I’d always liked Judge Dredd.
I remember seeing the 2012 film adaptation, starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby. It was a tremendously entertaining film. I thought it rather a shame that it didn’t do better commercially, thus being viable for more sequels. Alex Garland and Pete Travis’ film was a tightly constructed story, and a good time. I thought ‘neat’.
But I didn’t love Dredd.
I remember picking up that very first Judge Dredd Complete Case Files collection, still a fairly new reader. That first jolt of Carlos Ezquerra and Mike McMahon was still a bit too much for my then young senses. Every panel seemed to be jam-packed together far too tight, with a sense of odd claustrophobia, and each page seemed to be so busy, with off-kilter panels, that it made my head-spin. It took a bit, but by the time I finished, I’d liked what I read, especially given how different visually it was to so much else that I’d read by that point. It all seemed to defy my then understanding of how a page ought to be constructed, being a window of possibility into ‘Well, here’s also how it can be done! How about that?’
It was an interesting experience, although perhaps not the one I expected or wanted. There was thrill in it, but from a ‘Let me ruminate on this’ perspective rather than the sheer page-turning enjoyment I was counting on, wherein I’d be gripped by the work immediately. It’s why I put it aside, resigning to return to it all one day, to read all the Case Files in order, witnessing the evolution of a whole world and comic in real-time.
I still didn’t love Judge Dredd. I merely liked it. I found it more interesting and a curiosity than something that had an impact on me.
I’d go onto then read numerous mini-series or Prog stories, all ongoing modern stuff, dipping my toes in and nodding on, going ‘This is a decent time, I suppose’. I had nothing but respect for it, especially as my adoration for Ezquerra in particular grew from his other work. I remained thoroughly interested enough, but never had that moment where it gripped me by the soul and had me. I wanted so badly, so desperately, to love it, given so many of my mates seemed to. But try as I might, they just didn’t click. The classic Judge Dredd: Origins collection I’d picked up, I finally gave a shot, but even that I found frustrating, and unable to care about or latch onto anything, I just abandoned it. The renowned Judge Dredd: America I didn’t want to yet do, for I had been repeatedly told part of its brilliance lay in its and clever twisting of what Dredd and Dredd stories had been up to that point. I wanted to experience that properly, with a basis and love for Dredd prior to it, so I put it aside, and I didn’t wish to go to The Apocalypse War, which was in Case Files Book 5, for I did want to read it in order whenever I got to all the Case Files collections.
I was, as you can see, in a bit of a problem, blocked by my own conditions, unsure of what the path was.
But then I remembered something I’d seem to forget along the way:
I’d always dug the Dark Judges.
I’d seen those iconic pages and panels just like everyone else, from the striking GAZE INTO THE FIST OF DREDD! to the spread of The Dark Judges.
I decided then on a bit of a reverse-approach. If I couldn’t get into Judge Dredd through Dredd, then I would do so through The Dark Judges. I would peruse through their key stories and see if they evoked a true response from me. I didn’t just want to think ‘Good!’ and like another Dredd comic. I wanted to finally read one I loved, truly. I wanted to be blown away. I wanted to understand it, and not from a detached logical exercise perspective, but from an intimate experiential one as a reader.
And thus I picked up what seemed to catch my eye in the moment, which means I grabbed John Wagner and Greg Staples’ 2015 collection Dark Justice:
I thought Wagner was a safe-bet, being the co-creator of Dredd alongside Ezquerra to begin with, and having had an active hand as a co-creator on The Dark Judges as well. Here was the definitive Judge Dredd writer. Surely, if anyone could make me fall in love, it would be, him, right? For who else could know The Dark Judges better than the man who helped make them? If I wanted the pure, unfiltered download of this damn thing, Wagner was the one to be reading. If that didn’t work, then this was futile, right?
All I wanted, all I really needed, really, was just a short, standalone, self-contained story that showed me why Judge Dredd worked, and how well it could work when firing on all cylinders. What could this darn thing do that nothing else out there do? That was, I suppose, my constant question and curiosity. What made this truly unique and special? A fascist Lawman for fun gruesome action stories with satire was fine, but that didn’t strike me as particularly unique or compelling in the ways that had been presented to me until that point. There was something missing here. Something I was not seeing. What could Dredd do in ways which almost naught else do? I wanted an answer.
I read, and re-read plenty of great writing by many great critics, considering their own perspectives and write-ups on great big stories of Dredd and their politics. I appreciated and respected their experiences, which is perhaps why I was further envious. I wanted that connection as well, even if in my own way, and it bothered me that I couldn’t have this tether the way so many seemed to. I wanted to find some answer to finally solve that. That one mysterious piece to finally complete the puzzle that all the rigorous intellectual exercises and reading couldn’t. That emotional piece that no ‘logical’ grasp could ever substitute for.
And it was in The Dark Judges that I hoped to find it, for what better things to put your faith in than the genius of Brian Bolland designs? I got the 4 Horsemen Of The Apocalypse motif and notion. I understood the exaggerated ‘Life is cancelled! It’s a crime! The punishment is Death!’, I got The Point, but I merely nodded on rather than feeling the jolt of joy as a reader. I wanted that to change. I wanted that to change, because my god, what spectacular designs!
I hoped in reading Dark Justice, something magical might happen. Thankfully it did. But not at all where you might think.
Dark Justice, if you are unaware, can basically be pitched as Aliens but starring The Dark Judges. That’s one hell of a hook to get you in, and it does the job. But it’s Greg Staples’ gorgeous Heavy Metal mode of painted artwork that keeps you there. His work, which feels like it’s part of that same school of British comics art that Don Lawrence was a magnificent symbol, carries with it an impressive evocative power. He took the silhouettes and figures of The Dark Judges and cast them into spectacularly fun monsters for the book. But it’s not them, or even any of the Big stuff that really got to me. It was the most simple, insignificant, throwaway bit.
It was this simple quick transition panel. Finally, it all just clicked for me in that one moment. Suddenly, I got it.
Look at that panel again. It’s The Judges’ HQ in Mega City-One, The Grand Hall Of Justice, cast as this mythic monument. And just…it all made sense. That above scene is the kind of transition you’d expect in an episode of Super Friends.
MEANWHILE AT THE HALL OF JUSTICE…
It’s patently absurd and corny and cheesy and ridiculous. It’s iconic material of American pop culture and genre material. And here, within the pages of Judge Dredd, that same notion is taken and presented, but it DOES NOT play or read like a Super Friends beat at all. It’s instead radically changed, and quite charged.
Taking that core lament and doing it without the silly veneer? You get this mythic monument of ‘heroes’ who enforce ‘justice’, and act as Judge, Jury, and Executioner, and live on eternally forever and ever, as part of this system of super-warriors, taking down any super-threats, all maintaining this status quo of things, which can never change. The Judges are our ‘heroes’ whose adventures we follow, whose powers and authority subsume all, whose importance reigns supreme, as millions suffer underneath the heel of their unchanging monstrous system. It is such intensely brutal skewering of America through its most iconic and ever-present symbolic fixtures of genre fiction.
It’s all of American pop genre trappings taken down a deep, dark rabbit hole of 40k-esque maximalist operatic horror, its inevitable dystopic endpoint. It just immediately made sense. I wondered how I’d been a fool enough to never see it before. The Hall Of Justice. It was all just staring me right in the bloody face. I’d always known that Britain’s greatest and most iconic comics character was about America, that it was about policing filtered through that mindset, riffing on stuff like Dirty Harry, but now it all clicked together for me. That the #1 British comics character was not about Britain but America, the nation that overtook Britain from its place and age of Pax Britannica in the 20th century, that it was a framework and system and a mythology to talk about America most explicitly over Britain itself, that became immediately fascinating to me.
Simultaneously, in that very precise moment, I fully understood why someone like Garth Ennis would feel the way they do about the American superheroes. Of course if you’re raised with this as your bedrock and foundation, alongside a healthy dose of Commando comics, the brutal satire and takedown of The American Heroes and Mythos, wherein all that gleams gold is a monument to fascist horror and cruelty, and the brutality of the unchanging status quo, it’d be harder to buy into the American Superhero. If your entry and introduction was the critique of America and American Power, and then you were met with the ‘straight-forward’ thing that just was, for all intents and purposes, the thing being ripped into in a lot of ways, due to what it was symbolic of, of course it’d be hard to care.
It’s not an impossible hurdle to get over, certainly, as you very well can dig both things, but I got and understood completely why someone raised on that material, of a certain temperament, might have no interest in this stuff, unless it was to take the absolute piss out of it, or use it to do more of what is now commonly termed ‘deconstruction’. The ‘Let’s take this stuff on’ without the golden reverence, and a healthy spoonful of contempt, which is what underlies a lot of Ennis’ encounters with the American Superhero.
It’s why The Punisher, who is positioned against so much of what ‘the superhero’ or at least ‘the good superhero’ is supposed to be or means, and is extremely symbolic of problematic American beliefs and ideas, tied up with The American Militarist, is Ennis’ go-to in the superhero realm. It’s why he’s fared so well with him, given he’s basically turned him into his personal Judge Dredd. It’s why when he looks at Green Lantern, all he can see is a subject of mockery, because to someone raised in the church of John Wagner, Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra and Pat Mills’ work this Silly American Cop dude must seem utterly ludicrous. It must seem like a joke, and one emblematic of all Ennis considers deplorable in this genre space.
It’s what leads to and gets you something like The Boys, which builds off Ennis’ penchant for The Bastard American Militarist in Billy Butcher, wherein The Justice League is turned into the monstrous team The Seven. Everything from your Captain Marvels to your Captain Americas, Justice Societies and Teen Titans become the subject of contempt and ridicule, borrowing big time from the foundational work of Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neil’s Marshal Law. The visceral distaste and hatred for these shiny, well-dressed people of power whose nonsense never brought the ordinary individual anything of worth, that was evident, and it all tracked for me, going right back to Judge Dredd. It’s a very specific lens and view of realism and how these genre comics can be done, and I fully got it.
And having that perspective made it all click for me, but what brought it all together, and made it hit even further was, to bring it all back–The Dark Judges. I tore through Dark Justice with passion, and by the time I was done, I was desperate for more. I immediately leaped into The Dark Judges collection, chronological Case Files reading be damned, I needed this. And what I saw, bridged everything for me.
What brutal, horrific expressions of the core ethos of Judge Dredd they were. The only logical extremity of the American vision of law, justice, and order through policing is these undead bastards. Nothing you do in your life is legal, hell your life itself isn’t. We are The Law. We are The Police. Life is the crime. And the sentence is death! The expression didn’t just hit me on an intellectual level now. It hit with an emotional resonance and a horrific delight as I tore through those classic stories showcasing their emergence into the world of Dredd. This world of Dredd was horrible, it was fascistic, it was monstrous, it had to be torn down. And yet, horribly, morbidly, tragically, the only people with any real chance at tearing down this world and its system are the nihilists who are but a direct product of that ideology and system itself. They are just the natural monstrous endpoints of its cruelty, without all the dragging. They are the nuclear nihilists out to raze it all, and what you have is just the system at war with itself, one promising immediate end of this horrific nightmare, and one prolonging it eternally, in the name of ‘life’.
That’s the cruel joke, isn’t it? For all that Judge Dredd and his Judges fight for ‘life’, can one even call what exists for the people of the Mega Cities a life? It’s why no victory against these horrific cosmic monsters is some kind of typical triumph. It’s just depressing, it’s sad, it reflects the horrific monstrosity of not just these figures, but Dredd and the system he fights for, which is culpable for all this, and yet keeps going. It’s a gut-punch with no winners. That’s the thing. There are only losers in the world of Dredd, for so many key battles, that which truly mattered, were already lost long-ago, and any battles brought together for change repeatedly fail.
The only escape from this fascist world is…death, and that’s the bloody heartbreaking joke of it all.
It’s the sad, depressive joke Judge Death constantly laughs at, like a cartoon villain on Super Friends, doing utterly ridiculous things, albeit drawn with the design of a Warhammer 40K antagonist, with absurd maximalism.
The spectacular operatic horror and tragedy of a world that cannot change, doomed to its dystopic path, that struck me. There was a pained soul underneath all this satire and harshness. There was something deeply sad here, because it was deeply real. It may all be built on and expressed via exaggerated Saturday Morning Cartoon camp stuff like Halls Of Justice and Judge Death (who I’m convinced sounds like Skeletor), but all throughout, it’s skewering something and getting at something all too true.
And once I felt that, truly, rather than just knowing it in my head, I couldn’t go back. That was the precise moment I loved Judge Dredd.