Now that Judge Dredd is starring in a movie that does his legend justice, we all have an opportunity to rediscover our love for Mega-City One's finest lawman. But how can you get past the broad-brush stereotype of a helmeted future-cop who shouts "I am the Law" on a motorcycle? The truth is, Judge Dredd and his world are a lot more complicated (and weirder) than you might realize.
Here are 11 absolutely essential Judge Dredd storylines, to help you become an expert on all things Dredd before Friday. And yes, there's no way we could cover every great story here — there are so many weird and amazing Dredd adventures out there, you'd need a top 100 list to cover them all. Please do list your favorites in the comments!
2000 A.D. has been publishing massive volumes of The Complete Judge Dredd Casefiles, and they were kind enough to send us some review copies. It's amazing and addictive to breeze through a dozen stories in one sitting. Also, if you want more Judge Dredd insights, Douglas Wolk has been reviewing every single Dredd storyline with a rotating cast of commentators in his Dredd Reckoning blog, and it's fascinating reading.
1. The Cursed Earth Saga (1977-1978)
Summary: Judge Dredd has to transport medical supplies across the Cursed Earth, the radioactive wasteland outside Mega-City One. The journey won't be easy — mutants, monsters and broken-down war robots will do anything in their power to stop and kill Dredd.
Why it's essential: The first long Judge Dredd storyline is also one of the most heroic, with the image of Dredd being reduced to crawling through the radioactive wasteland — and still not giving up — likely to sear itself into your brain. Dredd is nearly crushed by the elements and all the horrors that are kept outside Mega-City One, but he keeps going in spite of everything.
2. The Day the Law Died (1978-1979)
Summary: The tyrannical Judge Cal takes over as Chief Judge of Mega-City One, and tries to have Dredd discredited and later assassinated. Soon enough, Cal becomes drunk with power, putting a goldfish in as one of his judges and sentencing the entire city to death. Basically, it's the story of Emperor Caligula, transplanted wholesale to the 22nd Century.
Why it's essential: A major preoccupation of many of the best Dredd comics is the abuse of power, and what happens when Dredd meets a distorted reflection of his own absolutist principles. And here, we see the Judges controlled by a maniac with no self control, and just how much damage he's able to do.
3. The Judge Child (1980)
Summary: This is another one that had a huge impact on me as a kid. Once again, Dredd ventures out into the Cursed Earth, this time to seek out a special child who has a birthmark shaped like the Judges' eagle symbol on his forehead. Only this child can save Mega-City One from a prophesied disaster. But as usual, the Cursed Earth is full of huge challenges, including the Angel Gang and their rampaging cyborg son, Mean Machine. Eventually, Dredd is forced to chase the Angel Gang and their child captive across space, to a number of other planets.
Why it's essential: It's another epic quest, and another story that shows just how far Dredd will go to complete his mission — but it's also another look at what happens when the wrong person has too much power, because Dredd starts to suspect that the Judge Child may not be the savior everybody thinks.
4. The Dark Judges (1980-1981)
Summary: This is the landmark storyline where we meet Judge Death, who comes from a parallel dimension where the Judges decided that the only way to stop all crime was to make life itself illegal — and all living beings were found guilty and condemned to death. Judge Death comes to Mega-City One to carry out the ultimate judgement that Dredd and his colleagues are unable to, but is stopped by the psychic Judge Anderson. Later, Death escapes with the help of three other Dark Judges, and Dredd and Anderson are forced to face them on their home territory.
Why it's essential: Yet another dark reflection of Dredd, in which we see a monstrous version who takes Dredd's extreme measures to an even more extreme place. Also notable for the supreme "fuck yeah" moment where Dredd faces Judge Fear, whose gaze is so terrifying that anyone who sees his face dies instantly. "Gaze into the Face of Fear!" the Dark Judge intones. See Dredd's response at left.
5. Block-Mania/The Apocalypse War (1981-1982)
Summary: In the dystopian sprawl of Mega-City One, Block Wars sometimes break out between the massive apartment blocks — but when the whole city descends into block-on-block mayhem, Judge Dredd suspects a conspiracy. And he's right! The whole thing was orchestrated by the Soviet citystate, East Meg One — and with the judges weakened, the Sov judges launch an all-out attack.
Why it's essential: This story covers a lot of ground, including the craziness and violence of Mega-City One's citizens, and the absurdity of arcologies like Enid Blyton Block launching attacks on their neighbors. (Enid Blyton being a British children's author.) And then just when Mega-City One is completely melting down, the real insanity begins, and we meet the communist counterparts to our beloved Judges. Dredd is usually at his best when he's saving his city.
6. Democracy (1986)
Summary: A pro-democracy movement springs up in Mega-City One, opposing the fascist rule of the Judges. First, a woman named Hester Hyman becomes a martyr when she's killed by Judge Dredd. Later, a huge pro-democracy march springs up in her name, and Dredd uses dirty tricks and underhanded tactics to sabotage it, because democracy is a pernicious idea and a failed experiment. See also some other stories about democracy in Mega-City One, such as "America," "Letter to a Democrat" and "Total War."
Why it's essential: Dredd was always kind of a fascist satire, but this is the story that really twists the knife, and shows just how horrendous it is to live under the rule of the Judges. Instead of seeing Judge Dredd facing monsters and super-criminals, we see him facing ordinary democracy protestors, and suddenly he's no longer so admirable.
7. Necropolis (1990)
Summary: Four years after the "Democracy" storyline, Dredd finally starts to have doubts about the "big lie": that the Judges know what's best for the people in Mega-City One. He resigns as a Judge and goes out into the Cursed Earth alone. But he's replaced by an impersonator, Judge Kraken, who turns out to be the perfect pawn to bring back the Dark Judges and terrorize the city.
Why it's essential: Among other things, the notion of Dredd resigning as a Judge is pretty major, especially given what a huge about-face it is from this actions in "Democracy." Even though Dredd returns to save the city, his relationship with it is never quite the same afterwards.
8. Mechanismo (1992-1993)
Summary: In the wake of the chaos of "Necropolis," the city experiments with robot judges — who turn out to be unreliable and have a tendency to run out of control, just like anyone who'd read a lot of science fiction might expect. Dredd actually breaks the law and perjures himself to try and stop the robot judges, and finally he winds up at odds with the formerly sympathetic Judge McGruder, who's become increasingly unstable after she exiled herself to the Cursed Earth years earlier.
Why it's essential: As Douglas Wolk puts it, this is the story where Dredd is put up against a machine that dispenses the law without justice — although it does tend to drag quite a bit. Probably worth it just to see Dredd step over the line into outright law-breaking.
9. Origins (2006-2007)
Summary: For the 30th anniversary of the comic, creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra finally reveal the origins of the Cursed Earth and the Judges, through a framing sequence in which Dredd and some other Judges venture out to pay a huge ransom for the long-lost body of the first ever Chief Judge, Fargo. Not surprisingly, it turns out there were a lot of cover-ups and corruption behind the creation of the Judge system. You can read the script of the first issue here.
Why it's essential: Not only does it explain just how the Judges came to be, and how the rest of America got nuked, it also shows us a very young Judge Dredd, helping to safeguard the system in its infancy.
10. Tour of Duty (2009-2010)
Summary: When a new anti-mutant Chief Judge takes over, Dredd is exiled for his pro-mutant sentiments, and he's put in charge of four newly created mutant townships. But when a serial killer named P.J. Maybe (who's actually the mayor) is on the loose in Mega-City One, only Dredd can stop him. But to restore order to Mega-City One, Dredd may have to run for Chief Judge himself. See some scans here.
Why it's essential: By this point, Dredd has been transformed into a bit of a liberal, standing up for the oppressed mutant minority. And you can also see how the politics of Mega-City One have become a lot more complicated over the years, even as it retains its defining totalitarianism.
11. Day of Chaos (2011-2012)
Summary: And finally, a 48-issue epic in which the ramifications of having a serial killer for its mayor come home to roost in Mega-City One. The Russians seek revenge for the events of the Apocalypse War, aiming to unleash a deadly virus on Mega-City One. To make matters worse, P.J. Maybe has escaped and murders his successor, and meanwhile, the Dark Judges are freed once again. Basically, Mega-City One is trashed.
Why it's essential: After so many storylines that threatened to wreck the city, John Wagner finally delivers an all-out orgy of destruction. And in large part, the worst horrors come as a result of the other Judges failing to follow Dredd's ruthless, extreme methods, bringing Dredd back to his roots as the meanest of them all.
Major thanks to Dave Williams for massive amounts of input — and to Douglas Wolk for all his help!