If your experience with Judge Dredd has been limited to famous Anthrax songs, not famous Human League songs, and watching the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie hungover on basic cable on Sunday afternoons, know that Mega-City One's top cop has a complex (and rather wacky) pedigree. Here's a crash course on why Dredd is the law.
Judge Joe Dredd first appeared way back in 1977, in the second issue of the British science fiction comic 2000 AD. This freewheeling anthology title would later popularize such motley characters as the futuristic adventurer Halo Jones, the bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, and (my personal favorite) Sam Slade the Robo-Hunter, who was often accompanied by his incompetent mechanical sidekick Hoagy and a sentient robotic cigar named Stogie (who was invented because 2000 AD editors wanted to cut back on characters' tobacco use).
2000 AD also helped launch the careers of such luminaries as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Kevin O'Neill, Brendan McCarthy, and Neil Gaiman. (The book Thrill Power Overload provides a detailed history of all matters 2000 AD.)
As for Judge Dredd — not to be confused with deceased reggae singer Judge Dread — he was conceived by writer John Wagner, 2000 AD editor Pat Mills, and artist Carlos Ezquerra as a no-nonsense tough cop taken to ludicrous, futuristic extremes. And since his creation, oodles of comic creators have taken a crack at the character. As Wagner once recalled of his design instructions to Ezquerra:
As far as I can remember, [they were] pretty sketchy. I think I sent him the newspaper advert for Death Race 2000 with a picture of a grim bike rider in leathers and helmet and the instructions "something like this." I must have mentioned Dredd's armament too, but I wouldn't have gone into it in great depth. If you've seen my scripts, you'll know I don't use fifty words when I can get away with one.
And as the years have wended on, Dredd has become pop culturally synonymous with "the ultimate draconian cop." Born (well, cloned actually) in the year 2066, Joe Dredd grew up to become a street judge of Mega-City One, a massive urban metroplex encompassing the eastern coast of North America. By the time Dredd is an adult, most of the continent is a radioactive hellhole called The Cursed Earth. (Here are some wonderfully depressing maps of Dredd's world.) Because of the Mega-City One's sprawl, population, and science gone wild, the street judges — who must eschew all relationships (including sexual ones) in the name of the law — are granted the all-in-one legal powers of judge, jury, and executioner. (For example, one of the prisons in Mega-City One is just a giant ladder-less pillar surrounded by elevated highways.)
And nobody epitomizes the Judges' lifestyle quite like Dredd. For example, he (almost) never takes off his helmet, will arrest you for the slightest infraction, and barely sleeps. (Explains Wagner, "He usually only gets ten minutes in the sleep machine, hardly time to disrobe.") It's also worthy mentioning that Judge Dredd ages in real time — since debuting in the 1970s, he's now a spry seventy-something.
Despite being an extreme martinet, Dredd has become one of the most beloved and iconic comic book heroes out there. As Wagner's noted of the character's enduring appeal:
If you were in a sticky spot there's no one you'd rather have on your side than old Joe — even if you did have to do a couple of years for your trouble. But it's not so hard to understand him. There's Dredd in all of us — good and bad. Which of us hasn't felt the punitive urge, the desire to see someone get their comeuppance? You're driving along, say, and someone cuts you up, and you think — boy, wouldn't mind seeing Dredd come along, pull that asshole over and smash his face. And you genuinely — genuinely — would love it to happen. Or am I just a bit twisted?
No, John, you're not! Of course, Dredd's harshness is leavened by crimes that are often over-the-top silly, supernatural, or a satirical commentary on contemporary society. Dredd (the movie) looks rather grim and grimy, but this tone isn't indicative of the character's historical tenor (i.e. Dredd's rogues gallery includes the morbidly obese).
Joe Dredd is a monomaniacal guy, but he's not a loner. He's frequently joined by fellow Judges like Hershey and Anderson to do battle with such foes as the cybernetic Angel Gang and the demonic Dark Judges. (io9's list of essential Judge Dredd story arcs is a great place to delve into these characters.)
And along with his helmet, Dredd bears such touchstone accessories as his multipurpose Lawgiver firearm and his souped-up Lawmaster motorcycle. And hilariously enough, there's also his handheld "birdie" lie detector, which has caused Wagner a good deal of narrative consternation over the decades:
When Dredd was created no one imagined it would last so long. The normal practice in British comics at the time was to run a story for 12 to 16 episodes then give it a break, usually permanent. If the story was popular you might think of bringing it back for another series, and another, but nothing was expected to go on and on. So story lines were used that created big problems further along the road. For instance, Dredd's handheld lie detector. It was practically foolproof, no citizen could get away with lying to him. Fine for a one-off story, but as an ongoing state of affairs it's hell on the writer and could make for some very short stories – "Did you do it?" – "No" – "You're lying, the sentence is death" – The End. I've been jumping through hoops ever since to get 'round it.
Will the Dredd motion picture capture, in its entirety, the absurdist and brutal tapestry of all things Joe Dredd? Well, the filmmakers want to distance themselves from the campy Sylvester Stallone flick, so they seem to be tamping down on the dystopian weirdness that has tinged the hero's many outings. But no matter what happens with this movie, Judge Dredd will survive.
Why? Because of all the characters in fiction, he's the one most likely to jump off the page and incarcerate you for stealing a Caramello in the fourth grade. Because, drokk, justice never sleeps.
Top and middle artwork: Greg Staples, Cliff Robinson. Cutaway images via 2000 AD.org