British commercial comics have always been an idiosyncratic little world, in comparison to the vast American scene with its division of labour, standardised conventions, and industrialised processes. When 2000AD came along in 1977 it was written by a bunch of iconoclasts and radicals, determined to see what they could get away with before questions were asked in parliament, a practice that continued from earlier titles such as Battle and Action, with whom The Thrill shared many creative staff. This nonconformism was quickly extended to the art seen in the comic, with a number of extraordinary stylists departing radically from the prevailing convention of a straightforwardly mimetic methodology. Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon, Kevin O’Neill and many others blazed trails that would have a huge influence on the growth of ‘adult’ (i.e. explicitly violent and sexual) comics through the 1980s, and over the following four decades and more, 2000AD has continued to encourage its artists to employ a varied range of stylistically idiosyncratic techniques.
Judge Dredd: Origins contains two multi-episode stories from 2000AD’s definitive strip, which chronicles the heroic adventures of a violent enforcer for a fascist regime in twenty-second century America. The first leads seamlessly into the second, and is drawn by Kev Walker; Walker is a British artist who does most of his work for the American majors, but he has a history with 2000AD going back to 1989, and he’s another (in my view) of the great stylists that have been associated with the comic. His dynamic, expressive, scratchy and angular style is probably more in the McMahon mould than that of any of The Thrill’s other best known artists, but it’s very much his own. This book would be worth reading just for his art on the five episodes of The Connection, but the twenty-three episodes of Origins that follow are the work of one of the all time masters, the late, legendary Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Dredd’s co-inventor.
This enormous story, one of the longest ever to run in 2000AD, was commissioned to commemorate the comic’s thirtieth anniversary in 2007; it reunites Ezquerra with John Wagner, his co-conspirator in the creation of this terrifying lawman, and one of the most revered writers in the history of British comics. Wagner took the opportunity to tie up a number of loose ends in the Dredd canon, and resolved a number of outstanding inconsistencies in the back story. This might seem a worthy goal for a big anniversary, but Wagner also observed just how exciting the story of the beginnings of the judge system could be, and seized the opportunity to write a gripping political thriller. My reacquaintance with The Thrill came a long while after the publication of this story, but every time the early history of the judges is alluded to, with flashback confrontations with FBI agents and so on, my blood gets up, and I find myself craving more. There are a few licensed novels, of sadly execrable quality, but unfortunately no detailed explorations of this era in the comic itself, other than Origins.
Wagner has been refining his craft over the many decades he’s been exercising it, and this story is a masterclass in plotting for comics, an extremely precise web of interwoven narrative strands, alternating between a high-stress present-tense and gripping flashbacks. He takes the opportunity to explore the politics of Dredd’s world in detail, and bravely confronts the reality, uncomfortable for many on the left, that coercive and repressive rulers and enforcers may be effectively acting in good faith, however misguided and egotistical they are. He also spares no opportunity to reinforce the fundamentally political observation that any scenario is historically situated, rooted in a long sequence of causation too complex to admit any simplistic explanation (although this is a Judge Dredd story, so don’t expect too much nuance!) However, the deep roots of Dredd’s present-tense are clarified, and the extent to which interests are entrenched: the reformist charge laid on Dredd at the end by Judge Fargo, his clone-father and the founder of the judge system, is very clearly an extremely tall order.
This rather grown-up, ambiguous conclusion lays the groundwork for an enormous amount of the narrative that has been published in the succeeding twelve years, as is now clear to me. In particular, Dredd’s behaviour in the recent, standard-setting story, The Small House, makes a lot more sense in the light of Origins. But that’s a matter of interest only to a lifetime fan like myself; what really makes this book worthwhile is the sheer quality of both writing and art, and the pronounced synergy which exists between Wagner and Ezquerra, particularly in the way that daft humour is mashed up with intense violence and uncompromising politics. This unlikely soup is 2000AD’s unique selling point, and an incredibly difficult balance to pull off. The sheer idiocy of the science-fiction fantasy that prevails beyond Mega City One’s walls only works as satire because of the conviction with which it’s portrayed, and the history that informs it.
To read a book like this, having grown up from prepubescence with its principal character, and known him since his writing was indeed pitched at ten-year-old boys, is like discovering as an adult how complex something is that I knew as a child. But the fact is that the Judge Dredd I knew as a child was extremely simplistic: 2000AD is notoriously a comic that grew up with its readers, who are now (as far as I can tell) mostly middle-aged men that have been reading it for decades. Part of that growing-up has been a cumulative assimilation of its own narratives into what is now a set of oddball histories far more convincing and interesting in texture than the convoluted soap-operas that make up the back-stories of American superhero comics, albeit that they are completely ludicrous in detail. And, especially given that most of 2000AD’s contributors after the first generation grew up reading it, a part of that assimilation has been the mutual incorporation of the stories and their readers. The history of the publication, the fictional histories of its many worlds, and the histories of its relationships with its many readers, exist in a mutually constitutive relation.