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Judge Dread Rides Out

By Charles EP Murphy.

Could this have been the Face of Judge Dread?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Back when 2000AD was being planned out, John Wagner wanted to do a strip about a violent future cop: he was sure – and correct – that this would be a winning strip, a sci-fi version of his popular crime-fighting One-Eyed Jack from Valiant. The result was Judge Dredd. But where did he get that name from?


Well, his friend Pat Mills, the creator of 2000AD and most of the early strips, gave it to him, and he got it from a popular reggae artist Judge Dread (Alexander Hughes). The spelling was changed late in the day to avoid legal issues.


But Mills originally was going to use Judge Dread as the name for a very different comic indeed, a strip modelled on the Satan-busting contemporary horror novels of Dennis Wheatley!


In his memoir Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!, Pat Mills refers to the original Judge Dread as “a kind of occult Doctor Who, with the visual image of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee”. Dread was Britain’s last ‘Hanging Judge’ – executioner of the country’s nastiest murderers – who now battles against dark forces after the death penalty was abolished. In his first story, the judge would have investigated a Satanist cabal and discovered their leader is a man he’d previously hanged.

Not a kind of occult Dr Who. How Judge Dredd turned out.

Taken from Judge Dredd Megazine 432, available from 2000AD shop.

John Wagner didn’t feel this fit in 2000AD and Mills agreed, though he has since regretted that. In Be Pure, Mills remembered not commissioning art for the strip and that the strip was dropped at scripting. However, in the earlier Judge Dredd: The Megahistory and Thrill-Power Overload, it’s confirmed by both Mills and old documents that Argentinian artist Horacio Lalia had drawn it. “I suspect Lalia screwed up the art,” Mills told Overload and Mega-History Unearthed said the documents say it’s: “Unsuitable – maybe except in Annual.”


Be Pure chronicles that Mills tried to revive Dread under a new name in the 21st Century, now set in an alternate 1960s and having all the men the judge had executed back for revenge: “They were led by a maniac and evil mod, straight out of Quadrophenia, who was the last person to be hanged in my alternative Britain. The mod defiantly sings The Who’s My Generation as he’s dragged to the execution chamber. Dread’s own niece is driven away on a scooter by this leering, Sting-like zombie mod.” Tharg the Mighty, under his penname of “Matt Smith”, rejected the strip, with Mills claiming it was because Smith felt it needed “more science fiction/fantasy to remove the story from the horror reality”.


Parts of this sound like they were reused for his post-Civil War zombie story Defoe: a strip set in an alternate history with vengeful zombie agitators, and a scene where the hangman Ketch is asked how many people he executed as zombies with stretched necks come for them.


“Can’t do occult stuff in 2000AD” is funny in retrospect when Defoe, Slaine the Celtic barbarian, Nemesis the Warlock and his khaos magic, Mazeworld the fantasy labyrinth a dead man is sent to, the occult investigators Caballistics Inc and Harry Absolom the horror investigators, Age of the Wolf’s werewolf apocalypse etc etc have been in it. Even Dredd’s sci-fi world now includes undead zombie Judges, demons, ghosts, and a spinoff strip about an out-and-proud gay vampire. This all took time to slowly bed in, however. Starting the comic with a spook-show would have been a risk.


But what if Mills had stuck to his guns and put Dread in anyway?


It’s likely that 2000AD would wait before debuting it, as they did with the transluscent-skinned Visible Man and Shako the killer polar bear – all strips not considered the best fit for the all-important first wave. A wait could allow for a rethink of the art if Mills is unhappy with Lalia’s work. And what does the strip look like then? How can we know? “As far as Mills can remember, the strip was never published – anywhere,” says Mega-History.


In fact, it turns out it was published in 2000AD Annual 1979 but, due to Dredd’s existence, under the new name of Doctor Sin.


While this is generally taken as fact online, albeit not a well-known fact, nobody seems to have made the connection until early 2003, when a member of the 2000AD message board made the connection between an old annual in his collection and a description of Dread in the serialised version of Overload. The Annuals at the time needed cheap material and, as Mega-History said, the strip seemed suitable for one...


Here, an angry young man called Harry is trying to find out who killed his brother and cut off his hand. At the funeral, “family friend” Sin tells him that this was the work of Satanists trying to stop the deceased selling off the land they do their foul rituals on. The two witness a black mass conducted with creeps in lurid fright masks, fight their way in to save a sacrifice (Harry with fists and Doctor Sin with holy water), and escape, only for the victim to die from dark magic, burned from the inside out. Afterwards, a really obvious Satanist called Mr Morden arrives to visit Harry.


“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, doctor.”


“Perhaps I have, Harry.”

Perhaps I have, Harry.

Picture courtesy Rebellion Publishing and taken from the reprint "The Vigilant: Origins" comic from June 2020, Judge Dredd Megazine #421

And then everything is abruptly wrapped up in two pages where Harry visits the bad guys, they try to kill him and reveal he’s undead, and then Doctor Sin come in with a random priest to send them back to Hell.


Mills was aware of Doctor Sin by the time of Be Pure and said “it did not involve me”, though I assume that means he had no involvement in it being edited and he certainly had no involvement in the last two pages. In those, Mr Morden suddenly becomes Arnot le Gross, the Satanists are now all guys in suits instead of wearing freakish masks, and it’s unclear where the “undead” part came from. Doctor Sin gets a close-up in a panel on page four that seems like he’s saying something important, making it clear the original dialogue has been altered. Meanwhile, the art is noticeably clearer and less scratchy on the last two pages. It has definitely been drawn at a different date and likely not by Lalia, though the artist is trying to look enough like it.


Other changes include that you can’t see the stolen right hand that the cultists are meant to be waving around, nor can you see any such missing hand on the dead body on page 1, and the head of Harry’s brother appears to be drawn on later... was it originally his head that had been removed? The original art on MACH One had a head chopped off before IPC had it censored, so it could be the original art needed changing for publication!


Sin would be remembered decades later, when Rob Williams and Luca Pizzari would introduce his grandson in 2000AD’s 2015 Free Comic Book Day issue. While that story was a horror comedy, the new Dr Sin would then become a lynchpin of Simon Furman and Simon Coleby’s Vigilant superhero comic as a serious occult figure.


Based on the first four pages of Doctor Sin, we can judge the strip would be full of lurid cults and dark deeds right out of The Devil Rides Out; horrible deaths, the undead, and other fun stuff for the kids. It’s not as strong as some of 2000AD’s other early strips but it’s a good start for something. Even if kids would go: “That’s not sci-fi”, they may go along with it if there’s a really cool artists drawing ghastly violence. Lalia would probably be shifted as artist.

A page from Dr Sin.

Picture courtesy Rebellion Publishing and taken from the reprint "The Vigilant: Origins" comic from June 2020, Judge Dredd Megazine #421

Based on the last two pages of Doctor Sin, we can judge it would be dull if you put the wrong writer on. It would be a vaguely remembered also-ran if Mills or someone approved by him – like Wagner or Malcolm Shaw who would work on the horror comic Misty – wasn’t on it. If Mills sticks around, we can expect Dread to last for as long as Mills wants it to, or until editorial stops him because the material’s making them uncomfortable. But if he’s regularly writing Judge Dread, does that mean there’s another strip he’s not writing? Which strip might we lose?


Due to the nature of Judge Dread, it could also run a cropper if under another writer who doesn’t have experience of when to draw a line. 2000AD’s new, younger editorial team in 1978 would sail close to the wire a number of times, causing a huge problem when IPC actually got a look at the levels of violence happening in the Harlem Heroes sequel Inferno. (Nick Landau would be shifted from 2000AD to Battle as a result). It is possible Judge Dread could be the offending strip instead, going too far with the Satanist nastiness, and it gets abruptly cancelled while the Heroes play on!


However things go, there’s also a delicious possibility that Mills might want to have Dread crossover with one of his other strips, as the Volgans from Invasion! appeared in ABC Warriors or the Warriors went on to appear in Nemesis the Warlock once their original strips had ended. In his later stories, Nemesis, a hater of order and authority, travels through time in pursuit of his own nemesis Torquemada. And wouldn’t it just fit it this demonic law-breaker ran into the demon-fighting lawman? Who wins?




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Charles EP Murphy is the author of Simon and Sir Gawain and is the editor of the SLP anthology Comics of Infinite Earths.





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