This is part of 45 Year Of Thrills, How to Love Comics’ celebration of 2000 AD’s 45th anniversary throughout 2022. Find out more and read other posts in the series here.
Judge Dredd is an icon. His image is one of the great memorable designs in all of comics. He’s the central pillar of 2000 AD and has been published consistently for 40+ years. Certainly, he’s a big deal. But for those who may not be too familiar with the character or his comics, there’s the obvious question: Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
It’s a natural question to ask given Dredd exists in a landscape so saturated with superheroes and supervillains, who tend to largely be cleanly defined in that regard. So where does Dredd fit in? It’s an illuminating question, with a worthwhile answer. Perhaps a good way to illustrate it is to use the landscape itself.
Judge Dredd is The Lawman Of The Future. He’s the ultimate cop character. But he’s not the ‘biggest’ lawman of comics. That honor goes to the iconic Green Lantern. Green Lantern is a cop character, but he’s one who’s in the classic Justice League. He stands next to Superman, and pals around with The Flash. He is very much a heroic figure and a good guy. It’s a rather clean figure, which Judge Dredd isn’t quite allowed to be.
Now, why is that? It’s because Green Lantern is an intergalactic agent of super-aliens called The Guardians. There’s an openly fantastical freedom there. This is not a character enforcing our human laws. He serves the will of these space-smurfs and their strange whims. That sort of leeway allows the character to earn titles like ‘Emerald Knight’ and be played a lot easier as a clean heroic figure. But Judge Dredd doesn’t have such fantastic freedom. He’s rooted firmly in the reality of humanity, and human systems. He’s an expression of the ideas on law that people put in place.
Dredd is openly more ‘realistic’ in its approach to the idea of ‘cop character’ within the comics landscape. He’s Judge, Jury, and Executioner all in one. So then, does that mean Judge Dredd is a villain?
Well, let’s take a look at some examples.
In the story Diary Of A Mad Citizen (collected in Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 5), we follow a man named Kweeg who is, as the title indicates, quite mad.
He’s a dangerous individual who will kill people willy-nilly just for the hell of it, whether it be for accidentally bumping against his shoulder or seemingly not respecting him enough. As he goes on a massive killing spree, Dredd stops him for good and captures him.
Within this story and its context, Judge Dredd is absolutely the ‘good guy’. He’s narratively the hero who makes things better and saves lives by halting this bastard.
However, if you look at a story like The Mega Rackets: The Blitz Agencies (also collected in Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 5), which precedes the above, it’s the opposite. That’s a tale in which a man hires an assassin/Blitz agency to kill him and his wife, because they want to die. But as their life takes a turn, they change their mind. However, it’s too late. The husband is assassinated, and Rita, the wife, survives. As Rita flees to safety, all she gets from Dredd is his harsh judgement. She is to be sentenced to 15 years in prison for all this. That’s her fate for having survived. The only other alternative offered is for her to aid Dredd in capturing the assassins. But that’s not an option offered to ensure her safety, for Dredd genuinely does not care about or think much of her. He just sees a tool to get his hands on a racket under his purview. By the end, crushed between these two choices, and not wanting to risk losing her life, the woman opts for 15 years in prison…for having lived.
Dredd is very much not the ‘good guy’ here. He’s instead the cold unmoving force without humanity. People are crushed and lives are altered by his choices and he makes them absolutely, without hesitation or care for the people involved. A heartless bastard. He’s a ‘bad guy’ here, evidently, given his nature.
That’s kind of the essence of Judge Dredd. He’s both a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy’ all at once within the framework of his stories. And said stories work differently from the typical straight-forward ‘This is good’/’This is bad!’ delineated superhero tales. The world of Mega-City One which Dredd inhabits is monstrous, and as the agent of said monstrous system, so is Dredd. So it takes for granted that you understand this first and foremost, not unlike Warhammer 40k, meaning the stories are then allowed to be satire that explore various topics. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of this notion is via his ultimate antagonists, the iconic Dark Judges.
The Dark Judges are deliberate dark mirrors of The Judges. It’s all the core ideas that underpin our lead and his system of law taken to its natural endpoint. Life itself is deemed a crime, and the sentence is death. It’s all the fascist horror and terror of the law system that Dredd believes in and is ready to die for given form.
While Judge Dredd fights these Dark Judges, who want to end all life, Dredd is the ‘good guy’, as it were narratively speaking. He’s, afterall, fighting to prevent genocide and the apocalypse. Stopping supervillain plots to destroy the world is a classic hero story. And yet, if you dig deeper, there’s a lot more at work. The Dark Judges are under no delusions or pretenses. They know what they’re about and what their system of ‘law’ and ‘justice’ is for: Death. It’s Dredd who in his delusions, serving his fascistic system, believes he’s fighting for life whilst never bothering to ask ‘what kind of life?’ or truly considering the lives and plight of the average Mega-City citizen.
No matter who wins in those conflicts, The Dark Judges or Judge Dredd, the evil fascistic ‘justice’ system that created both still persists. It’s the ordinary people under the heel of that oppression that pay the price. Theirs are the lives affected while The Judges and Dark Judges have their futile battles. Even as he fights and is technically narratively heroic, what he is fighting for is a question that unveils the hollow nature of things.
It’s how Dredd can be a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy’ all at once, sometimes more of one over the other, depending on who he’s with or up against. That’s sort of what makes him interesting to read about. He’s not so tightly bound to that very ‘clean’ and rigid hero/villain binary as heroes like Green Lantern, and is much more a figure of satire. He’s allowed to be messy and monstrous, and that gives the character room. At his heart, he’s representative of a hollow, broken, evil system reflecting our own, just through an exaggerated genre lens. It’s a system that works as it was designed to, with no chance of salvation. Dredd is the character that allows the exploration of the tragedy and horror of that, with the focus being on the system. That’s what makes the series and character effective. It’s what’s helped Dredd remain a very useful and powerful figure to use for satire.