The Best Comics of the Decade (Are All Judge Dredd)

This is a hyperbole. Of course it is. Not only are there many other fine comics, many of which you can argue as superior to any single Judge Dredd story published on a case by case basis, but you can easily find Judge Dredd stories published in this period that are mediocre or even outright bad. You cannot publish a chunk of corporate-owned comics dedicated to a particular character and a world on a weekly basis for over a decade (not including the monthly Judge Dredd: The Megazine or the various yearly specials) without firing a few duds. 2000AD is a machine made for putting out stories – and good or bad, worthy or not, the day of release comes and there has to be a Judge Dredd story there.

Nevertheless, I remain committed to my original statement.

Part of it is a degree of quality control on the editorial side: by 2010 Matt Smith had been editing 2000AD for 8 years, by the end of this decade he is still the editor (and doesn’t seem to be close to ending his run). This makes him the longest serving editor on the magazine by quite a long margin. Under his stewardship the comics arm of Rebellion Publishing seems to be going from strength to strength. He seems to realize the true purpose of a 2000AD editor: not someone to control the story, but someone to manage the talent that shapes it, to allow them enough breathing room to express themselves.

It helps that the talent involved if often fantastic. John Wagner (and for most of the decade the now late Carlos Ezquerra) is in a rare position of being a creator of a corporate-owned comics icon who still very much gets the final say in how that icon's story is told. At this point in his career, he's taken his terse writing style to the extreme: like one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels there’s nary a word or panel wasted, constantly moving forward in either plot or character development. And there is character development in Judge Dredd (the character and the strip), even if it is an incremental one, measured in inches over decades.

The problem with Judge Dredd previously seemed to be that Wagner, early-n with co-writer Alan Grant, was seemingly the only person capable of writing the strip. No matter how many future-stars (Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar) were thrown at the concept, the results were often embarrassing. Just read any of Garth Ennis’ numerous interviews about his time on strip – most of whom contain variations on the word ‘sorry;’ Morrison, in turn, seems to have forgotten he was ever involved.

In the 2010’s things took a turn for the better; a new rotating team of writers, including Al Ewing, Rob Williams, Michael Carrol, Rory McConville and others allowed Wagner to take a rest from constant writing. Together they created a strong writing stable that manages to maintain coherence while bringing individual sensibilities into their storytelling: Carrol does stories that engage with the history and interconnectedness of that world, Williams does heavy emotional personal stuff, and McConville does straightforward action. As a result, whenever Wagner comes back to do an arc it feels like a big deal, rather than just part of the grind.

The art remained strong as well, another strong mix of talent young and old, all focused on the established principle of direct storytelling. With seven pages per chapter there is never much time to overthink things. 2000AD remained the pinnacle of to-the-point presentation – never more than necessary, never less than what you want. These are procedural comics taken to its zenith. Henry Flint, John McCrea, Colin MacNeil, P.J. Holden and (of course) Carlos Ezquerra have all brought their own little touches to the world of the strip, always in service of the story.

But, the reason Judge Dredd is the best comics of decade is more than that. It’s more than any single story or creator. It’s not about what it does, it’s about what it is. To me at least, Judge Dredd in the 2010’s is zeitgeist. It’s a story about one of the biggest moral questions in the West – can you be a good man in a bad system?

It all began with first large story of the decade, Tour of Duty, spilling over from the backend of 2009, in which Judge Dredd takes a shift from robotic-automaton-enforcing-the-laws for actively trying to change them – promoting legislation meant to offer mutants, previously banished outside the city walls upon discovery, citizenship. It was a huge shift for the character, though one brought about due to personal issues (some of these mutants were, technically, his relatives); but, the most vital part of the story was that he failed.

There’s a whole lot of stuff structured around that failure: a long gestating subplot of the mayor as a secret serial killer, a reality TV show icon being chosen to lead Mega City One and doing a particularly shitty job at it, Dredd’s star falling slowly amongst his fellow Judges etc. but really, these are all garnish. The big thing here is that Dredd, after decades of being a good fascistic tool tries his hand at being a genuine good guy, or as close to it as he understands it, and fucks it up.

The final is portrayed as a faux-victory moment, Dredd regains his positions and puts some bad people away, but the fact is that Dredd’s attempt at social reform fail. For all his power, for all his legendary status, he cannot really do anything outside his usual prerogative – killing and arresting. Dredd knows the system he operates in is broken, but his mistake here is thinking that he can just make some small alterations, make the citizens’ lives a little better, and that will be enough to fix things. He understands change is necessary but not the degree of the change, nor what this change means to his continued existence.

The other big failure story, and one that not only belongs fully to this decade but continues to define the world of the strip to this day, was the sprawling Day of Chaos, again written by Wagner with a plethora of artists (Henry Flint, Colin, McNeil, Ben Willsher and others). This one started more like a typical epic Judge Dredd story: rather than political machinations, there is one obvious obvious antagonist, Colonel Yevgeny Borisenko, with a dastardly plan. He is going to attack Mega City One with a bioengineered rage virus.

However, unlike previous stories in this cycle, your Apocalypse War or Necropolis or Judgment Day, which tend to dial the devastation to 11 until a last-minute rescue by Dredd prevents thing from truly going over the edge, here the judges never stop fumbling the ball. There is no grand heroic moment in which Borisenko is defeated in single combat, there is no snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. There is just loss and then more loss and then containment of the loss. 87% of the population of Mega City One ends up dead; the virus spreads throughout the city and all the protagonists can do is kill the infected and wait for the worst of it to end. Then, they have to deal with consequences. An episode of the Comic Books are Burning in Hell podcast made the salient point that Day of Chaos could be read as Wagner, teaching the character, so used to being the protagonist, what it is like to lose. And that his loss doesn’t mean the end of the world – because he is not as important as he had always thought he was.

I think Wagner was trying to bring the character closer to him. Judge Dredd is no longer the invincible protagonist of an action-adventure stories, he is now a fallible person; existing forever in the shadow of his greatest failures. Wagner’s last big story of the decade, Machine Law, is about the reintroduction of Robot-Judges, which were previously shown to be a disaster. Dredd does his usual routine whenever the subject of robot-replacement is raised and presents them as danger to city. Except this time he is proven wrong: The new Judges work fine, better than their human counterparts in many ways, and Dredd has to once again swallow his pride and accept change.

There is an oft quoted page from the end of Day of Chaos, with Dredd standing there, head slopped down, the muscles of his hand clenched with anger but the rest of the body oddly lax: “Tomorrow will be worse. And the day after that… and the day after that… too grim to contemplate.” It’s a failure pose, a man stuck in impotent rage – he wants to lash out, to punch and shoot his way of the issue (as he has done so many times before) but he just can’t. It works because we are so used to see this character channeling that rage into something productive, in story terms at least, but now, there is nothing productive to do but gaze upon horror.

It’s a pose and attitude that I find familiar within my social circle, exchanging terrible quips over social media, barely able to mask how angry this makes us feel while at the same time stuck never really doing anything about it, that despite your braggadocio about the coming revolution there is something within you that’s quite terrified of the prospect. You know the current devil, you learned to live with him and pay the obscene toll he asks of you. You don’t know what will come next. You don’t even know if ‘next’ has a place for you.

And as things seemingly go from bad to worse, from environmental catastrophe, to global instability, to the rise of fascism, to the militarization of the police, you try your hardest to be a ‘good person.’ But this might, eventually, turn out to be nothing more than a band aid – you’re not really helping anything; in fact, you just might make things worse by pretending the problem is being taken care of.

But even reaching this realization, as Dredd has done in 2007’s Judge Dredd: Origins, doesn’t mean change is coming. We’ve all read these carefully considered and constructed pieces of fiction in which are confronted with their sins and errors and given a chance to reexamine their lives in light of new knowledge. Forced to acknowledge that the whole system he serves is built on broken foundations, that it was a stopgap measure meant for a short period only, Dredd chooses… to do nothing. Because knowing the truth and acting upon it are two completely different things.

Let us not pretend (too) much: the reason Judge Dredd does not become an enlightened pro-democracy activist who fights the system he served is because it would break the whole concept of the strip, the one that keeps 2000AD financially afloat (and has a TV series on the way). However, at the same time it makes complete sense within human psychology.

After the 2016 American elections I read several books and articles by Republicans and former-Republicans about the ascension of Donald Trump. In both Rick Wilson’s Everything Trump Touches Dies and P.J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen? There’s a tacit acknowledgment of the faults that led to election of the man they consider a monster; but never any sign that writers realize how the whole Conservative apparatus and thought process almost had to lead to a Trump-like figure. To them Trump was a one-time mistake that they can fix while preserving the Republican party as it once before. They must think of him as an aberration because any other form of thought is to realize their own complicity. Of course, by writing ‘their’ instead of ‘us’ – I’ve played this game as well. It is not just about republicans, or about Americans. Being a citizen of Israel I know quite well what it means to operate within a system you consider broken; state violence is no normalized we barely notice it anymore.

In Judge Dredd: The Small House (Rob Williams, Henry Flint, 2019) Dredd is confronted by a fellow Judge who tells him simply to his face: “We are the ‘good guys’? My… you really do think it’s so simple, don’t you? Joseph, I came to you to remind you of something inherent in our core that you appear to have forgotten… we’re fascists.” That last bit, that ”we’re fascists” line, is taking a full half-a-page, an inordinately generous amount of space not usually given in 2000AD for something as simple as a reaction shot. Dredd’s face is inscrutable, as it is most of the time, and the master of stuff-blowing-up-good Henry Flint give us a rare subtle moment in which we can read everything and nothing into the Judge’s face.

It was a moment that, if you asked the comics internet, entered immediately into the strip’s pantheon right next to “Gaze into the fist of Dredd” and “Half my city is burnt to ash – and you’re begging me for mercy?” Request denied!” Personally, while liking the story overall I am not so hot on that moment itself: it makes the implicit explicit and feels like it talks to readers, and if you’re read Judge Dredd for any length of time and doesn’t realize what he is, nothing is going to help you, much less the characters. Plus – we’ve been there before.

It is the overall impact of that serial that appeals to me: Dredd’s reckoning not what he is but with the price of what he does, the price of preserving his status as a judge. It brings back to mind America, possibly the most celebrated of all of Dredd’s tales, and that massive second page with Dredd informing us: “Justice has its price. That price is freedom.” Only now it is Dredd that is being informed; informed of the price he has to pay keep playing this role, the only role he ever knew. The masks are off.

I don’t think John Wagner, and the other writers of the strip, have any answer to the question I posed previously. The comics is a process, a grappling with something big and difficult. I am talking here of both the acts of creation and consumption; despite the rigidity of the character and setting it feels like it was allowed to evolve in way other comics simply aren’t capable of – we are witnessing the fourth decade of a man learning what it’s like to live with himself. Which means we are learning to live with ourselves.

Dave Sim once said: ''If you read 300 issues of 'Superman' or 'Spider-Man, they don't make sense as a story or a life.” He presented his own Cerebus as an alternative, a story that does ‘make sense.’ But the problem with Sim’s insistence, other than what we know about how he and his creation turned out, is that this other model of serial as not any more true to life – it’s controlled and self-owned. Our lives are chaotic with ups and downs that are often beyond our control; we don’t just reckon with our inner selves, we reckon with the world.

Judge Dredd will not end with this decade, it will not wrap up nicely with a moral and a clear understanding of the world. It will just keep on ticking, with its weirdness and faults and bad stories and things that don’t make much sense, making us all just slightly more uncomfortable. Let's get it on.