Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts,
John Wagner, Colin MacNeil,
“Rights? Sure. I’m all for rights. But not at the expense of order. That’s why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there, towering over Liberty. Kind of a symbol. Justice has a price. The price is freedom.”
Judge Dredd: I’ve been reading his tales every since the very beginning, way back in 1977. I’ve been fascinated by the adaptability of the character and the story format- across more than four decades we’ve seen everything from broad comedic farce to tragedy, from short, punchy tales of a few pages only (which nevertheless often lodge in the brain long after, despite their brevity) to huge, widescreen epics like the Apocalypse War. And Dredd himself, the unbending, iron man of the total law of Mega City One? Clever storytelling has given us Dredd as both heroic at times and at other times a freedom-crushing fascist stormtrooper.
I find it remarkable that one strip and one character can can be so astonishingly flexible, go to such extremes. The writers and artists of Dredd have made us cheer for him as he is battered and broken by often unimaginable events and opponents, way past the point where even a mythic hero might have given up as a lost cause, but not Dredd, he keeps going, dogged, determined, he stands till the end, the the bad guys are vanquished, it’s a tenacity on which the entire survival of the city and sometimes the world has depended.
And at other times we see the cold, hard machinery of Mega City Justice Department, how it bears down crushing those it is meant to serve, unbending adherence strictly to every rule to the most ridiculous level, smallest infractions dealt with via immediate and hard, violent response, while no threat to the supremacy of the Justice Department will be tolerated. It is this latter aspect we first saw in America, by the Dreddfather himself, the great John Wagner, and the equally superb Colin MacNeil, who here delivers some amazing painted artwork, which is something else to behold, be it depicting a tender, intimate moment of friendship and love and intimacy or dreadful acts of violent outbursts.
For many decades America has, for me, been one of the finest Dredd stories of all time: it has action, romance, characters that are flawed and believable as humans rather than cyphers to advance a plot, it has humour and love and tragedy and wades into the swampy lands of Morality, not afraid to show the complexity behind the simplistic ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. When I heard Rebellion was re-issuing it complete with some of Wagner’s rediscovered original scripts I was excited, although part of me also thought, how does this story hold up in the world of 2020?
How will I feel when I re-read it now, at this point in my life and with the world around me as it has become, instead of remembering it through a glow of nostalgic love for earlier 2000 AD? I needn’t have worried myself on that score, however: this is Wagner and MacNeil, I was always in safe hands with these masters of the comics form, and, if anything, sadly aspects of the story are actually more relevant to our troubled world of today than they were when this was written, even in the supposed democracies of the Western World. And that emotional punch, that you just know is coming yet you can’t look away? It’s still there, still so strong it will wrench your heart.
I’d imagine most DTT readers will already be familiar with this story, but for those who are coming to this Dredd classic for the first time, let’s have a quick recap of the actual story. We start with foreshadowing, with Dredd, always an impressive, ominous figure at the best of times, here depicted in full page splashes by MacNeil from a low perspective, as if we’re under his feet, trampled beneath the heel of the Justice Department (much later we will loop back to this scene and realise its dreadful context), with the quote about rights and freedom that opened this article. It is an opening that in two pages and images already tells you that this is a story that will not have a happy ending. This is Mega City One, not Disney.
From those threatening, huge splash pages we moved into smaller panels, the inside of a nightclub, the dressing rooms, a young woman, attractive yet with an air of terrible sadness around her, getting ready for a performance. She is the one who starts the main story going, she tells us of America and of Bennett Beeny, right from the very beginning, as she is born kicking and screaming into the world of Mega City One to immigrant parents, who in gratitude for their new home decide to christen their baby daughter “America”. Even in this happy moment, as their friends congratulate the couple on their new arrival, there are hints of the storm clouds to come, when her father, still new to the city, quotes “America, God shed hees grief on thee”, only for a friend to point out it is “grace”, not “grief”, but I think we already know in this case it will be grief. The America the Jara family thought they had emigrated to no longer exists, except as a dream. A dream that will burn in young America throughout her short life.
Benny and Ami are the best of friends as kids, but even as children it is clear they are different: Benny is good natured and effectively rolls with the system as it is, not liking it, but doing his best to make the best life he can have under the circumstances, while Ami hates the life they are forced to live and yearns to make the world a better place. Even at this young age we see the Judge system, but from the perspective of small children, these huge, armoured, imposing figures towering above them, instilling fear now – like the Jesuits who wanted to start their teaching young so they would have the later grown person for life, the Judges lay down heavy examples even to small children.
It is not a pretty sight, and it also serves effectively to show the two different characters: Ami seethes as this treatment, you can see her thinking how do I change this, take away this power the Judges have over us all, while Benny is complaint, “no, sir, thank you, sir” types to the threatening Judge. A scene a little later shows them as young adults now, and MacNeil beautifully frames their view of the vast city from a high vantage point through a broken chain-link fence. It’s beautiful visual shorthand (the story is replete with similar examples), this should be an awe-inspiring view across the city, but instead it gives the impression they are exhibits in an old, broken-down zoo, Benny already cowed, will stay behind the wire, fearful, Ami is seen looking out through the mesh of the fence into the world beyond, seeing something more, something better, if only she can manage it.
There’s such bittersweetness around this point, as the two who had been inseparable are now growing up, becoming more the adults they will become, so too they are growing apart. We’ve probably all been there, with childhood friends we thought we’d have forever, and some we do sometimes manage to keep but there are always others than our life paths take away from one another, keeping in touch at first, but less so as time goes on and the world slowly makes us drift apart. That feeling is evoked so well here, and added to by the fact we can see how clearly Benny loves Ami, not just as his lifelong friend, but he years for her as a lover, he is hopelessly lost in love with her, and he knows that while she cares for him she’s never going to love him that way.
Their paths diverge and they lose contact, although she is never far from Benny’s thoughts, he still carries a torch for her and always will. Some may see that as weak, as Benny refusing to move on emotionally, and perhaps it is, but you could also argue that it is a beautifully pure form of love, an idealised version he carries inside himself, aware that the grim reality of the real world can never give him what he has in his heart. Benny becomes rich and famous with his comedic songs and gets to live a comfortable life – he may be in a cage like any Mega City citizen, but his is gilded and comfortable thanks to his huge success. Ami, when she finally crosses his path again, has been less fortunate.
Ami’s path has been hard, her dedication to the older freedoms before the Judges has brought her into conflict with the Justice Department with the predictable heavy response. But it’s not just the heavy handed tactics which have further enraged her, it’s the basically cruel turning of the screw to teach her a lesson – for instance her child is decreed not to come up to genetic standards and so banished from Mega City. This only hardens her in her convictions to do anything to fight the system (and it is hard not to sympathise with her). It even leads to scenes with the two reunited briefly, but leaves the reader to question if Ami does so only to manipulate Benny into helping her and her comrades, or because she really does care for him and perhaps yearns for even a brief respite of peace and love? Wagner cleverly leaves that very much to the readers, even in his accompanying script notes he says it’s best not to answer that, let the readers ponder…
And I won’t go too much further into the plot for those who haven’t yet read America, because I have no wish to ruin it for you. Suffice to say do not go looking here for roses and kisses and a happy ending in the sunset. But do expect drama and love and moral clashes and trust and betrayal and tragedy. And for none of the characters to come out of this untarnished: Dredd and the Judges, glimpsed mostly in the background of this story, are clearly the fascistic power of repression here, Benny well-meaning but spineless and out of his depth, Ami driven by The Cause, one which we may even admire her fighting for, except she will use any method, even brutal killing, to serve The Cause (as with many in the real world their causes, however well intentioned, can often become more important than the lives of people).
I came back to America not just in our troubled world of 2020, but also after reading the second Judges prose omnibus by Mike Carroll, Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot Coleman for the second Cymera SF festival back in June (you can still see the hour long discussion on Cymera’s YouTube channel, while the book is reviewed here). That book explores the early world of the Judges, before the Mega Cities, with the first generation of Judges operating alongside the final years of traditional law enforcement in near-future America. Those stories often evoked America as I read them – in those books we see the Judges created precisely because current law enforcement has failed. It is corrupt, police almost untouchable even when they commit violent, unprovoked attacks, clearly carrying a huge racial bias, all things the Judges are trained to ignore: they will serve the law equally upon all, regardless of class, race, gender, wealth or position.
When I was reading those stories in preparation for our Cymera talks we were all watching with horror the racially motivated judicial killings in the US of people of colour, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the awful,violent response those demonstrations often received, not just from far right civilians driving cars into crowds, but police then federal government forces gassing, shooting and arresting peaceful demonstrators. The parallels to Dredd’s Mega City One were horribly, wretchedly visible to many of us. Dredd has always carried a strong element of social commentary, not to mention dark satire, but this echoed so much with that fictional world that it was painful.
I’m not going to soap-box on those aspects, this is a review, not a social commentary piece, albeit about a story with a strong social commentary component, of course, but re-reading it I think it is fair to say I found America fitted in far too closely with aspects of our contemporary world, far, far too closely for comfort. Ami’s life in some ways echoes that of the nation she is named for: born with idealised notions of freedom and equality for all, only to see that dream constantly perverted to suit those in the positions of power, and likewise with Mega City One.
But that’s the point – to realise the threat to the Dream we have to see it and know it for what it is, call it out, stand up to it. The idealised version of that Dream may always be ultimately unattainable, like most potential utopias, but it is a noble vision and striving towards it hopefully means we make a better, fairer world for all as we try to reach it, and not to let others corrupt and subvert it for their own ends. Wagner himself sums it up in his own notes with his accompanying script pages:
“America – not so much a place as an ideal. In these times of increasing authoritarianism, even in the Western world – when the reins of power have fallen into the hands of crooks, self-serving conmen and shameless liars – the message in the story is more pertinent than ever.
We’ve got to keep looking for America.”
This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes