Science fiction in comic books wasn’t doing well in Britain of 1977, with titles whithering. However, with Star Wars on the horizon, a new publication, 2000 AD aimed to change that. Several characters debuted in the weekly, including Judge Dredd. Dredd, as created by John Wagner, was meant to be a tough cop along the lines of “Dirty” Harry Callahan on a big bike. However, artist Carlos Ezquerra took the description of “judge, jury, and executioner” and created a faceless law enforcer, with overtones of the fascism he grew up with in Spain*. The iconic helmet was inspired by a medieval executioner’s hood.
As the story got re-written to match the artwork, the dystopia of Mega-City One grew. Despite 2000 AD being a British comic, Mega-City One was placed on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The vision of the setting was an outsider’s look at American society through the lens of celebrity and violence. As the political shift to the right grew in the late 70s, with Margaret Thatcher becoming the UK Prime Minister in 1979 and Ronald Reagan becoming the American president in 1981, Dredd’s world picked up fascist overtones.
With 2000 AD running weekly, and the Judge Dredd Megazine running monthly, many stories were created. The title was treated as an open sandbox, letting writers tell whatever story they could in the setting, with Dredd himself the element that tied everything together. The open nature of the title allowed for elements like psychic abilities, the supernatural, and even time travel to be introduced.
In 1995, the first film adaptation came out. The movie had Sylvester Stallone starring as Dredd. There were a few issues with the film, leading to a lukewarm reception. One big problem, though, was that the studio didn’t want to keep Stallone’s face hidden under the helmet. In the comic, Dredd never removed his helmet; he was a faceless law enforcer. Removing his helmet meant adding a sense of humanity to the character that was never there.
With the 35th anniversary of Dredd’s creation in 2012, a new movie was released. Dredd would see Karl Urban in the titular role. Urban’s previous work includes Lord of the Rings, the JJ Abrams Star Trek, and Doom. In each of those movies, he portrayed his role well, to the point of channelling DeForest Kelly in Trek as Dr. McCoy. In Dredd, Urban became the role again, keeping Dredd’s ever-present scowl on his face.
The movie pulled in many elements from Judge Dredd’s long run, some only showing up as minor details, like in the graffiti scrawled on the walls of Peach Trees. Mega-City One was shown as a huge sprawl, dotted by towering City Blocks like Peach Trees. The inside of Peach Trees was desolate, almost soulless. Ma-ma herself was created for the movie, but she appeared first in the Judge Dredd Megazine in an origins story.
The movie went well out of its way to be a proper Judge Dredd story without adapting one straight from 2000 AD. The problems with the 1995 Judge Dredd were nowhere to be seen. Being a fan of the character, Urban argued that Dredd would never take off his helmet, even in a scene written where he would. As mentioned above, at no point did Dredd take off his helmet. The only time he was seen helmetless was when he was getting dressed; even then, his features were shrouded in shadow.
To include all the aspects of the comic would take far more time than a ninety-six minute movie has to spare. Still, hints of the larger setting and history appeared. Judge Anderson and her psychic abilities came straight from the comic, hinting at mutants and the Dark Judges. The best way to explore the full setting may be a weekly series, giving time to set up arcs and to delve into the setting. However, Dredd, while scratching the surface of the setting, captured the comic’s feel without having to change who Judge Dredd is.
Next week, Stargate-SG1.
* Spain was ruled by Francisco Franco from 1938 to 1975 as a dictatorship, which coloured Carlos Ezquerra’s view of authority figures.