Forget Robocop, don't even consider Dirty Harry. If you want the toughest cop of the lot, then look no further than the comic book world's hardest lawman, Judge Dredd.
The World of Dredd
Joe Dredd is a Judge pounding the mean streets of Mega-City One, a kind of 22nd Century New York on steroids. A Judge is a policeman of the future, given total power to dispense instant and summary judgement (and execution, if necessary) to combat the rising tide of future crime. This urban nightmare covers the whole of the eastern seaboard of the United States, which no longer exists as a country per se. Following catastrophic worldwide nuclear bombardment, large areas of the globe have been left irradiated and inhospitable and what humanity remains has been corralled into mega-cities. Most of the interior of the US has become the Cursed Earth, a radioactive hellhole populated by mutants and outlaws. Meanwhile, in the mega-cities, unemployment and general dissatisfaction are so rife that there are riots over part-time janitorial jobs.
The Judges were formed to keep the peace and maintain some semblance of civilisation, and they do so with an iron fist. The judicial firearm of choice is the Lawgiver, a handgun that can fire seven different types of bullet: Standard, Heatseeker, Ricochet, Incendiary, Armour-Piercing, Grenade and High Explosive. The 'Double Whammy' is not one of them. Raised from a young age in the Justice Department Academy, their training is brutal and rigorous, ensuring that only the best graduate and become full Judges. This is rather tough in terms of supply and demand, as Judges are killed at a rate that makes Star Trek's turnover of red-shirted extras seem positively sparing. The best of the best is Dredd, cloned from the original Chief Judge, a man so ice-cold and devoted to his ideals that he killed his own brother Rico for breaking the law.
The History of the Strip
The comic book character known as Judge Joe Dredd started life as a character in the second prog (or issue) of British science fiction comic 2000AD in 1977. His story continues in this comic to the present day, and has been expanded to fill spin-off periodicals such as Judge Dredd the Megazine. His creators were the American writer John Wagner and Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra. Wagner's previous employment in the world of comic publishing had been a few ill-fated stints as editor of now-defunct Girls' Interest comic books/magazines. Ezquerra has remained with 2000AD from the outset to the present day (at time of writing), illustrating such strips as Strontium Dog and Al's Baby as well as being Dredd's premier artist.
Wagner had created a story about a future cop, based on a totally over-the-top Dirty Harry style character. He was stuck for a name, though. As this strip was going to be so wildly different from the conventional norm, mundane police terminology seemed out of place. At about the same time, Wagner's colleague at the comic, Pat Mills, was trying to fit a storyline around a loose character idea he had about a supernatural hero called Judge Dredd. Mills is the creator of the seminal 2000AD strips Slaine, ABC Warriors, Flesh and Nemesis the Warlock, among others. At some point, there must have been a meeting of minds, as the two ideas were fused into the most potent and iconic British comic-strip hero since Dan Dare (himself an early 2000AD regular).
Atmosphere and Tone
Judge Dredd stands apart from most other comic strips because of its tone. Whereas most spandex-clad crime fighting superheroes are unintentionally kitsch and laughable, Dredd actively seeks to be so. The contrast of a totally two-dimensional central character (who, nevertheless, is still perversely likeable precisely because he is so rigid, mean and hard-bitten) and a setting that wallows in over-the-top excess produces an atmosphere of high irony and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. The strip manages to combine a completely straight-faced approach with the most bizarre and outlandish of storylines. Classic examples include illegal eating games during food shortages, robot cars on the rampage, undead 'Dark Judges' from another dimension, plus any amount of stereotyped Sov-Judges (what the KGB might have been like had Stalin lived to be 200), dinosaurs, vampires, aliens and plain ol' 'perps' (perpetrators, the ordinary criminals of the future).
Coupled with this sense of the absurd are some serious issues as well. During the late 1980s, there was a subtle shift in tone, with Dredd becoming a little disillusioned with the quasi-fascist Judges. This followed a pro-democracy rally that the Judges ruthlessly crushed. This vision of the Judges being quintessentially totalitarian is a key issue in the story, and to address this concern, the writers gave Dredd the chance to justify himself. The citizens of Mega-City One held a vote over whether or not the Judges should be abolished. Ironically, the citizens voted against democracy, citing the old adage 'better the devil you know'.
This meant that after temporarily 'retiring' and taking the Long Walk1, Dredd was able to come back (after having 75% of his skin burnt off by acid, later regenerated by some sort of wonderfully convenient future technology) and save the city from the Dark Judges, a zombie apocalypse, and most recently, an invasion of killer robots. Dredd has taken a great deal of punishment over the years, having been shot countless times and had his eyes torn out. They were later replaced with bionic implants. His ageing has become an interesting development of the strip in recent years, but it hasn't stopped him from dispensing liberal amounts of violence whenever necessary.
The Angel Gang
The Angel Gang were a family of Cursed Earth outlaws who were notorious for their destructive and mindless sprees of killing and looting - until they ran into Dredd. They were Pa, the homicidal father of the group; Link, the eldest and most savage of Pa's sons; Junior, the psychotic baby of the family; and 'Mean Machine' Angel. This last son had been a normal youth, interested in peaceful things, until Pa decided that something had to be done about this aberration and got a doctor to remove his arms and give him a robotic replacement. He also gave him a reinforced metal cranium with a dial on the front. This dial is linked to what remains of Mean's brain, and has four settings: Surly, Mean, Vicious and Brutal. These settings control Mean's mood, and his corresponding level of violence. The dial can also get stuck on four and a half, which sends Mean into an unstoppable 'butt frenzy' (that's head butts, before you ask). He remains Mega-City One's premier 'lunatic buttist', despite the deaths of the rest of his brood (twice, after they were resurrected in a subsequent storyline).
The Dark Judges
The Dark Judges, namely Judges Death, Fear, Fire and Mortis, are undead perversions of Judges from another dimension, who decided that, because all crime was committed by the living, life itself became a crime, punishable by death. They judged their whole world and found it, unsurprisingly, guilty. Mega-City One presented a fresh task for them, and they have periodically tried to inflict their warped justice upon it. Dredd has thwarted them each time, even when they managed to capture the whole metropolis with the help of their sisters Phobia and Nausea while he was out of the city.
The Dark Judges are non-corporeal spirits who inhabit corpses to bring justice to the guilty, which means that when they are shot to pieces, it prompts Judge Death's catchphrase, 'Foolsss! You cannot kill what doesss not live!'. Fire resembles a burning skeleton in a Judge's uniform with a burning trident, Mortis has a horse's skull for a head, and his foetid touch causes death and decay. Fear has a visored helmet that contains his face; this is a sight so terrifying it literally scares people to death. Dredd has had the pleasure of seeing it, and his response to Fear's catchphrase 'gaze into the face of Fear!' was to say 'gaze into the fist of Dredd!' as he punched through Fear's head. The only effective method for dealing with the Dark Judges is imprisonment, sealed in their host bodies, encased in giant plastic bubbles.
Cassandra Anderson is a Psi-Judge, a telepathic and precognitive variant on a traditional Judge. She is the perfect foil to Dredd, and as such gets the lion's share of flippant remarks, wisecracks, and conversely some moments of genuine pathos. Her abilities have proven invaluable over the years, especially in fighting the Dark Judges.
Anderson provides the sympathetic demeanour that Dredd so conspicuously lacks, and has actually contravened his orders on occasion because of it. The most notable example of this is in the Dredd/Batman crossover story Judgement on Gotham.
Owen Krysler, The Judge Child / The Mutant
A senior Psi-Judge called Feyy predicted a terrible war and the dead rising from their graves about 20 years in the future. A mysterious boy with an eagle-shaped birthmark on his forehead, he was known as the Judge Child and was apparently the only hope of averting this disaster. Dredd went looking for him only to find that the Angel Gang had fled off-world with him. Dredd went on a long quest in a Justice Department spacecraft and finally caught up with them on the planet Grunwald. Dredd then proceeded, true to form, to find the Judge Child flawed and potentially evil and promptly abandoned him.
Following Dredd's exit, the Judge Child perished and an alien known as Grunwalder took a DNA sample of the deceased youth and attempted to clone him. Alas, a hideous Mutant was created due to the alien's inadequate facilities, and it escaped seeking revenge. It travelled to Earth in 2120 and took Mega-City One. Those it killed were raised from the dead to serve its incredible power. Dredd travelled forward in time with Anderson from 2107 to stop the Mutant, but had his eyes torn from his head and only just escaped from his undead future self. However, the trip proved that the Mutant was the Judge Child, and so Dredd went back in time instead, stopping Grunwalder from completing his cloning experiment and destroying the remaining DNA.
Walter the Wobot
Walter was Judge Dredd's housekeeping robot when Dredd was a resident in Rowdy Yates Block. He has a prodigious speech impediment (hence 'Wobot') and a completely sycophantic attachment to Dredd. This attachment was threatened in later stories, as Walter became the first free robot and an unscrupulous business tycoon with a chip on his shoulder. Dredd finally arrested him, more for the neurotic android's own good than anything else, but he has periodically managed to break out and reappear in the storyline.
Chopper (aka Marlon Shakespeare)
Chopper (whose real name is Marlon Shakespeare) made his first notable appearance as the Midnight Surfer, a rebellious young graffiti-artist and skysurfer. Skysurfing is one of the typically ridiculous future trends of Mega-City One, which involves riding a powered and airborne platform that looks like a small-winged and futuristic surfboard.
He became a legend among skysurfers by 'shooting the fox' backwards, an impossible manoeuvre involving flying down a road tunnel against the traffic flow. Dredd eventually caught up with him and imprisoned him, but Chopper escaped to compete in the Supersurf competition (a futuristic version of extreme games) in Australia in the Dredd epic Oz. Chopper flew all the way across America and the Pacific, but lost in the final part of the competition. He went on to recover from horrendous injuries incurred in the following Supersurf and moved to the Radback of Oz.
The Influence of Dredd
Judge Dredd has developed from a teenager's science fiction strip to become an internationally-recognised franchise. The story has inspired the likes of Anthrax, who wrote the song 'I Am The Law' about Dredd, and has been the basis for many awful video games.
The narrative and visual style of Dredd has arguably provided inspiration for many of the subsequent Hollywood futuristic action movies, from the snappy one-liner dialogue to the tongue-in-cheek nihilism of the setting. Peter Weller's dialogue as Robocop, for instance, could have come from the strip's speech bubbles ('Your move, creep' is a dead giveaway). Much of Stallone's later career also seems to imitate Judge Dredd's idioms. Demolition Man is a film in point.
Little wonder, then, that Stallone decided to take the lead role in the 1995 motion picture version of Judge Dredd; despite using regular 2000AD contributors such as the artist Kevin Walker, the film bombed at the box office. It looked great, but the script was poor, issuing from such leading Hollywood scribes as William 'Terminator II' Wisher and Steven 'Commando' E de Souza.