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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Review: Judge Dredd Part 1 – The First Forty

Despite my previous comments about 2000AD I’ve never actually read much Judge Dredd. My only experiences of the character in comics have been a few standard strips in the 2000AD/Judge Dredd annuals and some reprints of newspaper strips. In fact the bulk of my Judge Dredd familiarity comes from reading The Megahistory from the library several years ago (a book that covers the creative history, including the struggles and behind the scenes soap opera – I recently bought a copy of my own and re-read it). With this in mind I decided to start at the beginning, back in time to 1977 and the first rocky steps of Britain’s favourite lawman.

It was a good thing that I’d been prepared by The Megahistory because, to be brutally honest, this first year’s worth of Dredd is hardly the stuff of legend. For those unfamiliar with 2000AD, the strips (at least during this period) tend to run to roughly 6 pages, with occasional multi-part tales and, during this period, one multi-issue “epic”. The entire first forty strips are largely an exercise in throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Despite Pat Mills searching desperately for the ideal first Dredd strip he wasn’t against making use of those he rejected in later issues. He was also in the position of heavily rewriting submitted work in an effort to establish a coherent initial style for Dredd and Dredd’s universe. It’s messy, background building stuff that attempts to found the basics of the Lawman Of The Future and the world he inhabits.

The core idea of many of these stories is a perfectly legitimate plot for a Dredd strip. Unfortunately the implementation is ham-fisted and only bearable at best. The dialogue is almost entirely compose of people shouting and finishing their lines with exclamation marks, something that happened a lot in comics of the 60s and 70s but was often done much better than this. The characters are largely flat and non-existent. Establishing Judge Dredd as a definite individual is still a work in progress by the end of this period, despite the efforts of Robot Wars and the one-off The Return Of Rico. Frighteningly the most established character is the generally very irritating Walter the robot who exists mostly as Dredd’s comedy sidekick.

The most interesting part of the early Dredd work is watching the developing visual aspects. Mike McMahon is the defining artist of these first 40 strips. He begins by aping the style of “pilot strip” artist Carlos Ezquerra but quickly starts his journey through more expressive comic art. His apparent love of the circular Dredd helmet in this period (it gets more and more like a ball on his head as time goes on) does detract from watching him develop, and rather cripples the other artists (excluding Ezquerra’s few printed contributions here). The Dredd strips not by these two tend to result in a laughably stupid looking central character, with even the first efforts of Brian Bolland looking particularly painful when Dredd is on the page. When the awful circular helmet is finally evolved past it becomes much easier to enjoy the evolution of the Dredd artwork.

The first “epic” Dredd story is the multi-part Robot Wars, which does display the first sparks of quality (and is incidentally written by John Wagner). The racism allegory is hardly subtle but works much better than most of the other material, and shows more of the dark comedy potential that would be realised so often later on, more than most of the other strips that is. The Return Of Rico is something that would fuel so much of Dredd’s mythos over the years but as a strip itself it’s a woefully short and clumsy piece. Still, it’s one of the highlights of these messy early works so it is a stand out point. It’s also worth noting that despite John Wagner (the writing half of Judge Dredd’s creation) being the definitive Dredd writer, his work here is almost as stumbling as everyone else’s.

Ultimately this is a history lesson rather than an enjoyable experience, at this point. I know it gets better (as I’ve already read the next period I’ll review and on after that) and I can’t deny that a lot of the corner stones of Judge Dredd & Mega-City One are established here. It’s just that anyone expecting to fall in love with the character during its first year (if they’re reading it today) will be hard pressed to do so.

Posted by Alex Hopkinson @ 9:29 PM


At 4:26 PM, September 26, 2005, puzzlemonkey said...

Very perceptive and well put, I thought. Having only read Judge Whitey (Dredd #1) and smatterings of the Robot Wars saga I can't argue with you.

I dimly recall reading a story many years ago where JD returns from Luna and can't arrest anyone until he reports to the Hall of Justice. Then a gang of crooks plot to get him to chase them up a one way street on that grounds that he is so retentive he will arrest himself. Dire stuff, yet the Whitey story has kernels of what made JD phenominally great later on, just in the tone and no compromise attitude of the character.

Very good comments about the art, I always wondered about those round helmets. It makes a welcome change to read comics commentary more articulate than "the coolest! thing! ever!". (Though Dredd imesho is very close to that.)

Can't agree with you on the MACH1 and Invasion strips though. When I got the chance to read reprints of them they were just dated, and the various attempts to resurrect them have largely left me non plussed.

More strength to your reviewing arm, and I'm looking forward to your next take on Dredd.

At 9:44 AM, September 27, 2005, Alex Hopkinson said...

Yeah I've not re-read the MACH 1 & Invasion stuff and it probably doesn't hold up to my nostalgia. :) The benefit (if it is one) of reading the Dredd stuff (well, almost all of it anyways) for the first time is that I'm not tainted b anything more than an appreciation of the concept...

Yeah that story at the end of the Luna-1 period is rather oddly done. It's one of those "nice idea, poor execution" pieces that you get a lot of in the early Dredd years. I'll be going over that period next.

Thanks for your kind words!

At 4:58 AM, November 02, 2005, Tom said...

That's the first commentary I've ever read about the changing shape of Dredd's appearance (particularly the helmet) through the "early years".
As you no doubt know, just several weeks after the "first forty", Mike McMahon decided to change the shape of Dredd's helmet (and especially the "visor area" of it) into something a bit meaner looking. To me, this is where the real fun starts. I've always detested McMahon's art, it just looks too rough and slapdash to my eyes. It's Brian Bolland who really evolves the look of Dredd over the next few years, and you can see him experimenting with slightly different shapes of helmet/visor. First the visor area is triangular, then it looks like the head of an eagle in profile, gradually evolving into a sharper, pointed look. (I can sit and just stare at Bolland's work for hours, it is so pleasing to the eye, somehow).
Anyway, I have almost every 2000AD episode of Judge Dredd from the start to about 1988, so I'd be happy to scan and email you any images you want, to illustrate your continued story of Dredd.


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