Opinion: Judge Dredd – A Primer

With a new film in pre-production it seems interests are peaked once again for Britain’s most well known comic character.

Having been in constant circulation for over thirty years, Judge Dredd has firmly set himself as a British institution, and has name recognition, to some extent, all through the western world. With so few recognizable comic properties of note, you would think that the British public take interest in the stories and history of Dredd with a sense of pride, but nothing could be further from the truth, the people of Britain, as with the rest of the world, know little more than what was presented to them in the 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone (more on that later). Even seasoned, contemporary comic fans pay little heed to our own properties, preferring, largely, to concentrate our spending on the comics of our American and Japanese cousins.

No, the lone demographic that seems in any way loyal to the character are British fanboys that discovered their nerdish tendencies in the late-70’s and 80’s. Why is this? and who is Dredd really? Let’s learn a few things.

Firstly, a brief lesson in British comics for grounding. Unlike their American counterparts, who generally concern themselves with a singular character or team based storyline per book, British comics are traditionally anthology books, the majority of which leaning toward the humour or sci-fi genres.

The more cutting edge of the sci-fi books, though aimed at the young, often told mature stories that credited the readership with intelligence, eventually causing a new breed of literate minded creators to come out of the woodwork and eventually dominate their field, such creators as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Mark Miller, Andy Diggle, Alan Davis, Dave Gibbons and Simon Bisley amongst many, many others.

A sci-fi comic usually had no less than four stories per issue, each story having a page count of no more than eight (normally more like four or five, though one and two page strips were not unusual), the readers having to pick up the books weekly (or fortnightly, depending on the book) to read each instalment of the story until a storyline was concluded. This format lent itself to very dense storytelling, the creators wanting to make full use of the limited space provided.

Unfortunately, toward the end of the 80’s and throughout the 90’s the British industry started to lose steam, mostly due to the onset of home gaming systems increasing in popularity and the remaining steadfast comic fans gravitating to the over saturated market of imported American comics (and with the kind of stuff coming from America in the last half of the 80’s, who can blame them?). The trend never reversed, so, sadly, the British comic industry is now an almost dead art form. Only the most popular, long-lived books (arguably) survived, namely the humour book The Beano and the world-renowned sci-fi book 2000AD.

It was in the second issue of 2000AD that Judge Dredd made his first appearance, and few could argue that the popularity of the character is a leading factor in the books ongoing ‘success’.

Created in 1977 by writer John Wagner (A History Of Violence) and European artist Carlos Ezquerra (Just A Pilgrim) with a little help from Pat Mills (Marshal Law), and inspired by Dirty Harry and the poster for Death Race 2000, Dredd proved an instant hit with the readers, his fascistic and violent tendencies, balanced with the strips ironic and dark sense of humour, seemingly ringing true to the attitude of Britain at the time.

But who can describe the world of Judge Dredd better than the good people at 2000AD, who’s website says, and I quote “Mega-City One, 2130 AD. This vast urban nightmare on the east coast of post-apocalyptic North America is home to 400 million citizens, every one a potential criminal. With lawlessness rife, only the Judges can prevent total anarchy. These future lawmen are judge, jury and executioner. Toughest of them all is Judge Dredd – he is the Law!”… Quite so.

The bulk of the Dredd stories in the 80’s were written by Wagner and collaborating partner Alan Grant (Lobo), but in 1990, while Dredd’s popularity was riding high, the team moved over to a new Dredd centered spin-off of 2000AD, called Judge Dredd Megazine, a monthly book that showcased new stories with reprints of classics.

During this time such current luminaries as Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar were writing 2000AD’s ongoing Dredd stories to a relatively lackluster fan response, new takes on the character, his world and his ways not really sitting well with them. This aside, Dredd remained 2000AD’s only permanent strip while other popular strips such as A.B.C Warriors, Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper and Slain were regularly rotated.

From the beginning a few truisms of Judge Dredd became evident. One was that we, the reader, never saw Dredd without his helmet on. This was neither an arbitrary or gimmick centered decision, but rather a creatively considered one. In the words of John Wagner; “It sums up the faceless-ness 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.

The second truth is that Dredd ages in real time, so in 1977 when the strip first began, the year in the stories was 2099, meaning now that it is 2010 in the real world, in Mega-City One it is 2132. Which puts Dredd in his seventies, with over fifty years of active Judge service. This is a relatively unique trait, especially to those who are only used to the slowed down time scale of most American and Japanese comics.

Throughout the 90’s Dredd began to garner a name for himself internationally, thanks (in part) to his adventures being reprinted in many different countries and various crossovers with more established characters and franchises, such as Batman and Aliens. However, the biggest push in Dredd awareness came in 1995 with the hubbub that surrounded the ‘blockbuster’ movie adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone, which included spin-off books, toys and promotional tie-ins.

On its release, the film, as we all know, tanked, both critically and commercially, pleasing neither fans nor average cinema patrons.

Directed by Danny Cannon (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (?!)) and co-starring Max von Sydow as Chief Justice Fargo, most fans saw it as an irredeemable mess that bared little in common with the Dredd they knew and loved, unforgivably breaking two major rules of the comic strip (Stallone’s Dredd removed his helmet in the first act, which is partially understandable from a producers point of view, after all, they had paid top dollar for one of the worlds most recognizable actors, but from the character’s point of view? A big no-no. Dredd then goes on to get romantically involved with Diane Lane’s Judge Hershey, something Dredd would never do as it’s outlawed for Judges to do so in Mega-City One) and one major rule of filmmaking, when, and I use the term in the loosest possible sense, ‘funny-man’ Rob Schneider was cast in the role of Fergee.

To put it in simpler terms, the film missed the spirit of the source material entirely, which is bad enough in itself, but adds to the mix a weak story and unfunny gags and one-liners, and you’re left with a film that no one was interested in. That is the general consensus anyway, but (and this may cause a few raised eyebrows), in my opinion, the film is not a total loss. There is a major success in the Stallone Judge Dredd film, and that success is all the work of the design teams. Think back and consider how good the environment, costumes, weapons, vehicles and creature/robots looked. Truly, as with a great many productions, the designers and craft people cared more about the outcome of the movie and the spirit of the comic than the producers and writers did. Also consider, if you can remember, the poster image, which simply featured Stallone’s helmeted head, the visor of which reflected the skyline of Mega-City One. Quite a striking image and a great piece of poster advertising.

Anyway, the film DID tank, and so did the short-lived popularity of the character. In fact, you could hardly mention Dredd in passing without someone making a crack about the ‘terrible film’, and sadly that status has remained pretty much quo until very recently.

After different publishers attempted to collect and reprint the more famous Dredd stories, to varying levels of success, the rights eventually passed to publishing company Rebellion, who are currently in the process of re-releasing every single Dredd story, in chronological order in their Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files volumes, which aside faithfully restoring the artwork, are also fantastic value, presenting 300+ pages of dense stories per volume for $10-$20.

Bigger than this however is the aforementioned news that a new Judge Dredd film is in the works, with the simple working title of Dredd.

To the average cinema goer this has stirred sighs of “Oh God, really?!” and “Who cares?”, but to those in the know the signs are looking pretty good. For a start, novelist and reputed screenwriter Alex Garland (28 days later, Sunshine) has been brought onboard as writer, and recently, at the BFI/Empire Magazine Movie-Con III event, producers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich stated “Our idea is to make a very hard, R-rated, gritty, realistic movie of Dredd in Mega-City. He’s not going to take off his helmet. He’s going to hit people and it’s going to feel real.” All good news.

Throwing a few question marks into the equation though is the hiring of an unproven director in Peter Travis (Vantage Point), and actor Karl Urban (The Lord Of The Rings, Star Trek) as the title role.

While on one is disputing that Urban is a fine actor, many (not I) are wondering if he cuts the correct jib for the role. Attitudes may change very soon though, as reports (from the producers themselves, at the same Movie-Con event) circulate that Urban turned up to his meeting about the role with a stack of 2000AD’s. Surely a good sign in anyone’s eyes, after all, a respect for the spirit of the character is more important than a square jaw line, which, in this day and age can be altered through prosthetics anyway.

Which brings us up to date. Dredd will almost certainly get more coverage in the mass media in the build up to the film’s release, but on it’s armoured shoulders his future lies. Maybe it will be a huge success and usher in a new golden age for the inhabitants of Mega-City One, maybe it will flop and people wont care, as they ever haven’t, but come what may, Dredd will no doubt have a home at 2000AD until it’s dying breath, and a group dedicated fans that will keep the name alive.

Richard
A UK based Contributor; Richard Reynolds splits his time writing articles and interviews for Fanboy Confidential with running his own comicbook shop, Ground Zero Comics, as well as sticking his thumb in far too many pies, including illustration, writing and filmmaking, he also consumes fiction in all its forms like its going out of fashion.

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