How long has Judge Dredd been around? The short, practical answer is “since 1977”; the longer, snarkier one is “since before many of the people reading this were born”. The metatextual answer is: so long that one of the foundational events in its now impossibly complicated lore – the deployment of the Judges, its authoritarian super-cops who are the series’ main focus – is only ten years away in real time.
Guatemala is a collection of some of the latest stories in the Dredd mythos, taken from the long-running British 2000 AD comic, whose very title betrays the idea of a future history that has gotten away from its creators. They’re well-represented here: co-creator John Wagner wrote all the installments, and the art is a by a strong cross-section of pencillers who have worked on the strip, including legendary Dredd artist (and Dredd co-creator) Carlos Ezquerra. Dredd remains an enormously popular property on both sides of the Atlantic, though it’s easy to wonder if it generates a substantial number of new fans; the ‘teen audiences’ appellation on the cover probably speaks more to the changing nature of comics readers than it does to the content of the stories themselves.
Judge Joe Dredd’s character remains essentially unchanged in these stories, the bedrock on which the entire complex mythology of the series is built. He is taciturn, implacable, pitiless, and dedicated to upholding an abstraction of the law through brutal violence. But Dredd hits different in 2021. The politics of the series have always been difficult to plumb; Dredd is a dystopian authority figure set against a remorselessly grim backdrop, his only likable qualities being his ruthless efficiency and expertise at killing. He has been invoked both to satirize right-wing law and order tropes and to defend them, often in the same stories, by the same authors. Dredd is a comic book reflection of Truffaut’s legendary statement about the impossibility of making a true anti-war film, because “to show something is to ennoble it”; as much as the material winks at us, we’re still led to delight in it because there he is, being a bad-ass for our delectation.
What takes the sting out of it, and always has, is the way Wagner dots the landscape of Mega City One’s hell world with effective satire. In the era of Black Lives Matter, it’s a little more squirm-inducing to fully embrace such an unapologetic cop figure, particularly one who doesn’t even try to present the image of a good apple, but Wagner’s ability to find little social pain points and make storytelling hay out of them is still impressive some forty years and a lifetime of changing mores later. It also helps that, while these stories don’t have quite the ragged pulp glory of the old 2000 AD books, the art, layout, and action all remain consistently solid throughout. Dredd isn’t the kind of book that can ever really be re-invented, but Guatemala at least proves the ol’ judge still has some life in him.
The title story is the most engaging, featuring Dredd, Judge Beeny, and mecha-judge Ronald visiting the Central American nation to negotiate with El Presidente, the robotic dictator (complete with Zapata mustache made from real hair!) who has taken over the government. He staffs the government and the military with fellow robots and turns humans into breeding stock, but he really only attracts the attention of the judges (whose compassion for downtrodden humans is not one of their strong suits) when he cultivates a stock of nuclear weapons, in a nifty metaphor for the west’s attitude towards North Korea. It’s a romper of a story, somewhat clogged with a complex backstory about Judge Hershey but buoyed by over-the-top humor and action.
Next up is “By Private Contract”, one of Carlos Ezquerra’s last completed stories before his death. The art is typically excellent, his ragged edges and craggy faces not diminished by age, and it takes what’s otherwise a pretty slight story and elevates with (albeit not without a tinge of regret for what a talent we lost when he passed in late 2018). In this brief banger, Dredd teams up with Johnny Alpha to face down bounty hunters from a century in the future attempting to make the judge answer for various crimes against humanity – not actually a bad idea, as the denouement of the story makes clear. There’s not a lot happening here, but while it’s a minor entry, it pulses with the kind of ‘80s action vibe that made the book such a hot property in the first place, and it’s fun to see Dredd even a little bit out of his element – the closest thing this selection of stories comes to having a theme.
In “Get Jerry Sing”, a mysterious graffito starts appearing on the walls of the block towers of Mega City One (first on one named for Donald Trump, a reminder of Dredd’s sly cultural naming conventions). They target an Elvis-on-velvet-styled lounge singer by that name, who becomes the target of random street crazies; this brief take switches from a bit of a mystery to a Twilight Zone-style twist ending with lightness and skill over its very short run, with Dredd barely appearing in the story at all. “The Trouble with Harry” follows, set in the past when a debt-ridden British Empire sells off the royal family at auction. Mostly noteworthy for its wild Henry Flint art, this one’s satire is a mile wide and an inch deep, and, as with other aspects of the Dredd mythos, hits a little differently after the real-world travails of the actual royals. The collection wraps up with its longest and most complex tale in “The Victims of Bennett Beeny”, which features plenty of ins and outs in the story, but which is weakened by Dan Cornwell’s gaudy art.
All told, this is a strong but unspectacular selection of stories from the Judge Dredd juggernaut. You won’t be missing one of the best comics of the year if you don’t pick it up, but it’s pretty enjoyable to see a property built on the kinetic liveliness of another era honor its commitment to real-time storytelling as it tries to stay relevant to younger audiences, and it’s a suitable farewell to Ezquerra, one of the great talents of European comics.