By Charles EP Murphy
Judge Dredd is the Law. A faceless, implacable force, he is never seen without his helmet – there’s no display of humanity, his emotions are constantly repressed. “Dredd takes his helmet off” has become shorthand for how the 1995 Stallone film didn’t get the strip, and it was a necessity that Karl Urban keep it on in 2012. Except this is all down to an accident in prog 8. CENSORED In the early story “Antique Car Heist”, the villains of the day force Dredd to remove his helmet. As published, Dredd’s face is implied to be severely disfigured in some way and the crooks are horrified to see it.
But what was actually written was that Dredd’s face is so impressive, such a figure of justice, that it unnerves the crooks to gaze upon it. However, as Kevin O’Neill revealed in a 1982 interview (reprinted in Thrill-Power Overload!), artist Massimo Belardinelli hadn’t quite been able to pull it off “an impossible job”. “[He] draws Dredd’s face with a pair of rubber lips and it was awful … We thought, “How are going to get out of this?” Well, we got this ‘Censored’ panel and slapped it over his eyeballs, because the artwork was so late coming from Italy that was all we could do.”
O’Neill went on to say this was “the best thing that ever happened to the character”. It swiftly became a concrete rule of the strip, a thematic thing. As John Wagner told Judge Dredd: The Mega-History by Colin Jarman & Peter Acton, "It sums up the facelessness of justice − justice has no soul.” Artist after artist has drawn Dredd with an implacable mouth, or everything shadowed except the helmet, and when Dredd does show an emotion it is tightly repressed and hidden. In 2012’s “Day of Chaos”, Dredd suffers a bleak despair that his city is dying and this is represented in Henry Flint’s art by Dredd’s posture, his clenched fist, his placement in the scene, and the complete obscuring of his mouth. In the 2012 film, Dredd is a helmet and a scowl, and Psi-Judge Anderson can only sense his angry control – there’s something else but it’s too hidden to be read. In a famous panel from the story “America”, Dredd remarks justice comes at the price of freedom and stands on a bloodstained flag, his face devoid of expression, looking exactly like the Statue of Judgement behind him. Justice with no soul. All of this goes back to prog 8 and the accidental censoring. It would be quite easy to prevent that: Belardinelli simply draws something different that the editorial team likes better, or there’s time to get him to redraw the panel, or nobody thinks (or has time) to cover it up. The Face of Justice What happens once his helmet’s off and we’ve seen his face? His helmet will start being off more. There will be occasional scenes where we can see a clear emotional response. While he’ll still be an angry, violent figure who cares for little outside the law, he won’t be as detached and inhuman. This will make a great change early on in two strips – prog 30’s “The Return of Rico” by Pat Mills and Mike McMahon, and 116’s “Vienna” by John Wagner and Ian Gibson, which deal with Dredd’s family. The first introduces Joe Dredd’s twin brother Rico, who he sends to the Titan penal colony for corruption. You can actually see the Dredd brothers’ faces in two panels but they’re extremely small, in the background – but you do see a famously horrific picture of Rico’s face that shows the aftermath of twenty years on Titan, his skin desiccated and his nose & mouth given an artificial device to survive in vacuum. If we already knew his face, that would have even greater impact.
In the case of “Vienna”, the strip doesn’t have the utterly hilarious sight of Dredd playing with his niece with his helmet still on. This would significantly improve it! As it is, the strip and Vienna was quietly dropped down the memory hole because having a toddler niece he was emotionally attached to didn’t fit how Judge Dredd was developing. (Vienna would return decades later, their relationship now a strained one between adults) This could be prevented if the strip is less visually daft when it needs to have pathos. Early changes with having Dredd be more emotional at key points would ripple down – when he’s crawling through the last stages of the Cursed Earth, for example, his helmet may be off. When he’s a fugitive from Justice Department in The Day The Law Died, he doesn’t need to have his helmet with him and the absence could signify his fall. On and on, the character is less harsh. We should be clear that being less harsh doesn’t mean he’s not a bastard. 2000AD, especially under John Wagner’s pen, has a lot of hard bastards in it – Johnny Alpha of Strontium Dog, Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s other big creation, has always been more expressive but his expressions are mostly stoic or enraged, and he is capable of acts of cruelty and anger. Dredd would likely be closer to this, being an extremely tough cop rather than a symbol of fascist authority. Of course, if he’s not that symbol, part of the power and significance of the comic is lost. He would still be a popular, famous character but he may not be iconic. And without him being a faceless force of the law, do we still have the development where Wagner and Alan Grant began to explicitly make Mega-City One a fascist state where Dredd could be the outright villain who breaks democrat’s heads? If Dredd is still ordered to break those heads, does he doubt his actions during the story instead of years later? Do you still get “America” and if so, is Dredd the one killing the eponymous America Jara, or is this outsourced to another Judge? Love Story Over the years, it was established the Judges are forbidden any romantic or sexual contact. Frequently this is violated by the Judges but never Dredd himself – as argued by Tom Shapira for Shelf Dust, Dredd shows so little interest, to the point of telling a stalker in prog 444 he is “incapable” (rather than “forbidden”) of loving her, that he can be easily read as asexual and aromantic. This is a key facet of the character. In the 1990s, his colleague Galen DeMarco became romantically interested in him and this was shown as a doomed endeavour, that Dredd could not and would not reciprocate. But when Pat Mills was planning the story “The Blood of Satanus” in 1980, he originally planned for the woman at the centre of the story to be Dredd’s ex-girlfriend! Thrill-Power Overload records that Alan Grant, working as the sub-editor at the time, showed the script to John Wagner as he felt the romance clashed with Wagner’s take on the character – “he did not want it to happen” and so Grant heavily edited parts of the script. Would this be different if Dredd was already slightly softened as a character? Most likely not, but Wagner has written brief, doomed relationships for some of his hardmen so there’s a slim chance an edited version of the romance subplot would go through. Aside from butterflying away the Judge’s monastic code, this would also give Dredd an extra bit of tragedy to his backstory – and a recurring character from flashbacks, just like Rico frequently appears. What stories might result from the fact Dredd once had a human connection and it ended, and he’s never tried again? The Ezquerra Option There’s another alternate way of having Dredd’s face be shown, and one that will greatly alter the strip. The late Carlos Ezquerra was Dredd’s co-creator and the man responsible for Dredd’s large, eye-obscuring helmet – the idea being, he told Mega-History, that this way crooks wouldn’t recognise Dredd when he was off-duty. In our timeline, he departed the strip in anger in its first year when he found out the first published strip wouldn’t be drawn by him, but would return five years later for “The Apocalypse War” and remained a mainstay until his death. The reason he wasn’t the debut artist boils down to a behind-the-scenes mess of censorship from above (his art on “Bank Raid” was deemed too violent and the script for Jack Adrian’s “Courtroom” was deemed too nasty to even be produced), scattered production, and Ezquerra himself being busy on other comics like Battle. However, before he departed, he’d been assigned two other early strips, and a reprint of the comic’s ledger in Mega-History shows this was based on whoever was available. As a result, Ezquerra could have possibly drawn Dredd’s face in prog 8. But Ezquerra’s original idea for Judge Dredd, as revealed to Jarman and Acton, was “to give him some large lips, to put a mystery as to his racial background”. McMahon, who had been told to closely emulate Ezquerra’s style, was the only artist to pick up on this and Ron Smith recounted to Mega-History, “Mike told me he’d spent four months drawing Dredd as a black man…whereas Brian [Bolland] and myself had been drawing him as a white man.” If Ezquerra had drawn prog 8, then Dredd would’ve been confirmed as black or mixed race. This won’t change how Wagner, Mills, Grant et al write Dredd – with the exception of potentially giving more thematic weight to Dredd’s relationship with Judge Giant and his son, both younger black Judges – but it will change how the strip is viewed. One of 2000AD’s top strips, one of Britain’s more famous comic characters and one that crossed into the mainstream in the 1980s, and an edgy import to America, all being anchored by a black male lead could have all manner of changes. It will especially have an impact on the fans it inspires to become comic pros (and who might try to work on Dredd). It will also have a big impact on the 1995 film, since Stallone’s not going to be playing him. (Ironically, one of Ezquerra’s facial models even when he was thinking of a mixed-race Dredd was Stallone) This could mean there isn’t a film at all – it had lingered in development hell until Stallone was attached in 1993, and Wagner told the Class of ’79 fanzine “there would never have been a movie if it hadn’t been for Stallone… I’m not going to criticise him.” This could actually be better for 2000AD than if the film is made: as David Bishop told us before, the film flopping had a big impact on the comic sales. His Thrill-Power Overload goes into more detail: collapsing merchandising deals (as the film was R-rated and not PG-13 in the States) had cost Egmont Fleetway millions of pounds, the company had invested in translations of Dredd comics for Europe on presumption of a hit, and money was sunk into an all-ages movie spinoff, Lawman of the Future, which newsagents slashed orders for once the film came out. If this never happens, the comics are healthier throughout the nineties (and John Tomlinson may remain editor, as he told TPO he felt he was removed because of the film’s failure).
Alternatively, there’s a chance the film is made if a significant ‘name’ African-American actor shows interest. One actor stands out: Wesley Snipes, a proven action-film star and coming off a string of hits. Significantly, he’s the man who had signed on for Blade in 1996 in part because he’d failed to get a Black Panther film made. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he saw the vampire as a logical other way to achieve what he wanted. “They both had nobility. They both were fighters.” Judge Dredd could speak to him here. A Dredd film anchored around Snipes would be significantly different to the Stallone one – the script may have changed by then, Snipes would have different demands than Stallone, someone else would be directing and they may have more clout than the then-young Danny Cannon did. (A downside for Britain is it may not be made at Shepperton Studios without Cannon pushing for it) Based on the success of Blade, it would be a financial hit, and one centred around an African-American sci-fi hero – what impact is this going to have on the market? What impact does it have on the comics, who will find a large mainstream black audience looking their way? (What impact too does it have if the first Marvel film of the modern era is X-Men, and Blade doesn’t prove two years earlier that even Marvel’s least famous properties can make money?) And Finally… The story “Dredd Angel” shows the face of Fargo, the founder of Justice Department. About a year later, Dredd is casually revealed to be a clone of Fargo. So we’ve actually seen his face! And now Fargo is never seen without a helmet or convenient shadows either…
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.