Judge Dredd

jim rugg

‘Judge Dredd’ is a comics character whose strip in the British science fiction anthology ‘2000 AD’ is the magazine’s longest running, having been featured there since its second issue in 1977.

Dredd is an American law enforcement officer in a violent city of the future where uniformed Judges combine the powers of police, judge, jury, and executioner. Dredd and his fellow Judges are empowered to arrest, sentence, and even execute criminals on the spot. The character was created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, although editor Pat Mills also deserves some credit for early development. The series explores issues such as the police state, authoritarianism and the rule of law.

When Pat Mills was developing ‘2000 AD’ in 1976, he brought in his former writing partner, John Wagner, to develop characters. Wagner had written various Dirty Harry-style ‘tough cop’ stories for other titles, and suggested a character who took that concept to its logical extreme, imagining an ultra-violent law-enforcement officer patrolling a future New York City with the power to administer instant justice. Mills had developed a horror strip called ‘Judge Dread’ but abandoned the idea as unsuitable for the new comic; but the name, with the spelling modified at the suggestion of sub-editor Kelvin Gosnell, was adopted by Wagner for his ultimate lawman.

The task of visualising the character was given to Carlos Ezquerra, a Spanish artist who had worked for Mills before on ‘Battle Picture Weekly.’ Wagner gave Ezquerra an advertisement for the film ‘Death Race 2000,’ showing the character Frankenstein (played by David Carradine) clad in black leather on a motorbike, as a suggestion for what the character should look like. Ezquerra elaborated on this greatly, adding body-armor, zips, and chains, which Wagner initially thought to be over the top. Wagner’s initial script was rewritten by Mills and drawn up by Ezquerra, but when the art came back a rethink was necessary. The hardware and cityscapes Ezquerra had drawn were far more futuristic than the near-future setting originally intended, but Mills decided to run with it and set the strip further in the future.

By this stage, Wagner had quit, disillusioned that a proposed buy-out of the new comic by another company (which would have given him and Mills a greater financial stake in the comic) had fallen through. Mills was reluctant to lose Judge Dredd and farmed the strip out to a variety of freelance writers, hoping to develop it further. Their scripts were given to a variety of artists as Mills tried to find a strip which would provide a good introduction to the character, all of which meant that ‘Judge Dredd’ would not be ready for the first issue of ‘2000 AD’ in 1977. The story chosen to introduce the character was submitted by Peter Harris, and extensively re-written by Mills. It was drawn by newcomer Mike McMahon. The strip debuted in prog (issue) 2, but Ezquerra, angry that another artist had drawn the first published strip, quit and returned to work for ‘Battle.’ Wagner soon returned to the character, starting in prog 9. His ‘Robot Wars’ storyline was drawn by a rotating team of artists (including Ezquerra), and marked the point where Dredd became the most popular character in the comic, a position he has rarely relinquished. The character has appeared in almost every issue since, the bulk of the stories written by Wagner (in collaboration with Alan Grant between 1980 and 1988).

Since 1990 Dredd has also headlined his own title, the ‘Judge Dredd Megazine.’ With Wagner concentrating his energies there, the Dredd strip in ‘2000 AD’ was left to younger writers such as Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, and John Smith. Their efforts were not popular with fans, and sales fell. Wagner returned to writing the character full-time in 1994.

Joseph Dredd is the most famous of the elite corps of Street Judges that run Mega-City One with the power not only to enforce the law, but also to instantly convict and sentence offenders – and occasionally execute them. Dredd is armed with a ‘Lawgiver’ pistol (programmed to recognize his palm-print alone and capable of firing six types of ammunition), a daystick, a knife, and stun/gas grenades. His helmet obscures all of his face except for his mouth and jaw. He rides a large ‘Lawmaster’ motorbike, which has machineguns, a powerful laser cannon, and full artificial intelligence capable of responding to orders from the Judge and of driving itself.

Dredd’s entire face is never shown properly in the strip. This custom began as an unofficial guideline, but soon became a rule which artists were required to follow. As John Wagner explained: ‘It sums up the facelessness of justice − justice has no soul. So it isn’t necessary for readers to see Dredd’s face, and I don’t want you to.’ On very rare occasions Dredd’s face has been shown in flashbacks to when he was a child, in pictures lacking in detail. In an early story in prog 8, Dredd is forced to remove his helmet and the other characters react as if he is disfigured, but Dredd’s face was covered by a faux censorship sticker. An aborted idea was to have Dredd as a non-white character. In Carlos Ezquerra’s original design he drew Dredd with large lips, ‘to put a mystery as to his racial background.’ Not all of the artists who worked on the strip were told. As a result Mike McMahon spent four months drawing Dredd as a black man, while Brian Bolland and Ron Smith drew him as a white man. As the strip was not in color, this went unnoticed and the idea was dropped.

Time passes in the ‘Judge Dredd’ strip in real time, so as a year passes in real life a year goes by in the comic. Thus the first Dredd story, published in 1977, was set in 2099, and stories published in 2012 are set in 2134. Consequently, as former editor Alan McKenzie explains, ‘every year that goes by Dredd gets a year older – unlike Spiderman, who has been a university student for the past twenty-five years!’ Dredd is currently more than seventy years old, with over fifty years of active service (2079–2134), and for some time characters in the comic have been mentioning that Dredd is not as young and fit as he used to be. It is not known whether there are any long term plans to address this issue (although Mega-City One has cloning and brain transplant technology, for instance). This remains a major theme of current episodes: in prog 1595 (2008) Dredd was diagnosed with benign cancer of the duodenum.

Senior Judge Joseph Dredd and his brother Rico Dredd were cloned from the DNA of Chief Judge Fargo, the first chief judge, in 2066. Their growth was artificially accelerated so that they emerged with an apparent physiological age of 5, with all the appropriate knowledge for their age electronically implanted in their brains by computer during gestation. The name Dredd was chosen by the genetic scientist who created them, Morton Judd, to ‘instil fear in the population.’ In 2070, they saw action for the first time during the Atomic Wars, when as cadets they were temporarily assigned the rank of full judge and sent to restore order to the panic-stricken streets. Distinguishing themselves, they were chosen to take part in assaulting the White House when the Justice Department deposed President Booth. They were fast-tracked through the Academy of Law, Joe graduating second in his class in 2079 (Rico came first). Later that year Joe was forced to arrest Rico for murder and corruption.

Joe Dredd excelled as a judge, rapidly gaining promotion to the rank of senior judge. Offered the opportunity to become chief judge in 2101, he declined, preferring to serve on the streets enforcing the law. On several different occasions he saved his city from conquest or complete destruction by powerful enemies, and in 2114, he almost single-handedly saved the world from being destroyed during the Fourth World War. Although Dredd puts his duty to uphold the law above everything, this devotion is not blind loyalty. On two occasions Dredd resigned from the force on points of principle, but both times, he returned to the fold. In 2113, Dredd insisted that the Justice Department gamble its very existence on a referendum to prove its legitimacy as a form of government. In 2116, he risked 20 years’ imprisonment with hard labor when he challenged the policy of a chief judge which he was unable to support. In 2129, he threatened to resign to persuade another chief judge to change the city’s harsh anti-mutant laws. After over fifty years of active service, Dredd’s career may be drawing to a close. In 2130, he was diagnosed with cancer, though it was said to be operable. In 2132, Dredd was appointed to the Council of Five, Mega-City One’s highest governing body.

Street Judges act as police, judge, jury and, if necessary, on-the-spot executioner. Capital punishment in Mega-City One is rarely used, though deaths while resisting arrest are numerous. Numerous writers have used the Judge System to satirize contemporary politics. Judges, once appointed, can be broadly characterized as ‘Street Judges’ (who patrol the city), and administrative, or office-based, judges. The incorruptibility of the Judges is supposedly maintained by the Special Judicial Squad, although even SJS judges have themselves broken the law on occasion, most notably SJS head Judge Cal who killed the chief judge and usurped his office for himself. The Judge System has spread throughout the globe, with various super-cities besides Mega-City One possessing some sort of Judge System of law enforcement and government. As such this political model has become the most common form of government on Earth, with only a few small areas practicing traditional civilian rule. There is an international ‘udicial Charter’ which countries and city states join upon instituting a Judge system.

The setting of ‘Judge Dredd’ takes place in a dystopian future where the Earth has been badly damaged by a series of international conflicts, much of the planet has turned to radioactive wasteland, and so populations have tended to aggregate in enormous conurbations known as ‘mega-cities.’ The world of ‘Judge Dredd’ is centered on the megalopolis of Mega-City One, on the east coast of North America. Within Mega-City One, extensive automation (including the creation of a caste of intelligent robots) has rendered the majority of the population unemployed. As a consequence, the general population is prone to embracing any fashion or craze that comes along. Mega-City One is surrounded by the inhospitable ‘Cursed Earth’ desert. The high levels of pollution have created instances of mutation in humans and animals. The Mega-Cities largely operate on a system of genetic apartheid, making expulsion from the cities the worst punishment possible.

Mega-City One’s population of 400 million lives in gigantic tower blocks known as City Blocks, each holding some fifty thousand or so people. Each is named after some historical person or TV character, usually for comic effect. For example, Joe Dredd used to live in the Rowdy Yates Block – Rowdy Yates was a character in the American TV cowboy drama ‘Rawhide,’ played by a young Clint Eastwood. Eastwood would later play the lead in ‘Dirty Harry’ – one of the thematic influences by which ‘Judge Dredd’ was inspired. A number of stories feature rivalries between different blocks, on many occasions breaking into full-scale gun battles between them. The Judges’ extreme powers reflect the difficulty of maintaining any order at all in the Mega-City’s stifling environment.

Despite its frequent disasters, Mega-City One stretches from around Boston to Charlotte; it stretched further before the ‘Apocalypse War,’ which saw widespread death and devastation, the south of the city being entirely wiped out. At its height, the city contained a population of about 800 million; it was halved in the War. The story ‘Origins’ revealed that Mega-City One was formed because of growing urban sprawl rather than deliberate design, and by 2051 it was recognized as the world’s first mega-city.

There are four other major population centers in Dredd’s Northern America. The first is Texas City, stretching across several of the southern former United States and with a different culture to its northern cousin, based on Wild West frontier values. South of the city is Mex-City. North of Mega-City One is Canadia. Further north is Uranium City. Until 2114 Mega-City Two also existed on the West Coast, but was destroyed during the events of ‘Judgement Day.’ Nuclear deserts and destruction elsewhere in the world are also extensive. Much of the north Atlantic is severely polluted, and is now known as the ‘Black Atlantic.’ An underwater settlement known as Atlantis exists in the Atlantic, half-way along a Mega-City One to Brit-Cit (England) tunnel.

Other cities are Cal-Hab (part of Scotland), Euro-City (eastern France and part of Germany), and Ciudad España (eastern Spain). Ireland has the megacity of Murphyville and has been turned into an enormous tourist theme park re-creating a stereotypical view of traditional Irish life. Russia’s East-Meg One was destroyed by Dredd in a massive nuclear strike at the climax of the ‘Apocalypse War’ in 2104. Further east is East-Meg Two. Mongolia, lacking a Mega-City or Judge system, has called itself the Mongolian Exclusion Zone and criminals have flocked there for a safe haven; East-Meg Two performed vicious clearances there in 2125. In Asia, separated from East-Meg Two by an extensive nuclear desert, are Sino-City One (destroyed during ‘Judgement Day’) and Sino-City Two in eastern China, with Hong Tong built in the remains of Hong Kong and partitioned between Sino-Cit and Brit-Cit control.

Hondo City lies on the remains of the islands of Japan. Indo City (later called Nu-Delhi) is in southern India. Between Hondo and Sino-City lie the Radlands of Ji, a nuclear desert full of chaos magic (a school of the modern magical tradition which emphasizes the pragmatic use of belief systems and the creation of new and unorthodox methods) and many violent outlaw gangs and martial arts schools. Into the Blue Pacific cities survive in south-east Australia or Oz (the Sydney-Melbourne Conurbation) and New Zealand (New Pacific City). All of Indonesia’s islands are now linked by a network of mutant coral called ‘The Web’; this network of islands is a lawless hotbed of crime. The Middle East is without major cities, being either nuclear or natural deserts; the Mediterranean coast is heavily damaged by mutagens. In Africa much of the south is nuclear desert. Nuclear fallout and pollution appear to have missed Antarctica and the Arctic, causing one Mega-City (Antarctic City) to have been constructed there.

Earth’s moon has been colonized, with a series of large domes forming Luna City; another colony, Puerto Luminae, exists but is a lawless, violent hellhole. In addition many deep space colonies have been established. Some are loyal to various mega cities, while many are independent states, and others still face violent insurgencies to gain independence. The multi-national Space Corps battles both insurgencies and external alien threats. The newly discovered planet Hestia (which orbits the Sun near to but at 90 degrees to Earth’s orbit) has a colony, there are some references to colonies on Mars such as Viking City, Saturn’s moon Titan has a judicial penal colony, and Mega-City One is known to have deep space missile silos on Pluto.

An American film loosely based on the comic strip was released in 1995, starring Sylvester Stallone as Dredd (it was said that Arnold Schwarzenegger was originally requested for the role, but declined because in the original script, Dredd would keep the helmet on during major parts of the film). The writers largely omitted the ironic humor of the comic strip, and ignored important aspects of the ‘Dredd mythology.’ For example, in the film a love interest is developed between Dredd and Judge Hershey, something that is strictly forbidden between Judges (or Judges and anyone else for that matter) in the comic strip. Also of interest is the cameo appearance of an ‘ABC Warrior’ robot bearing a distinct resemblance to Hammerstein (‘ABC Warriors’ was another strip that ran in ‘2000 AD,’ about a team of war robots designed to withstand Atomic, Bacterial, and Chemical warfare).

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