This is Foggy Ruins of TIme, a feature that provides the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the "foggy ruins of time." To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of Seinfeld will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in "The Understudy" to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal).
Reader Kevin C. wanted to me feature this one.
Judge Dread (born Alexander Hughes) was a famous English ska and reggae musician.
Taking his name from a Prince Buster song called "Judge Dread," Dread became a popular (if controversial) musician, best known for his sexual innuendos in his songs (the BBC banned many of his songs).
Years later, John Wagner came up with his pitch for a new series for "2000 A.D.," which was a mixture between "Dirty Harry," "Rollerball," "Death Race 2000" and "Fahrenheit 451."
As for the name, it was actually Wagner's editor, Pat Mills, who first used the Judge Dread name. Here's Mills, from an excellent piece on his blog (which you can read here) with the details:
I had previously created a black magic serial for 2000AD, entitled “Judge Dread“. I had taken the name from a popular Jamaican reggae band at the time. The hero was a kind of occult Doctor Who, with the visual image of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. My Judge Dread, famous for being Britain’s last “Hanging Judge”, had sentenced to death many of Britain’s most notorious and vicious murderers. I wrote a first episode where the Judge and his companions pursue a group of black magicians who are holding a sabbat at Stonehenge. It ended with a sensational revelation: Judge Dread discloses he last met the leader of the Satanists when he stood before him in the dock at the Old Bailey; and sentenced him to be hung from the neck until dead!
John, now reviewing this script for me, felt such an occult story did not fit into my comic of science fiction stories and recommended I ditch it. I agreed and, as the title was going spare, he asked me if he could have it for his cop story, to which I also agreed. Later, we changed it to “Judge Dredd” to avoid complaints from the reggae band.
Wagner actually did not get to debut the character (nor did the artist who designed Dredd, Carlos Ezquerra, get to drew the character first) as Wagner temporarily left "2000 A.D." over a separate monetary dispute unrelated to Dredd. This is partially why Judge Dredd did not debut until the second issue (or "prog") of "2000 A.D.," drawn by Mike McMahon and written by Peter Harris (although re-written by Mills)...
Wagner soon returned, though, and made Judge Dredd so famous that the Judge Dread connection is now long forgotten by most fans.
Thanks to Kevin for the suggestion!
If anyone else has any other suggestions for obscure pop culture (or historical) references in old comic books, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!