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.)