Reviews / March 14, 2017
ROBERTS: I guess we should begin at the beginning. I first got into Judge Dredd and 2000 AD in 1983, when Eagle Comics (founded by Nick Landau) started anthologizing the strip for an American audience. The Eagle editions were in color (I had no idea the original 2000 AD was black and white for many years), and the Dredd comics came with new, mind-bending covers by Brian Bolland. I had been collecting comics pretty obsessively for a few years at that point, but had never seen anything like Dredd. It was clear to me that something bigger than traditional superhero comics was going on, though I obviously didn’t pick up on all the satire at that point. Dredd was developed by John Wagner, who loosely (and unsurprisingly, in retrospect) based the character on his earlier Valiant strip One-Eyed Jack, about a tough NYC cop and “law enforcement with an edge!”
2000 AD came out in the UK right before Star Wars was released, right? Did you pick it up straightaway?
MCKENNA: Yes, I was one of the kids who had their brains reprogrammed by prog 1 the week it came out in 1977, the best part of a year before Star Wars was released in the UK (though the idea that it used to take films seven months to cross the Atlantic now reads like some ridiculous piece of alternative history-fying). I was already obsessed with comics, but even more so with “Sci-Fi”—and the zeitgeist felt as though it was pregnant with “Sci-Fi” even before it birthed Star Wars.
We had a thriving domestic comics market in the UK (this gives an idea of the landscape into which 2000 AD emerged), with lots of strips specifically targeting boys and taking as their subject matter football, “adventure,” or the Second World War, with whose detritus Britain was still littered. Judge Dredd was immediately and obviously different—it was unprovincial, and for all the crypto-fascism of the Judge System, it made no implicit demands on your respect, obedience, or sense of duty. Life was a madhouse in which only the lucid and the stoic stood a chance, and Judge Dredd seemed to be pulling you, the reader, towards a future that, even in the context of 1977 Yorkshire, seemed entirely logical, inevitable, frightening—yet hilarious. It was the collision of progress and fatalism in the face of the breakdown of the post-war consensus.
Prog 1 was pretty devastating, but I remember reading the next issue—where Dredd made his first appearance—actually in the shop after buying it. It’s hard to be sure forty years down the line if that’s an authentic memory or just four decades of retrospective embroidering, but reading 2000 AD felt like being eaten alive by The Modern. It was the perfect synthesis of all the things that I was beginning, in the dimly-understood way of a seven-year-old, to realize made up the world: pop music, crime, vastness, incomprehensibility, glam, detachment, cynicism, rules, death, robots, madness, fashions—and Judge Dredd felt like the most perfect expression of that, even in a clammy February newsagent’s in provincial Britain. It funneled the shocking inventions of the sci-fi genre’s previous 15 years into an accessible pop-art form that was hugely compelling and transformative.
I was too young to get any of the subtleties (and would remain too unperceptive for an embarrassingly long time), but the surrealist dream/nightmare version of the US world of Dredd immediately made powerful sense. I struggle to imagine how it would have looked to the people who actually lived there, though. Did you recognize yourselves in it?
ROBERTS: I certainly didn’t, at least not consciously. The Eagle reprints (1983-1986) didn’t do that well financially, so I don’t think many people here got Dredd (or anything 2000 AD) at all. The characters, the action, the concept, and the art (we’ll get to the genius of Carlos Ezquerra) were so uncanny, in the Freudian sense, and yet events were clearly taking place in a grimy, post-apocalyptic U.S.A. How’s that for irony? Spiritually, it was very Clockwork Orange, which I’d seen by that time—and that’s really all I had to go on. Even though the comic book industry would soon go through a revolution—Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, John Constantine’s Hellblazer, and so on—it wasn’t there yet, and I’d seen nothing like Dredd. Little did I know the revolution had started in 1977.
Let’s talk progs. You mentioned the second issue of 2000 AD, which was the first appearance of Dredd, so we start with prog 2.
MCKENNA: What the hell can you say about it? It emerged so fully-formed, so perfectly conceived that, in some ways, the first splash page provides a total and exhaustive manifesto from which it would be possible to recreate the whole series. Like Riddley Walker, say, or The Holy Mountain, it has the feverish vividness of the fully-realized hallucination. It’s a world that, as insane as it is, makes perfect visceral sense, with its elegiac mood of put-upon law enforcement officers fighting to maintain some kind of sanity among the madness.
The Judge’s uniform was a work of art in itself: the helmet that by turns brought to mind both a death’s head and an Argus-like medieval helm, the padding, the badge. The dream version of New York, too, which rang all the bells in my mind as to what that most crazed of modern metropolises might be. As as I say, I was an easily-bullied, pathological rule-abider as a child, so, far from being put off by this worryingly authoritarian vision of a dystopian future, I was 100% pro-Dredd, right from prog 2 (which included, incidentally, Biotronic Man stickers). I applauded his marooning of Whitey on Devil’s Island roundabout 100%, too (though I remember being unnerved by the prison’s lack of toilets).
ROBERTS: Honestly, I had to reread the damn thing a couple of times before I realized it was satire. There is no way I would have recognized it as such in ‘83. From the get-go, it so effortlessly mocks the god complexes of the protagonists of Death Wish and its countless imitators. The moral universe of the Judges is unforgivingly fundamentalist, with ties to the Old Testament and the contrapasso of Dante: Whitey’s punishment on the inescapable Devil’s Island, an absurd prison planted in the middle of “a vast inter-city highway complex,” where he will be forced to listen to “thundering juggernauts” for the rest of his life, fits his noisome, sociopathic crimes. More than anything, I think this absurd humor—contrasted with Dredd’s and the Judges’ definitive lack of humor—is what drew me to the strip. I may not have picked up on the satire, but I did get the demented absurdity of Dredd’s world. It’s very funny, in a very clever way.
I was pro-Dredd too, of course. I was reading Don Pendleton’s Executioner novels at the time, and my favorite comic book character was the Punisher (talk about a lack of humor). We’ll talk about why we, and much of the public at large, embraced these crime-fighting extremists in the next installment, when we look at progs 3 and 4.