It always seems strange to me, talking to Americans, to realise how British comic 2000AD is viewed across the pond. It's something that's been part of my life since I was ten years old, and the idea that only a vague awareness of it exists and is apparently a thing over here feels a bit like me only dimly being aware that the X-men exist. I'd imagine that even amongst those who are aware that the Judge Dredd movie was based on a comic, only a minority of those know that the comic is 2000AD and that it features a huge number of other characters. I could list the vast swathes of creators that either started their professional career at Tharg's Mighty Organ*, or did substantial work there at some point, but it wouldn't really be a great use of the time it would take me to type it, nor the time it would take you to read it. Suffice to say...2000AD is the shit, and I'll be covering some of the other major characters featured at some point in the future. For now, I'm going to be talking about the big man himself. The one you've all heard of. Judge Joseph Dredd of Mega-City One.
Judge Dredd was created by writer John Wagner (also responsible for A History of Violence, which was adapted into a movie by David Cronenberg) and artist Carlos Ezquerra (who you'll probably know from his many collaborations with Garth Ennis), although writer and original 2000AD editor Pat Mills (Marshall Law) also had a large hand in developing the character. He debuted in issue #2 of 2000AD in a story by Mills and artist Mike McMahon (Wagner had briefly quit due to some backroom shenanigans, and Ezquerra was passed over for Dredd's first appearance, not making his published debut on the character for several months). Essentially conceived as a futuristic Dirty Harry dispensing justice in a crime ridden future megalopolis, the initial Dredd strips were, in retrospect, fairly run of the mill for British sci-fi comics of the time. Luckily the extreme violence of the stories combined with Ezquerra's unconventional design (and what a design! All chains and zippers and massive shoulder pads. He's fascism by way of fetishism) struck a chord with readers.
It's strange that he did, in many ways. The strip, though always having been intended as a darkly comic satire, is easy to read superficially as glorifying police brutality and fascist government. Dredd was designed to be the ultimate fascist in a world where the police are the most absolute authority and you can be shot for something as minor as jaywalking. During the punk era when the strip first appeared, the idea of any cop as hero catching the public imagination seems bizarre, but the sheer fuck everything nihilism of the thing, and the fact that the Mega-City One Justice Department were clearly not the good guys helped it along.
For a long time, Dredd was essentially a cipher. There's a hell of a lot of fun to be had in the early years of the strip, with Wagner (who had returned sporadically during the first couple of years, taking over full time with the epic Day The Law Died arc) turning the satire up to 11 and establishing an anything goes attitude to the world he was creating. One minute Dredd would be leading the defense of the city as full on nuclear war broke out between the American Mega-City One and the Russian East Meg One in a horrific satire of cold war paranoia, the next he would be punching werewolves in the face, or investigating match fixing in the world of competitive eating. The Dreddverse is a place where literally anything can happen even now, but in those early days Dredd's unflappable deadpan response to the most lunatic of situations allowed Wagner to push the world in imaginative directions that most comic editors would laugh out of the room. Dredd needed to be a cipher back then. The supporting cast, including Dredd's robot butler and ridiculously OTT Italian landlady, a jive talking informant in a pinstripe suit, and several of Dredd's fellow Judges provided plenty of colour to the cast. Dredd's character remained as blank as his helmeted face, simply a faceless representative of the monolithic system he stood for.
In the long run though, the character couldn't continue as a blank slate forever. Over the course of several storylines in the late 80s and early 90s, Dredd grew disillusioned with the system he represented, and he began to develop an actual personality. After Justice Department sabotaged the movement for democracy in the city, and following the death of a young boy caused by a failure in the system, Dredd was revealed to be more moral than loyal, and he quit. Obviously he returned in fairly short order, but the character wasn't the same anymore.
Well, sometimes he wasn't. After Dredd's return, Wagner left 2000AD to help found sister publication The Judge Dredd Megazine, a new comic whose strips would (to begin with at least) focus entirely on strips exploring the expanded Dreddverse. At 2000AD, writing duties on Dredd were initially handled by an up and coming Garth Ennis, followed by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar. Although there were occasional flashes of brilliance on show during these years (Ennis's zombie apocalypse epic Judgement Day was a fantastic bit of action movie lunacy), but generally Dredd became a caricature of his former self, Wagner's work on developing his character thrown out of the window in favour of ever more extreme violence and unsubtle humour. It's not a period looked on favourably by long term fans, despite the talent involved.
At the Megazine, Wagner delivered what is to this day very possibly the most perfect Dredd story ever published. America, the story of childhood sweethearts who meet again years later after one of them becomes a terrorist fighting for democracy, was Wagner confronting more than ever the implications of the world he had created. The Judges are the bad guys. They're terrible people who do terrible things in the name of preserving their power. Suddenly, all the times it had seemed so hilarious when Dredd delivered a quip after blowing the fuck out of a bunch of guys didn't seem quite so funny in retrospect. America is not only arguably the best Dredd story ever written, it's one that has had massive impact on the character since its publication.
Whilst Dredd himself was becoming more introspective, elsewhere in the Magazine the Dreddverse was expanding ever outwards. Longtime supporting characters like Psi-Judge Anderson and Judge Hershey got their own strips. Strips exploring the justice system in other countries appeared. Dave Stone's British plainclothes detective Judge Armitage. Robbie Morrison and Frank Quitely's Japanese Ronin ex-Judge Shimura, Gordon Rennie's cowboy Preacher Cain, the Missionary Man, took on mutants and outlaws in the radioactive wasteland of the Cursed Earth. Whilst some of the international characters struggled to be more than essentially Dredd in some sort of stereotypical national themed uniform, plenty of them managed to expand the world in genuinely interesting directions. The standout was probably John Smith and Sean Phillip's Devlin Waugh, a bodybuilding gay exorcist working for the Vatican who takes on a vampire outbreak in an underwater prison and ends up becoming infected himself. The only character to ever beat Dredd in the Megazine's end of year popularity poll, there really isn't another character quite like him anywhere in comics.
It's that kind of infinitely explorable universe that keeps Dredd interesting even now. 35 years of stories, dozens of spin off strips, and there's always something new around the corner. The last few years have seen Dredd fighting the cause of Mutant rights in Mega-City One, an unpopular decision that saw him briefly exiled from the city, and currently Wagner is crafting what might be his last hurrah with the truly massive story Day of Chaos, the city under attack from all sides and tearing itself apart with civil unrest. Huge changes for the world are promised, and it's even possible that Wagner might kill off Dredd himself before leaving the strip (a potential replacement, clone brother/sort of surrogate son figure Judge Rico has been a supporting character for over to a decade now). Dredd has aged in real time since his debut and is now pushing 70, and it's unlikely that retirement to a quiet desk job awaits him. Dying heroically is the only reasonable conclusion to expect. Once he's gone, he'll never be back (although possibly some sort of "lost tales" flashbacks might appear now and again). The world will continue, but Judge Joseph Dredd will be gone for good.
So, interested in actually reading some now? I've only given the most cursory evaluation of the character and the world, but if you're interested in getting into the character, the best place to start is with the huge Complete Case Files volumes. They're similar to the Marvel Essential/ DC Showcase editions, reprinting big chunks of material in original publication order. The first five volumes are available from Amazon in the states (Here's Volume One) and can be ordered at your LCS, Over here in the UK we're up to volume 18, along with two volumes of the Restricted Files series, reprinting material from annuals and specials. You can find them in all good bookstores and etc etc you know the drill.
It goes without saying I recommend it. There's a new movie on the way later this year, starring Karl Urban as Dredd, Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson and Lena Heady as the villain, so I'd imagine 2000AD owners Rebellion are going to be making a big push into the US market. IDW comics have licensed the character for the first US originated material since DC's not especially great tie-ins to the fucking dreadful Stallone movie, so expect to see a lot more of the guy in the next six months. But why wait when there's so much already out there? You know it makes sense. He is the law, after all...
*Tharg is the editor of 2000AD, a bright green alien from Betelguese on a mission to bring "thrill power" to Earth. Or more seriously, the fictional character taken on by whoever the current editor happens to be (currently Matt Smith. No, not that one). Having fictional editors has always been something of a thing in UK comics, something very much like characters like the Crypt Keeper or Cain and Abel in the states. It's a bit of a silly contrivance, but it adds a sense of fun and continuity to the editorial role.