in the most dull manner possible, such that what you end up with is truly dull and boring in a way it feels maddening to see.
There are echoes here of Morrison’s iconic stories- Inferno being The Idea vs The More Realistic Version Of The Idea, Book Of The Dead being The Hero vs Death and Crusade being The Clash Of The Various Aspects Of An Idea. You can see the bare bones construction, but it doesn’t work here. These stories do not sing or flow in the way so many other stories by Morrison would go onto be. Beyond just reminding you of the better Judge Dredd stories you could be reading, they remind you plain and simply of the superior Morrison comics you could be reading instead, which bear these same core spines or base story conceit, and do it so much better.
Once you’ve read these stories, you truly come to understand why they are glanced over and a minor footnote in Morrison’s career. There’s not much here, not really, when you compare it to the plethora of other rich, dynamic work done by plenty of other great talent to grace the doors of 2000AD. It feels shallow, simplistic, juvenile, and worse- it’s mostly boring. It’s got amazing artists that feel like they are doing their best with what they have been given- which is subpar material.
[Crusade is collected in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 22]
If all of that feels like a shame, it’s because it is. But that’s just how it is sometimes.
Care for something taken too far becomes petrifying reverence, like in the case of Garth Ennis and Dredd. But the complete absence of care can lead to hollow, disposable and neutered work, like in the case of Grant Morrison and Dredd. If at the very least, Morrison had found some way to animate their lack of care for Dredd or even drawn out some contempt towards the character, the way Garth Ennis so frequently does with American superheroes, then there could have been something. The anger, rage, fury and contempt of a young punk from the working class streets of Glasgow could have been interesting if aimed properly at Dredd, the ultimate Lawman of British comics. But Morrison never does. They never found a ‘way in’. They never bridged that gap or did much of anything that could move you in the context of Dredd. And so the end result is just sort of…there, like a badge to say ‘Well, I’ve done it now. I did Judge Dredd, as all British Comics Writers do!’.
You got neither love nor contempt towards the figures in the book. Just a dull apathy that seemed to permeate every page, and that hardly makes for good work.
But it happens. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes things just don’t fit. Some endeavors are just bad match-ups, and doomed for disharmony. And while the superhero would enchant the imagination of Grant Morrison time and time again- Judge Dredd just never seemed to.
But the ways in which Morrison fails here, the ways in which the work displays their limitations, that is useful and illustrative. It helps provide a clearer portrait of an iconic artist of our form. And that is the value here- in the realm of Mega City-One.
It is the world one enters to be judged.
Thanks for the excellent reviews !
I am interested to hear/read what you think of Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy’s comic Rogan Josh (initially published in the short-lived Revolver magazine-sized comic). It also features Hindu mythology and South-East Asian iconography ( I think mostly Indian) and from what I remember it does so with a little more reverence. But being a white, working class bloke from Australia I am sure there is plenty I am missing and/or am equally guilty of Orientalism.
Anyway, would love to read a review by someone like you who is knowledgeable and eloquent !
All the best to you and yours,