By Charles EP Murphy
Comic's favourite fascist in an iconic moment.
Picture courtesy GamesRadar+.
He spent fifteen years in the academy – and was like no cadet they’d ever seen! A man so hard, his veins bled ice and when he spoke, it was never twice. He’s a Judge, his last name is Dredd, and break the law and you wind up dead.
Comic’s favourite fascist has a very intricate continuity and a lot of jargon to remember, but Anthrax’s lyrics sum up the core of him. He’s a lawman patrolling the mean streets of a future American megacity, dispensing instant justice with his Lawgiver gun and snarling Lawmaster motorcycle; he never removes his helmet, has few relationships outside of the law; as he’s grown older, he’s become a bit more weary and a bit more introspective, but he’s still bound to keeping the Justice Department junta going.
But everything we know about Judge Dredd had to be invented first, and often it was based on random happenstance. As discussed in SLP’s Comics of Infinite Earths , the real reason he never removes his helmet is because he didn’t look very impressive without it in an early strip, so the editorial team slapped a “CENSORED” label on his face. His co-creator Carlos Ezquerra also planned for him to be mixed race, something now brought into continuity by the recent story One-Eyed Jacks where we meet his clone-gran Eartha Fargo, a black NYPD officer in the 1970s.
Here’s another major early change: Dredd’s first ever story, Judge Whitey by Peter Harris & Pat Mills (mostly rewritten by Mills) and Mike McMahon, was never meant to be the first one. Mills, John Wagner, and Carlos Ezquerra’s Bank Raid was.
Art robot Carlos Ezquerra.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Judge Whitey is not the greatest strip ever told and has often been overlooked, but Tom Shapira’s The Lawman (Sequart Press) argued that many of the foundations of the strip can be found in Judge Whitey. It establishes that we’re in a future megacity where everything is massive; it establishes Dredd as a roaming lawman out of the Wild West; and it establishes that the Judges are an organisation where Dredd is simply one of many officers. The first Judge we see isn’t even Dredd and poor Judge Alvin is gunned down immediately! As Shapira says, despite the fancy uniform and equipment, Dredd “doesn’t stand out... [he’s] not some maverick cop who breaks all the rules, but is the very embodiment of them.” There’s no other law on the streets, there’s only the Judges. When interviewed for Colin Jarman and Peter Acton’s Judge Dredd: The Mega-History (Lennard Publishing), Mills said the “roots of the Judge System were sown by Peter Harris” and not part of the original plan.
How does Bank Raid compare?
In this story, Dredd doesn’t just batter the bank robbers and kill only in self-defence. When the robbers surrender after a page and a half, Dredd tells them: “There is no surrender! You killed six innocent people,” and orders them out onto the pavement to be clinically executed. Bystanders look on in shock and horror, except for a cheering loudmouth who steps onto the road and is immediately sentenced to 400 days in jail for jaywalking. No longer liking instant justice, the guy tries to bribe Dredd and then flees, getting shot in the back for this extra sin. (This has often been misremembered as Dredd killing him for jaywalking). Afterwards, Dredd hands the situation over to a nervous, overweight regular policeman, which the Mega-History described as “all the gravity of the Special Patrol Group handing back control to Dixon of Dock Green."
Bank Raid was considered too violent by the publisher IPC – they were still skittish after the moral panic over the infamously lurid comic Action!. The strip was buried before finally being shown in a 1981 annual (a few panels remained censored), while the last page was repurposed as a poster in 2000AD #3. That picture showed Ezquerra’s vision of a fantastic and vast future city, single-handedly changed the strip’s setting from early 21st century New York to a late 21st century megacity.
One of the other early and unused scripts was Jack Adrian’s (aka Chris Lowder) Courtroom, which was asked to lead in to Judge Whitey and so potentially could have been the first strip Dredd appeared in after Bank Raid was dropped. The script was reprinted in Mega-History. Here, Judge Dredd is a proper courtroom judge when he’s not riding his Lawmaster. Criminals are pinned to the electro-bar until Dredd passes the sentence (“SENTENCE... OF... DEATH!”) to a public gallery. Just like in Bank Raid, though Adrian didn’t know this at the time, a loudmouth cheers Dredd’s violence and gets punished for it, this time with a thumping for a lack of decorum. At the end, ordinary cops show up to alert Dredd to a gang hiding in a derelict building and ask him what to do. Old Stoney-Face will, of course, handle them himself.
Off his own bat, Adrian had a man compare Dredd positively to “those out-of-town hick Judges” – there’s more of them out there than Bank Raid showed but, unlike in Judge Whitey, a number of them are rubbish.
Judge Dredd is often a merciless force of uncompromising violence, but this takes some time to truly set in – it’s a few years before you have the man who wipes out enemy cities with a snarl. If either Courtroom or Bank Raid had come out first, he’s far harder from the start and not quite in the same way. We have seen Dredd execute people or be party to it, but this is usually presented as an extreme measure: he’s out in the Cursed Earth; there’s been a particularly heinous crime; there’s a war on; or a plague is sweeping the city. In these strips, it’s just a thing he does every day. It’s something he does clinically in a well-lit room. This is a different type of unsettling to him chasing a man across a building because he dropped a sweet wrapper.
Another change if you start with these strips is that Dredd is implicitly a rare figure. He’s not the only judge, and evidently there are some subpar ‘hick’ Judges in other places, but a Judge here is elite. He’s a high-ranking official who the regular police come to when things get on top of them. In our timeline, the Mega City police still made a handful of appearances but were easily airbrushed out of continuity. If they’re appearing more at the start, they may stick around and the strip might keep having Dredd interacting with them, giving us human supporting characters following this powerful inhuman force. This could lead to an earlier version of strips like the 1990s story The Pit, where Dredd whipped an underperforming Sector House into shape, as the regular cops will lend themselves to tales of overwhelmed or venal officers needing Dredd to sort them out. Regular supporting characters like the two Judges Giant, Judge Hershey, or Judge Maitland may not necessarily be Judges, just regular coppers or other officials who support him.
Judge Whitey would still come out, but it would now be a story about how even these standout tough guy sheriffs can meet a violent end, not a story implicitly creating a massive Justice Department. That means while we might see things like a division of psychic Judges or similar cool action concepts, we would be far less likely to have Judge passport officials, doctors, and accountants. John Wagner would inevitably invent the creepy Public Surveillance Unit who watch your every movement, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a unit of Judges. It’s not like GCHQ or the NSA are police, after all.
These aren’t just distant changes but could kick in by prog 9, the start of the first ‘mega-epic’ story The Robot War. John Wagner didn’t only run with the idea of Judges everywhere in his tale of a robot uprising, but also started the trend of Judges serving as the infantry during wartime. What happens if it doesn’t? The Apocalypse War is already grim in its depiction of Mega-City One fighting a total war against the invading Sovs, but how much darker is it if the bulk of the people fighting and dying are regular troops or conscripts having to support Dredd, rather than the stoic helmeted Judges? (Wagner had written a war strip called Darkie’s Mob, with a similar setup of poor bloody infantry led by a vicious hardass, and from that we can say: “Very grim.”
Another huge knock-on effect is that the world of Judge Dredd gradually became one where, while there was a mayor of the city, the Judges are very clearly in charge of everything that matters. (I didn’t see the mayor in the Robot Wars!) This would eventually lead to numerous stories where people campaign for a restoration of democracy and often get brutally crushed for it by our hero Dredd. In the standout story Democracy, he uses the same tactics as real governments: blackmail, spurious arrests, undercover agitators, propaganda. In America, democrats have resorted to terrorist campaigns due to the failure of anything else. A chaotic lawless city with bike-riding judiciary will always be a place you can make fascist, but if the Judges remain a special wing of law enforcement, Dredd and his peers would be getting their orders from, say, the mayor, and that leaves things a step removed. It lacks the same punch. You could potentially see the strip wimp out and have Dredd arrest the corrupt government instead of being party to it.
Dave, widely regarded as Mega City One's finest mayor.
Picture courtesy Albion British Comics Database.
What too does it mean for stories where a corrupt Judge tries to take over, like the madman Cal in The Day The Law Died – if he can’t rely on thousands of brainwashed Judges, what other plot devices does he use to allow the strip to ‘homage’ the Caligula episodes of the show I, Claudius? And what does the rest of world look like if foreign megacities could be more diverse than other dictatorships with Judges? The corrupt judiciary of South America’s Ciudad Barranquilla could be a rare cautionary tale where the Judges took over; the Emerald Isle already had such laidback Judges under Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, it might not need to have Judges at all; and Texas City could lean even further into cowboy imagery.
There’s also a third original Dredd story, the very first script John Wagner wrote before Ezquerra was involved. Both men reminisced about it in Mega-History and even given that memories may not be reliable, it would have been astonishingly violent in the way Action! got in trouble for. On his way to break a siege, Dredd really does kill a jaywalker by running him over, right as the man cheers that Dredd will save the day, and then shooting the unfortunate soul when he can’t crawl to the kerb afterwards! During his brutal rampage, he apparently expressed some views on handling “Commies”. When Mills edited it, he added a scene where Dredd rescues a criminal from a burning car so he can execute him legally!
IPC said: “No”. It’s not difficult to see why. It would take until the 90s for Dredd to be quite that much of a meathead after the comic stopped being a children’s title and after new, younger writers like Ennis, Millar, and Morrison were writing him. These strips are generally seen as lesser work by fans, particularly the work by Millar and Morrison (who have said that they saw Dredd as a one-dimensional goon), and clash with the more controlled, austere character Wagner had fleshed out. It’s hard to see that character being more than a throwaway bit of violent fun, popular with kids at first, but soon outdistanced by more varied strips in 2000AD. It’d be a strip people may fondly remember, but never one capable of emotion, politics, and nuance like the strip would be able to do.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Then again, Wagner considered this early take is still lurking in the soul of the strip: “The original essence... still there”. As Rob Williams and Henry Fint’s story Fit put it, “he’s always been brutal and angry. As long as he operates under the law, we have nothing to worry about.” And, as Wagner described Dredd to Mega-Story, he’s “that nasty, rotten bastard you love to hate.”
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