Those comic-collecting neophytes interested
in the British comics scene would do well to check out one of the strangest
comic book heroes to ever appear in the panels, Judge Dredd, IPC
/Eagle Comics' hard-edged science fiction cop of the 22nd century. The
most famous character to debut in Eagle's 2000 A.D. title, the grimly humorous
lawman has been featured in numerous well done stories issued by various
publishers, and has inspired a wide range of collectable products, ranging
from Ninetendo and pinball games, to model kits, action figures, novels,
and card sets.
The character Judge Dredd, I've always felt, can trace his ancestry back to Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick; both police officers are fanatically dedicated to law enforcement to the exclusion of common sense and mercy, and to the extent than even mere jay-walkers run the risk of being shot. Dredd is the Dirty Harry of Mega-City One, a futuristic metropolis sprawled across what's left of America's toasted East Coast.
Judge Dredd, operating in a tongue-in-check totalitarian society, first debuted in the second issue of Eagle's 2000 A.D., March 1977, as a combination of judge, jury and executioner of the harried, sometimes demented citizens of Mega City One, all 800,000,000 of them. Clad in a blue-black jumpsuit and opaque-visored helmet he never removes, Dredd was created by writer/editor Pat Mills, writer John Wagner, and artist Carlos Esquerra. The 22nd century lawman was a sharp contrast to the more routine fantasies of most British comics of the late seventies, becoming the first British comic character to be imported to the United States, at first as reprints (Eagle in 1983, Fleetway, Quality Comics), and then as in new episodes published by DC Comics in 1994.
After U.S. President John L. Booth sparked the Third World War in 2070, the old constitutional system was replaced by the law of the Judges, a police state ruling the overcrowded citizens of the Mega-Cities occupying uncontaminated areas of the United States. Dredd confronts a variety of offbeat urban disasters in a series of story-arcs, like the threat of the Dark Judges, beings from another dimension where existence itself is judged to be a crime ("The criime iss life! Rest in peace, citizzen, your guilt will sssoon be purged!").
Often Dredd shares the stage with Mega-City One itself, which provides a generating bank of satirical ideas, like a fashion craze for ugliness ("haven't you ever wanted to stand out in a crowd?"). Served by Otto Sump's Ugly Clinics, citizens bored by their genetically induced good looks can buy skin-blotch cream, dead-skunk aftershave, tooth decay toothpaste, scum roll-on odorant, and dandruff shampoo ("medicated against medication"). Eventually Dredd decides that the fad for ugliness is a threat to the public health and taxes Sump's clinics out of business. ("Now only the rich could afford to be ugly.")
There were other Mega City vogues, like Uncle Ump's Umpty Candy, a sweet so irresistible that it caused addiction and riots, a fad for gluttony that pitted grossly overweight citizens against their slimmer neighbors, and "block mania," periodic outbreaks of violence between warring city block skyscrapers (Henry Kissinger block versus Betty Crocker). In a segment of a multi-part series, "Cursed Earth" (the nuclear wasteland between both coasts), Dredd intervenes in another war, this one between McDonalds patriots and Burger King devotees. Finally, Wagner would launch an all-out nuclear exchange in "Apocalypse War," a five issue battle where West-Bloc One and East-Bloc One (a resurrected Soviet Union) nuke each other until the East Bloc's Stalinist war marshal is overthrown by his own staff and executed by Dredd.
Dredd has no social life in the series, and his only friend is a robot servant, the loyal Walter the Wobot, who sticks by the unsentimental Dredd through every crisis. Judge Anderson, a female "psi-judge," has repeatedly appeared in stories as well, but Mega City remains the primary heart of the strip, a "character" providing the conflicts Dredd constantly confronts.
Because Judge Dredd ran as a weekly strip in Britain, a large stable of artists had to work on the series, including Cam Kennedy, Carlos Esquerra, Ron Smith, and Ian Gibson. Many of them have gone to work on DC and Vertigo titles, but Brian Bolland remains the most well known artist of the Dredd team. Bolland, a favorite of collectors, cemented his reputation with a series of award winning covers for Wonder Woman and Animal Man, first breaking into the American market with DC's Camelot 3000 series in 1982. In 1988 he illustrated Alan Moore's stunning graphic novel, The Killing Joke, to my mind the definitive Joker/Batman story.
Judge Dredd may have been a critical success as a British import but didn't fare as well as a DC title. There were two DC Judge Dredd series launched in 1994 (Judge Dredd and Judge Dredd: Legends of the Law), but neither of them lasted longer than two years; the writers couldn't seem to capture the tongue-in-check flavor of British irony and the art was mediocre. Dredd has fared better in some of DC's graphic novels, like the Batman/Judge Dredd teamups, Judgment on Gotham and Vendetta in Gotham, both scripted by John Wagner in collaboration with his former roommate, Alan Grant (Lobo).
Dredd's greatest defeat came not in the pages of British or American comics, but on the big screen in the 1995 mega-flop film starring Sylvester Stallone. Despite impressive special effects and awesome backdrops, the film failed to even approximate the series' sense of irony. Grant feels the main problem lay with Stallone, who refused to play Dredd as he really is ("What they were trying to do was gloss over the fact that Judge Dredd is a fascist."). The film was universally panned.
For sheer quality of script and art, Judge Dredd, the comic, remains a collecting favorite, a series that generates fun and excitement. The grim Judge may represent the worst aspects of a police state, but it's likely that this 22nd century lawman will continue to be published well into the 21st.