Is 'Judge Dredd' a Frightening Look at the World to Come?

A New York Comic Con panel tackles the character's real-world relevancy in U.S. politics and policing, with surprising results.
Henry Flint/Rebellion

In the 40 years since his first appearance in the second issue of British anthology comic 2000 AD, Judge Dredd has become a symbol of many things: police brutality, unfeeling authority, the abuse of the state and the ultimate parody of all of the above. At New York Comic Con, a panel of writers and critics on Saturday discussed whether Dredd was a sign of things to come or a satirical warning as-yet unheeded.

"I spoke to [Dredd co-creator and writer] John Wagner about this, and he said, '[Dredd's] the good guy, and you have to remember this, but he's also the bad guy,'" Rob Williams, who has written the character in 2000 AD for years, told the audience. "He wouldn't be here 40 years later if he wasn't nuanced. He's not a robot. All life is in Dredd stories. You can do a completely comedic one, and then do America, which is a classic," he added, referring to the 1990 storyline about the tragic, dramatic failure of a pro-democracy group in the future United States.

Rosie Knight, a British comic critic, suggested that the satirical element of Judge Dredd was an essential element of the character's success, but one that is often missed by the audience at large — and by those who adapt the character into media outside comics. "I do think that it's hard to do satire in films," she said. "The [2012] Dredd movie, it's like The Raid; it pits the authoritarian against these terrible drug dealers, and you lose the satire."

"I think people lump [Dredd and Marvel's Punisher] together because they're both 'grim violence men' with no personal relationships. I think that's very reductive," argued critic Kelly Kanayama. "The Punisher works contrary to a system we recognize because he exists in a reality that is much like ours, whereas Dredd represents and embodies a future reality." (Katayama also joked that Dredd didn't need personal relationships because of his devotion to his cause. "He's law-sexual," she said. "His relationship is with the law.")

For Erick Freitas, who writes an alternate version of the character in the American Judge Dredd: Mega-City Zero series, the satirical aspect — often lost on American audiences entirely, with its roots in a particularly British sense of humor — has become even more obscure in today's America. "I think the problem is, [American audiences are] probably going to love it. I wrote 20 issues of Dredd in the last two years, and everything in America has changed in those two years." Dredd's surface appearance as a hyper-violent cop has enough appeal in and of itself to a mass audience to obscure what's beneath the surface, he suggested.

Despite this, the panel agreed that Dredd was, at best, an imperfect analogy for today's American policing. "Dredd is a fragile metaphor for policing, because he's incorruptible and has no bigotry, which is insane to consider," writer Arthur Wyatt — who has continued the movie version of the character in a number of comics — argued. Williams agreed. "He couldn't give a shit about whether people were black or white or gay or straight, so in some sense, he's a model for the police."

Writer and filmmaker Alex di Campi suggested instead that the mythology of Dredd is ripe for metaphor and commentary on today's society. "It's a good framework [to ask questions]. It never stops being relevant," she said. Exploration of the future justice system and the Mega-City framework in general is a worthy endeavor, she suggested, because prompting the audience to ask questions can be valuable in the real world. "Fascist states are very delicate."

Moderator Michael Molcher closed the panel with a line of dialogue from the Judge Dredd: Origins storyline, which chronicled the way in which the U.S. went from the world in which we live in today to the future dystopia of "Mega-Cities" and Dredd. The man responsible for the formation of the all-powerful Judges and the focus on law above individual freedom tells Dredd at one point, "It wasn't meant to be forever."

"I think it's only a matter of time before it ends," Williams said in response. "The universe will keep going, but that city is hanging by a thread, and has been hanging by a thread for some time." Wyatt agreed, adding, "I really like that line, because it turns [Judge Dredd] into a horror story."

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