by Jarrod Jones. The authoritarian grip Judge Dredd’s Justice Department holds over Mega-City One has always been an extreme (if not satirical) cracked-mirror view of the world in which we currently live. Real-world policies and conflicts have colored Dredd tales for nearly fifty years, serving as a cautionary fable about the type of power that could maybe, just maybe, hold sway over us one day—a state-sanctioned, one-man Judge, Jury and Executioner.
For grud’s sake, Dredd himself was willed into being in the pages of 2000 AD in 1977, a scant two years before Britain’s Conservative Party secured the Prime Minister’s seat for over a decade. Was it satire? Sure. Was it extreme? Oh, absolutely. But after 43 years, how is it possible that Judge Dredd and the powers that granted his authority still resonate with us? Perhaps the answer lies with a simple question: Could the galling concept of the Justice Department ever be implemented in our very real world?
It’s a question that brings others screaming into our minds: What could happen in the years between our admittedly-grim today and the (thankfully fictional) future cursed earth that surrounds Mega-City One? How could a fascistic regime take form from within our governments and ultimately supplant it, answering our calls for liberty and due process with swift stomp of a thick, black boot?
Jump ahead to 2035 AD, the year in which Michael Carroll and John Higgins’ Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground takes place. Carroll has long seeded the ever-expanding lore of the Justice Department’s formative years, and in 2020 he joins artist John Higgins and colorist Sally Jane Hurst to chronicle how the transfer of power between a recognizable U.S. government and a new world order became possible in the first place. Needless to say, quite a bit can happen between 2020 and 2035—a mere fifteen years.
“When Dredd first appeared in 1977, the stories were set in the year 2099. That was 122 years ahead, but we’re catching up,” Carroll tells me. “The fall of democracy is, for me, one of the most interesting aspects of these series. How do we get there from here? The sad truth is that ‘there’ often isn’t as far removed from ‘here’ as we like to tell ourselves. Democracy and totalitarianism aren’t always distinct islands separated by vast oceans— sometimes they’re on opposite sides of the same wall. And sometimes the only difference is the label we apply to them.”
Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground will blast through the pages of the Judge Dredd Megazine later in 2020 (it’d be wise to set your calendars for September’s Megazine #424). Well ahead of its release, DoomRocket spoke with Michael Carroll and John Higgins about the kind of world that could create an authoritarian power such as the Justice Department—and how a once-unfathomable, easily mockable future might not be such a stretch.
DoomRocket: I think the most interesting—and harrowing—aspect of these early ‘Judges’ stories is how we speculate on the deterioration of democracy, how it might happen in real time. In ‘Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground’, how are you continuing to chart this erosion? What threats come to this future-past that might justify further control from the Justice Department?
John Higgins: The world we are living in now, for me as a 14-year-old science fiction reader, was the distant future and except for personal flying cars almost everything I read about in SF novels is happening: robots, 3D, lasers, instant communication, face-to-face video conferencing and so much more. The dystopian future I read about in George Orwell’s 1984—also Brave New World, Soylent Green, The Sheep Look Up—that is all around us if you look for it.
That is how I see the future of Dreadnoughts—completely recognizable and doubly frightening because of its familiarity.
But I also see Dreadnoughts as the birth of hope—no sorry, I mean the illusion of hope, that first slippery step made for the right reasons. Today in this world, we do not seem to be able to affect in a democratic way the immorality of people in power—the refusal of some governments to believe in or do anything about global warming as one big example—but even in everyday small things, as law-abiding citizens, we can feel powerless.
To have a person or a belief system we can trust in has been proven in history to be an additive concept, a person who is incorruptible and will not deviate from the rules of society, who will not interpret the written word to suit their personal view of the world, that is what the Judges could mean to law-abiding citizens, the man in the street.
Michael Carroll: When Dredd first appeared in 1977, the stories were set in the year 2099. That was 122 years ahead, but we’re catching up—now it’s only seventy-nine years ahead of us! Plus a lot of the early history has have been covered (through flashbacks, and in the Year One/Year Two novellas, for example), so we know the dates of many key events in Dredd’s past… but not all of them, and that’s where the Judges and Dreadnoughts series fit in.
The first three Judges novellas start in the early 2030s, in a world only slightly removed from our own. There are no flying cars, no mile-high city-blocks, etc. The only real difference is that the Judges have been introduced to the USA.
The second trilogy of Judges novellas is set in the 2040s, and the third trilogy—in early development right now—will be set in the 2050s. So time is marching at a pretty rapid pace, and as we get closer to Dredd’s time, we’ll see the introduction of more elements of his world.
I prefer to think of the while process like a car journey: we know where we’re starting from, and we know our destination and some key stops along the way, but most of the actual route is undocumented. Our job as storytellers is to chart that route in a way that makes sense, but which still provides some surprises for the readers. I can’t tell you exactly which of those key stops we’ll be visiting. (Well, I can, but I won’t!)
The fall of democracy is, for me, one of the most interesting aspects of these series. How do we get there from here? The sad truth is that “there” often isn’t as far removed from “here” as we like to tell ourselves. Democracy and totalitarianism aren’t always distinct islands separated by vast oceans— sometimes they’re on opposite sides of the same wall. And sometimes the only difference is the label we apply to them.
People tend to think of democracy as a cozy fortress that you construct once, then you forever after reap the benefits of its shelter. But it’s more like walking a tightrope: without constant vigilance matched with appropriate adjustments, it’s very easy to lose your balance and plunge into the crocodile-infested spiky poisoned pit of lava below (these are asbestos robot crocodiles, obviously). And even if you can escape the pit, getting back on the rope is a lot harder than falling off.
Sticking with that analogy, with these series we’re exploring how it’s possible to spend your time cycling blindfolded and drunk around the edge of that pit while under the illusion that you’re safe inside your sturdy, impregnable fortress. We present the Judges (well, most of them) as heroes, but they’re not. Not even if they believe that they’re doing the right thing.
Once you start curtailing someone’s freedom, you become the bad guy… Unless, of course, you’re stopping a four-year-old kid from drinking bleach, obviously. Anyone can see that that’s necessary!
Or taking down a drug dealer who’s been putting out a poisoned batch of heroin, you have to do that; we have a moral obligation to protect the vulnerable. That said, arguably all heroin is poison, so that’s something that should banned outright. And preventing motorists from driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, that’s a very important one! Metal detectors in schools, too, might be curtailing freedom but the benefit far outweighs the cost. Actually, metal detectors everywhere would go a long way towards getting rid of gun crime forever. Not a bad price to pay for the sense of security. And all dogs should be muzzled at all times because they might go wild and savage a passer-by. They probably won’t, but they might, so, yeah, muzzle those hounds just in case.
Then what about photocopying paper? It’s theoretically possible to get a nasty paper-cut that gets infected and becomes gangrenous, which if untreated can lead to death. Packages of paper should feature clear warnings. Actually, that’s not enough because people will often take the paper out of the packaging. So our new law states that every single sheet of paper should bear a yellow and black border on every edge to alert users to the potential danger. This applies to pre-printed material, too, such as comics and magazines and books. Distribution of paper in any form without such a border is reckless endangerment and is punishable by a fine or incarceration. An addendum to the law recognises that a pair of scissors can be used to cut across a sheet of paper, creating two new edges that do not possess the required safety warning, so henceforth possession of a pair of scissors without an appropriate licence is a crime.
And that’s the crux of the matter…! Where do you draw the line? At what point does safety become censorship? When does freedom cross over into imprisonment? The Judges are a proto-fascist solution to the problem of rampant crime, but is this a case of the cure being more harmful than the disease?
Well. That got pretty heavy, didn’t it?
‘Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground’ serves as an extension of the ‘Dredd’ lore established by Wagner & Ezquerra all those years ago, but it’s also building on the rules and regulations established by your prose novellas. Michael, how has the responsibility of building this essential part of the saga sharpened your satirical edge, not to mention your world-building acumen?
MC: As I see it, the purpose of the Judges and Dreadnoughts series is not to fill in all of the gaps in the established Dredd lore, tempting as that would be. Instead. we’re deliberately working around most of the “big” events—President Booth’s rise to power, for example—rather than explicitly depicting them. Our focus for the most part is with the street-Judges and the citizens who are affected by those big events rather than the larger-than-life heroes and villains who created them.
In Judges: Golgotha, I could have chosen to show Fargo and the other senior Judges finally dissolving the police academies, but I found it much more interesting to instead depict the career of the last person in the USA to graduate as a cop.
For the other stories in the Judges series, and with Dreadnoughts, there’ll be less emphasis on earth-shattering events than might otherwise be found in a Dredd series. We want to keep it all on the ground. Fallible heroes, small victories… If you like, think of them as being closer to the Karl Urban Dredd movie than the Stallone version. We’re dialling down the doomsday devices and world-domination plots and supergenius villains gloating from their hidden jungle fortresses, and dialling up the ordinary people fighting their way out of horrible situations—which is a handy description that applies to both the heroes and the villains!
So what we’re doing is not really world-building as such because for the most part we’re working with what’s already been established… I like to think of it as “world-decorating.”
I suppose in the context of knowing this is a prequel story, ‘Breaking Ground’ serves as a period piece. But that period is one of a future that could be our own, with glimmers of the Mega-City oblivion that awaits this world. John, how do you go about rendering this world? What details from Dredd’s infamous future begin to take form in this strip? How do you capture on the page the minutiae of how democracy can be kicked over with dirt until it’s finally, forever, buried?
JH: That is more Mike’s job. You can accuse me of many things but being subtle is not one of them—a head exploding as a bullet blows the back of it off is more my forte! But Mike has created a character in Judge Glover that I find completely rounded and believable as a person who has been trained to do the right thing according to the law. Mike’s ideas and dialogue—along with the other personalities involved—make this an engrossing story, but it is more a day in the life of police work than a tract of what is going wrong in society as a whole. It is small-town America with characters in shades of grey; subtle is Mike’s forte though he is quite happy to write heads being blown off too!
So my depiction is maybe a head or two being damaged but also look-out-the-window, “real world” creating. I want to make this world look completely recognizable; the cars have wheels, there are street signs, the fashions are what we are wearing, so the Judges’ “fascistic” uniform jar against the ordinary everyday life of our society—and the totalitarian decision-making in this real world has a chill to it that is more Kafka than broad satire.
At this point in the ‘Judges’ story, the U.S. Constitution has already been amended to remove due process for all American citizens. The Judges are operating alongside the government and its police force to keep the peace—a tenuous collaboration at best. How will ‘Breaking Ground’ go about pushing the power of law over to the Judges? Will we see further resistance to their new world order?
JH: From what I have perceived so far in Mike’s writing, it is all down to Judge Glover. We hear about the original Judges, such as Fargo, [who is] training/creating Glover and others as prime templates and also setting up the political moves that will lead to the full takeover by the Judge system not that far down the line—but that is mentioned more in discussions between characters, and we hear all sides of the argument which I think is a clever device to draw the reader in and make them feel part of this dialogue.
MC: I don’t want to spoil too much, but Breaking Ground deals directly with the impact of the Judges arriving in a small, established city—in this case, Boulder, Colorado. They already have an effective police force, but that’s now been augmented by a squadron of Judges. So politically we have a highly-charged situation; we’ve introduced a new and very dangerous element into what was a reasonably stable mixture.
Sure, Boulder was far from perfect, but it certainly wasn’t a crumbling cesspit like New York City. So the Judges appearing on the scene arguably makes things worse for everyone, at least in the short term. And of course there’s no going back—once the worms are out of the can, they’re out for good. (These are hyper-worms: very fast and much too slippery to hold.)
The imbalance of power becomes obvious as the story progresses: the new laws mean that the citizens have fewer rights while the Judges have fewer restrictions. You know that feeling you get when you’re going through customs at an airport? That horrible nervous knot in the pit of your stomach that manifests even though you know you haven’t actually done anything wrong? Well, with the Judges in power, that feeling will be the norm rather than the exception. A Judge can arrest you for whatever reason they want and there’s nothing you can do about it. No appeals, no lawyers, no trial. They decide whether you’re innocent or guilty and that decision is final.
That’s one of the avenues we explore in Breaking Ground in a number of ways—but, again, I don’t want to say more than that about the story!
I will, though, say that the strip looks absolutely fantastic! This is gob-smackingly good stuff! I was a huge fan of John Higgins’ work long before we became friends, so I do know what I’m talking about when I say that I reckon we’re looking at some of the very best work of his career, which is saying something because he really is one of the top comic-book artists in the world. What he’s done with my script is astonishing; he’s given it a depth and reality—and impact—far beyond I had any right to expect.
And layered on top of that are [Sally Jane Hurst’s] sumptuous colours, which are just eye-wateringly delicious! When someone’s flipping through a comic the first thing they notice is the colouring, then the artwork, and then the story, so the colouring has to immediately catch their attention, and Sally’s work easily accomplishes that. It really is uplifting to see such talent in action, and an honour to have it applied to my writing!
‘Dreadnoughts’ is set fifteen years from—*gulp*—now. Considering the current state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic, do either of you feel more compelled to broaden the inherent satire of this world so that the message of the Judges is considered more clearly as, well, “a warning, not a manual?”
MC: Because Dreadnoughts is so close to our own time, it’s important not to get too broad with the satire! We need to keep it very close to the present-day world. Judge Dredd stories are set far enough away that having an Orang-Utan as mayor is easily accepted by the characters—and by the readers—but in a story only barely removed from the real world no one’s going to believe an unkempt, orange-haired ape could ever end up in a political office.
Compared to the Judges series, which skips ahead about a decade every three books, the timeline in Dreadnoughts will be moving a lot more slowly, so satirical elements will have to be introduced more subtly, but they certainly will be there…
In regard to the satire aspect, the biggest danger is the real world overtaking the fictional world of Dreadnoughts. It wasn’t that long ago that a Certain Nation re-elected its ruling party on the promise that the party would fix all the things that they broke while they were in power. This was hailed by many as a victory. Well, I mean, that’s not fair! How can comic-book creators compete with stuff like that? Our stories are expected to make sense!
JH: Many political satirical writers say it is impossible to write sketches as absurd as what is happening at the moment or write about situations as potentially dangerous as politicians are creating right now. The story Mike has written in Breaking Ground it is not broad at all, which I believe is the power of this story—it is showing [a] small-step erosion of universal rights, which is all the more chilling and believable [when it is read] in the context of now!
‘Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground’ debuts in September’s ‘Judge Dredd Megazine’ #424.
Solicitation text for ‘Dreadnoughts: Breaking Ground’ follows below, with an image by John Higgins and Sally Jane Hurst!
From ‘2000 AD’: DREADNOUGHTS: BREAKING GROUND by Mike Carroll & John Higgins – return to the early days of the Judges in this series set at the beginning of Justice Department. 2035 AD: the new Justice Department is still in its early years, with Judges working alongside police, army and government – though the Judges are gradually taking over. Mike Carroll (writer on the ‘Judges’ prose books) and John Higgins (Watchmen, Pride & Joy) are the creative team behind this first series examining what happens with summary justice meets the regular police force!
More comics interviews to get those synapses firing…