Words and Pictures: Judge Dredd
In its mere fourteen or so years of existence, IDW has become one of the success stories in US comics, having already established itself as the 4th biggest publisher of comics sold through comics specialty shops (the top two are obvious, the third’s Image, for anyone who’s curious).
Amongst lots of pretty well-received material based on licensed properties, like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Trek, the company’s also produced two of my very favourite comics of the last few years: Locke & Key, which I’ve talked about here before and hope to revisit when the final collected edition is published; and Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of the Richard Stark Parker novels, which I’ll sadly never discuss here because they’re pure crime fiction, but I can assure you they’re very, very good.
Now, IDW has launched a full frontal, no-holds-barred assault on my affections by directly targeting my childhood. Using a Judge Dredd comic. As it turns out (says he coming back to edit the intro, having discovered that what follows didn’t turn out quite as expected), that means I’m about to mostly talk about my childhood, the oddities of Dredd as a character, US vs UK sensibilities and various other odds and ends. But I do talk the comic itself a bit too, so all is not lost.
written by Duane Swierczynski, illustrated by Nelson Daniel and others, published by IDW
When I was a little fella, my sister had weekend ballet lessons. While she danced, my mother and I would adjourn to a local cafe, where my good behaviour was purchased with cake, juice and a comic. (It was a comfortable, enjoyable ritual; children (well, mini-me anyway) do like a predictable schedule). I don’t remember every single comic I read – those days being a lot further away than I’d like – but I do know that the one it all culminated in, the one that became important to me, was 2000 AD.
This is how the seeds of genre, or even medium, fanhood are often sown, right? The right product gets into the right pair of hands at the right (young) age. Give some psychologically or emotionally receptive pre-teen something that speaks to them. Something that feels powerfully and personally theirs. Special, like a tailored invitation into a secret world. Thus is an sf fan, a comics fan (and a cafe/cake fan) born.
2000 AD was, and to a lesser extent still is, a British institution. A weekly anthology comic of speculative fiction action, headlined by the most iconic character in all of modern British comics: Judge Dredd. Judge, jury and executioner in the dystopian urban jungle that is Megacity One, he’s the embodiment of authoritarian order facing down an onrushing tide of sociological and technological chaos (except when he’s the embodiment of stubborn opposition to the wrong kind of authoritarian order).
Although he’s essentially a hero, there’s a whiff of the anti-hero about him sometimes, particularly when he’s dispensing a kind of justice that is comedically excessive and arbitrary to most British eyes. Sometimes his stories have been laced with a heavy dose of equally British irony. And those stories have been ludicrously varied over the decades: crime, war stories, post-apocalyptic craziness, satire, comedy, horror, short stories, epic sagas, and all manner of other stuff. Much of it informed by the contemporary troubles and preoccupations of the real world.
As a character Judge Dredd himself is not exactly what you’d call densely developed. He has a fairly limited backstory and web of inter-personal relationships compared with many icons of popular fiction; barely a personality beyond his inflexible adherence to the law, some might say (though I’d not go quite that far myself). Most importantly and famously, you never get to see his face – not even his eyes, those founts of emotion and reader identification – perpetually concealed as it and they are behind an implacable, inscrutable helmet. Thus is the law shown to be impersonal, inflexible, inhuman. (Except in the first, profoundly misguided, movie version, of which we shall not speak; nor will we speak of the more recent version, because I haven’t seen it though I gather it’s an improvement).
Perhaps, though, it’s exactly this simplicity and de-personalisation that has enabled him to move so effortlessly through such a convoluted tapestry of tone and trope. Theoretically, there’s not a lot to him, but in practice what’s there is so clearly defined, so rock-hard in its emphatic ‘I am the Law’ precision, that he can be the obdurate, unsmiling pillar about which ever-changing tones and themes and plots swirl in giddy abandon. Sometimes, it’s not the subtlety or complexity of character creation that matters; it’s the simplicity and consistency and clarity of it. If you want to go beyond character to icon, those are the traits that will serve you best. Dressing your character up in a quite brilliantly designed, and quite brilliantly over the top, uniform and equipping him with crazy fun guns and motorbikes undoubtedly helps too, mind you.
Historically North America seems, generalising horribly, to not quite get the whole Dredd-love habit. It may have something to do with the sense of humour, irony, hero-who’s- a-quasi-fascist thing. I don’t know. I also don’t know whether IDW are going to meet with any success in this latest effort to sell him across the pond, because as a Brit who learned to love Dredd decades ago, I’m emphatically not the target audience. As is sometimes the case with us fans and our deeply-ingrained childhood attachments, I’m functionally incapable of offering useful, objective comment on a Judge Dredd comic. But I’ll have a quick go.
The format’s mildly unconventional: 16-page chunks of the main storyline, interspersed with 6-page shorts (same writer, different artists) that comment upon it, or expand it, or extend it. I rather like it, but it does make the reading experience less linear and consistent than is the case in many US comics and might be a wee bit of an obstacle for the casual reader.
I confess I actually enjoyed those short 6-pagers slightly more than the main substance of the story. They’re accomplished, concise little vignettes from writer Duane Swierczynski, that seem to capture more of the cruel humour and the slightly zany, idea-dense magic of old-school Dredd than the main narrative does. But the whole thing did gradually come together for me, as those vignettes converge on the main story to deliver a Memento-esque twist at the end of this volume that’s a little bit silly, a little bit clever and fun, which – to me, at least – is an entirely appropriate combination for a Judge Dredd comic.
There’s plenty of stuff going on in here (amongst really quite a lot of carnage) – psychic body-hopping, memory-wiping drugs, kidnapped clones, psychotic surgeons – but the main thrust of the extended story looks to be sabotage of the robotic underpinnings of Megacity One society, which nicely hearkens back to robot rebellions of Dredd lore. And it’s nice to be re-united with some pleasingly familiar visual motifs, such as the arrival of Judges at a crime scene on their wildly imposing Lawmaster motorbikes, and a Judge’s massive boot squashing the face of a miscreant (‘If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ George Orwell).
How will all this play with those not pre-disposed to forgive it nearly any imperfection, though? With those who were not taught, in a long-ago cafe, that this character was theirs? I really don’t know. I’d guess it’s going to be an uphill struggle, but I truly hope that this series gets the chance to grow and develop. I think Dredd and his world are ridiculously wonderful creations, and there’s nothing I’d like better than for a lot more folks to be persuaded of that.
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