Judging Dredd: A Brit and a Yank Discuss the Legendary ‘2000 AD’ Strip

Reviews / June 28, 2018

Episode Two: Progs 3 and 4

MCKENNA: Surprisingly, Dredd still doesn’t appear on the cover of Prog 3, which contains the second appearance of Judge Dredd. Inside is the episode where they give Mega City One a name and start sketching in more of the details of the world Dredd inhabits—with brilliantly economical strokes, it has to be said. Whether this was by design, expediency, or just luck, who knows, but the “New You Instant Genetic Surgery” sign outside the “face parlour”—and the concept of the face parlour itself—instantly and perfectly rendered the idea of life in the Big Meg (and how fucking funny is the nickname “The Big Meg”?): tacky, poppy, throwaway, and full of yearning for something else—a world where humanity’s incredible advances have been channeled into titillating the passing caprices of a population that, understandably, seeks faddish distraction from the shittiness of the world it inhabits. I didn’t pick up on any of this at the time, of course: I was too busy trying not to pass out from the unprecedented overload of thrill power.

The story in itself isn’t especially memorable, just a vignette on future crime that brings Dredd slightly more into focus, but the dialogue continues to demand engagement, especially Dredd’s blend of beat cop vernacular and Old Testament bombast. The same issue also contained a “futuregraph” that explained what the Big Meg actually was—a “trembling mass of 100,000,000 people.” Overpopulation was one of the real-world topics of the day, and I remember distinctly the awe and terror of trying to conceive of the scale of the Big Meg (as well as, for some reason, trying to relate it to Doncaster, to which in my mind it was a psychic twin).

ROBERTS: The “New You Face Parlour” is so fucking great, even if it is taken directly from 1975’s Logan’s Run, when soon-to-be “Runner” Logan goes to “New You 483” “to get a new face.” Reconstructive surgery is an enduring feature in sci-fi and pulp literature in general: who in the egocentric West hasn’t fantasized about altering his or her appearance wholesale, starting a new life without the old surface flaws and the old baggage? And the Big Meg is certainly a place overrun by vanity and greed.

“Scarface” Levine is a typical Dredd villain: remorseless, nihilistic, irredeemable. I love the line, “I broke more laws than you’ve done face-changes, honey.” John Wagner really has the vernacular down early on, as you say.

The other thing that struck me was the advanced surveillance technology of the Judges—invisible to the people, insidious, panoptic. Despite changing his face, Levine is identified by his voice print, which comes up on a panel on Dredd’s bike. “All lawbreakers [sic] voice prints,” Dredd tells the felled villain, “are on file at Justice H.Q.” Dredd’s bike, another powerful technology that keeps the rotten citizens of Mega City One in line, would increasingly take on a life of its own, and develop powers that would become explicit in the next decade’s superpowered, sometimes sentient, crime-fighting vehicles.

MCKENNA: Which segues us not at all into Prog 4 and the introduction of three major factors of the world of Judge Dredd: cults, muties, and the Cursed Earth. The episode starts with Joe pulling some regular-guy stuff as he comments on how preferable gunning down the crazed mutant slavers of the “Brotherhood of Darkness” is to giving out speeding tickets, before running out of ammo and being forced to resort to that most child-friendly of law-enforcement weapons, a crossbow used as a club. Mega City One hasn’t yet got the vast boundary walls that keep it safe from the radiated wasteland outside.

Looking back at it now, it’s amazing how—ahem—raw and spontaneous-looking the young Mike McMahon’s art is. And yet it still works brilliantly, despite almost looking more like some fan’s attempt at doodling Dredd in the back of their geography book than the kind of finished art British comics specialized in at the time. Perhaps that’s what lends it some of its visceral dynamic.

ROBERTS: Although it’s not called the Cursed Earth yet; here it’s simply an atomic “wilderness,” complete with a giant Praying Mantis—dinner for the deranged cult members. I immediately thought of Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley (1969), about a former Hells Angel who has to traverse the post-nuke radioactive wasteland from Los Angeles to Boston to deliver the cure to a plague. The cultists can “only see at night,” of course, much like the vamps in Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend (and before that, the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine).

And here’s the creepy technology again: at the beginning of the strip, as Dredd gleefully blasts the bad guys, who have crept into the city to collect slaves, a controller at Justice HQ watches on a multi-screen console. Every sector of the city is monitored. While the strip is no doubt satirical, Wagner and co. had to have known boys would read it straight, right? We had to admire Dredd and think he was cool. We had to believe he and the Judges were doing right.

MCKENNA: Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure how much I buy into the idea of Dredd actually being intended as police state satire, to be honest. Back then, not many grown-ups were reading comics, especially stuff as lurid, sensationalist, and clearly targeted at kids as 2000 AD was. I mean, I don’t doubt there was some satirical intent in there, especially given the influences it was so evidently supping from, but it feels more as though that was a way of amusing one another in the office: as you point out, there was no way Wagner and co. weren’t aware that the stuff they were pumping out was going to be read mainly by young people—I started reading 2000 AD when I was seven, for fuck’s sake!—who it was very unlikely were going to have enough nous to pick up on any putative subversive undertones—but who were definitely going to love a motorbike cop with a license to shoot lawbreakers in the face.

ROBERTS: Right. As mentioned in Episode One, I want to talk about why we were so responsive to these violent, authoritarian characters. I’ve written a bit about how nasty the American urban environment became in the 1970s and into the ‘80s, and you’ve done the same as far as the UK is concerned.

MCKENNA: Maybe it’s because around the time that Dredd first appeared, a lot of things from different directions were coalescing into something that retrospectively looks quite unique: pop culture was rotating at increasing speed, drawing into its orbit stuff that previously existed in more discrete cultural compartments. Post-Vietnam and post-Watergate politics, and in the UK the creeping relaxation of the post-war compact, meant there was a growing sensation that everything was held together by very frail threads. As you mention, the ambiguous joys of computer technology were also increasingly becoming part of daily life, both for the citizen and the powers-that-be. There was recession, and New York’s growing reputation for lawlessness at the time was feeding the idea that cities were no longer hubs of aspiration but out-of-control hellholes that were increasingly synonymous with chaos and degeneration (i.e. 1974’s Death Wish). Add to that a generation of post-war parents whose approach, in many ways less severe and autocratic than in the past, was often accompanied by an implicit (and often explicit) fallibility and selfishness.

Kids were certainly able to sense second-hand the growing sense of worry about the future through the anxieties of the adults around them, so maybe that was what made the motorcycle cops in 1973’s Magnum Force, their surrealist forerunners in 1971’s THX 1138, and the judges themselves so beguiling: sleek, monastic, violent orders charged with controlling the burgeoning madness. I don’t know about the States, but in its subtle way, Britain was a pretty authoritarian place, even though it was a sort of paternalistic authoritarianism that was usually—nominally, at least—benign. So I suppose it’s no coincidence that something like Dredd appeared at the same time as something like punk: they were like flipsides to the same reaction.

ROBERTS: I think that’s right on. Nixon’s Presidential campaign of 1968 was based on a return to “law and order,” and he won in large part because of the “silent majority” that rejected the anti-war movement and the radicalism (political, spiritual, sociological) of the counterculture. These attitudes were reflected in pop culture but are rarely discussed—except dismissively. Don Pendleton’s Executioner series (1969- ) was really the first big property (it was an immediate bestseller) to express this reactionary ideology, and I don’t think it’s ever been acknowledged as such. The Executioner is Mack Bolan, a Vietnam vet—the best sniper in the business—who is called home after the mob has driven his family to ruin (when Robert F. Kennedy became Attorney General in 1961, the mafia became his primary target, and Nixon called for a “war against organized crime” in 1968). Bolan subsequently wages a one man war against the mob for 38 novels, before his enemy switches, in 1981, to international terrorism. Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey (Death Wish) and so many others are simply one-dimensional cribs of Bolan, who does not apologize for his violence, but is morose about its necessity and fatalistic about his chances of surviving his “holy war.”

Dredd is not Bolan, but they share the same sense of uncompromising justice, of righteous duty, in a world ever nearer to the gates of hell: the bad guys wear black hats, and we, the good guys, feel a rush when the Scarface Levines and Freddie Gambellas get their comeuppance. This cynicism is cut in Dredd by humor and a distinctly absurd sci-fi setting—we know it’s fantasy. In America, however, the danger is all too real. Our glorious “City Upon a Hill” is constantly beset by subversive forces, and only men who are willing to renunciate the “soft social theory” of the criminal justice system can save us.

3 thoughts on “Judging Dredd: A Brit and a Yank Discuss the Legendary ‘2000 AD’ Strip

  1. “I’m not sure how much I buy into the idea of Dredd actually being intended as police state satire”
    I heard an interview with (Judge Dredd co-creator) Carlos Ezquerra where he talked about creating the character. He was living and working in Spain at the time, under Franco’s fascist regime, and he quite definitely saw Dredd as a fascistic figure. The iconography of the shield and eagle on Dredd’s uniform were inspired by a Spanish coin. Esquerra noticed that the eagle was symbol of the US, but also fascist Spain and Nazi Germany.

  2. I would love to hear that. Richard talks about the overtly fascist uniform and Judge system in Episode One. What we’re questioning here is whether it’s *satire*. Clearly Wagner and Ezquerra were not fascists, but clearly Dredd is meant to be the good guy, and the action conforms to a conservative view of the world: the bad guys wear black hats, surveillance of the population is necessary to weed them out, violence is the only cure, and so on. It’s obviously an *absurd* take, and ultimately that’s what carries it through.

  3. To quote John Wagner – “There are several things each Judge Dredd story has to have: An element of futurism, Dredd acting as hero, Dredd acting as villain. The two sides of his character. A good villain is always popular, and a strong hero is usually popular, so when you combine them you’ve got a pretty powerful character.”

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