Crawling from the Wreckage – Judge Dredd at 45

Judge Dredd: The Citadel is a forthcoming collection of three stories featuring the future’s toughest lawman. It is comprised of recent output (serialized in 2021 and 2022), written by the character’s co-creator, John Wagner, lettered by Annie Parkhouse, and drawn by three different artists: Dan Cornwell (colored by Dylan Teague); Colin MacNeil (colored by Chris Blythe); and John Higgins (colored by Sally Hurst). The centerpiece of the collection is the story that gives it its name, a long-ish1 tale meant to commemorate 45 years of 2000 AD with a prolonged flashback to one of the magazine's most famous stories: “The Apocalypse War”.2

From "The Citadel". Written by John Wagner, drawn by Dan Cornwell, colored by Dylan Teague, lettered by Annie Parkhouse.

Let’s get this out of the way. I’m pretty sure that when the editor of 2000 AD commissioned this story (or when Wagner pitched it) they didn’t expect Russia to be involved in a war. The original storyline that inspires “The Citadel” was published between January 2nd, 1982 (or October 31st, 1981, if you count the “Block Mania” prologue) and June 26th, 1982. The Cold War was still running and the threat of thermonuclear war was still in the air. That story–in which obvious USSR stand-in East-Meg One invades the American Mega-City One with nuclear strikes that kill hundreds of millions–ended with a particularly overkill-happy climax, even by the grim standards of Judge Dredd, in which Dredd lunches his own nuclear counterstrike - one which obliterates all five hundred million citizens of East-Meg One.3

Say what you will about that story; you can certainly refer to it as “tasteless”,4 but it truly felt of-its-time. It touched on the particular fears and anxieties of the 1980s, and was even marked by the patriotic war fever of that era (the East-Meg One troops are as nasty as any Dredd opponent you’d care to name, and up until the final moment pretty much any violent action Dredd takes appears justified, and even heroic). “The Citadel”, comparatively, feels like an inherently retro affair. It’s not like tensions between Russia and its neighbors (or the United States) are particularly new, but the story’s main interest is in the fictional history the creators have crafted rather than in any real world conflict.

From "The Citadel".

The story’s raison d'être is looking backwards. What’s more, it looks back to something that has been examined plenty. In the last few years alone, the events of “The Apocalypse War” played an important part of “The Small House” (September 26th - November 28th, 2018) by Rob Williams and Henry Flint, two of the more successful among the crop of new talents to work on the character. There is also the shorter serial “War Buds” (August 23rd - September 20th, 2017), drawn by the same Dan Cornwell of “The Citadel” and written by John Wagner. Wagner, of course, is responsible with co-writer Alan Grant for “The Apocalypse War” itself, as well as the 2011-12 storyline “Day of Chaos”, which dealt with belated after-effects of Dredd’s mass-murdering antics.

All of which is to say: ‘Do we really need this?’ I’ve long held that one of the charms of the Judge Dredd strip is that it rarely looks back, and is certainly very hesitant about messing about with its own history. In many ways the strip is like your typical corporate-owned American comic - the icon is bigger than the creators,5 the series will keep on running as long as it generates profit, and there’s that constant hope for success in more financially-viable mediums. But, unlike with American superheroes, Judge Dredd usually avoids becoming too much about its own fictional history. Partly it’s that the metaphor at the core of the strip's premise constantly pulls towards more politically-oriented storytelling. Partly it’s the idea that every year for the reader is a year for the character; that time moves forward in a discernable manner, which means that history stays in the past.

From “The Citadel”.

History shapes and influences what the characters do in the present, just as our history shapes us, but the strip doesn't tend to go back and mess with things. The dreaded retcon, the device that's made so much of superhero comics into a terrible slog of writers constantly trying to fix each other’s work, is absent. So you understand why I went into “The Citadel” with a degree of reticence. In some ways, that reticence was justified; in others not. The story makes a big show about revealing some ‘hidden truth’ behind the events of “The Apocalypse War”, but in the end it really does very little - it could’ve quite easily been a side-story in the original text. Or it could’ve simply never existed at all.

Which is not to say “The Citadel” is ‘bad’. I don’t think Wagner is particularly capable of writing something truly bad these days. Even if the story itself is lackluster–“Guatemala” is another recently-collected Judge Dredd story that started promisingly and ended with a whiff–his skill in writing means you’ll still have a good time. As previously mentioned, “The Citadel” is only ‘long’ by the standards of 2000 AD; by any other account it’s as lean a machine as you can find. There’s simply not a line or panel wasted. So even as I find the destination it carries us towards pointless, I can still very much enjoy the ride.

The one particularly smart touch about the story is that it frames itself as an outside observance of Dredd. Winterton, the incarcerated man whose flashback makes the largest chunk of the story, was a cadet during “The Apocalypse War”; while readers of that story saw Dredd as a heroic figure, fighting to save his city from invasion, Winterton sees an uncaring monster willing to throw away the lives of everyone around him, including children, in order to win. It’s the thing that Wagner still does better than everyone else, the construction of the protagonist as a ‘useful monster’6 - someone you can find both admirable and hateful at the same time.

It helps that Wagner is working with Cornwell on this one, with strong color work by Dylan Teague. While Cornwell is not my favorite of the current crop of artists–gimme the detail-heavy brutalism of Chris Weston or the more comedic approach of P.J. Holden any day–he certainly knows his way around action storytelling. There’s something extremely Dredd-appropriate about the incidental way he depicts violence which particularly compliments Wagner's meat-and-potatoes scripting style. Page after page of bodies filling panels, threatening to burst - but the story never stops to look at them. As far as Dredd is concerned, the dead aren’t worth a second glance. Cornwell’s Dredd is exactly the kind of man you could see wiping out half a billion people with the push of a button.

From “The Citadel”.

There’s a nice nasty image in chapter 6 (see above) in which Dredd and a Cadet Judge are sneaking up on a couple of enemy soldiers, and the cadet slashes the enemy’s throat with a slight glee about her mouth. Cornwell hits the right balance for this expression - not overtly-stated, because the character is acting quietly, but with the hint of something beyond the needs of duty: a gleam of the sadistic joy of a trained professional in applied violence.

When all is said and done, “The Citadel” is a story undermined by its own celebratory nature: comics’ endless desire to celebrate (rather than engage) with what has gone before. “The Apocalypse War” has been reckoned with plenty, often in better form (again, “Day of Chaos”); all this story does is tantalize the reader with the possibility of some earth-shaking revelation which could never be, because the Dredd character is also a brand, and the brand can only be tampered with so much.

Oddly enough, it is the third story in the collection7 that better serves the purpose of exploring the character’s present by going back to his past. “Now that’s what I call justice” is a twisty procedural in which Dredd and co. hunt down a group taking revenge on Judges who have failed in their duty by killing civilians who didn’t break the law. The situation is complicated when it appears that some of the murders are committed by someone else entirely - someone with less professionalism and more of a personal grudge.

From “Now that's what I call justice”. Written by John Wagner, drawn by John Higgins, colored by Sally Hurst, lettered by Annie Parkhouse.

To make a short story even shorter, it turns out the second killer is a character we’ve seen before - the child of a pro-democracy activist memorably murdered by Dredd in “Letter from a Democrat” (published all the way back on March 8th, 1986). John Higgins, probably known to most people as the original colorist of The Killing Joke8 and still-the-colorist of Watchmen, was the artist on that story - so, bringing him to this one actually feels significant, even if I much prefer his work in stark black and white. Look, this is not really a fair comparison; I’m on the record as saying “Letter from a Democrat” is the best Judge Dredd story, so I’m predisposed to enjoy this one.

From “Now that's what I call justice”.

Still, even with that fact in mind, “Now that's what I call justice” is simply a better story, especially when it comes to the themes “The Citadel” was trying to convey. The main point of this story is that Dredd seriously doesn’t remember the boy who grows up to be this angry Judge killer. Moreover, the murdered Judges throughout the story never click with Dredd as people with something in common until nearly the end: “...names that hardly registered even then,” Wagner's narration muses. “Just back-up, nearest units available...” Dredd's murder of the killer's mother was just another normal act for him, the browbeating of her widowed husband and children likewise: “...the father had committed suicide some years later. Left a letter naming him as the cause. He’d seen the report.”

Of course Dredd doesn’t remember the case; he’s been killing people for decades. What’s more important is the idea that the citizens of Mega-City One have so many justified grievances with the Judges that you can hide one murder streak within another and almost no one would notice. Dredd and his fellows aren’t shocked at all by the fact that some citizen would take a shot at them, even though their whole system is built on the notion of ‘safeguarding the civilians’.

What’s more, there are so many layers of responsibility between the Judges’ choices and the results of their violent acts, there’s always some post hoc justification. At the end of the story, of course, Dredd wins and kills his would-be assassin, making it 3/4s of that family unit he’s murdered. Throughout the story we are shown scenes from an in-universe TV show that gives the strip its name: Now that’s what I call justice, which shows various violent actions by Judges - it is in the midst of a Top 50 countdown of their greatest kills.

From "Now that's what I call justice".

At the end of the story we cut back to the show for their #1 pick - which is, of course, Dredd himself launching those fateful nukes at East-Meg One. This is a much better use of “The Apocalypse War” than in “The Citadel”; it ties the violence of the system at the micro level to the macro level. The problem with killing 500,000,000 people with a push of a button is that it is such an abstract thing, in storytelling terms at least; killing Hester Hyman, democracy activist and mother, is a more digestible form of evil. But the same system9 performs both acts, and the same moral license that leads to one ends up leading to another.

The final image, a rare full-page splash in 2000 AD, depicting the semi-abstract ruins of East-Meg One, atop which the host of the in-universe countdown show has strapped himself into an eclectic chair while shouting “Now that’s what I call justice!”, is as good of a summation of Judge Dredd as you are likely to find. When we measure justice by the corpses of those we would deem criminals, we only end up smothering in the dead world we make for ourselves.

Judge Dredd: The Citadel ends up doing exactly what it wants to do. It simply does it with the wrong story.

* * *

  1. By Judge Dredd standards, which means its 60 pages would cover about three issues of an ongoing American comic book.
  2. Recently reprinted, sadly with modern colors distracting from Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra’s superb black and white work, in Essential Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War.
  3. One of my teachers, whose family left the Soviet Union, was particularly giddy when I told her about the story.
  4. I won’t, but you may.
  5. Wagner is certainly better-respected by the current owners of the copyrights, and other writers bow out whenever he takes control, but the strip is still controlled by editorial rather than him.
  6. To quote Douglas Wolk.
  7. The second is the MacNeil-illustrated “Removal Man” - which is a trifle, but an amusing one.
  8. The version that’s actually good-looking.
  9. And Dredd is, by design, more of a system than a person.