Please Rise for the Honorable: Reflecting on 2011 via 'Judge Dredd: Urban Warfare'
It wasn’t so long ago, 2011, but it felt momentous. It was only a matter of really, until our art would begin to make comment. And what better art than the decades old dystopian fiction of Judge Dredd?
There’s something deeply animalistic, primal, feral about the vision of Judge Dredd we’ve come to accept from reading the character since its inception in the pages of 2000 AD. At one level it’s enough to think of the character as ultra-Conservative, politically ultra-Conservative. Not in that Dredd might defend the values of the Revolution, he probably wouldn’t even be able to understand them. Rather, Dredd represents a social system of maximal governmental output with minimum governmental structure. So small government, used to tackle large scale social undertakings. Undertakings, as in Dredd’s case, like justice.
Unlike our system with Courts (various many all the way up to the Supreme Court), juries, due process, law enforcement officers and in fact entire law enforcement bureaus, Amendments to the Bill of Rights, or even a Bill of Rights, Dredd’s system collapses our entire judiciary into a single office; “Judge”. Then vests the full scope of those powers in a single person. For Dredd, being a “Judge” means having the full power of the judiciary, from Chief Justice of SCOTUS all the way down to humble beat cop, vested in a single individual.
It’s fair to offer the old Medieval triumvirate of “judge, jury and executioner", but in Dredd’s case, the political statement is far more savvy. It’s one about social structure, and the corruption not of the functioning of the justice system, but of its ideals. So the question Dredd forces us to confront is a question not so much of national security, but of notional security, the securing not of our borders, but of our philosophies. What Dredd forces us to question, deeply within ourselves, is, How could this have gotten to this point? In which way is the justice system of Mega City One preferable to the alternative. What could the alternative be, where it’s OK to live in a world where Judges don’t come in courts, but come in armies?
And what makes Dredd so absolutely perfect a literary vehicle for this kind of confrontation, is exactly the setting of Mega City One. It is a feral, base, primal place. But, it’s also perpetually locked into the present. With Dredd, and Mega City One, there’s no such thing as Continuity, continuity with a capital see, that is. Or, at least not in any sense that Continuity appears in mainstream superhero comics.
Go back to the granddaddy of all Continuity alignments, DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. After nearly 50 years of unbroken publication for their core characters (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), DC, back in 1985, was facing near insurmountable continuity errors. Particularly with reference to the spilt between the so-called Golden Age, and the Silver Age which had by then just suspended. Was Batman alive during World War II? And if so, how can he be somewhere between 25 and 35 years old in 1985? And, on the other hand, if only today’s Batman is relevant, what about all those classic tales? And more importantly, what about that deep emotional connection readers formed with those classic stories? Are they just meant to be discarded?
Maybe the classic example in this regard is Hawkman. How could Hawkman simultaneously be the Golden Age Carter Hall, intrepid archaeologist empowered Ninth Metal and the reincarnation of an Ancient Egyptian Prince, as well Katar Hol, wielder of Thangarian Nth Metal and a interplanetary police officer, as well the Katar Hol of the far grittier book Hawkworld, Katar Hol who just came to earth in the early ‘90s? It’s problematic sure. And it even took a writer the stature of Geoff Johns more or less a year to sort out these conflicting and ultimately confusing narratives and origin stories in the pages of JSA.
Dredd however, is something entirely else. Dredd is caught in a perpetual present. Go to Mega City One, and it’s always now. It’s timeless, and so is Dredd. Twenty years from now, if you’re just returning to comics after realizing your Mom didn’t have the final say in whether or not you can read them, it’ll still be now, and Dredd will still be enforcing justice with the same vigor. And for those of you in the back, just joining after having lost track of reading comics for the last decade or so, well, even for you reading in 2015, it’s still Now in Mega City One, and Dredd’s still Dredd.
Remember what Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, would always return to in interviews? What he mentioned as the genesis of the idea for The Walking Dead? That the zombie movie would somehow always end. That the heroes would get onto a helo at oh 500, or make it to safety in what was now a mythical city, or… but somehow the movie would just run out of steam and draw to close. And how he felt cheated by that, that the fundamental plot points of the movie have not resolved. Well, Dredd in Mega City One is a little like that. He’s always in the Perpetual Now. Everything’s always, always ongoing.
So with all that in mind, with Dredd and Mega City One being caught in the Perpetual Now, with Dredd as a vehicle for philosophical angst around our most cherished political values, reading Judge Dredd: Urban Warfare genuinely is a treat. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of bounds to call Urban Warfare a masterpiece.
Judge Dredd: Urban Warfare offers a trio of Dredd stories all of them post-2011 (we’ll get to why post-2011 is important in a bit). These stories conduct us down the pathways of popculture right into the sublime. Urban Warfare is simply the best kind of Dredd stories that can be read, collected into a single volume. The stories, penned by Matt Smith and Arthur Wyatt (“Top of the World, Ma-Ma” by Smith and “Underbelly” and “Uprise” by Wyatt) originally appeared in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine.
As can be gleaned from the title of the first story, there’s a deep connection to the Dredd of the most recent movie, as played by Karl Urban. But that connection goes beyond Dredd’s height and stature (Urban’s height and stature really), and goes beyond a mere passing connection to ancillary cast members and movie situations appearing in both the movie and the book.
The deeper sense of connection here, is a clenching of the teeth at a different kind of tomorrow—the way in which Smith and Wyatt were able to frame the geopolitical issues that arose from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and offer fictive meditations using Dredd and his setting of Mega City One.
Like it or not, 2011 felt like, genuinely felt like, we were on the verge of something entirely different, an entirely different kind of tomorrow. And now, some three years and pocket change on, it seems like 2011 was just another cycle run its course.
There was momentousness in the air, back in 2011. Dictators fell, people rose demanding democracy, and here at home, people began to pose the question not why so many have fallen through the cracks, but why they’re so many cracks to begin with. There was a strange reverb between finally bringing justice for the victims of 9/11 and dictatorships being toppled in foreign lands, and enjoying the freedom to protest wealth inequality albeit, ultimately, with little effect. But those days are done.
What isn’t done though, not by a country mile, is the artistic wrestling with the issues that arose out of the crucible of 2011. Both at the level of individuated events and as a networked whole. What Urban Warfare presents is the first genuine and viable artistic wrestling with 2011 in perpetual fiction.
I’m not going to draw any conclusions here, because conclusions should always be your own to draw. I’ll say this though, you hold a copy of Judge Dredd: Urban Warfare in your hands and you’re going to get overwhelmed by a sense of needing to buy two extra copies, just to be able to gift them. This book is going to feel like it’s got weight, cultural weight. And by the time you’re finished reading “Uprise", you’re going to make it to something inescapable—Dredd’s really the best character we have, in any medium, to be able to deal with the promise and the failure of 2011. And that if Dredd didn’t exist, Pat Mills would have to invent him, again.