Recently I've found that the line is growing thinner between support of the Black Lives Matter movement and its attendant damnation of police brutality, and the topic that has built my career, which is talking about British comics — specifically Judge Dredd. A friend recently connected the two when they made an offhand joke about how a future headline of mine should be “Judge Dredd Columnist Finds Out She’s Been Reporting The News the Whole Time”. It was a good joke that made me genuinely laugh out loud… and then it didn’t. Because, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t feel entirely untrue.
For those unfamiliar with Dredd, here’s what you really need to know about the iconic comic book character: Created by John Wagner and designed by artist Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Joe Dredd — lawman of the 22nd century’s “Mega-City One,” a massive city state that stretches across the majority of the East Coast of the United States — debuted in the second issue of British anthology comic 2000 AD in 1977. A British take on the brutal, macho maverick archetype seen in contemporary movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, Wagner and Ezquerra set out to make satirical sci-fi anti-hero who played the role of stereotypical hard boiled cop in an increasingly ludicrous setting. Years after Dredd’s first appearance, Wagner, who’s written the majority of Dredd’s adventures in his career, landed on the ultimate explanation of what Judge Dredd is meant to be, reasoning simply, “A good hero is hard to beat, and a good villain is hard to beat. So why not combine them?”
In the futuristic setting of the Judge Dredd mythology, the police have escalated to an unprecedented level of authority after carrying out what is essentially a coup to replace government as we recognize it today. This resulted in a fascistic approach to law enforcement with the role of judge, jury, and executioner being held by a singular officer, known simply as a Judge. While murders continue to abound in the sprawling Mega City One, Judges are also known to lock up or execute citizens for minor crimes such as jaywalking, littering, or even using banned substances — including, in different instances, sugar and coffee. Using this absurdist, horrifying story structure as a launching point, the strip has spent more than four decades finding ways to satirize and comment upon corrupt power and those abusing it, from the oppressive right wing British Prime Minister of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, through to more contemporary figures like professional racist Nigel Farage and even the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump.
Through all of this, the purpose behind Dredd as a fictional narrative has often acted to emphasize through heavy satire and occasionally blunt melodrama the broken nature of strictly enforced justice systems with limited oversight and external control, particularly as it relates to heavily militarized individuals in positions of authority over others’ freedom and, increasingly literally, life and death. Suddenly, it becomes clearer the crossover between Judge Dredd as a comic strip and the world as it exists today.
According to an ongoing project by the Washington Post to log every fatal shooting by an on-duty officer in the U.S., more than 5,000 citizens have been shot and killed since 2015, with 1,000 of those instances occurring within the past twelve months alone. While many people are seemingly quick to assume that all, or at least many, of these victims may have done something illegal, the role of the fictional Mega-City Judge seems all too familiar when looking through at the basic facts: while some may indeed have committed minor criminal acts, others were found guilty and punished following a trial of nothing more than the attending officers’ personal judgment — something that results in such horrors as the death of George Floyd, accused of using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill at a convenience store, and killed after being held down by police officers for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
It may seem dismissive to compare something has monstrous as the police brutality people — specifically Black and brown people in the majority of cases — face on a daily basis to a piece of fiction, especially a comic strip created for children decades earlier with a focus on sensationalism and action. Confirmation bias plays a sizable role when analyzing a piece of fiction, particularly with something lauded as being childish such as comics books. Throughout history, however, fiction has acted as a touchstone for the possibility of future events; see Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Simpsons, etc. as proof. The unfortunate truth is that, in this case, the 43-year history of Judge Dredd serves simultaneously as a prediction, reminder and warning of exactly what can happen if the reality of militarized policing within the United States continues to go unchecked.
During the 1980s, writer John Wagner made a shift in the story and created a whole new type of “villain,” or at least threat, for Judges to face: a mass movement on the part of the citizens they serve and protect to abandon the Justice Department’s control. Having lived their lives to that point as part of a totalitarian regime, a 16-million strong uprising occurs within Mega-City One to push back against the rule of the Judges and instead reinstate the lost system of democracy and judicial due process. This, of course, doesn’t go over well with those expected to relinquish control and, as protests begin to form in the streets, Judges are tasked with making plans as to how to “solve the issue”. The solution presented in the 1987 storyline “Revolution” comes in a form all too familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the news, as Chief Judge Silver first makes a public statement saying that the right to peaceful protest is one that will always be upheld, before — in almost the same breath — Silver tells Dredd and the other Judges that any burgeoning support for democracy must be stopped, no matter the cost. As he puts it, “I want this movement crushed, Dredd. On this one, you write the law.”
For almost six weeks in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the time of writing this, protests have erupted around the country for similar reasons. The tactics used in the 1987 strip — long range acoustic devices, “less lethal” ammunition, flash grenades, truncheons, tear gas, and what’s become known as “kettling” — have ended up being repeated exactly on the front lines of otherwise entirely peaceful protests in today’s reality, even going so far as to play victim when their fully-armored riot gear and protective equipment are pelted with pieces of litter from the righteously angry few who were brave enough to do so. In “Revolution,” as Judges advance on the so-called “riotous” crowd heavy with demands, a familiar cry rings out — “Leave us alone! This is a peaceful protest” — to which Dredd responds “Was” before bludgeoning the speaker.
“The Judges know that Mega-City One as a regime is close to collapse, so anything that threatens to upset that balance — including criticism of the state — is regarded as a serious crime. Sure, they could return power to the people, but when has that ever achieved anything positive?” remarked Judge Dredd writer Michael Carroll. “History has shown the democracy just does not work: the people keep electing highly-flawed and very ineffective leaders who deal with problems by putting all of their energy into looking for scapegoats rather than solutions. So of course the Judges remain in control. For the greater good. But after any conflict or regime change it’s easy for the victors to look around and see the peace for which they have so tirelessly fought and use that justify their actions after-the-fact. But it’s not easy for the vanquished — for those at the bottom of the scrap-pile who have lost everything. They’re not seeing peace. They’re seeing oppression.”
Thanks to social media and the thankless determination of those willing to stream their experiences at the front of the protests happening across the Unites States, it’s easy to draw parallels between what is on the page and what is staring us in the face. Just a few weeks ago in Salt Lake City, a disabled older man who was attending the protest was pushed to the ground and left to bleed out by SLC Police officers. In Minneapolis, there have several consecutive nights of law enforcement escalating situations, including giving audible orders to “light up” onlookers standing on their own porch in residential areas. Protests in my hometown of Portland, Oregon have seen hours of documented peaceful protesting, chants, and sign holding come to an end as the Portland Police Bureau show up, declare it a riot, and swarm on crowds with tear gas and liberal use of truncheons.
Turning on the news doesn’t always show peaceful protests with patient people loudly chanting as they march along, however. (Arguably, it rarely does.) More often than not, reports have focused on rioting, looting, and the destruction of property. While it can, and should, be argued that property damage should be an afterthought to keeping marginalized people safe, there is also an argument to be made regarding what are often described as “outside agitators,” or infiltration from far-right groups. Though barely covered by the media, the presence of plain-clothes officers has been loudly reported by protestors themselves online, leading to social media posts on how to spot an officer out of uniform trying to gather intelligence. Judge Dredd presents the next step further of this practice in “Revolution”, where Judges reign down fear and hurt onto protestors, some whom only escape a painful end by yelling out a coded safe word that reveals them as undercover officers seeded to ensure violent behavior that is actionable by authorities.
The list goes on in almost every state in the country; countless reports of local and state officers spreading messages across news and social media, reassuring the everyday citizen that despite these riotous circumstances, the police are here to keep you safe. And much like Dredd, when the camera is turned off, the helmets go on, the badges get hidden, and they are given free reign to write the law as needed.
In Wagner’s 2015 storyline “The Beating,” Dredd is caught up in a dispute with a gang that results in his seemingly beating one of the gang members to death — no sentencing, no words, no trial. The incident is caught on camera and leaked to the press, convincing the public that Dredd is in fact a murderer. Called to account by Chief Judge Hershey, Dredd not only doesn’t apologize, he tells her to spin the story to the media by saying that it was a freak accident. Hershey follows through, fully aware that she’s lying to protect Dredd’s reputation, telling the citizens of Mega-City One — including all witnesses to the beating — that the footage was altered; that it’s “fake news,” so to speak.
In 2019, Elijah McClain was walking home when the police were called on him. Complying completely with the officers, Elijah was forced to the ground as the police kicked their allegedly fallen surveillance body cameras to the side with their microphones still running — documenting every word uttered by the police as they held an apologetic, kind-worded Elijah in a [banned] choke hold before being injected with the sedative Ketamine when the paramedics arrived. In later reports — contrary to the initial one heard over audio — the officers claimed that McClain tried to overpower them and even reach for their guns. No criminal charges were filed on the three officers. While not exact in its nature, there are countless examples to draw on in recent years when it comes to the police literally getting away with murder with help from willing, or ignorant, accomplices; creating a network of solidarity between those who commit the crimes and those who are willing to support the crimes for fear of being considered “a bad apple”, and marking another example of the immoral argument in favor of using lethal force whenever individuals deem necessary.
Similarities don’t just stop at protest-driven beatings or undue process in the case of minor crimes either. In the 2014 story “Mega City Confidential,” Wagner dives into just how the Judges manage to know everything going on within such a massive city. While it would be easy enough to say police scanners are a thing and CCTV is readily accessible for many law enforcement agents in real life, this story takes it a step further; introducing the idea that not only does the Justice Department have an entire sector dedicated to invading and watching the every move of every citizen (including the insides of their homes), but that the same citizens being surveilled work at helping them and will be swiftly executed should they choose to defect.
Though many will be quick to object, stating that there is no place in reality right now for advanced tracking systems and video software to monitor so many civilians, there is a good chance that you’re reading this piece on one of those devices right now.
A cross between social media, stored photos, webcams, drones, and city cameras have proven to be the most easily accessible way for many police forces to identify persons of interest — whether they have truly committed a crime or not. Multimillion tech company Clearview AI has come under fire in recent years as the most effective way for police to identify citizens without their consent — drawing from a nationwide stored database of over half a million adults within the United States. But with everyday technology on the rise, it’s often not that difficult to pull from what people are willing to post on their own behalf. According to a 2016 survey of over 500 police departments, 75% reported using social media for intelligence purposes or “tip offs”, with an additional 60% reporting that they have contacted social media companies directly to obtain information related to alleged suspects. In many cases, this new technology has created a new kind of rift between law enforcement and citizens, where in many cases facial recognition and a social media scouring falls short (often due to the profiling flaws in identifying people of color) and ends with innocent people under arrest, beaten, or worse.
Despite these facts and the people quick to apply the now famous chant of “All Cops of Bastards”, there’s a sizable number of people willing to make the argument that not all cops are evil and racist. While it’s human nature to want to find the good in a batch of “bad apples” — and there are inevitably many law enforcement officers who joined with good intentions and to truly help make a change in their community — Judge Dredd also assists in illustrating the argument against this mindset, by reinforcing the idea that good cannot truly exist in a system that is fundamentally built upon, and thriving on, the suffering of others. One of the best examples of this in the Dredd universe is the once-crazy, possible Alan Moore impersonator character named Dirty Frank.
Dirty Frank is a member of what is known as the Wally Squad sector of the Justice Department; a group of undercover Judges who embed themselves in the underbelly and slums of Mega-City One to spy upon the lower class. Debuting in Rob Williams and Henry Flint’s series of Judge Dredd spin-off stories known as Low Life, Frank is depicted as being ineffably mad and, surprisingly, wildly empathetic and affectionate to citizens as well as other Judges, even reaching so far as to try and help a fellow Wally Squad Judge from defecting following the realization that the Judges are what keeps society’s underbelly down. But Frank didn’t start as part of the Wally Squad; in fact, Frank was, at one point, no different from Dredd — clad in iconically menacing black riot gear and helmet. Frank’s origin story as it appeared in Williams’ 2018 storyline The Small House reveals a cleaner, more seemingly sane Frank who is ordered to kill the children of an alleged criminal that the Judges have hunted down. Not able to follow through but being unable to rebel against his training, Frank’s mind snaps and he becomes the Dirty Frank that readers had fallen in love with — but even a mental break isn’t enough to remove him from the system that broke him. In fact, we later find out that he had been brainwashed to believe he was mad so that he could at least continue doing others’ bidding in a different capacity.
At the heart of this message is one that resonates with what is not-so-affectionately referred to as the “warrior mentality” taught to many police officers in a contemporary context. Even the best of the police — the ones who go in ready to take a swing at helping heal and repent for poor race relations, help the people in their community who need it most, and save those in need of protecting — are signed onto a system that proves time and time again to be inherently rooted in everything they are theoretically against. Diving deeper into “The Small House,” the story’s big reveal is that the small house in question is a literal one, a location where the sinister Judge Smiley has been further corrupting the justice system, leading to him simply stating to Dredd, “I came to you today to remind you of something inherent in our core that you appear to have forgotten — we are fascists.”
The use of Frank to tell this story illustrates perfectly how even with the best intentions, all moral compasses can be bent if the entire rest of the system is working against you.
Similarly to Frank is America Beeny. Having been enrolled in the Justice Department training program as a child with a note from her father telling her to change the system from within — later revealed to be a well-intentioned fake — Beeny was introduced as a fearless cadet willing to stand up to Dredd and voice her belief that the system was flawed, if not entirely corrupt. “If I was going to blame anyone I’d have to blame the whole department,” she tells Dredd in 2006’s “Cadet.” “It’s the way we work. Our whole culture is wrong.”
Beeny has been a recurring presence in the Dredd strip in the past 14 years, and has remained a vocal advocate for change inside the Judge system, even as she has repeatedly appeared in a number of adventures in which she is a willing participant in the very flawed system she seemingly rails against. With the Dredd strip taking place in real time, this means that a decade and a half after her first appearance, Beeny has not only failed to create the recognizable change in a culture she proclaimed as “wrong,” but has been repeatedly complicit in its many sins across that time. Putting aside the argument that this is a function of writers wanting to keep Beeny an active presence in the narrative — other Judges have quit the system in protest and remained as active presences, such as Galen DeMarco, who railed against the idea that Judges cannot enter into romantic relationships and ultimately gained her own spotlight serial as a private detective for her efforts — there’s no way to avoid the implication that Beeny’s continued presence on the streets of Mega-City One as a Judge is a commentary on the way in which activists can be swallowed by the machinery they once sought to change, losing all sense of perspective in the process.
When comparing the fictional Dredd to issues with real life policing, there’s one subject that hasn’t really been addressed: the lack of race relations between People of Color and law enforcement in the Judge Dredd strip; and the unfortunate reality is that up until very recently, it’s not something that been much considered.
“Judge Dredd didn’t feature stories about police/race relations because that was something beyond the comics’ scope and remit at the time [of its creation]. The majority of the characters were white because that was the perceived ethnic make-up of the readers, and publishers tend to want to give the readers characters with whom they can identify. The crime here is not the assumption that the readers were white, but that white readers wouldn’t be able or willing to identify with non-white characters,” Judge Dredd writer Michael Carroll explained via email. “As years passed, 2000 AD began to ‘age up’ with the readers, leaving behind the ‘kids comic’ approach and introducing more adult themes. But the Judge Dredd strip never — or only very rarely — directly addressed the problem of race relations.”
Another of the current Dredd writers, Arthur Wyatt, echoed Carroll’s statement. “It’s been there in allegory form since the start — but we know from countless iterations of the X-Men how limited that can be,” Wyatt wrote, referencing the Marvel comic book series often read as an allegory for race and bigotry. “It’s not been addressed directly for so long that Dredd’s world just magically became a post-racial once. Going back on that would be very hard to do, so it’s a way where for better or worse Dredd’s world is utopian compared to ours again.”
As Dredd’s world is at once more horrific and, albeit accidentally, more utopian than our own, we return to the question of Joe Dredd himself — the true example of whether someone framed as a hero can also, ultimately, be the villain. Wagner, as I mentioned above, sees the character as both, and other Dredd writers follow suit.
“If an escaped and hungry dune shark is loose in the city, eating citizens, and Dredd shows up on his bike — absolutely he’s a hero in that scenario. If a mother of two jaywalks and he hauls her into the [isolation] cubes for an oppressive and unnecessary two years leaving her kids in care, he’s the bad guy,” said writer Rob Williams when asked if Dredd was capable of being lumped in with what could be considered a good cop. “Are the Judges helping citizens or harming them? The system is undeniably cruel and a sticking plaster over a huge wound. They’re all too busy trying to maintain it to questions whether there’s a better, happier way of living.”
Michael Carroll also touched on the idea that Dredd as a symbol of futuristic police, accurately portrays the dichotomy of being the hero and the villain simultaneously. “Hero and Villain are labels applied depending on the viewpoint, and there’s no reason someone can’t wear two or more labels even if they are in conflict,” he argued. “The Judges believe that they are keeping the people safe by keeping them down. A swaddling cloth approach. Restrict their movements so they can’t hurt themselves, or others. Dredd supports this approach and his occasionally used catchphrase of ‘I Am the Law!’ is an example of how he embodies that. He is right. Always. […] This is why all of the most impactful Judge Dredd stories are often those that revolve around the ordinary people, not the Judges.”
The best story to embody this sentiment is the famous 1982 storyline, The Apocalypse War, written by Wagner and Alan Grant, which begs the question of what destruction for the greater good actually means. With the Sovs — what remains of the Soviet Union — reigning down on Mega City One with threats of nuclear annihilation, Dredd fights back in a storyline akin to propaganda World War II fiction, retaking his city before taking the fight to the home of the aggressors. Ultimately, he makes the decision to blow up East Meg One, utterly destroying the city. Throughout the storyline, he is repeatedly presented as a heroic figure, defending his territory before making a difficult decision for the greater good that results in, essentially, genocide.
Even if the climactic moment is quickly brushed away in the immediate wake of the storyline’s conclusion in 1982 — with an epilogue even making light of the decision, as Dredd jokes, “If we’ve learned nothing else from the apocalypse, we’ve learned one valuable lesson… Next time, we get our retaliation in first” — Wagner refused to let Dredd’s actions be forgotten entirely. In a sequence of stories starting in 1999, the few surviving Sovs began to seek revenge, first through quasi-legal remedies — Dredd is tried by survivors, only to escape before a verdict is delivered — and then through strategically-planned terrorist attacks on Mega-City One that killed approximately 350 million citizens and decimated the Justice Department. In the short term, Dredd’s actions might have ended a war, but in the longer term, all they had done was create the pretext for more violence, and on a scale unimaginable to many. Again, the critique of policing, and of any simple definition of “heroism,” is clear.
In case readers had missed that critique, Wagner made it clear in the 1999 storyline “The Trial,” with Judge Cassandra Anderson, given the role of Dredd’s defense counsel in his Sov trial, cross-examining the Sov agent whose actions launched the Apocalypse War in the first place. “After the war, how were you regarded by your compatriots… hero — or villain?” she asks; when the agent responds that he believed he was seen as the former, she continues, “Funny, isn’t it — one starts a slaughter and he’s a hero, the other fights back and he’s the Arch-Satan. Doesn’t make sense to me.” The same could be said, through implication, of the Judges and the citizens they rule over and so harshly police.
So what is the point of this comparison? Why was that joke about writing about Judge Dredd being the news more than just a little joke? The answer is right in a quote from Arthur Wyatt at the conclusion of our interview.
“Even if you’re doing a dumb adventure story about aliens or monkeys, it’s going to be hovering in the background. It may be even more to think about it with those highly satirical stories, as satirical fascism can slip into something that can be interpreted as a celebration of fascism,” concluded Wyatt. “If you’re going to write stories about a hyper violent fascist cop you can only really do that ethically if you interrogate what you are doing once and a while.”
At the end of the day, if there is any cautionary fictional tale to the unchecked force and destruction that comes with fascistic rule, it’s Judge Dredd — because ultimately the quality of policing is the quality of ruling. It’s easy to kick back on the couch and change the channel away from watching neighbors in our community fighting against something that may seem subjectively fruitless. It’s easy to write Judge Dredd fiction off as an old piece of ongoing satire that has no real predictive powers. But if we’re going to talk about rioting protestors, we need to talk about rioting police first, and recognizing the potential of catastrophic growth in a piece of subversive media like Judge Dredd stories is at least a good way start asking questions about the devil we know.
A note from the author: This piece was written and edited before the federal police occupation of Portland, Oregon, which is currently resulting in kidnapped protestors and courtroom evidence of embedded police agitators amongst protest crowds.