Gaze Into The Fist Of Dredd

1979 was a year that’s ramifications arguably are still rattling our contemporary society. That year saw the defeat of Labour in the general the birth of Thatcherism in the UK, a neoliberal experiment that would eventually change the course of Britain and through Ronald Regan in the 1980s sweep up the USA in its path. In Iran after a revolution that overthrew the Shah a hardcore Islamic theocracy was established that would view the West and the US in particular as the ‘Great Satan’. Late 1979 would see the Russians invade Afghanistan, the start of an ill-omened military misadventure that would spell the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It felt the end of an era and the beginning of something that wouldn’t end well.

1977 was in a sense the soundcheck, particularly in the UK. Though standards of living were actually at their highest ever, there was a sense of looming disaster, propagated by the likes of the Daily Mail and the Tories, then in Opposition. A year that felt like a dull, wet and cold Sunday afternoon. Some distraction was manufactured in England through the ‘Silver Jubilee’ of Queen Elizabeth II and street parties were held, with cake and lemonade duly served but restlessness was never far from the surface. Industrial strike action was making its mark, with workers from such disparate industries as undertakers, British Leyland and firefighters walking out. The National Front was also making is mark with riots breaking out in London and Birmingham. All this was summed up in the classic ‘God Save The Queen’, a peon to working-class discontent released by the Sex Pistols and which (apparently) got to number one in the Charts but was banned by the BBC and ITV and robbed of its pole position. In fact its number two position was ignored as many stores refused to sell it.

In February of 1977, 2000AD (originally to be called AD2000) a new comic appeared that was a reaction to the success and quick banning of ‘Action’ comic the previous year. Action created by Pat Mills, offered gritty, violent tales. Stories included ‘Hook Jaw’, obviously influenced by Jaws, but containing environmental themes and where the ‘hero’ is actually the shark, despite him eating people including corrupt politicians and criminals or anyone else that happened to be near. Another was ‘Look-Out For Lefty’, that took that genre football story of various ‘boys’ comics and added a not always clean-cut hero as well as football hooliganism, which was a staple of Saturday afternoons at the time. The most controversial story was ‘Kids Rule OK’. Which was set in an 1986 in which a plague had wiped out the adult population. Cities were populated by gangs of feral and very violent children and the whole tone of the stories were anti-establishment and anti-authority. It was deliberately  provocative.

Despite all this violence, sales soared and IPC had a hit on their hands, with weekly sales around 170,000. But those arbiters of 1970s morality, the British press were suitably appalled at the corruption of its children by this appalling comic and then the ‘guardians’ of decency, Mary Whitehouse and her ilk (including a pre-News Of The World sting Frank Bough of Nationwide TV fame) also came out against it. Eventually the pressure told, especially as a number of the IPC board having conservative religious inclinations and with major retailers threatening to refuse to stock any IPC titles, Action was withdrawn after 36 issues. It would later reappear in a watered down form that was nowhere near as interesting or successful. The new toned down version would still be violent but it wouldn’t be violence against authority. Critiquing the concepts of Britain that those on the right held particularly wouldn’t be tolerated.

It’s a well-worn but very true trope then and very probably now that if you depict violence against humans in the creative arts people will be very offended buy if you depict the death of aliens and the like nobody is that bothered. The 2000AD creators would learn the lessons of the Action backlash:

“We could say: these aren’t human beings blowing up, they’re cyborgs. They look like human beings, and they have all sorts of fleshy stuff spiralling out of them, but it’s kind of synthi-flesh. It’s not real.” Kevin O’Neill, 2000AD artist, interviewed for the BBC documentary Comics Britannia. [1]

Perhaps this was the reason that Dan Dare was to be the ‘big’ hero of the comic. Dan Dare previous the mainstay of the Eagle comic of the 1950s and 60s seemed a strange choice, even if updated to reflect a more ‘gritty’ and ‘punk’ age. He always seemed to me to be a leftover of another age and his strip would be the one I’d always skip. Another character however, would make his appearance in issue 2 of 2000AD and would essentially make the comic his own, despite the many great stories that would appear over the years. This would be Judge Dredd. The reason that he didn’t appear in the first issue was that the publisher thought that the proposed first issue story in which has Dredd summarily executing criminals was not appropriate for the intended audience of young kids, so another story was created.

John Wagner on the request of Pat Mills, came up with rationale for Judge Dredd and Carlos Ezquerra designed the character. Writer Peter Harris, artist Mick (Michael) McMahon and Wagner further developed the character. Wagner would leave 2000AD before it was actually published and then return to the character he created. The following is a good explanation of Dredd’s world:

In contrast to modern Britain’s constitutional separation of powers, the distance between Mega-City One’s executive, legislature, judiciary, and police has been completely flattened. The Judges are both the state and its agents. They are, to all intents and purposes, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan — the all-powerful sovereign who rules a population that grants its subjection in exchange for a guarantee of peace and security. Similarly, the roles of police officer, judge, jury, and executioner have been compressed into a single figure — that of the Judge. This officer can, with impunity, enforce extreme punishments on individuals who break one of the city’s many, often Kafkaesque, laws.[2]

After an atomic war that saw the Earth devastated, humanity was mostly encamped it giant Mega-Cities (victims of the atomic war and their mutated descendants – ‘muties’ were exiled outside the walls in a radioactive wasteland, the ‘cursed earth’), the best known of which is Mega-City One:

‘Established in 2032, Mega-City One was conceived as an answer to the massive overcrowding plaguing the cities of North America. Originally designed to house 350 million citizens, the population of Mega-City One soon swelled to an astounding 800 million people, a number that would remain constant until the city was devastated by the effects of the Atomic Wars – the Great Atom War of 2070 and later the Apocalypse War of 2104, which reduced its population to 400 million people with living space for half that number’. [3]

The ‘Judges’ were created by the prosecutor for street crime, Eustace Fargo between 2027 and 31 to combat soaring crime rates and dispatch ‘instant’ justice. This did away with trials and due process with the judges essentially become ‘ judge, jury and executioner’. In 2070 the Judges overthrew the US government and established what was effectively a totalitarian military dictatorship. Judge (Joseph/Joe) Dredd would become the exemplar of the Mega-City One Judge.

Dredd’s influences were in the ‘tough cop’ genre of Dirt Harry type movies starring Clint Eastwood (not coincidentally Dredd used to live in the Rowdy Yates Block – Rowdy Yates was a character in the American TV cowboy drama Rawhide, played by a young Eastwood), which were popular at the time and how he was depicted resembled the leather-clad bikers of futuristic road movies though there is a definite fetishistic undertone to this. Normally, the ‘hero’ in comics is a chisel-jawed alpha male and in this sense Dredd is no different but weirdly we never see his face.

 As John Wagner explained: “It sums up the facelessness of justice − justice has no soul. So it isn’t necessary for readers to see Dredd’s face, and I don’t want you to.

Of his inspiration for Dredd, Warner says: “This was back in the days of Dirty Harry and with [Margaret] Thatcher on the rise there was a right-wing current in British politics which helped inspire Judge Dredd. He seemed to capture the mood of the age – he was a hero and a villain.” He adds that they sometimes get letters from children enamoured with his “hard-right stance”, so they introduced a democratic movement as a counterpoint. [4]

The above is of course one of the dangers of the use of satire and irony. Dredd was charitably at best an anti-hero but at worse was one of the most fervent servants of a vicious totalitarian regime. But  people liked him. Which perhaps says something about an inbred desire for the smack of firm government (explored in Severin, a forthcoming Abridged issue). Like the Abridged world originally, the world of Dredd was an exaggeration of contemporary society. Offenders or ‘perps’ would get years in prison (the iso-cubes) for the smallest of infractions and violence by the judges was standard. However our society has a tendency to the ridiculous and to the lethal, particularly in relation to the judicial system and law-enforcement, and particularly in America. Dredd would not have been out of place in some US cities at the moment though he wasn’t racist as many in the US police and justice system no doubt are. Dredd initially at least was part of a system that emphasised authoritarianism in relation to the police and government. The comics included severe penalties and judicial brutality on citizens that exist within an encompassing wall, under an inflexible system that denied even the most basic of human rights:

In short, Dredd is a bastard, conceived not so much as an anti-hero but as an outright fascist. Carlos Ezquerra, the Spanish artist who designed Dredd and his world, deliberately echoed the iconography of Franco’s regime in the Judge’s uniform.

“I saw him as partly the hero, but more so the villain. He shouldn’t be a nice guy… he shouldn’t be heroic. Some things he does will be heroic, but overall – no”, said John Wagner, Dredd’s co-creator, when interviewed in ‘Thrill Power Overload’ by David Bishop. [5]

It’s true that Dredd’s character would develop over the years and he would become more sympathetic to the people, or to some of their situations and demands but originally and for quite a while he was an inflexible bastion of the regime.

We can see this particularly in the Judge Dredd democracy stories. In ‘Letter From A Democrat’ we first see how the average citizen exists under the oppressive Judge rule. The story is told in the form of a letter from Hester Hyman to her husband. The writer, Hester Hyman, explaining why she had decided that it was a necessity to sacrifice her life in the promotion of democracy in Mega-City One. She recalls an incident in which her young son accidentally hits a judge with his ball and eventually decides to join a group of democracy activists and they storm a television station. Refusing to surrender, they are shot dead with Dredd ominously warning: “Democracy’s not for the people”.

This brief, but very important story, written by John Wagner, Alan Grant, drawn by John Higgins and lettered by Tom Frame causes us to stop and think. Dredd is a bastard, an honest bastard so even though he is the prime representative of a totalitarian regime we can cheer for him as he battles some very over the top villains intent on wanton destruction. In these instances, everything is there in black and white (often literally) and his brutal methods of dispensing justice can be overlooked to a great extent. However when democracy demonstrators are shot in the head as their children watch, it puts us in a very different position. How can a ‘hero’ be against democracy?

2000AD originated in the period known as the Cold War, when it seemed that nuclear apocalypse could happen at any time. There were apparently Soviet missiles aimed at Derry and Belfast. Some great art happened, including Dr Strangelove, Threads, Floodland by The Sisters of Mercy, inspired by the threat of nuclear annihilation. The Judge Dredd world was set in a post nuclear war environment and in the Apocalypse War arc we explore how Dredd handles the biggest of big moral decisions.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the assumption that the superpowers (the USA and USSR) would never (again) use nuclear weapons in a war situation as it would guarantee their destruction also. In essence their would be no winners, with both sides mutually destroyed. There’s an interesting moral quandary that follows if one side does in fact launches nuclear missiles that will obliterate your cities and killing millions of your people. You’re going to be destroyed anyway so you have minutes (the famed four minute warning) to decide to retaliate. Do you immediately launch your own missiles and kill millions of their people in retaliation and explain in the next world (if there is one) to whatever deity you happen to believe in that well, they started it first! Or do you hold the moral high ground and not kill anyone? This is a paradox of Deterrence. Robert Martin explains it well:

‘Imagine you’re the U.S. President during the Cold War. You want to keep from going to Hot War with the Soviets, and you think that your threat of nuclear retaliation is the only way to do this, and is very likely to succeed. But then you do some strategic “what-if” thinking, as follows: Suppose your threat didn’t work, and the Soviets, for some unknown reason, fired nuclear missiles on several US cities. What would you do then? You could wipe out some Soviet cities in return, as you had threatened, but what would the point of that be? Your cities would have already been destroyed, and retaliation couldn’t do anything about that. The Soviets would have used up their missiles, so there’d be nothing left to deter. Retaliation would just bring about an enormous amount of additional havoc, destruction, suffering and death. The only person who’d want to retaliate would be someone driven crazy by an irrational urge for pointless revenge, someone immoral enough not to care about all that additional death and suffering. You’re neither crazy or immoral. At that point, you wouldn’t retaliate.’ [6]

But what if you’re a character in a kid’s comic book? What if your Judge Dredd? This was the moral dilemma that faced Dredd and thousands of his young readers. The Apocalypse War unofficially began in the Block Mania story arc in which an East-Meg One agent had poisoned Mega-City One’s water supply with a chemical agent that enhanced paranoia and aggression causing city blocks to turn on one and other. With the city’s defence structures weakened East Meg launched a sudden nuclear missile attack which killed four hundred million of Mega-City One’s inhabitants and then invaded the city. Dredd survived and with a bunch of guerrillas invaded an East Meg missile silo, launches the missiles which kill 500 million of their citizens, causing their troops to withdraw from Mega-City One and ending the war.

Dredd being Dredd there was no other choice to be had even if the long-term consequences wouldn’t be certain or known. For him retaliation was the only choice in order to save what was left of his city. The danger with satire is that when people don’t realise it’s an exaggerated critique of prevailing attitudes and adopt it as a icon of their own (see also Ronald Reagan and Born in the USA). Intellectually it could be argued that when this happens it’s satire at its finest but really its original power and intent is emasculated and changed. In these instances you can be too clever. Given the support for nuclear weapons in Britain and the USA it seems reasonable to assume that many readers (and indeed readers parents) would’ve supported Dredd’s attitude of having to do whatever was necessary.

This level of death and violence was far beyond anything Action comic ever portrayed. However, to paraphrase Stalin (possibly) one death is very real, whereas as the death of millions is too huge, to abstract, to fully comprehend so there wasn’t the outcry from the moral guardians of the age. Besides, the bad guys lost and they were foreigners so that was alright. It was a pyric victory for Dredd and Mega City One at best. The consequences would reverberate for years in strips, particularly with the Days of Chaos arc, in which a chemical attack by East-Meg agents that would kill over three quarters of Mega-City’s population.

What makes Dredd an interesting character is that he inevitably, given the years he’s existed and the number of writers involved is that to a degree he evolved and began to question the structure of the city’s judicial systems of which he is an integral part. But he still even now upholds what is still basically a judicial dictatorship.

Perhaps because the satire was getting lost on the intended audience the 2000AD writers took judicial authoritarianism to  its logical (and ridiculous) ends with the creation of the four ‘dark’ judges lead by Judge Death.  Originally Sidney ‘De’Ath,  a young boy on a parallel dimension Earth with tendencies to torture and kill animals and the son of a murdersome dentist, who becomes a notoriously harsh judge. He meets two witches the ‘Sisters of Death’ who turn him and three likeminded companions into undead Judges and declares that ‘life itself a crime’ killing everything in their world that lives. He eventually reaches Mega-City One in the ‘Judge Death’  story and though is defeated by Dredd and Judge Anderson (a psychic), in the ‘Necropolis’ story arc, he decimates the city’s population. Eventually he and his companions are defeated but because they are already dead, cannot be killed, so they make multiple appearances over the years in the strip. The early stories featuring Death and his motley crew of Mortis, Fear and Fire were a brilliant mix of horror, comedy and drama though the comedy elements were perhaps too much emphasised to the detriment of the character of Death in particular. He does allow for the ridiculousness of extreme justice to be emphasised. Dredd had become the hero/anti-hero and the original satire had been lost over the years so Death was a reemphasis of the stupidity and lethalness of a judicial dictatorship.

2000AD was a worthy successor to Action. The fact that it’s still going shows that its stories and characters, and Dredd in particular, are very relevant to our contemporary society. Indeed as recent controversies over police behaviour in Britain and the USA attest, unchecked judicial power is a danger to us as individuals and to our society as a whole. Though it can’t be denied that the ‘smack of firm government’ appeals to many so it’s uncertain how the future will unfold.







Thanks to The Arts Council of Northern Ireland for making this essay possible through support from their SIAP funding programme. It also appeared in the February 2023 edition of the Honest Ulsterman.