Friday, October 12, 2012

The Cyberclunk of Judge Dredd

Little has changed in the world of Judge Dredd since it debuted in the magazine 2000 AD in 1977 in a story by John Wagner (who continues to write Dredd for the comics) and Carlos Ezquerra. There was a bad American movie in the 90s with Sylvester Stallone that completely missed the point, and a current movie that I haven't yet seen, but from the trailer, looks like a typical contemporary sci-fi thriller with some Judge Dredd tropes and scenery fused onto it. The look of the new film is contemporary. The look of Judge Dredd in the comics is Cyberclunk.

Stallone: a helmetless Dredd that completely missed the point.

In an attempt to exploit the publicity from the first film, DC Comics in the U.S. produced a version of Judge Dredd written by Andy Helfer, a well-suited choice considering his satirical take with artist Kyle Baker on another deadpan and morally questionable character, The Shadow. Helfer’s version dwelled a little more on the moral ambiguity of the character, but the environment, once again, was more in the vein of Blade Runner and cyberpunk, with virtual reality environments and technology more firmly rooted in traditional science fiction futurism.

Helfer''s Cyberpunk Dredd

Judge Dredd is inspired by the Clint Eastwood archetype in Sergio Leone westerns and the Dirty Harry movies in attitude, but not in the Eastwood character’s rugged individualism. Judge Dredd is not a rebel or a vigilante. Judge Dredd has more in common with the traditional British inspector in his deference to authority than the characters in American police procedurals known to bend the rules. But the rule of law in the world of Judge Dredd is absolute fascistic authority. The police, or “Judges” are, as Judge Dredd so often points out, judge, jury and executioner all in one. In the U.S. and the U.K. we like to think of our societies as democratic, and so Judge Dredd’s form of justice is something we would generally disagree with. This aspect of Judge Dredd is played both satirically, and straight. If Judge Dredd’s moral code is questionable, the bad guys in Judge Dredd are always worse and always deserving of Dredd’s ruthless form of justice. Judge Dredd, like Dirty Harry, is an anti-hero, but rather than bucking authority, Dredd’s behavior is fully sanctioned by the government. At the same time, Dredd is a cypher. he never removes his helmet. He's more a symbol than an individual.

Working class English youth culture has always had an apprehensive and sometimes adversarial relationship with the police, so it’s ironic that Dredd has become such a popular hero with youth. If he behaved the way he did in the contemporary British legal system, even in fiction, he would be reviled. Maybe it’s because Judge Dredd, ostensibly anyway, is an American, dealing out justice in Mega City One, a sprawling future version of New York. Maybe it’s because of the inherent absurdity of the concept.

Mega City One

But one thing about Judge Dredd that is distinctly British is that unlike America’s constant reboots and reimaginings of its archetypal comic book heroes, Judge Dredd is a British tradition and constant that has changed little over the years. It’s a world of clunky robots and bullet spewing automatic weapons and little sign of personal computing or other contemporary innovations. You might call it retro sci-fi if Dredd didn’t so often explore ideas inspired by current events and technology. In Dredd’s world the athletes of the Olympic Games are permitted cyborg parts, reflecting the current controversy over performance enhancing drugs. In one typical Judge Dredd story there’s a sympathetic character whose opinions reflect our own moral apprehension about the extremity of Dredd’s world, but in the end, Megacity One continues on with its morally questionable status quo. Anything sanctioned by the law in Judge Dredd’s world is forever unchanging. It’s only those who break the law who are on the receiving end of Dredd’s wrath. There is certainly tradition in American comic book heroes like Superman and Spider-Man, but there is also this constant tendency to evolve these traditions to match the contemporary world. This is a distinctly American idea, even though, ironically, the graphic novel that set this trend in superhero comics was Watchmen, by a Brit. Watchmen, however, was also an exercise in nostalgia, and it’s a nostalgia that is both British and American in its character. Where Judge Dredd veers is in its unwavering dedication to constancy. There is no contemporary take on the character outside of America and Hollywood. The Judge Dredd of the comics remains forever the Judge Dredd we’ve always known. This sense of timelessness is very much Cyberclunk, and Judge Dredd is as Cyberclunk as it gets.

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