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“Judge Dredd” Writers Expand Mega-City One

by  in Comic News Comment
“Judge Dredd” Writers Expand Mega-City One

Judge Dredd, created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, might be the most recognizable character in the future metropolis of Mega-City One, but he’s far from the only one to support a popular series in the weekly anthology series “2000 AD.” A new wave of creators has used the big Meg as their sandbox to come up with their own unique takes on the future police-keeping force known as the Judges.

“Low Life: Saudade,” by former “Ghost Rider” and “Daken” writer Rob Williams and artist D’Israeli, covers the adventures of undercover Judge Dirty Frank in the seedy back-alleys of Mega-City One. “The Simping Detective: Jokers to the Right,” by “X-Men: Legacy” writer Si Spurrier and artist Simon Coleby, follows undercover Judge Jack Point, who poses as a private investigator and likes to dress like a clown. Literally.

Also currently running in “2000 AD” is “Judge Dredd: The Cold Deck” by “Zombo” and “Jennifer Blood” writer Al Ewing and artist Henry Flint, which shows Judge Dredd trying to cope with the devastation caused by “Day of Chaos.” Ewing has grown to become one of the most popular “Judge Dredd” writers in recent years.

In the first of a two-part interview, Spurrier, Williams and Ewing sat down together and spoke with Comic Book Resources about Judge Dredd, expanding the world of Mega-City One, breaking into the US market together, the “Dredd” film adaptation and more.

CBR News: For people who aren’t aware, how do “Low Life” and “The Simping Detective” fit in with the overall “Judge Dredd” universe?

Rob Williams: “Low Life” is the story of a bunch of undercover “Wally Squad” Judges operating as part of Dredd’s Justice Department in Mega-City One. The story’s lead is usually Dirty Frank, a long-term undercover Judge who’s been undercover way too long in the madness of MC1, and as a result he’s developed a somewhat laissez faire attitude to a) mental health and b) personal hygiene. But there’s more to Frank than initially meets the eye. He’s eccentric, yes, but he’s a good Judge.

Si Spurrier: “The Simping Detective” is about an undercover judge, working one of the skeeviest sectors of Mega-City One. His first cover is that he’s a private eye — on the grounds that he can poke into people’s business with impunity — and his second cover is that he dresses like a “simp” — a clown. Simps are lunatics who believe life in Mega-City One is so fucking insane the only way to deal with it is to be the same. Jack Point’s not crazy, but it suits him to dress like one: in the Big Meg looking like a moron is the best form of camouflage there is. So… it’s kind of Clown-Noir: a spoof on Raymond Chandler-esque grimy street-level crime, with a typical Dredd-world dose of insanity. It first ran about five years ago — with Frazer Irving on art — but it’s been on hiatus for a couple of years.

Al Ewing: Well, for those who haven’t been following the “Judge Dredd” strip, the crap has hit the fan in a huge way. A rogue faction of Sovs — Dredd’s occasional soviet sparring partners — teamed up with various terrorist groups to essentially kill 350 million people, seven eighths of the populations, and turn huge parts of the city to rubble, and now Dredd and his fellow judges are trying to keep what’s left of Mega-City alive. It’s a fairly grim, unpleasant time.

What exactly is it about Judge Dredd that you all find so fascinating as a character? Why has his appeal lasted for over three decades?

Ewing: I think it really helps that he’s been allowed to grow and age in real time. The guy from prog 2, or prog 200, would not still work today if he’d been frozen in time forever. I think it’s a huge shame that American comics keep resetting like that — it means there can never really be any change, because someone’s just going to come along and reset it to his or her childhood rather than build on what’s come before.

Williams: For me, I like the fact that writing Dredd’s all about very subtle subtext and what’s going on below the surface. He’s the law, and that’s 100% who he is. We all know that. He’s as stoic as it gets. But there’s a man under there too, that’s both tough to write and kind of exciting to write. Plus he’s the straight man in this astonishingly crazy metropolis, where you can pretty much tell any story you like. A good Dredd story can be completely silly and comedic or the bleakest thing imaginable. There’s a huge amount of freedom in Mega-City One, ironically. For writers, at least.

Ewing: What also helps is that you’re never spoon-fed what he’s thinking. I have a rule for Dredd — he has lots of turbulent emotions under that unchanging scowl, we’re just never told what they are. Even the omniscient narrator only hints at it. It’s a big mistake to make him one-dimensional — he’s just very, very repressed.

Spurrier: For me, the appeal of Dredd (the character) is his intractability, and the appeal of Dredd (the comic strip) is the fizzingly deranged context in which the character operates. As Al says, Dredd’s not the hero — he’s the protagonist. This is a world so insane, so violent, so swiftly changing, so snake’s-armpit mental, that the only way it works is by having a fulcrum, an anchor, an immovable object around which all the insanity can boil and bubble. Dredd’s kind of a dick, but — in his context — he works.

Worth saying that, when written by the best (Al does it, dammit), Dredd also gets away with being a remarkably complicated character, rather than a robot.

Why do you think Judge Dredd has struggled in the past to gain a foothold in the US market?

Williams: Partly format. “2000 AD’s” been difficult to get in the US traditionally. And a largely B&W anthology isn’t a fit for the US market. When Dredd has had US-format series they’ve not really felt like they’re conveying the essence of what makes Dredd work. Hopefully the upcoming IDW series will change that. If Wagner and Bolland/McMahon/Steve Dillon etc. had been doing their classic Dredd stories in a US format — 22 pages, monthly. I’m sure Dredd would’ve made way more of a mark in the States.

Ewing: There may be an irony gap? A lot of people see this fascist thug and think “ugh!” and walk away, and because they don’t pick up the book they end up not realizing that Dredd’s the protagonist of his strip, not the hero. I’m increasingly comparing Dredd to Parker, Richard Stark’s amoral, one-track-mind thief. He’s not someone you’d want to support, but at the same time — there’s a thrill to watching him work.

Spurrier: On the subject of why Dredd’s not done so well as a comic in the US — additional to what Rob said, at the risk of sailing close to the alienation mark, I think (generalizing horribly) US readers have a very different appetite-for, taste-for and even definition-of irony, which saturates the best Dredd stories through and through. I think a lot of the humor, social satire and bleak commentary falls flat when encountered by audiences who grew up on a diet of spandex, wherein the subtext — the subtext, you understand — often amounts to “punching is good.”

That said, I think US audiences who give the Dredd comic a go tend to quickly come to enjoy it, and I think it’s savvy to give IDW a bit of autonomy in working-out what version of Dredd is going to best appeal to the US market. It won’t be quite like the UK version, I expect, and the UK fans will piss and moan about that, but too bad. If Dredd-done-the-“2000 AD”-way was all it took to tackle America, it’d already’ve happened. I like to think IDW will be giving stateside readers a gateway drug, leading to the fine, tasty, addictive A-class trippiness of the Real Thing.

Let’s talk about the movie for a minute. What did you all think about “Dredd?”

Williams: I genuinely thought it was great. A tight, nasty, oppressive low budget sci-fi movie that both felt very true to Wagner’s Dredd and worked as a movie in its own right. I can see how it might be a tough sell — being R-rated and with the association the general public might have with the Stallone movie. But, considering the budget, I think the makers did an amazing job. Good, strong characters and the leads are all great.

Ewing: I thought the film was terrific. It reminded me of the early progs, that period where “2000 AD” was still defining what “thrill power” was, and what you had was something much closer to the hard-edged “aggro style” of “Action” comic (the British weekly featuring a man-eating shark, not the US monthly featuring Superman).

Cinematically, there were some really beautiful moments. And it didn’t talk down to the audience — Dredd has a character arc, but it’s not thrust into the audience’s face, you’ve got to be smart to pick it up. It’s a real shame filmmaking like that wasn’t rewarded. People who didn’t go and see it, who are reading this, should feel ashamed. So ashamed. Go and look at yourself and think about what you did.

Spurrier: Loved the movie. Felt like a distillation of all the good things found in otherwise bad ’80s action flicks, with a helmet on top.

It’s struggled due to lack of awareness, I think. From a lot of my US pals I’m hearing “I wouldn’t’ve known about the movie if you hadn’t said something.” I guess most US folks have the corn-studded-turdstains of the Stallone flick still junking-up their preconceptions, so when they see there’s a new film with the same name they’re just assuming it’s a shitty lo-budget sequel and couldn’t care less.

What do you each think is the best “Judge Dredd” story ever written?

Williams: “Block Mania” and “Apocalypse War,” for me. Which is one story, really. Just a very long one.

Spurrier: Best “Judge Dredd” Comic? Most people would say “America.” I’d go for the “Oz” saga. The creation of Chopper — this free-spirited kid who doesn’t really stand for anything, i.e. the exact opposite of Dredd — was the most ingenious move. A perfect counterpoint to all the “immovable object” stuff I was waffling about before: Chopper was the irresistible force. And then you find out all of Dredd’s disproportionate hatred towards the poor kid was a mask for something far bigger and more important, and it just spirals into this amazing saga of big guns, insane Brendan McCarthy designs and, at the center of it all, the beauty of SkySurfing. Magic stuff.

Ewing: So many favorites! “Barney,” “The Return Of Rico,” “The Graveyard Shift” — I think my favorite of all time has to be the “Midnight Surfer.” That’s such a classic, it’s got everything — Dredd as the bad guy, brilliant writing with just a hint of noir, that fantastic ending with the whole city shouting Chopper’s name. But the recent ones are also staggeringly good — I love any story which focuses on the large supporting cast that’s developed over the last couple of decades. “The Pit” and “Beyond The Call Of Duty” are excellent, and they both feature DeMarco, who’s now a character in “Simping!” It all comes around.

And there’s a new contender in “Day Of Chaos.” Very worth picking up as it comes out in trade.

You’re all in various stages of “breaking in” to mainstream US comics at the moment. Rob, you’ve become something of a fan-favorite writer over at Marvel; Si, you’re writing “X-Men: Legacy” for the “Marvel NOW” relaunch; and Al, you’re writing “Jennifer Blood” over at Dynamite. Have you guys been able to help each other break in to the US market at all?

Williams: Fan-favorite is very kind, but may be over stretching it. I was thinking about this the other day and, while I can’t speak for Al & Si, I don’t think my “2000 AD” work has led to any of my US work. Certainly, no US editor has ever said they hired me after reading “2000 AD.” I’m not sure the US editors pay much attention to “2000 AD.” You have to get their attention via the US market, really. As for helping each other, I think we introduced Al to Dynamite, but, again, it’s rare for a recommendation to pay off. Editors tend to make their own minds up. At the end of the day, you can network as much as you want; it’s the work that gets you hired.

Ewing: Yeah, Rob did help me out regarding Dynamite, and I think I paid it forward by introducing them to Mike Carroll, so that aspect does come into it a bit. I do owe Rob and Si some drinks for various things, actually, and there’ve been other people who’ve helped enormously as well. (One of whom asked me to keep him as a MYSTERIOUS FIGURE.) I think if I’d been slogging through this fallen world alone and friendless I’d still be working entirely for UK publishers.

I’d also agree with Rob in that I wouldn’t say I’d ever gotten any US work directly through “2000 AD” — usually if people ask for samples of my work, that’s what I’ll send, but I think that’s generally after the ball’s started rolling, so to speak.

I’ve not really thought about “breaking in” as a concept in a while — at the moment, my big ambition is creating and owning my own thing, although if I want that thing to sell, I need an audience who know me and approve of me, so we’re back at breaking in again. It’s a difficult beast.

Spurrier: Echoing what the lads have said, really. I got my first “in” with Marvel as a result of getting pissed with a nice guy who turned out to be an editor, and then pitching like crazy ’til he liked something. Saying “I write ‘Judge Dredd!'” might have made him pay just a fraction more attention, but not by much. In the years since then I’d say it’s been a combination of 95% “work” related stuff — hard-slog, sales, reader reaction and, [laughs] talent — and 5% schmoozing/getting-to-know-people/help-from-friends stuff. For instance, Warren Ellis gave me the intro to the guys at Avatar, but I still had to pitch good shit to them when I had their ear. That original pub-intro to the Marvel editor led to being introduced to another editor, and another, and another, with disappointments and exciting moments every step of the way, leading up to the “X-Men Legacy” ongoing I’m starting now.

So… yeah. Breaking in to the US is exactly the same as breaking in anywhere else, and the latter part doesn’t automatically lead to the former. It’s a bit disingenuous to pretend “it’s not about who you know, it’s all about the talent!” No, being able to rely on the advice and (often beer-based) introductions of your pals/peers, and being able to pay that sort of thing forward (which is a really fucking gratifying thing, by the way), is a pretty important part too. But it’s by no means the biggest factor.

“2000 AD,” currently running “Judge Dredd: The Cold Deck,” “Low Life: Saudade” and “The Simping Detective: Jokers to the Right,” is available weekly in comic shops and digitally in the App Store.

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