Written by John Wagner, Garth Ennis, and Alan Grant. Art by Colin MacNeil, John Higgins, John M. Burns, Jeff Anderson. Coloured by Sally Jane Hurst. Lettered by Tom Frame and Annie Parkhouse. Published by Rebellion.
In the dystopian future of 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd, the United States has been ravaged by nuclear war. Large sections are now uninhabitable and the remaining population live in mega-cities. To manage Mega-City One, a city so large it covers most of the east coast, an authoritarian police force known as the Justice Department hold the supreme power and act as judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to crime and governance.
The Judge Dredd comic has used this world to examine and question authoritarian themes for more than 40 years. While this has often been done through science fiction action, parody, and satire, sometimes the best way it has explored is through the eyes of ordinary people.
Last week saw the release of Essential Judge Dredd: America. This collection highlights the milestone events of the Democracy arc, and explores its world’s issues with authoritarianism in explicit detail.
The collection also comes at an interesting time in history due to the political climate and a greater awareness of unethical policing practices. As a result, these stories are more relevant now than when they were published during 1986-1991.
The title story, America, is the best known in this collection but is just one piece of Democracy arc. You can read it on its own, but you’ll get more out of it if you have the context of the preceding stories. Luckily, Essential Judge Dredd also collects some of America’s contemporaries that explore the citizens of Mega-City One’s fight for Democracy under the rule of the Judges.
It all begins with A Letter From A Democrat (Prog 460). Framed by a letter, this story focuses less on Dredd and more on the perspective of a Mega-City One citizen. It explores the constant fear that citizens live under, where any minor infraction sees serious penalty. From this forms the Democratic Tendency who makes a powerful statement about the need for democracy – with tragic results.
The letter is a great storytelling device. It allows for a lot of sentiments to be relayed in a short period and the emotional element of the writing makes it easy for the reader to sympathise with the activists.
The Democratic Tendency is not successful but what it does do is plant the idea of democracy in mind of the people. The idea would be picked up again a year and a half later in Revolution (Progs 531-533). The events of Letter From A Democrat inspire a democratic march. As you can assume, the Judges are against the idea as it harms the idea of the status quo and as a result, Dredd is tasked with using the Judges resources to minimise its impact. Readers will see elements of what is going on in 2020 with the Judges using misinformation and rhetoric to discredit those they disagree with.
While Revolution showed Dredd opposing the democratic march by orders, Politics (Prog 656) shows him taking on a fair more sinister approach. This time, he uses the Justice Department’s vast resources to silence a celebrity who speaks for the democracy movement.
The final panel sums up Dredd’s sentiments and the lengths he is willing to go to silence Democracy. Dredd proclaims that “democracy just ain’t worth it!”, while we see the torture that the celebrity activist is subjected to. Accompanying this dialogue is Jeff Anderson’s visuals of the shocked expression and the vibrant yellows and purples what wash over the panel. While it has a science fiction approach, you can see parallels to what we see in the real world, where some governments have silenced journalists and those who are outspoken.
Before diving back into the contents of this collection, readers who are unfamiliar with Judge Dredd might be confused with why he might sound like a villain. At best, Dredd is an anti-hero. The law is his religion and he will follow it no matter how unjust it is. In these stories, which examine the unjust systems and laws of this society, Dredd is going to be an extension of that.
The previously mentioned tales set the stage for the longest and best-known story of the arc, America (Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.07). Told from the perspective of Bennett Beeny, this classic explores the fascist police state’s effect on the people.
Beeny recounts growing up under the intimidation of the Judges. We see the fear that authority instils at a young age and how it’s an unnerving presence. In much the opposite, his childhood friend America is not afraid to speak out and goes as far as to advocate for democracy and civil liberties. The pair drift apart as they got older but a chance meeting years later shows just how much they’ve changed. Beeny kept his head down while America became radicalised, fighting for democracy through violence.
Through this, we are shown how people react differently when put in the situation. Do you do nothing and submit to the Judges’ authority or do you fight the power?
The story opens with a splash page of Dredd. Colin MacNeil straight away depicts him as a threatening presence, framed from a low angle so to tower over the reader with his signature expression. You can intentionally see under his boot, with it representing the power that the Justice Department has over the people. It sets the tone for America and set the tone for the kind of fear and intimidation that the people are inflicted.
While the subject matter is confronting, the graphic bursts of violence make it that much more. These are often depicted in bloody fashion, but the impact is warranted to show the cruelty of the Judges.
To round out this collection and the Democracy story arc are The Devil You Know and Last Gleaming Light. The pair of stories explore the referendum which will either see the current system stay the same or the democracy reinstated. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it shows that the right to vote is a powerful thing and that it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
While it’s kind of scary that you can find parallels in these bleak stories, they serve as a warning to society. Through reading them, I hope that you can see the similarities in what is going on in the world and learn from them. Let’s just hope they’re not as relevant to society in another 30 years.
BONUS READING RECOMMENDATION: If you want to dig even deeper into the story, Rebellion will be publishing America: Lost & Found – The Rediscovered Scripts on September 30th. This release publishes John Wagner’s story notes, the full script, and annotations to give readers more background on this classic comic book story.