The Toughest Lawman Of Them All: Looking Back On Judge Dredd’s First Appearance
Dystopian futures have been a fixture of the sci-fi genre for as long as there's been a genre to have fixtures; cautionary tales about the crushing of the individual or the dangers of unchecked technology. In the second issue of 2000 AD, a British comic anthology that promised readers a weekly dose of thrillpower from the far-off future of the 21st century, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra asked exactly the kind of question that great sci-fi is built around: What if there was a story about a dystopian future plagued by hyperviolent crime, ruled over by a totalitarian state, where things were so bad that even existing could drive a man insane from future shock... and the fascist cops were the good guys?
The result was the stone-faced lawman who would become the UK's greatest comic book character: Judge Dredd, who made his first appearance on March 5th, 1977.
With Wagner's over-the-top dialogue and breathless captions --- "And you're gonna bleed, Judge! I'm gonna blast you with this LASER CANNON!" --- setting the scene, Ezquerra's art gave the world an antihero who was every bit as intimidating as the villains, all leather and literal jackboots, covered in eagles and chains, with his face covered save for a signature scowl. It's one of the greatest costumes in comics history, and the stories that went with it more than delivered on the promise of Dredd as the toughest lawman of them all.
But that's the perspective of someone who came to that story as an adult. For a different point of view, we spoke to 2000 AD editor Matt Smith to get his thoughts on that first story:
My first Dredd was ‘Monsteroso’ in Prog 412 (April 1985), a done-in-one story in which the lawman has to deal with an out-of-control giant construction robot, which he succeeds in stopping by getting it to decapitate itself. By the time you get to Dredd’s typically pithy payoff line --- ‘Now let’s find out who’s responsible for this thing and make some arrests – heads are gonna roll!’ --- everything you need to know about the character and the strip is there in those seven pages. It didn’t matter that I’d missed the previous eight years’ worth of stories (though I’d soon catch up) --- I was hooked.
That is the genius of Judge Dredd, and one of the reasons why the series has lasted thirty-nine years since it first appeared – the sheer simplicity of the concept. He’s a cop in the 22nd-century metropolis of Mega-City One, empowered to dispense instant justice. He’s Dirty Harry in the future, and his sole concern is enforcing the law in a city in which crime is rife. Anyone can pick up a Dredd story and get where he’s coming from.
Dig deeper and you’ll be rewarded with the nuances of satire and political complexity, but on the surface it’s an action story about a helmeted bike cop breaking heads.
That’s the very tack that’s taken in Dredd’s first appearance in Prog 2 way back in March 1977 – Dredd storms the old Empire State Building to eliminate a gang of crooks that have been murdering Judges. He takes no prisoners, shows no mercy – he even argues, Harry Callahan-style, with his superior about the best tactics to use. He is, as the opening pages tells us, ‘The toughest lawman of them all’, and right from the off the strip revels in its hard, uncompromising edge, whether it’s the Chief Judge wanting to bomb the whole building and everyone in it off the face off the earth, or Dredd sentencing Whitey, the leader of the gang, to life on Devil’s Island, a traffic island surrounded on all sides by non-stop vehicles, where the prisoners are marooned.
Whitey’s chilling cries for clemency (‘No - not Devil’s Island! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’) unsurprisingly fall on deaf ears. There’s no time for courts or due process, not in a city of 800 million people, all of them potential perps – the guilty are summarily judged with zero tolerance.
It’s impossible to underestimate just how powerful this opening episode is, and how well it works in setting up Britain’s most successful comics character. From the starscrapers dwarfing the Empire State to the future tech of the lawman’s gun and bike, and the instantly iconic uniform, it draws you into a world you want to know more about --- and in Dredd himself, you have one mean SOB, his features always hidden behind a visor, who has just stamped his mark on popular culture with a size-ten boot."
So Happy Birthday, Judge Dredd. Maybe one day, we'll get a smile out of you to celebrate.