Judge Dredd is the publishing phenomenon of British comics for the last 30 years, if not more. Nearly all of the strips have been written by John Wagner under his own name and a variety of aliases, while a great number of artists have worked on the sequences.
For this lantern-jawed Judge (part policeman, part vigilante, part judge, part jury) contains almost ludicrously denied fascistic undercurrents which only pedants bother to deny. Dredd’s personality and physiology never alters—he is the same from the first strip to the last—and the fact that he never develops but always remains unchanging is part of the character’s esprit. The graphic novel is a satire which can be read “straight,” and hence we detect its dangers for liberal orthodoxy. This has been commented on many times—that somehow, read as black farce, a “fascist” comic, no matter how unintentionally, has enjoyed massive sales and influence in non-compliance with Politically Correct norms.
Essentially the Judges are the last defense against complete chaos and irretrievable social breakdown. They are the morally efficacious governing elite which runs Mega-City One—an enormous version of New York which sprawls across North America and contains tens of millions of citizens. The city is virtually a state (or city state) in its own right.
The Judges are police, jury, judge, and executioner all rolled into one. Each judge spends 10, 12, or 14 years in training—they never retire (except to teach law in the staff college) or to go into mutant land, badlands full of radiation, which exist beyond the city’s precincts. There they go to bring law to the lawless. This leads to quite hilarious breakdowns in liberal jurisprudence—such as when Dredd says to a trembling malcontent under his boot: “OBEY ME; OBEY THE LAW!”
All of the judges fly helicopter gunships and use super-powered bikes. They are also heavily armored and carry every type of weaponry. They are ready to die and give their lives for the City. They are a Praetorian Guard, if you will. A Supreme or Chief Judge is elected by the others to lead the judges, and psychic phenomena are terribly real—they are part of routine life, hence a deputation of “psi” judges who are in position to deal with them.
At best, this comic strip obeys a type of ultra-conservatism that stretches PC norms but just about remains within them. There are occasional homilies about inclusion—but these tend to relate to persons mutated by radiation rather than the usual PC constituencies. There is a relative absence of liberal lecturing—presumably because the form is considered too low and populist to really be worth bothering with.
Obviously the bulk of the readership consists of adolescent boys of all ages—one imagines that this runs the gamut from 12 to 40 years of age. Action is the key word here—and one is reminded of Raymond Chandler’s dictum about pulp fiction; namely, when one is in doubt about a plot, just have an armed man enter the room. Judge Dredd is very much along these lines. A vast variety of plots have occurred over the years, but, in order to give a flavor of them, I have decided to concentrate on one extended story which is a quarter of a century old.
The story in question was known as The Executioner and was based on a speed view of a forgettable VHS video from the ’80s called The Exterminator. The story was 26 pages in length and featured a beautiful female vigilante called Blanche Tatum who sets out to revenge her husband’s death. He was driven to suicide by threats from a criminal gang who offered him a loan under loan shark terms.
The story pivots around the fact that she was a rookie Judge later expelled from college for dating her future husband. Her skills as a judge are put into good effect in assassinating a range of criminal lowlifes—they tend to meet a fate which is appropriate to their criminal career or demeanor.
Judge Dredd gradually gets closer and closer to the perpetrator (“perp” in Judges’ slang). The woman is presented in glamorous if understated terms . . . she is a thin blonde, blue-eyed, who wears facial jewelry, blue lip-stick, and an Alice band that sweeps her hair back over her forehead. In her guise as the Executioner, she wears a black ninja suit plus a hooded mask—her signature or calling card is a small hand-bill with JUSTICE IS DONE printed upon it.
The real twist in the story isn’t the action or the violence, but, rather, the coincidence between the proto-Judge as a vigilante and the fact that, under liberal jurisprudence, the Judges are virtually vengeance mongers themselves. It is this tension between the pseudo-Judge and the real Judges which makes the story work, or adds depth to it, at any rate.
The story of Blanche Tatum helps to expose part of the reality of Judgeship. In the end, just like a male Western hero, Blanche sends the children to the grand-parents and goes looking for the final loan shark perpetrators to take out with her violent hand-bills. Having done so, she dies in the end at the hands of Judge Dredd, but only because her weapon had no ammunition left. This “Judge” who reveals the reality of Judgeship has no aptitude for taking on her own former colleagues.
Interestingly, opinion polls in Mega-City One reveal a 95% approval rating for the vigilante. Only 1% is against—including Judge Dredd. In his pithy remark: “Justice it may be; legal it ain’t!”
It probably applies to the Judge Dredd brand as a whole.