Are you looking forward to a new comic book but it’s impossible for you to wait for its release before you know what we thought about it? That’s why there’s DoomRocket’s Advanced Reviews—now we assess books you can’t even buy yet. This week: ‘Essential Judge Dredd: America’, out September 3 from 2000 AD and Rebellion Publishing.
THIS ADVANCE REVIEW OF ‘ESSENTIAL JUDGE DREDD: AMERICA’ IS SPOILER-FREE.
by Mickey Rivera. I was so bummed when I figured out that Judge Joseph Dredd was a fascist. I was a full grown adult walking around for however many years, with little more than the doughy snarl of Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 portrayal as a reference, recalling with ignorant warmth how cool those big shiny pauldrons looked. I hadn’t read the comics, nor had I spent the single minute of mental effort it would have taken to think critically about this movie I had last seen when I was a teenager. I ended up reading a bunch of the comics much later, probably in 2014, after a slew of videos popped up on the internet showing just how depraved actual law enforcement can be when left to their own devices. Eager to see this British assessment of United States culture spanning more than 30 years, I read as much as I could and came away with this: Yes, Dredd’s the hero of the story, but he shouldn’t be, and that should be obvious, but it isn’t.
Capitalizing on the young British population’s dual obsession with all things American and all things sci-fi, Dredd’s story starts in the second issue of 2000 AD, released in 1977. The series hyperbolized and futurized the famously crime-ridden New York City of the time, turning it into Mega-City One. Dredd plays the kind of self-righteous lawman one could imagine patrolling the street of NYC in those days, wholeheartedly buying into the idea that the codes of justice they nominally protect are for the good of all. The difference between his world and ours grows thinner by the day, but it could be said that at least the government of Mega-City One never pretends to fairness to the extent ours does. The city walls hold back the mutant hoards, and the precarious order within can only be maintained if the public understands, on a very primal and physical level, that line-steppers will not be tolerated. It’s that or it’s chaos; there is no in-between. This is basically Judge Dredd’s religion.
The series was a hit, possibly because Judge Dredd can be read as either dark satire against the police-state or pro-authoritarian fable, or any combination of both. To achieve this the brutality and the authoritarian politics are played for laughs or subsumed in a haze of ornate action sequences. Every so often, though, writers get to dig into what it actually means to live in a world like the one Dredd so desperately and violently protects. Essential Judge Dredd: America contains six of the series’ best examples of just that, collecting a handful of interconnected stories which trace the fate of a pro-democracy movement in Mega-City One.
Democracy’s failure is central to the Dredd Universe. It was the U.S. electorate who created the Judges and gave each the power of an entire branch of government, and it was they who later gave those Judge’s full control of the government. The election of a crooked Vice President was what made it all possible in the first place, paving the way for a nuclear apocalypse from which only the Judges could pull the city out. The series has an unwaveringly pessimistic view of the masses. The “Block Mania” storyarc from 1981 is a perfect example, portraying the populace as a teeming collective of crazed gun-toting morons looking for a fight—certainly not worthy of self-determination.
Like the chin-faced cop himself, Judge Dredd the series never stops looking at the world and grimacing with haughty disapproval, which is what makes the stories in Essential Judge Dredd: America outliers. Here the villains (i.e. those who are set at odds against Dredd) aren’t gang-bangers or opportunistic scofflaws, but a diffuse group of private citizens who share a disdain for the status quo brought about by a shared experience of police brutality.
The stories span different issues of 2000 AD as well as the first seven issues of the Judge Dredd Megazine, possibly occurring in an analogous timeframe to their publication between 1986 and 1991. Besides three stories by the inestimable John Wagner we also get a one-shot by fellow 2000 AD veteran Alan Grant, a final storyarc by Garth Ennis, as well as a short three-part arc authored by both Wagner and Grant. Each story chugs along like a police vehicle barreling at full speed into a hail of bullets. In this case, the police car is Dredd with his fascist posse and the hail of bullets is the democratic movement doing whatever it can—from peaceful protests to firing actual bullets—to stop the unstoppable force. Along the way, Wagner’s “The Devil You Know” makes a pit stop at Judge headquarters to remind us that the democracy bug has infected more than just the general public.
“America”, the collection’s namesake and its strongest story, made a splash when it was first published in 1990 as one of the inaugural stories of the newly launched Judge Dredd Megazine. It stands out among the bunch due to its personal perspective, the narration of love-struck Bennett Beeney and his relationship with democratic terrorist America Jaras.
All in all these stories are engaging activations of the anti-authoritarian reading of the Dredd mythos. What bothers me is the fact that their critical perspective is the exception rather than the standard in the history of the character. Judge Dredd made a name for itself by glorifying police brutality as a gag or a necessary evil. Compared with the rest of the series, Essential Judge Dredd: America’s content seems out of place. I know (now, as a full grown adult) that readers aren’t meant to idolize Dredd, but the sheer joy with which past stories framed the man’s wanton disregard for basic human rights and notions of justice tells another story. Also occasionally jarring are some embarrassing dialogue choices pertaining to Hispanic accents, and a sexual encounter that reads as a stand-in for interpersonal development—but we can chalk that up to either it being the 90s or this being pulp literature.
Essential Judge Dredd: America solidifies democracy as Dredd’s true enemy. Its suppression is the one thing he would go above the law for. It maintains the series’ bleak and somewhat dated valuation of the United States populace as an undisciplined mass of morons and cowards, but perhaps only for the sake of challenging us to be better. That alt-nihilism of the 80s and 90s is strong here: Human nature is an unshakable impairment, and if we don’t take control of our fate then the only way to handle it is to permit a heavily-armed enforcement class to engage in perpetual war against our own bad behavior. Essential Judge Dredd: America barely offers any way out from under the boot of the law. It is pure authoritarian nihilism that leaves you mired in paradox. The angle doesn’t entirely work for those with real knowledge of how power operates in democracy—but it’s one that will remain relevant so long as there are people who think a person like Dredd is the true protector of peace and prosperity.
2000 AD / Rebellion Publishing / UK £19.99 US $25
Written by John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Garth Ennis.
Art by Colin MacNeil, John Higgins, John M. Burns, Jeff Anderson.
Select re-coloring by Sally Jane Hewitt.
Letters by Tom Frame.
8 out of 10
‘Essential Judge Dredd: America’ will be available in digital and print on September 3.
Check out this 6-page preview of ‘Essential Judge Dredd: America’, courtesy of Rebellion Publishing and 2000 AD!