I Am The Law: How Judge Dredd Predicted Our Future

I Am The Law: How Judge Dredd Predicted Our Future

Michael Molcher



368 pages

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Two things about the cover of I Am the Law. One is that the book, a serious and footnoted discussion of the 2000 AD strip Judge Dredd in the context of real-world politics and policing, is subtitled How Judge Dredd Predicted Our Future. The book's introduction actually says: "The strip did not 'predict' our world of militarised policing so much as it teased from the headlines the growing sinews of the authoritarian impulse, the calcifying rot that pays lip service to democracy while ushering in the age of the truncheon and the riot shield." Which is a better framing of what goes on between a culture and the art that bubbles up inside it, but not such a sweet marketing hook. The other thing is that the book is published by Rebellion, which publishes 2000 AD, and is written by Michael Molcher, now brand manager for 2000 AD after many years as the primary public face of the comic's PR and marketing efforts. His employment is mentioned only on the last page, which is arguably bad form compared to saying it on the first page and then every time the comic is complimented, although if small publishers aren't going to blow their own trumpet these days, who will? Still, when hearing the music, listeners are allowed to note who is playing the tune.

Rebellion has been rehearsing this one for a while. It staged a panel at the New York Comic Con in 2017 titled Judge Dredd: Supercop or Satire?, then held another with the same title at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2018, and then repeated the exercise a third time for SDCC 2019. In 2021, the anthology of essays Judging Dredd—published by Sequart but carrying a stamp of approval from 2000 AD Editor Matt Smith, who wrote the Foreword—covered some of the same ground in chapters that were not called Supercop or Satire?, but easily could have been. Having tested out this show on the road with commentators and critics, including several based outside the UK, Rebellion now brings it in-house with I Am the Law, and acknowledges those same commentators and critics in the text. In this regard, the book is a long-gestating collective statement of the publisher's preferred perspective on its crown jewel, the Judge Dredd IP.

From the Judge Dredd storyline "Day of Chaos" (2011-12). Art by Henry Flint, colors by Chris Blythe, letters by Annie Parkhouse, written by John Wagner.

The text swaps between discussions of Judge Dredd comics and analysis of (often but not exclusively British) politics and events. In these lengthy non-comics sections, the emphasis is on how the perilously subjective concept of "law and order" has taken root as a fixation of politicians to the general detriment of life and liberty, with the book speaking from the traditional Left - which is to say, a long way left of the current British government and of the official opposition party. From this vantage point, Molcher discusses topics including police violence, unemployment, moral panics and institutional racism via multiple flash points and conflicts of the last several decades, many of them injustices with no shortage of culpability to go around. There are issues to quibble about in the book's reading of 1970s UK politics and TV cop shows, but its broad point is that the situation abides permanently under all administrations: capitalism's always-already creation of inequality, which the last four decades or so of western progress (the book might as well have said 20 decades or so of Left effort) have not reversed. The book essentially leaves it at that. To have carried on and said, "Well yes, but why?" would have led to non-comics sections that were 20 times as long.

From the Judge Dredd storyline "The Apocalypse War" (1982). Art by Carlos Ezquerra, letters by Tom Frame, written by John Wagner & Alan Grant.

Bringing Judge Dredd into this means taking Judge Dredd, 2000 AD and its predecessor magazine Action very seriously. This is the mood of the moment, which hopes pop culture can abandon any historical place on the margins and move to the heart of the action, speaking unambiguously in answers rather than questions. Whether or not this is like hoping that your car can get you to Mars just because it can get you to the end of the street, it's an instinct to simplify things that are rarely so simple. The comic strip Judge Dredd is a political entity in one sense, but it is also a social entity, and a technical creation, and a commercial product, and a creator of discourse both academic and casual, and a partwork assembled over decades with no obligation to cohere into anything. I Am the Law describes plot points in Judge Dredd as if they came directly from the politically-sensitive people creating them, antennae twitching, as opposed to (maybe) having been typed up over a weekend to meet a deadline by people with freewheeling imaginations and a talent for concision after an apprenticeship in the Dundee school of hard comic knocks. Did a story announce that Judge Dredd and his brother Rico were clones because it opened up "Geminic Shakespearean melodrama," or was it because Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil came out the year before?

The other thing this approach brings is a focus on comics as items of literature rather than drawings - which, to be fair, is the analysis going on in a lot of other places too. Artists are credited throughout, but there's not much consideration of Judge Dredd art as art, of the comic as a comic. How often was the art in this political strip itself political? How does the strip's nature as described in the book manifest in the ink lines themselves? Did any of the art–or any of the artists–ever work against the writing and its politics? Did 2000 AD's existence as notionally a young person's comic impede the things that are now discussed here as grand subversions? The book is suitably withering about Sir James Anderton, "God's Copper", former chief constable of Greater Manchester whose relationships to policing and to reality were once big news. But if you wanted to see a comic go after him properly then you had to venture off-piste to Deadline, where Shaky Kane drew him imprinted on the Shroud of Turin.

It's the 2000 AD conundrum. The comic was a high-profile big beast in a period when the commercial comics sector was crowded and wildly fertile; now the publisher leans heavily into this historic persona while the comic is the last high street sci-fi anthology standing, sells a fraction as many copies, and tries to service a diffuse audience stretching from minors to the last of the baby boomers in a cultural climate that's been overhauled entirely, the prospect of its IP appearing in other media always tantalizingly on the horizon. Even the name of the comic is in reverse gear, a branding most marketing departments would insist went in the bin. Whatever anyone says, 2000 AD is not at peace with itself. Quarterly 'all-ages' issues, begun with a Free Comic Book Day special in 2018 and now running quarterly as "2000 AD Regened", would not have been initiated and persevered with if the publisher did not know in its heart that the existing readership was insufficient, and the transfer of all-ages material into the regular issues since then proves the point.

From Book 1 of Brink (2016). Art by INJ Culbard, letters by Simon Bowland, written by Dan Abnett.

Yet Rebellion still indicates that the goal is for its comic to be the "snarling grimy banner of action and outrage" claimed by then-Publishing Coordinator Owen Johnson in a 2019 interview, to which the interviewer might have responded by asking for examples. Dan Abnett's and INJ Culbard's sci-fi strip Brink is the boldest of the comic's current roster. It is neither snarling nor grimy, and it practices a form of action only possible in static panels if the creators are on sublime form, which these are. Brink is also tense and apocalyptic and political, concerned with class and policing and unionized labor, so Rebellion could consider addressing our future by putting out books about that strip. But in this book, about this strip, none of the Judge Dredd stories cited is more recent than 2015. Most Judge Dredd marketing, pro and pro-am, is a current bearing readers back ceaselessly into the past, and I Am the Law joins the effort, making a solid case for why you should buy some of the Complete Case Files archival reprints and no case for buying the comic next week. Plus, if you happen to think that pop culture criticism should be questioning by default and not inclined to take publishers at their word about anything, then the loop by which supportive low-paid or unpaid labor from precariat critics gets folded back into a publisher's nostalgia-based marketing operation, with grateful thanks, is less like a healthy ecosystem and more like publisher and critics on the same life raft.