The Politics of Judge Dredd

Woah, long time no blog…

Anyway, politics.co.uk very kindly commissioned me to write a piece about the politics of Judge Dredd

I’ve been beavering away on these points *at length* in the Judge Dredd: The Mega Collection partwork but to put something together for a much, much wider and far less focused audience feels most weird.

The original draft was much longer and made several other points but we played around with it to get it down to manageable size. I’m still very pleased with both, but the original is copied below if anyone’s interested.
With the extreme satire – from giant morbidly obese activists campaigning for extra food to outrageous fads like giant noses and potions to make oneself ugly – and overblown extremes of its 1980s heyday, it can be easy to dismiss Judge Dredd.

Just last week one critic sneered at John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s authoritarian cop as he celebrated his 40th birthday, labelling him as either a power fantasy for Nazis or an easily missed, too-subtle lefty satire.

Yet there is simply no more relevant comic book for our times than Judge Dredd.

No other title on newsstands, comic book store shelves, or digital devices has predicted the cultural, political and moral conundrums the western world finds itself in. No other comic book continues to issue warnings about the fragility of democracy while still rolling in action, comedy, and silliness.

This is nothing short of incredible. For a “too-subtle” satire, right now Judge Dredd seems disturbingly, terrifyingly on the nose.

Judge Dredd is often cited as a reaction to Thatcher’s Britain; that he was created in 1976 and published the following February in 2000 AD’s second issue should not diminish the point – 2000 AD’s creator Pat Mills and his one-time writing partner John Wagner could see the political writing on the wall. The times they were changing and Thatcher may have been yet to step through Number 10’s front door, but the populist wave that would wash the Conservatives to power in 1979 was already breaking.

Since then he’s gone from a noble, even heroic, guardian who maintains that all are equal beneath the totalitarian boot heel of the law to the upholder of a brutalising authoritarian system. He’s had his doubts and has on occasion fought for remarkably liberal ideals (such as his recent – and calamitous – demands for the repeal of harsh anti-mutant laws), but he’s always remained the embodiment of a dehumanising regime that crams people into mile-high tower blocks and denies them due process, all ostensibly for their own safety.

Despite Dredd striding around with his ridiculously grandiose uniform (designed by Ezquerra, an artist who actually lived under the fascist regime of General Franco’s Spain) with his often poe-faced proclamations about the law, the series has been incredibly versatile – not only does it run in ‘real time’ (so Dredd is now 40 years older than he was in 1977) but it switches easily from grotesque, satirical farce to moving pathos to police procedural and back again (sometimes, even, in the same story). It lampoons and it satirises, it scares, and it excites.

For all of these reasons Judge Dredd can be easy to dismiss.

But what relevance could this throwback to the 1970s possibly have for us? What possible lessons could we draw from a city with 95% unemployment due to wholesale automation, harsh laws against outsiders, a giant wall built to keep people both in and out, a slave labour class denied basic rights, brutal and unquestioning law enforcement that presumes guilt, a “future shocked” population so overcome by the horrors of living in such an intense environment that if they are not continually distracted by fripperies and fads they quickly turn to anger, prejudice and violence, an opposition fractured and eternally prone to in-fighting, a disinterested electorate who have elected both an orang-utan and a serial killer to the role of city mayor, and a ruling system so restrictive that it routinely and mercilessly destroys lives and for which it suffers zero consequences?

It is not difficult to (indeed, it is almost impossible not to) see parallels everywhere between Dredd’s world and our own. Particularly as the strip has, effectively, predicted the rise and rule of Trump not once, but twice.

Consider Robert “Bad Bob” Booth, the red-necked populist president elected on a tide of jingoism who willingly antagonised America’s allies and enemies before loosing an engorged nuclear arsenal to the cheers of his adoring public. In the subsequent aftermath of the Atomic Wars, the Judges – whose arbitrary powers were brought in to tackle “uncontrollable” crime-ridden city centres – suspended the Constitution and brought in draconian laws to “preserve order”.

Consider the blonde-coiffured “Mad” Chief Judge Cal, the vain, erratic, and gossamer-skinned head of the Judges’ Praetorian-like internal affairs division, the Special Judicial Squad, who seized power in a coup. When the citizens refused to turn out as expected to a parade in his honour, Cal suggested he might need glasses because he could not see the adoring crowds he just knew were there. (He then sentenced the entire city to death for the slight.)

And then there was the vote.

Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis’ 1991 story ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’ built on the ‘Democracy’ storylines begun years before by Wagner and his writing partner Alan Grant. Back then, Dredd had gone from executing every pro-democracy terrorist he could find (because in the upside down world of Mega-City One of course it’s the ‘metropolitan elites’ who take up arms) to doubting the system so horrendously that he resigned and took ‘The Long Walk’ into the irradiated desert that was all that remained of America. Returning to save the city from a dire threat, his faith in the system restored, Dredd reacted to growing discontent and pro-democracy protests by forcing through a referendum.

This was a simple yes-or-no vote about which political system should govern Mega-City One – democracy or the Judges. No road map, no plan. Just “yes” or “no”.

In a poll widely predicted to bring about the end of the current system, barely a third of the distracted, politically-illiterate population voted and those that did overwhelmingly chose the Judges. A massive protest march ensued, which Dredd faced down alone and peacefully dispersed with his own irrefutable logic of “When some creep’s holding a knife to your throat, who do you want to see riding up…me—or your elected representative?”

So the system – this terrifying, horrifying, dehumanising, brutal system – will now stand indefinitely. Because of “the will of the people”.

There is an ongoing debate about whether Judge Dredd is a fascist or simply a totalitarian. It can actually be very difficult, as a fan of the series, to dig into the ongoing dichotomy of Dredd-as-hero and Dredd-as-villain. It’s important to note that Twilight’s Last Gleaming was published around the same time as Judge Dredd: America, in which Wagner not only explores the nature of freedom and freedom-fighting, but presents Dredd as an unfeeling and uncaring servant of a cynical, violent system. Because, ultimately, you want to believe that he’s got our best interests at heart. He sticks to the rules – don’t break the law and you have nothing to fear. He may be harsh but he’s fair and while he may do bad things, intolerable things, the only people who need be worried are the bad guys, the criminals, the people who had it coming … the bad hombres. Because, you have to admit, however bad it gets he’s holding back worse, he’s all that stands between order and chaos.

But it’s a lie.

Back in the 1980s Wagner characterised it as ‘The Big Lie’, a phrase Dredd scribbled into the margin of his own copy of ‘The Book of Law’ before losing his faith. It is the Big Lie of Fascism – strength will make you safe. Judge Dredd is a clarion call from the 1920s, echoing down the near-century since, a warning about how people will behave in a crisis. It is this that makes it not just a relevant comic, but a road map for how to avoid this terrible world from becoming a reality.

Despite recent attempts to rebrand it, fascism remains the politics of the right-wing. It exists beyond simple, banal, Sixth Form College break-room definitions of ‘might-makes-right’ as something far more pernicious. At its heart, fascism is a cynical appeal to fear. “What will you sacrifice in order for us to make you feel safe and strong again?” it asks. In a world of fear, when old certainties don’t feel so certain anymore, what are the people willing to surrender to feel safe? When they’re confused and vulnerable and future-shocked, what freedoms, rights, privileges will they give up in order to get back to ‘the good old days’?

The modern world is big and scary and filled with doubt. After the chaos of the Atomic Wars the Judges offered people the chance to live in ignorant bliss, to exist in idle leisure, their cares and woes suspended indefinitely … if only they’d give up their freedom.

The people of Mega-City One let it go almost without a thought.

Satire.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming was published in 1991, Letter to a Democrat five years before it. The worrisome 2000s and the frankly terrifying 2010s were years away and yet Judge Dredd was shining a light into a future where fear and confusion reign, beyond the End of History and into the Age of Uncertainty.

Just as the democratic structures put in place since the Second World War are there for a reason – to stop a repeat of the horrors of the 1930s and ‘40s – so you see a rush of institutions and traditions put in place following both the American War of Independence and the English Civil Wars by those who had fought tyrants and wanted to ensure they could never return. Those who wish to demolish such safeguards are the very people those safeguards are there to stop. People like the Judges of Mega-City One. And once such people have the reins of power, they will not give them up at any cost.

In Wagner’s origin story of the Judges – fittingly called ‘Origins’ – Dredd heads out into the Cursed Earth to retrieve the body of the surprisingly alive Judge Fargo, the first Chief Judge of Mega-City One and the man from whom Dredd himself is cloned. Having been in suspended animation for decades, Fargo is finally succumbing to his own mortality when, in an audience alone with Dredd, he whispers “it wasn’t meant to be forever”.

The dictators of ancient Rome were meant to hand power back to the people after the crisis they were appointed to face was over. Modern day fascists would have you believe that the crisis is indefinite, that the war will go on forever.

The parallels to our current predicament could not be clearer. Judge Dredd, this supposed embarrassing relic of the age that brought us Spitting Image and ‘alternative comedy’, has more to say in his 40th year than ever before.

This prescience isn’t just something from the past – the strip continues to challenge and explore the notion of the Judges as ‘the good guys’. The recent Day of Chaos storyline, in which a massive terrorist attack on Mega-City One wiped out most of the population, showed the Judges’ lie for what it was – if they can’t keep the people safe anymore then what use are they? What happens to The Big Lie? At this very moment in the Judge Dredd: Every Empire Falls on-going series of interconnected stories, Irish writer Michael Carroll is exploring the extremes that a system now weakened and backed into a corner will go to in order to maintain itself, while in the recent Judge Dredd: Titan collection writer Rob Williams brutalised Dredd in a way few other than Wagner and Grant have done before in order to see just how far such a ‘noble’ belief in the law will go. Meanwhile, many criticised the 2012 DREDD movie starring Karl Urban for its lack of silliness and black humour, without realising Alex Garland had written a far more subtle adaptation of the character’s satire than sticking in a load of big kneepads and belly wheels, one that was far more befitting the brave new world of the 21st Century.

“We need Judge Dredd!” cry various corners of social media networks every time there is any kind of civil unrest in the UK or US, missing the point entirely. Meanwhile, the police in America increasingly come to resemble their colleagues in the armed forces (we have spoken to cops at US comic conventions who have – without irony – cited Dredd as a role model, an “if only” fantasy of what professional life would be like without encumbrance) with one department bedecking its squad cars with decals of the symbol of Marvel’s violent vigilante The Punisher, a character whose actions and intentions are even more poorly understood than Dredd’s. In response to a public that sees itself sitting on a precipice and distrusts facts that tell them they’re safer than ever, harder, harsher, stronger policing is demanded.

Everywhere, chaos calls for order.

From rising crime rates to fifth column terrorists, with a “telling it as it is” common sense and a knowing nod-and-a-wink President Trump would have you believe that the world is an even scarier place than you imagine. Everything is in crisis but we can be safe, if only we give up some small, trifling, troublesome rules. Rules that only the guilty hide behind. If only we believe in him then he can protect us.

Trust in the Judges, citizen.

Perhaps it can be easy to miss the point to Judge Dredd. It all seems so ridiculous, so far-fetched, so fantastical! A distracted society bored with democracy? An entire nation’s future decided on a single, irreversible vote? An America willingly giving up its freedoms in return for right-wing authoritarian rule? Who could imagine such things?

He may have been created in what feels like another age, but Judge Dredd always was – and remains still – a terrible warning from the future.