Judge Dredd: We Are The Law

Judge Dredd Year One Greg Staples IDW Publishing

My road to comics fandom has been a surprisingly short but busy one. Granted, I started reading Batman/Detective as a child, but only started reading Hawkeye and Young Avengers after the Marvel NOW! launch. Similarly, I took a chance on the comical grotesquery of Chew in 2011 mostly because I felt guilty about not reading the adventures of a fellow Asian-American.

And I only started reading Judge Dredd last year because my Scottish friends kept talking about it on Facebook. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into it at all if I hadn’t moved to the UK – which would have been unfortunate, because as it turns out, I love Judge Dredd.

For one thing, the plots, at their best, are a heady mixture of the fascinating and ridiculous.

An example of the former:

A city block about to be condemned alters the minds of its inhabitants and causes them to engage in violent, antisocial behavior. While this storyline may be a not-very-discreet echo of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, it also challenges the insidious anti-welfare ideology of the Thatcher years by suggesting that the powers in charge of housing systems – rather than the inhabitants of said housing – are ultimately to blame for increases in poverty, crime, urban decay, and so on.

Two examples of the latter:

During a trek across the Cursed Earth (the irradiated wasteland that covers most of the continental US), Dredd encounters gang leaders who look exactly like Ronald McDonald and the old Burger King. These pages are officially out of print due to a copyright lawsuit, but thanks to the Internet you can see them pretty much anywhere.

Like here.
Like here.

Another ridiculous one-shot centers on “Jaxon Prince”, a pop superstar revived from cryogenic stasis who also happens to look as much like 80s Michael Jackson as it’s possible to look without invoking another lawsuit.

And an example of both at once, which also happens to be one of my favorite moments in comics: Dredd fights a revolution-inciting robot with dictatorial tendencies that describes itself as “a big fan of Hitler”.

An even bigger factor in my Judge Dredd love is Dredd’s helmet, or rather, the fact that Dredd almost never removes the helmet.

What other series takes such pains to never show the top half of its protagonist’s face?

On the rare occasions when Dredd does take off the helmet, his head is seen from the back or his face is hidden by scenery or other characters – although in one memorable instance, the creators bypass visual tricks entirely and just slap a big CENSORED bar over it.

As a result, readers can never know for sure what Dredd looks like.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 16.40.48

But initially, they weren’t the only ones. At the outset, even the artists didn’t know what he looked like, or what race he was supposed to be.

A quick bit of history:

Judge Dredd first appeared in the British comics anthology magazine 2000AD, which featured serialized stories, or “progs”, by UK creators about a variety of sci-fi/futuristic characters and settings. In order to keep the magazine coming out on time – or perhaps coming out at all – a lot of authors and artists worked on Judge Dredd. Each artist worked in his own individual style (I say “his” because they were all men; it was British comics in the late 70s), which meant that characters’ appearances depended upon who was drawing them at the time. Creating artist Carlos Ezquerra deliberately drew him with fuller lips (above left) to make his ethnic background a “mystery” – and with most of Dredd’s face under a helmet and his strips being published in black and white, artists and readers initially couldn’t glean any clues from his eyes, nose, hair, or skin tone.

While many artists drew Dredd as Caucasian – not surprising, as that tends to be the default race in Western-made creative works – artist Mike McMahon inferred from Ezquerra’s depictions that Dredd was black and drew him with this ethnicity in mind.

However, the final decision came down to the cover colorist for Issue #10 of 2000AD; this is Dredd’s first cover appearance. As seen here, the cover features Dredd taking a chainsaw to the chest as a headless robot shouts electronically at him. (He seems very calm about said chainsawing, but that’s Joe Dredd for you.)

Dredd cover 1

If, like me, your eyes are shot from spending far too much time staring at the Internet, you may have to squint to make out the bottom half of Dredd’s face, but once that’s done you’ll notice that his skin is pinkish rather than brown. Despite McMahon’s drawings, the Dredd on this cover is Caucasian.

His skin color can be seen more clearly on the cover of Issue #18, where it’s just him and the Cursed Earth. Again, Dredd is Caucasian – and has been from this point onwards.

Despite the whitewashing, it’s still heartening to know that, albeit for a too-brief period, Judge Dredd – the flagship character of Britain’s premier comics magazine – was black.

A.k.a. "Deathfist". No, really.
A.k.a. “Deathfist”. No, really.

This is especially notable given a) the fact that Dredd was created in 1977, and b) Judge Dredd’s less-than-stellar record when it comes to race relations. WWAC’s loyal readers may recall my earlier post mentioning the “Nine-Foot N*ps” cover; WWII had been over for 40 years by the time that cover was published. In a 1986 comic, Dredd also refers to an Asian-looking man as “Charlie Chan” (his name is not Charlie Chan. It is, in fact, Stan Lee, which is yet another reason I love Judge Dredd).

But even now, can we be 100% sure that Dredd is white?

Even though we can assume from the bottom half of his face that he is, there is no visual evidence to prove that his hair, eyes, or anything else on the top half of his head are Caucasian or otherwise. Theoretically there could be an Afro or non-folded eyelids up there. Since some of Mega-City One’s inhabitants are pretty facially nonstandard (see below), the top half of Dredd’s face could be a different color from the bottom half, or he could have undergone all sorts of surgical modifications to make his appearance unlike that of a typical Caucasian male.

And no matter what Dredd looks like, there’s no guarantee that those features will correspond with what’s desirable among the cultural elite. The “Ugly Clinics” storyline posits a society wherein what we think of ugliness has become an exclusive, high-priced cosmetic surgical modification.

The above is a pretty unusual situation in any context. It’s especially unusual for readers of color, though, because most Western media creations make it very clear that their protagonists are not like us. Not intentionally, of course, but if you watch Friends, read Bridget Jones’s Diary (one of my favorite books, but still), or flick through the pages of any recent DC comic, it’s pretty obvious that these people don’t look like us – fair skin, Caucasian body proportions, blond(e) hair – and don’t deal with the pressures that come with being visibly differentiated from the ethnic majority.

Looking different isn’t a problem in and of itself; it’s the connotations that often come with that difference that are the problem. Witness the racist tweets calling the new Indian-American Miss America a “terrorist”; or, for some spectacular fetishization, check out Creepy White Guys, where men rhapsodize about how “submissive” Asian women are, express interest in “having sex with Chinese women while they tell me things that make me feel empowered”, and ask whether the targets of their attention know “f*ck-fu”. If you are the Other, the message goes, you deserve to be the target of hatred, mockery, commodification, and stereotyping from the majority.

So when I read a comic where there are barely any non-white characters, and/or when the non-white characters that are present are harmful stereotypes (Lono from 100 Bullets) or fetish objects (that whole X-Men storyline where Wolverine went to Japan), it’s hard not to feel the impact of that. The absence of our voices, the voices of people of color, is clear and painful.

By contrast, the facelessness of Judge Joseph Dredd gives us the chance to imagine that his voice could be ours.

Dredd’s catchphrase, and indeed the premise of many a Judge Dredd storyline, is “I am the law!” In other words, Judges may come and go, but Dredd is a moral constant in Mega-City One: the higher concept of “the law” that underpins the application of the legal system and the structures of society.

However, his lack of ethnically distinctive features means that “the law” he represents has no strong affiliations with any particular racial group – which, as many non-white readers will be aware, is unfortunately not the case in real life. If you’re an ethnic minority, the law is not on your side; look at Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, Jean Charles de Menezes, Vincent Chin.

It’s also notable that one of Dredd’s main opponents – the insane, hyper-dictatorial Chief Judge Cal – is clearly blond with fair skin and blue eyes.

Judge Cal

By pitting a blond-haired, blue-eyed man against a facially indeterminate protagonist, this storyline places a quintessentially white male in opposition to the basic moral codes of “the law” (if Dredd is the law, then his enemies are enemies of the law), or, even more subversively, suggests that the legal system in the hands of a quintessentially white male can be twisted to disadvantage everyone who is not like him.

All this adds up to me not giving up on Dredd for a long time. It could be any one of us under the helmet – and without visual proof, who can say that it isn’t? Judge Dredd gives minority readers the chance to go past simply being present in comics, to at least imagine that we might one day be viewed as powerful architects of our societies.

“But Dredd is a Judge – and Judges are not ordinary men!”
Kelly Kanayama

Kelly Kanayama

Staff Writer Kelly was born and raised in Honolulu but now lives in Scotland. She has has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing a PhD (look! There it goes!) on transatlantic narratives in contemporary comics. As a half-Japanese, half-Filipina woman, she believes that white vinegar is the answer to most of life's problems.