Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground

Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground

Michael Carroll, John Higgins, Sally Hurst & Simon Bowland, with Jake Lynch, John Charles & Annie Parkhouse

2000 AD/Simon & Schuster


112 pages

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Boulder, Colorado, 2035 AD. This is where justice begins.

Okay, not exactly, but possibly? Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground is a collection of recent 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine strips written by Michael Carroll, drawn by John Higgins and Jake Lynch, colored by Sally Hurst and John Charles, and lettered by Simon Bowland and Annie Parkhouse, featuring the beginnings of the social and political structure that ultimately leads to the oppressive law and order embodied by Judge Dredd and his ilk.

Carroll, a novelist and comic book writer, is one of the primary chroniclers of the early years of Judge Dredd (and the pre-history of the Judges as an organization) in a series of novels from Abaddon Books, and has been a notable writer of Judge Dredd comics for the past decade. I am woefully out-of-touch with current Dredd, and I have only read a sliver of the lumberyard of strips since whatever classic Dredd stories have been reprinted in the first handful of thick black-and-white Complete Case Files volumes. I’m a few decades behind on my knowledge of Dredd and Mega-City One continuity, though I have read the John Wagner/Carlos Ezquerra Judge Dredd: Origins, which I understand was an attempt to weave together something sensible from Joe Dredd’s backstory and the beginnings of the Judges from the political will of Eustace Fargo, Dredd’s genetic forebear and metaphorical father. I didn’t find Judge Dredd: Origins all that sensible, honestly, and it suffered from garish coloring and the classic prequel problem of trying to thread previously established ideas together without telling a compelling enough story on its own.

In his introduction to Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground, Carroll (with reverence for those who came before) references Origins in contrast with the story he’s telling: “...focused as it was on the Big Picture – the fall of a corrupt capitalist regime and the rise in its place of fascism disguised as salvation – Origins only briefly touched on the earliest days of the Judges.” In the "Breaking Ground" strip, Carroll and his artistic partners tell a ground-level story of a new Judge exercising her legal powers as judge, jury, and executioner in the midst of social protests and local corruption. It’s a far more effective narrative than what we find in Origins, as it’s significantly more culturally relevant to our world today and the protagonist, though a cypher, is not an inscrutable as Dredd.

Art by John Higgins, Sally Hurst & Simon Bowland.

Veranda Glover, 40-year-old rookie Judge operating a century before current Dredd, is the lead in "Breaking Ground", and though we see glimpses of her violent, criminal past and references to still-unrevealed secrets, almost everything we know about her is that she takes her job seriously and she is incredibly decisive and effective. All of that also makes her terrifying, and she is not idolized by the creative team or by the public as any sort of hero. She is a Judge on the frontier of Judge-dom, when America was still in recovery from the days when it believed in civil rights and due process.

There are moments in this book where other Judges are shocked and repulsed by Glover’s actions. Glover is a Judge in the Dredd mold, but operating at a time in history when he would have been viewed even by his own superiors as an even more dangerous monster than he already was when introduced. Writer Carroll and Higgins & Hurst reveal the toll of Judge-decreed justice on the citizens, and the society of 2035, but the creative team also seems to revel in the horror story they are telling. This is a cold, violent comic book, but it doesn’t abdicate its thematic responsibilities. Glover is bad but others around her are worse, manipulating an already-corrupt system the Judges were meant to fix, and while Glover’s story arc appear to be one of redemption, this volume only provides the first arc of her story. She is just getting started and there’s more to her than we yet understand.

Art by John Higgins, Sally Hurst & Simon Bowland.

Artistically, the veteran Higgins provides hyper-detail and the kinds of shadows and crosshatching of the quasi-realistic, post-Brian Bolland school of Dredd comics, rather than the lumpy/jagged Mike McMahon or Carlos Ezquerra school. It works well for the story, and I found myself immersed in Higgins’s world of Judge Glover in a way that I haven’t been in the few other recent Dredd tales I have sampled.

The "Breaking Ground" strip only occupies the first two-thirds of this volume, however, and I found that to be a bit of a problem for this package as a whole. The final third of this book contains a previous Carroll-penned comic, “Paradigm Shift,” that is a precursor to the Dreadnoughts story, along with eleven stark pages of Carroll’s prose fiction from one of the tie-in prequel novels. “Paradigm Shift” is a Judge Dredd storyline, with art by Jake Lynch (of the lumpy/jagged school) and colors by John Charles. It provides a dual narrative, with Dredd investigating in his present-day while flashing back to events from one hundred and six years earlier with Judge Deacon (a supporting character in the "Breaking Ground" strip and a protagonist in the prose excerpt) as an early-days Judge.

Art by Jake Lynch, John Charles & Annie Parkhouse.

“Paradigm Shift” was serialized in 2000 AD before “Breaking Ground” appeared in Judge Dredd Megazine, and it makes for a jarring contrast in styles with a strange placement in this book. I can understand why its 30 pages weren’t placed in the front of this collected edition, since the story of Judge Glover and the Dreadnoughts is the one worth reading, but the inclusion of the Dredd story in this volume is a bit like seeing a character-adjacent 30-minute movie at the end of a 60-minute movie, after thinking you were walking into a complete 90-minute feature. The Dreadnoughts feature gains nothing by its inclusion, and on its own it just feels like another standard Dredd strip, accompanying the prose excerpt as extra padding for the yet-incomplete story of Judge Glover and the terrifying rise of the Judges. The first two-thirds of this volume is worth a look, the rest not nearly as much.