Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd

Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd

Edited by Scott Weatherly

Sequart Organization


226 pages

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Judging Dredd will go next to Marc Singer's Breaking the Frames on my shelf, where the two books will have to resolve their differences for themselves. Singer's topic was the current standard of comics studies, although he really frowned at the whole conflicted pop-culture commentary industry in its oversupplied underpaid glory. His verdict, sometimes delivered by clobbering the offending critic with a brick, was that the situation has a thousand parents beyond the strict borders of comics reviewing, which is certainly true. A list of them would have to include: a surplus of fannish enthusiasm for everything, in a culture that celebrates but does not analyze; the constant wish for individual art to be capable of changing the world through its very existence, despite that idea having started to look shaky around 1939; and critiques which never incorporate the material factors or power relations that shape the work in the first place, even when the pop culture in question is a neoliberal superhero money tree made by the Walt Disney Company. Singer might also have mentioned the general delegitimizing of expertise, a knock-on effect of the very valid opening up of cultural commentary to a broader spectrum of contributors just as the advertising dollars dried up, but which has implications for both consumers of the stuff and anyone wishing to earn money making it - expertise being one of the few qualities capable of accruing added value payable back to the critic. Consequently, arts writing is now just another gig-economy precariat. And yet, one week ago at the time of writing, the present author watched an advocate for TikTok film criticism evangelize for the open-access bite-sized video form as a vehicle for cultural analysis by saying "No one wants to hear from experts." How the cutting edge of arts criticism's youth wing comes to echo the exact evil charm infamously uttered in 2016 by UK Conservative Brexit cheerleader and walking basilisk Michael Gove might need another book.

The CEO of 2000 AD publishers Rebellion, Jason Kingsley, made statements about Brexit in the run up to the UK's departure from the European Union that faced in all possible directions at once, but which ended up suggesting that if profits were raised then he was all for it. He also prefers that mentions of his name include the abbreviation for the Order of the British Empire award he received in 2012 for services to the British economy, which is entirely up to him but hardly suggests a publisher lobbing his comic over the barricades from inside the Paris Commune. The contradictions inherent in a company that exists to make a profit publishing a comic character regarded as a constant satire of far-conservative thinking and failed capitalism are both important and not unique to Rebellion; but they never come up in the conversation, per Singer's observation that such things are just ignored. Rebellion, a small company with finite resources, maintains Judge Dredd's cultural position through soft power, including panels at the San Diego Comic-Con about the strip's satirical credentials, a constant low fog of chipper promotion seeded in places like The Hollywood Reporter - and books like Judging Dredd, a collection of essays from Sequart which Rebellion recently promoted with an hour of official podcast time. In all these venues a focus on past glory days is a bit of a giveaway. The regular question of where to start reading Judge Dredd is always answered with "America" by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil, a fine story from 1990 which has acquired some additional interpretations related to gender politics on top of the tale it told at the time. But "America" is also such a fetish object that Rebellion contrived to re-release two different editions of it within one calendar month in September 2020. The implications of always saying that the best Dredd story is 30 years old never seem to bother anyone, and it allows Judge Dredd's cultural potency to be constantly pumped from the bottom, with individual recent developments left to float away at the top. When a character named Bilious Barrage cropped up in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 2016 he was wafted in on a Rebellion press release saying "2000 AD has always taken a pop at the powerful and the pompous and no one, not even today's politicians, are safe." Nigel Farage, as far as one could tell while avoiding the man, was safe; and no one will ever speak of this again.

Page detail from "America"; art by Colin MacNeil, letters by Annie Parkhouse, written by John Wagner.

Dredd scholars treating Judge Dredd as a strip with a consistent and watertight conception of its main character, as about two-thirds of the authors in Judging Dredd do, have the additional hurdle that the strip's politics is actually as varied and internally contradictory as any part-work made by multiple creators over 44 years would be. Co-creator John Wagner now contributes only a story or two per year, but they are always the stories in which the character's much-extolled fascism is interrogated most fully and with nuance. Wagner's Judges are swift, efficient and procedural, but the Mega-City One regime under his pen has also tackled the rehousing of 30 million immigrants in tolerable comfort as a moral imperative, and annexed the entire nation of Guatemala partly as a humanitarian exercise to topple a robot dictator. The other writers in the current Dredd stable strike a different tone, often making the Judges improbably fallible in case anyone reading gets the mistaken impression that totalitarianism works. These Judges often miss what they shoot at, fail to notice the assailant round the corner, are oblivious to colossal conspiracies going on under their noses, and don't recognize talking chimpanzees they have met before.

For the most part, Judging Dredd knows which side of that coin it wants to talk about. The book's essays tackling different aspects of Dredd, his methods, and his environment do mention a handful of recent stories -- often by Wagner -- but the ones analyzed with most enthusiasm are from the greatest generation: "America," "The Cursed Earth" (1978), "Necropolis" (1990), "The Apocalypse War" (1982), "Letter From A Democrat" (1986), the Chopper series (starting in 1981). One aspect of the book, though, is right up to the minute: as a product of the underpaid precariat cultural criticism machine that gave Marc Singer a headache, the book is riddled with mistakes. Putting the boot into its grammatical errors and typos here would start to look callous after a while, but factual errors are another matter, and getting the names of the creators you're talking about wrong is just not on. Analyze Judge Dredd by all means, but there's a limit to how much credence a book doing so and costing twenty bucks is due when it says that the stories were created by people named Brian Talbot, Mike Caroll, Mick McMann, Brian Boland, Steve Dylan, Duncan Fergredo, and the now doubly pseudonymous "Kenneth Nieman."

Panel from "The Small House"; line art by Henry Flint, color by Chris Blythe, letters by Annie Parkhouse, written by Rob Williams.

Despite that, Judging Dredd does the faculty of Dredd studies a favor by cutting to the chase and including an essay digging into the topic of Thatcherism as the specter lurking in plain sight during the character's early days; and then does it an equal favor in a different way by claiming that the same Thatcherism manifests directly in a recent Dredd story, "The Small House" by Rob Williams and Henry Flint, from 2018. "The Small House," itself the final part of a longer plot about secret Judges operating clandestinely outside the existing system, is the story in which villain Judge Smiley puts on his best psycho-Alan Bennett face and tells Dredd that "we're fascists," which was taken as the explicit affirmation of the strip's ethos that a mid-Trump-era readership was seeking. Leaving aside the fact that Smiley is an arch manipulator who constantly told characters whatever he wanted them to hear, and that Williams's stories are generally from the Fallible Judges school -- in pursuit of the insane Judge Pin, a Williams creation, Dredd spent three progs stuck in a hole in the ground until Pin fell in with him -- "The Small House" and its hidden network of conspiracy and subterfuge is tuning in to much more recent cultural disturbances than the all-purpose bogeyman of Thatcherism. It might be more interesting to link "The Small House" to the years of non-Thatcherite Cameron-era Conservatism and paranoia that led up to the story's publication. It would definitely be more interesting to connect the story, and modern Judge Dredd in general, with the decade-plus of Tony Blair and post-Blair Labour rule that came before that, the years in which current Dredd creators were entering the field. Blair shrank the rights of young people under the revealingly Dredd-ish label of "The Respect Agenda", expanded police powers, palled around with George W. Bush and got the UK into the Iraq War, for which some citizens would like to see him spend a while in the Hague. Then his Labour heir Gordon Brown made noises about tapping every phone call, text message and internet connection on the island. The rupture of trust between Blair-era government and the progressive cultural movements that were natural Labour allies might lurk behind the art of many British liberals of a certain age, including the ones making comics about Judge Dredd. The name Blair, though, does not appear in Judging Dredd, perhaps because his long shadow is dauntingly tough to untangle from the current state of the anti-establishment left that 2000 AD is keen to be seen to align with. Either that or because of general embarrassment about the short-lived strip called B.L.A.I.R.1, with which the comic correctly predicted the 1997 election result before deciding that sometimes political satire only looks easy.