Book Club / Stranger and More Alive

Judge Dredd AmericaJudge Dredd America
Written by John Wagner
Art by Colin MacNeil

Ok. So. Yeah. We’ve done Judge Dredd before back in 2016: mighty mega-epic The Apocalypse War by By John Wagner, Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra and Mike McMahon but I’ll admit now that was me being slightly perverse because as fun and exciting and as interesting and as cool and as – well – completely apocalyptic as the Apocalypse War is: the real best place to start with the world of Judge Dredd is right here and this little comic called America.Altho I went back and reread The Apocalypse War thread and was pretty pleasantly surprised by how well it went… Altho I think my comment about Judge Dredd being like Seinfeld might not have managed to hit the nail anywhere the head seeing how (and with no disrespect intended to Jerry): Dredd is actually way way much more than that. I mean: Seinfeld is always a comedy and nearly pretty much always in that same apartment while Dredd is – well: EVERYTHING. Comedy! Action! Satire! Tragedy! War! Farce! Romance! Crime! Thriller! Drama! All wrapped up with a sci-fi shell set in the most preposterous and amazing and fucked up city that comics has ever seen: Mega City One (DREDD VOICE: “God help me I love it.”) Gotham? Ha! Whatever. (That’s like comparing a goldfish to a tank full of sharks).

(Thought I might have mis-remembered “God not Grud?” but no – ha – I got it right).

For those of you who don’t know – Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra sadly passed away at the start of October (R.I.P. Carlos) and for an awful lot of people (myself included) Carlos Ezquerra was pretty much the Dredd artist. I mean not only did he create the look of Dredd in the first place (I think there’s a story somewhere that says when John Wagner saw the first design he laughed and said that he “looked like somesort of Spanish pirate” which actually – is pretty damn accurate) but he’s been there constantly since all the way back in 1977 keeping his hand in with pretty loads of the best all time Dredd stories including: The Apocalypse War, Necropolis, Judgement Day, The Pit, Origins and many many more besides (in fact: check out the whole crazy long list here).

So yeah of course to celebrate him – I thought we could take a long at the Dredd comic which is erm… illustrated by someone else? (LOL whoops).

But here’s the thing: if you’ve heard all the stuff about Carlos and you’re into the idea of getting into the world of Judge Dredd and finding out exactly what all the fuss is about then America is the absolutely perfect place to start: and you know – seeing how it’s about America and politics and democracy and fascism and justice and immigration and terrorism even (depending on how you define it) transsexualism (of a sort) – I thought it would be an interesting thing to you know – have a chat about / write some words…

America

FULL DISCLOSURE: I actually had a bit of a Dredd splurge earlier this year. See… I kinda succumbed to the (ahem) Ikea nesting instinct last year / this year and (amongst other things) brought a monotonous 2001-looking monolithic bookcase that I just know will one day fall on top of me and kill me instantaneously. And well yeah – thanks to the joint evils of both ebay and Amazon I’ve been making up for a lifetime of library use and basically buying way too many books: a good proportion of which are… well yeah… 2000AD / Dredd stuff (I know I know – I should be getting proper books and Philosophical texts and stuff – but how many of those gorgeous fully-painting artwork and devious and intricate stories about erm… Ninja Aliens that can only say one word, Vampire Agents for the Vatican and Inter-dimensional agents in a very particular shade of Purple…? Answer = NONE). And well yeah – first I started with the newer Dredd stuff that I hadn’t read (Titan which OMG was total shite) and Day of Chaos (which might just be one of the best things I’ve ever read and is absolutely perfect bedtime reading when you’re suffering from the flu…) and then well: it just kept spreading… Also those books that I’ve read in the Library or back in the day in 2000AD and some of the ones that I never actually got around to the first time around (altho: Wilderlands? Oh wow. That is… not a good comic…No one’s finest hour: sorry Carlos / sorry John AVOID etc): my bookcase is now packed with them all (damn you ebay. Damn you Amazon).

So yeah – past few months I’ve been reading Dredd a lot and I’ve gotta say: it’s been fucking great. Altho I’ve kinda been struggling to put my finger on why exactly this stuff has such a pull on me. I mean yeah of course I read it as a kid so it’s buried all the way deep somewhere inside of my brain: like an old friend or next door neighbour. But that’s only a part of it: I mean – there’s loads and loads of stuff that I enjoyed as a kid that I honestly can’t be bothered with no because well: it’s dumb and stupid and for kids and now I’m an adult there’s nothing there for me (sorry child-version of me). So yeah – nostalgia is only a small part of it…

aware of the judges

The first big main part of why I love it / why it has such a hold on me (as mentioned in the The Apocalypse War thread) is – holy shit it’s kinda hard to understate this but – all of Dredd is in continuity. Let me just say that again for those at the back: all of Dredd is in continuity. Which means that right from start back in 1977 (and when viewed in a certain kinda way) it’s all been telling one long story all the way to the present day. Which means that – even if you stop paying attention and then go back to it: it’s kept moving in your absence and changing and growing and getting bigger and stranger and more alive. Like when you buried a bottle of gunk in your back garden as a kid (different liquids and stuff all mixed together – or am I the only one who did that?) and then you go back to it a decade later and it’s turned into a miniature city with it’s own lingo and customs and and histories and entertainments and crimes and spaces and noises and sights and smells and people – that’s what reading Dredd now is like. It’s a multi-dimensional experience: because without even anyone planning to: Mega City One (and the rest of the world) got filled in and shaded in a thousand different ways bu hundreds of different people… (including Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Simon Bisley, Ron Smith, Brian Bolland, Chris Weston, Chris Cunningham (!) and those are the first bunch that pop in my head and I’m already thinking of all the people I’m missing out…).

But yeah – point is: reading Dredd is a rich experience. Just because well – there’s so much there. All interacting and swirling around in all sorts of cool and interesting ways… And commenting on it’s own past and building upon it just like well: a living breathing thing.

Of course me being me reading all this Dredd stuff has lead me on to the internet to find out what other people think of it which has lead me to this pretty cool site called Dredd Reckoning which claims to review every Dredd book ever (altho it stopped in 20013 so erm – it’s now a little out of date…) and well yeah: some of the writing is really really good in terms of it’s insights and stuff…

I know that’s this is already a whole bunch of writing: but there’s this thing that Ben Saunders (a Professor of English at the University of Oregon) that I just need to quote at length because it’s so spot on that it almost hurts to read (taken from here):

I think it is significant that this message regarding the corruption of institutional authority — with its attendant negative implications for the heroic project more generally — should be so pervasive throughout the comic that would eventually bring Judge Dredd to the world.

Because at first blush Dredd would appear to express the very opposite idea. He’s not an outsider battling a corrupt system, but is instead the ultimate authoritarian — the hardnosed lawman of the future, both a tool and a figurehead for the institutions of power and control in Mega-City One. But of course, it turns out that the issue of how we should respond to Dredd’s authoritarianism has become one of the key questions — perhaps THE key question — in our critical discussions of the character. Are we intended to admire him or not? Is he a hero or a monster? Or is he a more complex satirical figure? And if so, what is he satirizing? Do his stories constitute a parodic assault upon the myth of the loner-hero, primarily associated with US cultural values, as handed down in countless westerns and cop-dramas? Or are the real targets of the strip closer to their British home? Were Dredd’s creators motivated by their opposition to Thatcherism? Or were the skewering the xenophobic island-dweller-mentality? Or were they in fact critiquing the democratic-socialist nanny-state?

liberals

Confusingly, I think the answer to all of these questions might be “yes” — at different times in the history of the series. And because Judge Dredd can (and has) operated within a different variety of hermeneutic horizons over the years, the strip can be difficult to summarize or even generalize about ¾ as well as difficult to introduce to first time readers, or to sell to audiences outside of the United Kingdom. Even long time fans of the strip will have conflicting ideas about which incarnations of the character represent the most successful or essentially “Dredd-like” versions of Dredd.

And at the same time, a lot of the grim humor in the strip during its first few years — a lot of what I liked about it as a child and a young teenager, in other words — emerged from the representation of Dredd not as straightforwardly admirable figure, but rather from the relatively undisguised hints of malice that would shine through at key moments. I’m thinking now of the cold, almost James Bond-style one-liners that Dredd would casually dispense in the course of his duties (telling a grotesquely overweight crook he has a “fat chance” of getting time off for good behavior, for example); or of more sadistic moments, such as the early story in which Dredd has an arson suspect’s skin removed so that he can analyze the results for minute traces of fire-raising chemicals.

The (slightly tricky and perhaps too readily misunderstood) point that I’m trying to make here is that Dredd’s malicious, bullying, abusive side was (at least originally) part of the appeal of the character from the very beginning, at least for me (and I think for others, too, or I wouldn’t admit to it). Moreover, this dark side to the character was not merely a side-effect or unacknowledged consequence of the fascistic tendencies of the “supercop” genre, and not just an implicit element of the character that later stories would draw out more critically and explicitly. On the contrary, even from Case Files Volume One, Dredd quickly emerges as a bit of a dick — and we like him for it. Well, you may or may not like him for it, I supposed; but the point is that, tonally, in these stories, we are not asked to judge Dredd, as it were, for his malicious tendencies, but are instead invited to take amused pleasure in them. Indeed, I think it was Dredd’s dickishness, at least as much as any Clint Eastwood-style display of implacable determination and unstoppable lethal force, that really made his character distinctive and appealing in the Britain of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Bad man

And yes, Dredd’s dickishness may subsequently have been harnessed for satirical purposes, and explored further in relatively self-conscious psychological tales examining the authoritarian mindset, and even held up for criticism in stories that also function as political allegories. But initially, I think, it was the humorous tensions that emerged from his contradictory status as an “admirable asshole” that made Dredd such a compellingly original figure, at least within British comics, and which significantly contributed to his ultimate ascension to the position of 2000 AD’s best-loved character.

And well yeah – that’s the second main part of why I love it / why it has such a hold on me and why reading it as a kid is just as much fun (or even more so as an adult) is because Judge Dredd despite it’s seeming simplicity (he’s a cop in the future – what more do you need to know?) is actually pretty darn well- complex.

Now: I don’t mean complex in terms of story structure or how the machines work or anything like that: but complex and difficult in how it plays with your sympathies and how you’re supposed to respond…

I watched a documentary earlier this week called Side by Side about how digital film-making is ousting traditional celluloid. On the extras there was a 25 minute interview with Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski (who has since transitioned to become Lilly Wachowski) that was pretty cool: one bit in particular stuck with me was when they talked about the difference between their films Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. Now I’m paraphrasing wildly here – but they made a point about how Speed Racer was a film that they made just for kids: it’s bright, bold, simple and very very fun (seriously if you haven’t seen it: you should give it a shot) while Cloud Atlas was more a film that was designed for adults (which they claimed isn’t really a film that’s made anymore – instead you get – films for kids and films for “kids of all ages”) and what made Cloud Atlas a film for adults was because it was all about ambiguity and nuance and complexity and because it wasn’t really something that you could sum up in a few words (and if you’ve seen Cloud Atlas you kinda know that’s kinda pretty much true). And well yeah – I feel the same thing about Judge Dredd and his world: it defies simplicity: and even tho it looks like it’s just for kids – baked into it’s very concept is this unstable stance: because Dredd is kinda both the hero and the villain of his own strip in a way that you just don’t ever really ever see anywhere else: and that’s not a bug – it’s a feature: and it’s what makes him so incredibly compelling.

worse

And well yeah – finally finally getting around to America – this is kinda where that all starts. I mean America was first published in the very first issue of the Judge Dredd Megazine which was supposed to be where the “more mature” Judge Dredd was supposed to begin. In my head it’s kinda like when Watchmen and The Dark Knight came out and comics got more serious and dark and stuff – 2000AD was like the Bronze and Silver Age of Judge Dredd and the start of the Megazine is when things started to get a little more… I don’t know… brooding.

And yeah: one thing America has a lot of is brooding. Dredd is there right at the start of the story and right at the end too – but in the middle he’s mostly there as an unseen presence looming over America and Beeny like the Grim Reaper with a bigger daystick. And it works for those of us who’ve already encountered Dredd elsewhere and seen his other (slightly less grim and foreboding) faces and you know – gone on adventures with him and stuff and celebrated when he managed to make it to the end of the trek through the Cursed Earth or punching Judge Fear in his stupid face… But yeah: if this is your first encounter with him – I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t quite feel the urge to make friends with him and seek out the rest of his stuff… But what’s interesting is that it’s very much the start of John Wagner (best Dredd writer of them all – don’t @) realizing the full extent of what he could do with this popular character he’d created. It’s like Radiohead playing their first note on a synth or something you know? “Oooh – that’s interesting.” And opens up new places to go and adds another facet to something that was already multifaceted to begin with….

But oh my god I think I’ve probably already said too much so will leave it there for now (sorry – 2000AD kid for life you know?). But yeah – if you’re a big Dredd head from way back or America is your first taste of Dredd – how does it strike you? Are English comics superior to American ones? How does Dredd stack up against superheroes? And do you like your comics to be complex or do you prefer them simple?

What do you think…?


TAM
Islington Comic Forum

I have mixed feelings about this story. The bits when Dredd appears are great and give you a real sense of how horrible it must be to live in a city full of fascist cops and the art plays an important part in that too, depicting Mega City One as a distinctive colourful hellhole. But it’s structured very differently from one of Wagner’s normal Dredd stories and it’s from slap bang in the middle of the period when the medium was desperate to show us that ‘Comics! They’re not just for kids!’. Fair play to the creators for trying something different obviously but I think it’s a bit mawkish (at least by Dredd standards) and it’s trying far too hard to be literary and meaningful for my tastes.

All that said, it’s still a pretty good story and as you say, a pretty good introduction to Judge Dredd. For me, the most interesting thing about the story is the way its consqequences have played out in real time over the last thirty years. There was a wonderful moment involving America’s daughter a few years ago (I won’t spoil the details) that was a rare example of an uplifting Dredd story that was really powerful precisely because it was so hard earned.

Personally, I think the most powerful Dredd story is Day of Chaos which as Joel says is an amazing (although genuinely terrifying) read. It’s not quite as accessible as America but is at least as relevant to the world in our current era (although it was written in 2012ish) as the Apocalypse War was to the Cold War.

The version of America I’ve got has three different stories in it (altho I think I used to own a copy that only had two?). The first one is the original America story. Story number two is called The Fading of the Light and the third one is just called Cadet.Reading the book from cover to cover is a strange experience just in terms of the time covered – America first came out in 1990, Fading of the Light in 1996 and Cadet came ten years after that in 2006… So it’s a bit like being in a time machine. The first thing that hits you is the artwork – America came out right in the prime of 2000ADs fully-painted art ascendance (Sláine The Horned God by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley was being printed in 2000AD at the time: which is and was the gold-standard in terms of “OH MY GOD LOOK AT THIS ARTWORK”) and yeah well Colin MacNeil was no slouch in that department: I mean – every page of America would look great hung up on a wall somewhere… The tones and the brightness and the composition all seem so thought out and laboured over that it’s just a joy to read it and try to soak it all in (the page all in green with the Rawhide theme is my favourite – but can’t seem to find a picture of it anywhere to share…).But hey – here’s a good runner up:Dredd.jpgFascism has never looked so good.

And then well yeah – The Fading of the Light which kinda takes place in the middle of another ascendance – only this one wasn’t so good: this being the era of the super-cheap looking computer generated colouring that kinda makes me wanna barf a little inside my mouth everytime I see it…

Fading of the Light

I mean: yeah I know you need to test things out before you can iron out all of the kinks and stuff… but it’s all just so… ugly. And it somehow reduces Colin MacNeil artwork into something that’s… feels shoddy and mass-produced then a tin of supermarket own brand. In fact – it barely looks like the same artist. And going from one to another is like going from listening to an orchestra to listening to an 808 and a cheap guitar with the treble tuned all the way up… (I mean: seriously – did no one look at this stuff when it was coming out and go: erm – actually you know what? This looks like a turd with sprinkles on it – maybe we should wait a little until the technology has improved? Or fuck – was it all just a cost-cutting measure and Capitalism is in action? “Let’s see how cheaply we can make the product until people stop buying it altogether….”)

And then there’s Cadet – which seems to exist in the no man’s land between the two:

Cadet

It’s nowhere near as teeth-rattling shrill and nasty as The Fading of the Light stuff but it’s also a little… I dunno… bland? Like colouring with pencils or something. I mean: it’s obvious still computer generated – just a lot more advanced and refined. But yeah – I can’t help feeling like I miss the old stuff… My best guess is that the newer version is just way quicker and easier to do – and seeing how it’s what – 16 years later? I can understand if Mr MacNeil doesn’t want to be slaving away over the finer details like he used to. I mean: at the start he had something to prove right? While I guess that now he’s more established and can just take it easy (to go to the music metaphor – it’s the difference between when a band is starting out and they’re hungry and have everything to prove and want to set the world on fire – as opposed to the stuff that comes out years later when it’s more: “here’s a song. will this do?”)

But well yeah: apart from the story contained within (and I totally agree with Tam that all of America could be pretty much summed up well as “a bit mawkish”) it also works pretty well as a case history of the decline and fall of what used to be some of the best comic book art my eyes have ever seen….

“God shed his grief on thee”. etc.


ILIA
The Gap between Panels
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter / The Hot-Doll Pages

I tried reading America and only managed to sustain interest for the first two stories – couldn’t even bring myself to bother with Cadet even though Wagner was pretty proud of it. I’m still a bit confused as to why that may be tbh. There may be a general problem with Dredd for me, which is that while the ambiguities of the character are intriguing in theory, all of the stories I’ve read in practice subsume those contradictions to the necessities of plot, action, violence etc, and they remain underexplored and under-analysed. What for Joel is a feature is for me very much a bug.

I watched a very good documentary on 2000AD made in 2014 which re-enforced how influential the publication was – incubating the writers and artists that subsequently went over to the US to change the face of anglophone comics. Although it pays due homage to Wagner and Ezquerra for creating Dredd, it made me realise how much of an underrated, irritating but brilliant creator and editor Pat Mills was. For my money Slaine and Nemesis the Warlock are greater artistic achievements, perhaps because Mills is a more didactic writer – his creations very clearly have targets and make interventions, whereas Wagner’s work is always more finely balanced and equivocal. It doesn’t quite have enough bite for me.

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