Justice has a price. The price is freedom.
Though most US comics readers will only be familiar with him through the dismally failed Stallone movie, Judge Dredd has had a profound effect on US comics in the past two decades. The most direct connection between the two is the fact that Dredd is by far the most popular character in the UK’s 2000AD, the self-proclaimed “Galaxy’s Greatest Comic” which was the breeding ground for nearly every British writer and artist to have made a dent on comics since Alan Moore. Many of those have also worked on Dredd (Brian Bolland, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Mark Millar, to name but a few). More important however is how Dredd influenced the so-called “grim and gritty” trend of superheroes.
For the uninitiated, Dredd is one of the Judges in the far-future Mega City One, acting as judge, jury and executioner, and licensed to dispense street-justice on the spot. He doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, never takes off his helmet on-panel, and is a man of few words (the most famous ones being: “I am the Law”). The key to Dredd’s character is the paradox between his unwavering quest for justice and his near-fascist application of it. This ambivalence quickly found its way to most other British characters, and perceptive readers will quickly draw parallels between it and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
In one classic storyline, Mega City One is attacked and occupied by the rival East Meg One, and Dredd leads the resistance force that infiltrates an enemy nuclear missile base and points its weapons towards East Meg. When the enemy commander pleads with Dredd to spare the lives of the city’s half a billion inhabitants, Dredd eloquently replies “Half of my city is burnt to ash and you’re begging me for mercy? Request denied”. It is interesting to note how this ironic caricature of the American idea of justice mirrors the actions of the current US administration. In any case, this strand of black humor and scathing sarcasm, as well as the ambiguous portrayal of the “hero”, is typical of post-Dredd British comics,
Dredd’s writers were clearly not afraid to spark controversy, and it took nearly a decade for this aesthetic to cross over to US superheroes. Still, there are hardly any instances I can think of in US comics where the creator has gone so far as to portray the main hero as the bad guy, which is almost what Dredd is in the story America. Written by Dredd co-creator and longtime writer John Wagner, America dares to present an honest view of the negative side of forced justice.
The graphic novel takes its title from one of the main characters, named by her immigrant parents after their new homeland. America Jara and her best friend Bennet Beeny grow up in the city “blocks” in the shadow of the Judges. While Beeny is too scared to step out of line, America is constantly agitated by the lack of liberty, and ends up joining a pro-democracy terrorist group. Beeny begins a successful career as a comedian/singer (“You could play it by their rules and have a good life”) and all seems fine until America shows up again in his life.
The new “complete” edition collects America and its sequel “Fading Of The Light”. It’s hard to give a synopsis of the plot without giving away the brilliant surprise ending of the first storyline, but suffice to say it is just as twisted and provocative, with another great ending.
Throughout the book, Dredd is present as the symbol of the oppressing Judge system, and he is downright nasty. On the other hand, each chapter is book-ended by Dredd monologues that show he is driven by a serious and impassioned belief in the rightness of his ways (“Freedom, power to the people, democracy… the great American Dream. Don’t kid yourself. We tried it before. Believe me, it doesn’t work. You can’t trust the people”). This deadpan presentation of a popular hero is the most original aspect of America. The ambiguity doesn’t stop with Dredd though. Beeny, the narrator and main character, is a likeable, funny chap, but also a coward, a betrayer, and, as his actions will show, he has a seriously twisted mind. The “terrorists”, despite the nobleness of their cause, are bitter, vengeful and violent. It is to the credit of Wagner that he breaks the simple conventions of “good” and “bad”.
The art in America is by Colin McNeil, who uses two different styles for the two storylines: the first is fully-painted, semi-realistic with large panels, interesting angles and moody lighting. For the second part, he prefers thin inks à la French bandes dessinées, with lavish coloring and more detail. Both look gorgeous and serve the story well.
It is interesting to read these stories in retrospect. With Titan Books collecting more and more classic Judge Dredd tales, it is curious to note that not only were they a much overlooked foundation for where American superheroes stand today, but they are also a good place to look for directions superheroes should be taking now that they seem to have run out of ideas.