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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.

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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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Space Goat Publishing
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Comics
These Evil Dead 2 Comics Will Look Groovy on Your Bookshelf
Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Bruce Campbell has been quoted as saying the gallons of fake blood poured into his face during filming of the 1987 cult classic horror film Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn led to a week of red-tinged mucus leaking out of his nostrils. Fortunately, no Campbells were harmed in the making of two new comic collections from Space Goat Productions that are now being funded on Kickstarter. The Evil Dead 2 Omnibus features over 300 pages of stories set in the Necronomicon-plagued universe featured in numerous comic book miniseries; The Art of Evil Dead 2 reveals never-before-seen production art from both the comics and ancillary projects.

The campaign is the latest from Space Goat, the Bellingham, Washington-based company that’s made a cottage (or cabin) industry from products spinning out of the Sam Raimi-directed film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. In addition to the new collections, the publisher has also issued an Evil Dead 2 coloring book; a comic where Campbell’s demon-fighting hero, Ash Williams, encounters Adolf Hitler; and a forthcoming board game where players can navigate Deadite threats while shaking their head at Ash’s questionable competency. (No matter the iteration, he seems ill-equipped to deal with the threat of his own possessed and lopped-off hand.)

According to Space Goat publisher Shon Bury, licensing the Evil Dead 2 property from rights holders StudioCanal in 2015 has been a buoy in navigating the difficult waters of comic book publishing. (Even Marvel, which rakes in billions through its film franchises, struggles to sell more than 60,000 to 70,000 copies of its most popular monthly titles.) One day into its Kickstarter launch, the Evil Dead titles had reached 50 percent of their $20,000 funding goal.

“It’s definitely our flagship on the publishing side,” Bury tells Mental Floss. “The board game is our top seller in the Evil Dead category, and the coloring book sells really well. They’re our evergreen products.”

The cover to 'The Art of Evil Dead 2' from Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Exploring Ash’s adventures in other media comes with a few caveats. While Space Goat is free to explore the characters and situations portrayed in Evil Dead 2, incorporating ideas from the rest of the series (including 1993’s Army of Darkness or the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead) is generally off-limits. And while the StudioCanal rights include a likeness of Campbell, the actor has veto power over how he’s depicted on the page. “For some reason, he doesn’t like the dimple on his chin to be drawn,” Bury says. “But he’s very insistent that the scar on his face from the movie is always there.”

Other actors featured in the film—like Richard Domeier, the future home-shopping host who portrayed “Evil Ed”—may not have granted their likeness rights, but his Deadite character design is part of the deal. “You want to inoculate the owner or licensor of the rights,” Bury says. “So we submit drawings and they might say, ‘No, too close to the actor.’”

That development process is part of what makes up The Art of Evil Dead 2, one-half of Space Goat’s current Kickstarter project that follows a successful Evil Dead 2 board game launch in 2016. The campaigns, Bury says, help target Ash fans with material that might not get enough attention if it were released directly to retailers. “Kickstarter is basically social media. It’s direct engagement, our way of saying to fans, ‘Hey, you’re really going to like this.’”

Bury expects fans to be just as enthused about Evil Dead 2: The Doppelganger Wars, a limited series due for release in 2018 that sees Ash and sidekick Annie Knowby enter the mirror dimension glimpsed at in Evil Dead 2 to discover the true origins of both the demon-summoning Necronomicon and the cult surrounding it. A meeting with H.P. Lovecraft may also be on deck, along with other narratives that would carry the license through the end of the publisher’s current agreement with StudioCanal in late 2019.

Still to be decided: whether Ash will ever encounter the werewolves of The Howling, Space Goat’s latest horror license. “Those conversations have occurred,” Bury says. “It would be a natural. But it’s also challenging because the royalties [for the licenses] double.” 

Digital versions of The Art of Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead Omnibus will be available to backers pledging $20 beginning in December. Softcover, hardcover, and Necronomicon slipcase editions ($30 and up) ship in May 2018. The Kickstarter runs through November 25.

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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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History
How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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