Where do I stand?
I'll tell you where I stand.
I stand four-square for justice. I stand for discipline, good order and the rigid application of the law - and Grud help any limp-wristed liberals who say different.
The people, they know where I stand. They need rules to live by - I provide them. They break the rules, I break them. That's the way it works.
The people like it that way. They need to know where they stand.
Sure. I'm all for rights. But not at the expense of order.
That's why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there, towering over Liberty.
Kind of a symbol.
Judge Dredd's visor glares out from the opening page, mirroring the angry stare of the five hundred metre tall Statue of Judgement over his shoulder. His booted foot is planted on the centre of the Stars and Stripes, which shrouds a bloody corpse. Scrawled in twenty-foot high white letters down Lady Liberty's dress are the words TOTAL WAR.
Justice has a price.
The price is freedom.
So begins America, Judge Dredd's finest story and John Wagner and Colin MacNeil's finest hour. Published in October 1990 as the opening piece in the Judge Dredd Megazine, America reads as a fiery denouncement of Dredd's political agenda. For all the weekly strips showing Dredd and the Mega City One judges as heroes, America rails against him and exposes his utter ruthlessness. Indeed, after reading it, it becomes difficult to ever again root for 2000 AD's most enduring character. It can't be stated too simply:
Judge Dredd is a fascist.
Mega-City One is a totalitarian state.
America is as much a critique of the evils of totalitarianism as 1984 or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Recently reprinted in a collected edition by Titan Books, it deserves to be recognised alongside such established comics "literature" as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and From Hell.
"This is a love story."
America Jara's family moved to Mega-City One in pursuit of the American Dream, the American ideal. Born in their first week in their new home, America is named by her immigrant father after the land of the free and the home of the brave.
America grows up with her friend Bennett (Benny) Beeny in the Frederick Nietzsche city block. Benny is a musically talented young boy whose family live in the apt next to the Jaras. The pivotal moment in their young lives comes as they are playing one day in a vacant lot. A gang of young juves calls Benny names and beats him up, breaking his gitter. As a judge pulls up, the juves make a run for it. The judge questions the bruised and bleeding Benny harshly as he finds America comforting the child. This cows Benny into tears, and he apologises and pleads not to be sent away. But America stands up to the judge, answering him back. Why shouldn't she? Her dad, Puerto Rican immigrant he is, has told her that she lives in America - and it's a free country.
While the judge that day sent them away with nothing more than a stern word, this episode sets a pattern - Benny the model (read: fearful) citizen, abiding by the law out of sheer terror of the judges; America the free spirit, politically aware and intrigued by the rights that only her history class teaches her about.
Despite these differences, Benny gradually falls in love with America as they grow up. But her increasingly radical views begin to get her into trouble. She picks up cautions for carrying subversive literature, and she openly associates with democratic activists. She persuades Benny to come with her one night as she pastes anti-judge slogans around the city. He accepts, but when he is scared too much to ever join her again the pair begin to grow apart.
When America goes to university to study politics, Benny watches helplessly as she starts a relationship with another democrat. Tormented by seeing her love for another, Benny cuts himself off from her, leaves Fred Nietzsche block and throws himself into his music. His career begins to take off as he records albums, gets his break singing jingles for chicken-substitute and gradually becomes a city-wide celebrity.
But his fame does not buy him happiness. Unable to commit to relationships, and believing America to be dead after the Apocalypse War, Benny seeks to dull his pain with material possessions and meaningless encounters with prostitutes.
"That's where I found her."
Benny is shocked when he meets America dressed as a hooker. Equally surprised, she desperately pleads for him to leave. As he argues and she pushes him away, two judges appear in the distance on their motorbikes. A set-up all along, America and hidden accomplices open fire on the officers, with America herself shooting down the leading judge. As the group make their getaway, Benny, the only witness, is shot through his throat.
A note reading TOTAL WAR is left pinned to the chest of one of the dead judges. Left on the sidewalk next to Benny, their slowly spreading pools of blood mingle in the dim artificial light.
As he recuperates in hospital, Benny is interrogated by Judge Dredd. Using painfully slow typing to communicate, Benny lies to him through his fear and his flashbacks to his first encounter with the judges. He lies for America. After his return to his uptown lux-apt, America, by this time on the lam with the rest of her Total War cell, goes to visit him. By now Benny has had an artificial voice box fitted and, still besotted with her, lets her in and feeds her without considering the possible consequences. After reminiscing about old times at Fred Nietzsche, America seduces him. In the morning, she asks for a large sum of money - obviously to further fund the cell. She explains how the judges killed her husband, forced her to abort her baby. Under MC1's strict genetic purity laws, any detected abnormalities result in the termination of the child. Benny is reluctant to give her the cash, even when she promises it won't be used to harm anyone else. But when she says he'll never see her again, he relents.
When they meet to exchange the money, Benny teases out from America details of what is planned. Total War are preparing their most audacious act yet - they intend to blow up the Statue of Liberty, as a symbol. As a sign of all the liberty lost to the judges.
But Benny, scared even then of breaking the law, betrays her. Informing the judges of the plan, he makes a bargain: the judges get the rest of the cell; he gets America, unhurt and uncharged. At the time of the planned attack, Benny watches from a distance. Watches as the judges bring down America's hoverpod on Ellis Island. Watches as the rest of America's cell are killed, brought down by the judges' overwhelming firepower. America, hurt, staggers towards the Statue of Liberty with the American flag in her hand. And Benny watches as, after the order to cease fire is given, one judge fires one more shot ... and America falls.
With America's blood on his hands, Benny screams at Dredd asking why they killed them without trying to make arrests. Dredd's response: "A little demonstration - to encourage the others. You're not the only one in show business."
Cut to a quiet hospital room, and the noise of a ventilator metronomically breathing for a body without a brain. With no next of kin, Benny is left as the sole executor of America's will. Unable to let go, he cannot bring himself to switch off the life support machine. Instead, he arranges a full body transplant and takes America's body as his own - knowing that every day, he will see her in the mirror and be reminded of what he did. And hoping, perhaps, that some of her spark, her Dream, will live on in him.
But the story doesn't end there. Turn over one more page.
Close-up. Dredd's visor, reflective, inscrutable ... menacing. His sneer.
Freedom - power to the people - democracy ... the Great American Dream.
Don't kid yourself.
We tried it before. Believe me, it doesn't work. You can't trust the people.
So dream on, creep. But just remember - that's all it is, a dream.
America is dead.
This is the real world.
Described by David Bishop, a former editor of the Judge Dredd Megazine, as "the best Judge Dredd story ever written," America won a UK ComicArt award in 1991. In spite of this, it seems to otherwise have been since largely overlooked in the general comics consciousness. This is a considerable oversight.
This story really does see its creators at their respective peaks. Wagner's writing is brilliant and personal, never less than engaging, often genuinely moving. When asked for his favourite Dredd story, he said, "Obviously America. ... It exemplified things that I felt deeply about the Judges. In a way it was a true tragedy - people were compelled by their own character into disasters." Bishop comments further, "John has a massive emotional stake in the story and you get the impression he had to put himself through the wringer to write it. There's a lot of personal stuff in there that John will never tell anyone about."
While adopting a more serious tone than many of his other Dredd strips, there are still some snippets of his signature black humour, with the song of the judges - set to the tune of Rawhide - being one example. The longer monthly format accorded by the Megazine meant that in each episode he was able to spread out and expand on his characters. Nonetheless, the style is never flabby or padded, years of writing six page strips having honed his skill at making every single panel relevant to the story.
The storytelling itself is ably provided by Colin MacNeil. He too cites America as his personal favourite Dredd artwork. His fully painted art comes into its own depicting the dark moods of mega-city nights, as well as being soft enough to impart humanity in emotional scenes. He uses his materials innovatively - for example in America's confession scene, where he paints her painful memories in full oil paint while suggesting details of her face as she tells the story with soft pastels. A particularly striking page is that of the judge ambush, where the lower half is divided into long vertical panels which become narrower and narrower, illustrating smaller and smaller slivers of time, the final picture being of the fatal shot America fires. Stylistically, there are also a few nods to other works. Watchmen is echoed in the frequent use of graffiti as commentary, the phrase "Who judges the judges?" being a more overt reference as well as a pertinent observation in the context of the story.
And the final page. Utterly chilling, this page by itself brings home like nothing else written just how much of a cold, pitiless bastard Dredd is. Bishop sums it up: "It's got that incredible twist in the final episode. Just when you think it's a bitter-sweet, happy ending, you turn over the page, and ... it's Dredd effectively kicking you in the teeth."
Unparalleled in the Dredd canon, America stands out not only as the best tale of Mega City One's policemen but also by itself as simply one of the most superb comic books there is.
2000 AD Presents The Complete America
The Judge Dredd Mega History