What Makes a Judge Dredd Epic?

PrintE-mail Written by Ian Mat Sunday, 14 August 2011

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He’s the 21st century’s longest-serving law man with 54 fictional years of meting out justice under his belt. Since the second edition of 2000 AD, Judge Joe Dredd has lost his eyes, been shot, broken, tortured and aged every day since 1977. So what’s his secret?

While the early part of his career is occasionally revealed in snippets, his adventures were primarily open-and-shut cases until 1979, bar some multi-part exceptions and ambitious storylines like The Robot War instigated by the Spartacus-esque Call Me Kenneth (considered a mini-epic in its own right). Then Pat Mills penned The Cursed Earth, setting the blueprint of what would be the Judge Dredd epic.

The Cursed Earth

Mount Rushmore - Cursed Earth style
Mount Rushmore - as seen in The Cursed Earth

The Cursed Earth was spoon fed in 25 parts from progs 61 to 85 and saw the lawman’s universe expand dramatically. Up to then he had been focused on Mega-City One but a mission of mercy saw him sent 1,000 miles west across the Atomic War scarred plains of North America to Mega-City Two with a vaccine for the cannibal-causing 2T (FRU) T virus.

Michael Molcher, spokesman for 2000 AD publisher Rebellion, said: “It’s not so unusual in British weeklies for long-running stories – look at Charley’s War or Darkie’s Mob in Battle, or in 2000 AD something like Return to Armageddon (which ran for 34 weeks) or Meltdown Man (50 episodes). With five pages of black-and-white art turned around in a week on average, these stories could be generated over a long period of time.

“Epics are a good chance to explore Dredd’s world and establish environments (Cursed Earth) or take Dredd out of his natural environment (Judge Child). Most of the time, they simply shake up the status quo.”

The Cursed Earth took six months to tell in the weekly magazine and was mainly a daisy chain of one and two-part stories pitting Dredd against superstitious villagers plagued by the Devil’s Lapdogs (flying deadly rats), vampire medic robots charged with keeping the last president of the United States alive and taking in such landscapes like an army of war bots at Death Valley and Mount Rushmore –with the addition of a mutant face wearing a possum for a hat.

The future saga also beat Michael Crichton to the punch by resurrecting tyrant lizard Satanus the Unchained from the series Flesh through cloning for a national park devoted to dinosaurs – preceding Jurassic Park by 12 years.


Satanus showing why he's leader of the pack

Despite the satire, some stories hit a little too close to home, with two John Wagner stories banned from future reprints as they infringed on the copyright of burger lords McDonalds and Burger King. Dredd and reluctant ally Spikes Rotten Harvey end up captured by the two camps, force fed fast food by one and put on trial by the other for eating it. A Dr Moreau creation of the Jolly Green Giant didn’t help in the second story.

Against insurmountable odds, injury, the death of his allies and a lot of weirdness, Dredd crawls the last leg of his trip to the stricken Mega-City Two with vaccine intact – setting the formula for future epics which got bigger and better.

That formula, said Molcher, is “usually some threat that affects the entire city - see Necropolis, Judgement Day, Apocalypse War - where it comes down to Dredd to save the day, or Dredd has a mission to complete - Cursed Earth, Judge Child. Latterly, epics like The Pit or Tour of Duty have been built on smaller stories that grow to a bigger picture, allowing for a big cast of supporting characters”.

The number of Dredd epics out there is debatable. Some are clear cut cases of fitting the trend. Others, while shorter, are no less ambitious or status quo-shaking. By our reckoning there are 12 to 15 of these must-read Dredd stories.

The longest Dredd epic to date is the recent Tour of Duty – a 46 prog parter, running from July 2009 to August 2010.

Dredd is technically aged 67 but was ‘born’ aged five in a clone lab, physically making him 62. Whichever number you plump for, is he getting a little long in the tooth – and are epics getting too long and scaring new readers away?

 Molcher said: “Not really, we haven’t seen Dredd physically limited by his age at all. His character has developed over the decades so he’s probably more sympathetic than he was 30 years ago, more introspective.

“Summer is the traditional time for a new epic – if you advertise it and give enough teasers, there’s no reason why people can’t jump on board.”

The Day the Law Died

Judge Cal is watching
Like his namesake, Judge Caligula was a truly mad monster

Back in October 1978 and flush with the success of the marathon Cursed Earth, 2000 AD couldn’t wait to get Dredd started on his second 20-prog saga, beginning with a three-part prequel to The Day the Law Died.

Dredd has barely got back to Mega-City One and flopped into bed when he is awoken by the Gestapo-esque Special Judicial Squad, arrested for murder. Clearing himself, Dredd makes an enemy out of the squad’s boss, Deputy Chief Judge Caligula, and finds himself in the sights of a sniper’s rifle. Shot in the head, Dredd is not the only casualty as the chief judge is slain and Judge Cal assumes the highest office.

The fearsome Kleggs and their war cry turned the tide for Cal during the citizens' revolt

This epic was written by Dredd co-creator John Wagner under his John Howard pseudonym and had more humour than The Cursed Earth. Despite lacking a road trip, this epic had the perfect anti-Dredd foil in Judge Cal, equal parts mad and funny.

On his elevation to office, Cal appoints his goldfish to the position of Deputy Chief Judge – who delivers the infamous “bloop!” law which no one understands but everyone fears as it comes with the death penalty. Cal also orders the city to report for execution in alphabetical order, beginning with Aaron A. Aardvark.

The Judge Child

Angel Gang
Mean Machine, Junior, Link and Pa Angel put the screws on the Judge Child's kidnapper

The Dredd epics got a break until prog 156 when Wagner, later joined by long-time writing partner Alan Grant, sent Dredd on another road trip, this time mainly in space, in the 25-part Judge Child saga.

Mega-City One faces doom in the year 2120, claims a dying precog, unless Owen Krysler, a boy born with the mark of the eagle of justice, is found. Dredd again finds himself in the Cursed Earth looking for the boy, ending a garbage pharaoh’s dirty reign and locking horns with the boy’s kidnapper in the larger-than-life Texas City.

Popular Dredd villains The Angel Gang intervene and spirit the Judge Child to outer space, sending Dredd on a cross-planets trip, notably the planet Lesser Lingo where everyone hires their bodies out to personality-replacing biochips and the living Hungry Planet, which gobbles up Dredd’s ship until he nukes his way out.

Not many can claim to have killed Dredd, like Murd the powerful black magician

The hunt ends for Dredd on Necros, domain of the powerful Murd the Oppressor, who kills the lawman only to return him to life for the enjoyment of his pet, the giant toad Sagbelly. Dredd feeds the dark magician to the beast and homes in on a lead to the Angels on the wacky planet AB – the highlight of the epic where artist supremo Brian Bolland shows his geometrically-perfect style with the Jigsaw disease, a wasting illness that causes random body parts to vanish.

Jugsaw disease
The Jigsaw disease in action

The tale ends on the planet Xanadu when Dredd takes out the Angel gang one by one and looks into the suspect Judge Child’s eyes – only to find evil in them. In a shock twist Dredd turns his back on the object of his quest and leaves the boy behind.

But the Judge Child would later return in the abortive epic City of the Damned under the guise of the powerful Mutant, the form of the predicted disaster in 2120.

To get there Dredd and Psi Judge Anderson take their first time travel trip – only for writers Wagner and Grant to realise they don’t like time travel stories and begin wrapping up the saga which cost Dredd his eyes before it has barely begun, coming in at 14 episodes.

The Apocalypse War

Apocalypse War
The Soviet forces of East-Meg One invade in The Apocalyspe War

Arguably the best Dredd epic – and the one that nailed the formula of an uber-threat – was the gargantuan Apocalypse War. It tricked the readers with a mini-epic in its own right, Block Mania, when the entire North American city erupts in civil violence over a dropped ice cream cone.

As imaginatively titled housing blocks (each containing 50,000 residents and up) like Joan Collins, David Niven and Martin Sheen wage war on their neighbours, badly depleting the judges of men and armament, Dredd hunts down the man responsible, Orlok the Assassin, who has been poisoning the city’s waterways with mind-bending chemicals.

Dredd is outdone by the super-spy when he sabotages weather control and its infected rain falls on the last remaining parts of the city without Block Mania – and reveals all this was an overture to invasion by the Russian East-Meg One.

This epic had it all – unique villains with enough character to steal the scene but ultimately set up to die, the death of important Dredd characters like Judge Giant, numerous spreads filled with warfare and detail, a lengthy storyline long-reaching consequences that can fuel more stories for years and, most importantly, a horrific body count.

Dredd kills 500 million people with the press of a button at the conclusion of the war

The writers’ true purpose was to cull Mega-City One down to a manageable size, bothered as they were by the limitations of getting Dredd from one side of a city that touched Canada in the north to the other side where it met Florida.

Apocalypse War killed 150 million Mega-City One residents in its opening salvos, and wiped out the southern sectors, leaving a city focused on its north east remains. East-Meg One fared worse, it was obliterated and half a billion killed when Dredd pressed the button of the Total Annihilation Device. This wasn’t be the last time Dredd killed a city with a touch of a button.

Two billion were killed in the Wagner/Garth Ennis Dredd crossover with Strontium Dog’s Johnny Alpha in zombie epic Day of Judgement when Dredd nukes Mega-City Two. Before that 60 million were killed by Judge Death and his death judges in the Necropolis storyline.

No official death tally is kept by Rebellion, but they believe in terms of the overall strip “you’re looking at three, maybe three and a half billion killed in total. The numbers Dredd’s killed on the street are pretty paltry”.

Since then the population of Mega-City One hovers around 400 million. Now Dredd has just embarked on his latest epic, Day of Chaos. A new mayor needs electing but doom is predicted by a promising new psi-cadet. Mysterious terrorists are in the city and legendary serial killer PJ Maybe is on the loose.

What the status quo will be after the Day of Chaos remains to be seen. To find out see 2000 AD, published every Wednesday.

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