Brian Bolland
Brian Bolland

Everything You Need to Get Caught up on Judge Dredd Comics

Brian Bolland
Brian Bolland

If your knowledge of Judge Dredd is limited to the campy Stallone movie or a couple of comics you read in the ‘90s, you’ve only scratched the surface of what this sci-fi classic has to offer. With some advice from Douglas Wolk—comics critic, Dredd expert, and writer for the new mini-series Judge Dredd: Mega City Two—I've compiled everything you might need to know to get started with this surprisingly interesting and complex comic.

Who is Judge Dredd?

Joseph Dredd is a law enforcement officer in Mega-City One—a sprawling American metropolis in the 22nd century, spanning roughly from Boston all the way down to Charlotte. Dredd and his fellow officers are referred to as "Street Judges" because they have the authority to apprehend, sentence, and even execute criminals on the spot. He is the most famous and most feared Judge in all of Mega-City One, where crime runs rampant despite the zero-tolerance polices of its authoritarian government.

We’ve never seen Dredd's face and only learned his true origin after decades of comics. He is a clone of Judge Fargo, the first Chief Judge.

Dredd was created by British comics writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra for the second issue (or “prog” as they’re called) of 2000 AD magazine in 1977. To this day, Wagner still writes a majority of the Dredd strips and has been behind many of the most beloved stories in the character’s history. There have been a number of artists involved in the comic over the years including Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Colin MacNeil, Steve Dillon, and many more.

It’s a comedy, police procedural, and sci-fi epic rolled into one

Most people with only a passing experience with Judge Dredd tend to think it’s a holdover of '80s-era right-wing revenge fantasies in the vein of Dirty Harry. However, even back then, it was actually a satire of those kinds of attitudes about crime and punishment. The Judges will often slap litterers and traffic violators with ridiculous multi-year prison sentences. Dredd himself is kind of a fascist jerk who delivers ruthless justice in a way that makes you question whether he’s even supposed to be the good guy.

This is a British comic about a dystopian America written primarily for a British audience, and it often has some Anglo-centric in-jokes and sight gags.The writers typically use a police-procedural plot structure to explore Dredd's futuristic world and socio-political landscape. In recent years, the tone of the stories have become more sophisticated in how they depict the politics and ethics of the Justice System in which Dredd operates.

The stories progress in real time and Dredd is now 70 years old

We’re so used to superhero comics existing in a state of arrested development, but, since its debut in 1977, Judge Dredd has progressed in real time. It began in 2099 and it is now 2136. Dredd himself is 70 years old. He's been on active duty for over 50 years and is much more world-weary and reflective than he was in the early strips. His fellow judges look at him a little differently now, too, like an old timer who may be past his prime.

About six years ago, Dredd was diagnosed with benign duodenal cancer. It’s not something that is referenced much in the current stories and it may not be life-threatening (especially with all the future tech cloning possibilities), but it seems to point to the fact that we may be reading the protracted end of Dredd’s story.

While the comics are structured as short stories—the 2000 AD editions are delivered in 6- to 8- page installments at a time—there is a very tight continuity and the events of one story will have a lasting impact on future stories. Although it’s pretty easy to jump into any Dredd story to enjoy the action, the more you read and become familiar with his world, the more you appreciate the way it's building upon what has come before.

He has an extended family (most of which are his own clones)

An early Dredd story involved his twin brother Rico (who was actually just another clone of Judge Fargo, like Dredd himself). Rico turned evil and Dredd was forced to kill him in a duel. In a story called "Blood Cadets," published in 2000, another Dredd clone joined the academy and took on the name Judge Rico to commemorate Dredd’s deceased brother. The original Rico was aggressive and antagonistic towards his brother, but the new Rico looks up to Joe, who is old enough to be his father.

In 2006’s Origins, Dredd finds a whole clan of mutant clones made from his “father,” Judge Fargo, living in the Cursed Earth, which are the wastelands between Mega-City One, Mega-City Two, and Texas City. Their existence completely changed his outlook on mutant rights and led to Dredd lobbying for a repeal of the anti-mutant laws, showing a glimpse of empathy that we hadn’t previously seen from him.

The original Rico had a daughter named Vienna who was orphaned by his death and has returned in recent years as an adult. Dredd is protective of her and even visits Vienna on holidays. She is the only person who seems to elicit acts of compassion from him.

Another Dredd clone is Dolman, who went out on his own after quitting the Academy. He was forced to get a face change to protect Dredd's identity and he pops up from time to time. Dolman has become close with Vienna, who treats him like a little brother.

There are more clones of Dredd/Fargo out there that we continue to meet over time such as Judge Kraken (a rogue clone created to overthrow the judges), Nimrod (a genetically enhanced clone), and others.

He has a long tradition of working with tough female judges

Dredd has had a number of tough female partners over the years, from Judge Anderson of Psi Division to Judge Hershey (both had their own spin-off titles for a while). The comics have always presented these female judges as working on an equal playing field with Dredd and they have, in some cases, been his superior. Judges are prohibited from having sex and Dredd is as cold as they come, so there have never been any romantic entanglements. (Well, except for one time when Judge Galen DeMarco took him by surprise.)

Judge America (Ami) Beeny is the daughter of an activist who was killed because of an order given by Dredd in perhaps the most celebrated Judge Dredd story ever, America. In Cadet, one of two sequels to that story, we see Beeny rise quickly through the ranks, becoming a full judge by the age of 15. She is a prodigy in the Justice System and Dredd has championed and defended her progress, even when other Judges feel uncomfortable taking orders from a young girl. Although she does not blame Dredd for her mother’s death, her goal is to reform what she sees as a problematic system from the inside.

Over 80% of the population of Mega-City One has just been wiped out

In Day of Chaos, the most recent major storyline which ran through 2000 AD progs 1743-1789, Sov City (the Soviets) unleashed a deadly virus called the Chaos Bug in retaliation for the devastation they suffered during the classic "Apocalypse War" story from 1982.

In addition to the Sov City attack, a serial killer who has been posing as the mayor goes berserk and the genocidal Dark Judges are set loose. As a result, 87% of the population of Mega-City One are killed and a terrorist attack on the Academy of Law takes out almost every cadet.

Things are now a hell of a lot worse in the world of Judge Dredd, and future story lines must deal with the aftermath of the disaster(s).

There are now two publishers putting out Dredd comics

Historically, British publisher 2000 AD has been in charge of all things Dredd, publishing stories in 2000 AD magazine as well as Judge Dredd Megazine. They usually collect individual storylines and include them in their own graphic novels, although these are often hard to track down in the states. Digitally, most volumes are available in Kindle format and 2000 AD has an app in the iOS Newsstand where they sell affordable volumes of every single Judge Dredd story they’ve ever published.

In 2013, American publisher IDW began putting out their own monthly Judge Dredd comic written by Duane Swierczynski plus spin-offs like Douglas Wolk’s Mega-City Two and a Judge Dredd: Year One mini-series. The IDW books draw upon what John Wagner and company have established in the 2000 AD books, but the stories are set back in 2100 and it looks like they aim to establish their own unique continuity.

Where to start reading

There are a lot of Dredd stories out there and, in the past decade or so, they’ve become sophisticated in how they continually build upon what’s come before. It can be intimidating to figure out how and where to jump in. Douglas Wolk has probably the perfect prescription on his blog, where he gets into a lot of critical detail on each storyline.

This is the gist of Wolk's recommendations:

If you want to sink your teeth into classic Judge Dredd, the best place to start is Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files 05. This is a black and white, phonebook-sized collection of strips from 1981-1982 that include important classics like "Judge Death Lives" and "The Apocalypse War."

For recent Dredd stories where things get richer and more interesting, you probably can’t go wrong with the America trilogy. It’s considered a turning point in tone for the series; however, it doesn’t actually feature Dredd himself that much within the story. It’s hard to track down a print collection of this in the States, but you can buy it digitally from 2000ADonline or get a Kindle edition.

Judge Dredd: Origins is a recently released collection that finally lays out all the pieces of Dredd’s origin that have been hinted at for decades. You can get it in book format or digitally via 2000AD. Appropriately, Dredd creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra reunited to tell this story.

Meanwhile, IDW is aiming for something of an “Ultimate” Judge Dredd, in which their comics are free of the past couple of decades of continuity and have started fresh with a younger Dredd and Judge Anderson solving cases in Mega-City One. This is still very early into its run, with three volumes of the main series currently available.

*****************

Previously in this series I've helped you catch up on everything going on in the X-men comics and in Batman comics.

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Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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