'Judge Dredd' is the most famous product of 2000AD
, the comic in which the strip has run continuously since 1977. Several computer games, a Hollywood film, and an American incarnation of the character have mostly failed to capture or translate the character's unsubtle blend of ultra-violent crimefighting action, outlanding science fiction, sarcasm, parody and satire. Judge Dredd is a comic strip written by people who read newspapers. Originally published by IPC Magazines
, '2000AD' and Judge Dredd are now owned by a company called Renegade
Dredd was created by John Wagner and Alan Grant, who supplied the idea and many of the best-loved stories, and Carlos Ezquerra, an artist blessed with a rough, dirty graphic style that lent itself well to action characters. The look was directly inspited by David Carradine's 'Frankenstein' character from the 1974 film Death Race 2000, combined with the legally-sanctioned take-no-prisoners attitude of Dirty Harry. Dredd was to be an American policeman, his world a vicious parody of the United States.
2000AD emerged at a nervous time for the British comics industry. The old guard of children's comics - 'Whizzer and Chips', 'Buster', 'Hotspur' and so forth - were dying on their feet, replaced by more action-orientated fare such as 'Battle' and 'Warlord'. IPC had taken brutality to new heights with 'Action', a popular and wistfully-remembered title which was effectively banned in its original form after only 36 issues, prompted by the unwillingness of major retailers to stock it. When Wagner, Pat Mills, Ezquerra and the rest of the team went on to create 2000AD, they determined to deflect criticism of its violence by making the most violent character a policeman. One with a licence to kill, by roadside execution if necessary. Set in a chronically overcrowded, grim future where heckling and littering were major crimes, punishable by thirty-year prison sentences.
Dredd was envisaged as a motorcycle cop, which is why Dredd's holster is around his ankle - it allows him to draw his gun whilst riding his bike. The character had been in development for three years before the 1977 launch of the comic; it wasn't until the success of Star Wars that IPC decided to release a sci-fi themed title. Dredd himself didn't appear until issue 2, as there was a feeling that the revived Dan Dare strip - originally the comic's main attraction - was strong enough to open the new title, with Dredd being held back in order to maintain momentum.
The strip had a very simple backstory, an unashamed riff on 'Soylent Green', 'Silent Spring', 'The Sheep Look Up', 'Stand on Zanzibar', 'The Limits to Growth' and other doomy mid-70s concerns, not to mention 'Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH'. The strip was set in the late 21st century. A nuclear war in the years between 1977 and 2066 had transformed the flyover states into a cursed earth, the Atlantic was a poisoned sump, and most of the world was in ruins, its national populations crammed into overcrowded Mega-Cities, each housing hundreds of millions of people. The cities can only be sustained by robot labour and ruthless recycling, such that the unemployment rate hovers around 98%, whilst the citizens' major food source comes from Resyk, a giant conveyor belt which converts human corpses into food, something which is not a secret to the population. The cursed earth is home to mutants, who are forbidden from entering the Mega-Cities on pain of death; mutants within the city's walls are cast out. America has divided into three Mega-Cities, each of which is run by its Justice Department. The judiciary and police force have been combined into a force of 'Judges', who are trained from an early age to embody The Law. ycatch criminals, sentence them, and drag them off to prison. There are no juries; advanced technology and rigorous training ensures that the Judges are infallible and impartial.
In this world people are bored and violent. Overcrowding ensures that trivial slights develop into murderous passions. Wagner has cited in interviews that his major inspiration was a series of experiments carried out on rats by NIMH's John Calhoun in the early 1970s. He had found that caged rats, when fed, watered, and kept away from harm, tended to breed until all free space was taken up, at which point the rats fought amongst themselves, became mentally unstable, and died. During the final, terminal decline a small percentage of the rats took to murder and cannibalism, eating their own young. This image appealed to Wagner's bleak weltanschauung, and Dredd's world was imbued with more depth than most other comic-book heroes. On a superificial level the strip was an imaginative sci-fi action serial with more violence than most of its competition and an unusually detailed environment; on a deeper level it was a commentary on fascism, a satire on the times, a co-opting of heavy metal and punk, a reflection of an age which worshipped thuggery.
Whilst the world of Judge Dredd was an exciting freakshow, taking elements of American culture and exaggerating these beyond reason - most presciently, the militant League of Fatties - Dredd himself had no personality at all. He was born and trained to uphold the law; he had no friends, no sexual urges, initially a limited home life (and later on, as the character solidified, no home life at all). The series thrived on situations in which Dredd's uncompromising devotion to the law butted against situations where mercy would have been morally appropriate - quite often the 'villains' were more sympathetic than Dredd, most notably the shock-haired sky-surfer Chopper. Dredd existed to crush the human spirit, and he was the hero.
As with James Bond, Dredd tended to kill off even his most memorable villains, something which created serious problems for the strip's scriptwriters. The most notable example was the Angel Gang, a bunch of cybernetic rednecks who had been wiped out to a man despite much positive reader feedback. This led to the eventual creation of the Dark Judges, immortal spirits representing Fear, Fire, Death and Plague. These could not be killed, and came back again and again. By the early 1980s the series had formed a pattern, alternating several months of smaller stories - sometimes taking only a single issue - with lengthy 'epics', longest of which was the six-month Apocalypse War saga. This story was particularly topical, its scenes of chemically-induced mass hysteria, intra-cityblock militia warfare, nuclear war, anti-missile shields and so forth fitting the mood of the times. The series culminated with Dredd bringing the war to a close by nuking a Soviet city, exterminating half a billion Soviet civilians, without a shred of remorse or pity.
Dredd's Justice Department was the law and government in Mega-City One, and clearly viewed the citizens as a mass of scum to be kept in line. With so many unemployed, the Justice Department ruled people's lives from the cradle to the grave. It fed them with the bodies of their own dead - Justice Department food was not required to display ingredients on its packaging, because it was approved by the Justice Department - and gave them television. Nonetheless Wagner envisaged the department as essentially above-board; the citizens were free to act within the law, provided that they did not upset the peace or become too popular or say the wrong thing. The department's robot-like staff seemed to be beyond corruption, although the reality of an honest totalitarian state was as bleak as any. Envisaged at a time when Britain was ruled by a broken old-school Labour government, rising to popularity under Margaret Thatcher's controversial reign, the strip generally avoided overt party politics, instead directing its ire at totalitarian authoritarianism. Dredd dressed like a Nazi, but existed in a world shaped by Stalin. Dredd, his department, and his code were the law, with ultimate and instant power of life and death over its citizens. Justice came from Dredd's gun, his fists and his boots.
The series' most overtly political storyline came in the late 1980s, in which a pro-Democracy movement sought a referendum to abolish the totalitarian regime. After doing its best to discredit, bully and murder the Democrats, the Justice Department allowed the referendum to go ahead, and won by 68% to 32%, the punchline being that the vote was completely legitimate. The people preferred the devil they knew, albeit that only 35% of the public had been bothered to vote; the majority did not care that they were not free, and would not have recognised freedom if it ran naked into their living rooms.
Although originally visualised by Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd's first appearance in the comic was drawn by Mike McMahon, a young artist who had been instructed to imitate Ezquerra's pre-production sketches. Ezquerra had, and still has, a very distinctive graphic style, in that his characters always look mean and sweaty, and they always have thick black dotted outlines. McMahon quickly developed an even cruder, punkier visual language, reaching a peak with the starkly monochrome Block Mania of 1981, before retiring from the strip. Out of fiscal necessity, 2000AD became a breeding ground for a new generation of comic artists; unfortunately, IPC's unwillingness to pay royalties on artist-created strips and merchandise resulted in most of its top talent moving to work in America. Ezquerra himself left the strip in 1981 for over half a decade, returning infrequently thereafter, whilst Wagner and Grant left in the early 1990s to pursue interests elsewhere.
Key artists from the early period include McMahon, Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, Ian Gibson and veteran American import Ron Smith. Each had some leeway to alter Dredd's appearance and world - Smith drew everything as if it was made of metal, Bolland went for a photorealistic style, whilst Gibson made everybody look like a fashion model. Dredd's Lawgiver pistol, which could fire standard, explosive, rubber, heat-seeking, and other forms of ammunition, changed appearance depending on the artist, as did the general look of Mega City One. Smith drew the city with rectangular skyscrapers, whereas Bolland's buildings looked more organic.
Later on, other artists such as Steve Dillon, Cam Kennedy, and Cliff Robinson took over, although the old guard still contributes the odd issue now and again. Most of the classic Dredd artists and writers now work in America on Star Wars (Kennedy), Batman (Bolland] and various DC titles (all of them). Simon Bisley is probably the most successful of the modern Dredd artists. Apart from Wagner and Grant, Dredd's writing team also gave the world Garth Ennis, of 'Preacher' fame. Conversely, Alan Moore, 2000AD's other big name, did not work on the strip. Perhaps most famous today is Chris Hall, an artist who, under the name of Chris Cunningham, created some of the most impressive pop music videos of the millenial period.
In the real world of 2000AD, Dredd spent most of the late 1970s running second-fiddle to other 2000AD characters such as Dan Dare and M.A.C.H. 1, a cyborg secret agent. Several classic strips, and a lengthy series of 'epics' - 'The Cursed Earth', 'Judge Cal', 'The Judge Child', 'The Apocalypse War' raised the character's profile to such an extent that, by the early 80s, he was hip. Both Anthrax and The Human League created tracks called 'I Am the Law', after Dredd's catchphrase. The character of 'Spikes' Harvey Rotten was a nod to the contemporary punk movement, whilst in its political late-80s incarnation - which coincided with a wider 'British comics boom', and the elevation of comic art and the 'graphic novel' into a state of mainstream recognition - the strip was praised in the Guardian and other broadsheets. In the early 1990s, John Wagner left 2000AD, and both the strip and the comic have been in decline ever since, hastened by the marketing blitz and eventual failure of Sylvester Stallone's 1995 film.
Stallone's film was loosely based on the storyline of Dredd's 1994-1996 American incarnation, a toned-down version of the character. Unfortunately for Stallone, there had already been a far superior Judge Dredd film - Paul Verhoven's 1987 'Robocop'. Whether accidentally or by design, Verhoven's classic captured the black comedy and merciless assault of Dredd with far greater accuracy and more style than the Stallone film. The art direction on the latter was however superb, and included work by the aforementioned Chris Cunnigham, in the form of a revised designed for Mean Machine Angel, one of Dredd's most memorable opponents.
Outside 2000AD, Dredd appeared for over a decade after 1981 in three-panel adventures for the tabloid The Daily Star. These strips, usually drawn by Ron Smith, were surprisingly effective mini-adventures, and are available in reprinted form. Throughout the 1990s Dredd was also blessed with some well-wrtten crossover graphic novels, most famously with Batman (1991's 'Judgement on Gotham', which rode on the contemporary 'graphic novels as art' movement), and also with Marshall Law and the Predator franchise.
Fans are advised to read the excellent 'Judge Dredd: The Mega-History', which includes many more details on the character's gestation. He was originally much harsher, hence the 'Judge, Jury and Executioner' tag - in the strip as published, Dredd never actually executed people unless they fought back, whereas the pre-production version performed summary and lethal justice for even the smallest crimes. Also of note is the following link, which examines claims that Dredd, the strip and the character, is fascist: