Authors: Matt Smith, Michael Carroll, Al Ewing
Abaddon Books, 2014
I was a novelization kid from way back.
When my mom wouldn’t let me see certain movies or wouldn’t rent/buy them on VHS once we’d already seen them, the novelizations would get me up to speed. The same went for long story arcs in comics; even at eight years old, I knew there was no way that any adult would spend money for me on multiple years’ worth of crossovers and tie-ins. Thus I read the kids’ novelized adaptation of Batman: Knightfall, which I still can’t believe exists – “You know what would be great for grade-school children? A book where someone gets his spine broken and a lady with psychic powers loses her mind!” – and the novelization of Batman: No Man’s Land, in hardcover.
When I saw Star Wars, I moved on to novel expansions of licensed properties. That way I could get more of the characters and universe I loved and discover new characters as well (Mara Jade was one of my first fictional idols). Mom and I would often share the Star Wars EU books, so they were a point of connection as well as entertainment. She even managed to finish the terminally boring Black Fleet Crisis and, albeit not in so many words, agreed that Michael A. Stackpole’s Erisi Dlarit was a male-gaze bad girl fantasy rather than an actual character.
Novelizations and expanded-universe novels, therefore, hold a special place in my nerd heart.
The Judge Dredd: Year One ebook trilogy, which falls into that second category, is set in the year 2080 – 19 years before the first published Dredd comic takes place. As with any prequel, I wondered how this trilogy was going to justify its look backwards.
Once I started reading, though, the justification became clear. 2080 isn’t that far away, and as a result there are aspects of the novels that feel close to the bone in a way that the comic often doesn’t (current Dredd strips take place in the year 2136). We’re not in a crazy sci-fi future; we’re in a world that could easily develop from the one we inhabit now.
The first novel in the trilogy is City Fathers, written by 2000AD editor-in-chief Matt Smith. Its main plot deals with a drug that causes waking nightmares and the trials of Deek, a grieving, angry ex-soldier whose life falls apart when he brings his family to Mega-City One.
Deek is a veteran of the Atomic Wars, which lead to the establishment of the Mega-Cities and which the comic has used since 1978 to critique America’s trigger-happy foreign policy. The issue of PTSD continually emerges in Judge Dredd, and although City Fathers doesn’t bring any new concepts to the discussion, I was still engaged all the way through the novel. The drug plot draws a connection between Deek’s emotional state and the idea of Mega-City One – or rather, the power structures it represents – as a site of horror. Again, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been said before, but it solidly grounds readers in the grimness of Dredd’s world and lets us know that the city in 2080 is already a terrible place to live.
What is most interesting about City Fathers is its focus on the emotional fallout of the event that created Mega-City One and its society. By featuring an Atomic Wars veteran as a main character, the novel reminds us that this isn’t a city that started out as a glossy utopia before descending into chaos; it was grounded in trauma and death from the start.
The next novel, The Cold Light of Day, continues the grimness by posing the recurring question of whether the Judges are their own worst enemies. The plot, essentially, is this: someone is suspected of murdering two Judges, and some of their colleagues blame Dredd for imprisoning and then releasing the suspect rather than killing him. Dredd has to prevent further murders and convince the other Judges that he deserves to remain among their ranks. I can’t go into much more detail without spoilers, but I can say that the conclusion that the Judges reach regarding the law and their methods – and the ways in which this conclusion is reached – is classic Judge Dredd.
Following the tradition of any Dredd story with a sports match in it (here, it’s a bike race), The Cold Light of Day saves its humor for its goriest bits. The race commentators riff on John Wagner’s habit of using announcer characters to describe dismemberments and bloodbaths in the course of matches with the casual cheer normally associated with a good catch or impressive kick. UK readers may recognize a nod to the rambling snooker commentators of the Mitchell and Webb sketch shows, who reveal players’ darkest secrets in the course of their play-by-play. The reference reminds us that in Judge Dredd, as in Mitchell and Webb’s sketches, portrayals of sports are never about the game; they’re about the opportunity to see literal or metaphorical blood spilled.
Author Michael Carroll’s take on the city is the only one I’ve seen that treats the idea of LGBTQ couples in a matter-of-fact way: there’s a short bit about the death of a female bike racer and her widow’s resultant bitterness. While the time given to the dead racer and her widow isn’t much, the fact that they exist in the novel without their presence being picked apart is significant. Women in bike racing are simply accepted alongside men, as is the idea that a woman would marry another woman.
It made me realize that Judge Dredd is almost devoid of LGBTQ people – there is a two-issue story about a young gay man who a) frequents a club where the patrons dress up as Judges or criminals and b) is struggling to accept his own sexuality, but that’s about it. There’s plenty of weird romance: a woman implants her husband’s brain into the body of a dog, for instance, and of course there are sex droids everywhere. It’s difficult to imagine a society where these things are legal but non-heterosexual people and couples are nowhere to be seen.
To flesh out the story of how the suspect entered Dredd’s life, the novel jumps between the years 2080 and 2075 – a little too often for my taste, to be honest. If the 2075 section of the novel had been told in a single flashback, or perhaps two chunks of flashback at the most, it would have read more smoothly. As it was, the ongoing back-and-forth between the two different years felt like it was dragging out events in an attempt to build suspense rather than being somehow integral to the content of the story.
The Cold Light of Day is also the weakest of the three novels when it comes to characterization. A good Dredd story doesn’t necessarily need a fully realized antagonist – one of my favorites involves Dredd fighting giant ants that are hopped up on sugar – but the length of The Cold Light of Day means that we need a bad guy who can sustain our attention through the strength of his personality as well as his body count, and the book doesn’t quite deliver. This incomplete character development is more noticeable in comparison to the well-fleshed-out antagonists of the other two books: the bereaved, combat-scarred Deek in City Fathers and Wear Iron’s Rico, who is both utterly and believably wrong in a way that sticks in your head.
In fact, Wear Iron’s strength lies in its cast: a group of washed-up criminals and Dredd’s twin/clone brother Rico. In typical Judge Dredd fashion, the criminals aren’t members of a slick Ocean’s Eleven crew; they’re an alcoholic with a catheter, a mistreated patient from a mental institution, and an ordinary holdup guy who knows he’s in over his head.
What really stands out about the novel is its focus on Rico. The comic continually reminds readers that the Dredd brothers are complete opposites in terms of personality, often with short sequences wherein Rico criticizes Joe for being too uptight to reap the benefits of corruption. Wear Iron is the first Dredd narrative I’ve read that actually tries to get inside Rico’s mind and figure out what the opposite of Judge Dredd might look like. Dredd, of course, is the perfect Judge, but as a person that’s all he is.
Wear Iron is the first Dredd story I’ve read wherein Rico is genuinely unsettling rather than simply corrupt: he laughs at the violence he inflicts, enjoys pondering whether Mooney the alcoholic has ever been made to drink the urine out of his own catheter bag, and gets a kick out of instilling terror in his associates. By depicting these events from his point of view, the novel takes Rico out of cartoon-antagonist territory and suggests that his problems are not based in rebellion but in an unhealthy love of holding extreme power over other people. Although he does refuse to be part of “the system” – which puts me in mind of this Lonely Island song – that refusal comes across here as one of the few normal human traits left to him, since these stories take place when the Dredd brothers are nineteen years old and hating “the system” is part of being nineteen in the Western world.
This treatment of Rico’s character also reminds us that the opposite of a perfect Judge isn’t an imperfect one – all Judges make mistakes at some point, some more drastic than others, but none of them are Reverse Dredd the way that Rico is said to be. 2000AD editor-in-chief and author Pat Mills has said that Rico was meant to possess the humanity that Dredd has rejected, for good as well as ill; he is a criminal and a murderer, but is also the father of Dredd’s niece Vienna.
In Wear Iron, Rico’s love of cruelty for its own sake suggests that humanity might not be an altogether desirable quality; humans are, of course, capable of monstrous, venal acts, and aren’t there times when we would happily trade that tendency for a cold but constantly upright moral high ground? Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s a lot of people who make up Judge Dredd’s fanbase – if we’re reading his stories, we must find something admirable in him, even if it isn’t his general worldview or his unwillingness to ever show his face. It could just be his fashion sense, which I think we can all agree is pretty snazzy. At any rate, both Dredd and Rico are extremes, and there is something deeply unhealthy about both of them.
The novel’s attitude towards extremes of personality is also reflected in the physical excess of the “fatties” (morbidly obese competitive eaters). One of the protagonists, holdup man Paul Strader, is sickened by the idea of people consuming vast quantities of food for the purposes of mass entertainment. His aversion comes from a childhood of poverty-induced malnutrition – in one striking passage, he remembers being so poor that all his mother could give him for dinner was a single slice of synthetic meat – as well as the post-war food scarcities in many parts of the city.
Unlike many other depictions of Mega-City One, author Al Ewing’s take on the city doesn’t give us the luxury of distance. There are children starving in every city around the world right now, as I type this. We’ve all met a Rico at some point: someone who thinks their venality makes them superior to everyone else and uses it as an exercise of power. These people and their circumstances are too close to be ignored or forgotten, which is a sign of a good book.
On a lighter note, Ewing seems to be very good at the elusive art of naming municipal structures in Mega-City One. I can’t fully explain it, but I do at least know that one can’t just pick celebrity names at random and call it a day. It’s something to do with how laughable or feared the celebrities are; that’s why the “St David Icke Memorial Hospital” works and “Will Smith Block” wouldn’t. In Wear Iron, two residential blocks in the wealthy part of the city “Pete Andre” (after Peter Andre) and “Clive Dunn” (the actor famous for playing the scatterbrained, elderly Corporal Jones in the 1970s TV show Dad’s Army).
To paraphrase P. G. Wodehouse, I will always feel that Dredd is most at home on the comics page rather than between the covers of a novel. (I suspect those are two names you don’t often see in the same sentence.) However, by reinforcing classic elements of the comic, telling us something new about well-known characters, and providing insight into the social context of its universe, Judge Dredd: Year One demonstrates that some of Mega-City One’s stories are best told through prose – and that novels can make a heck of a second home for Dredd and the people in his world.