Top 10 Judge Dredd Stories
One of the best and biggest British exports to the world has been the weekly sci-fi comic '2000AD.' To celebrate its 40th birthday later this month, we look at the best stories featuring its star, Judge Dredd.
Set mostly after the Atomic Wars of 2070, the population of the USA is contained within three enormous mega cities, one on each coast – east, west and the Gulf of Mexico – and each home to about a billion citizens. The only thing that prevents civilization from descending into chaos and destroying itself is the savage arm of the law. Called the Judges, they are the police and they are the military. 2000AD also features many other characters in totally different scenarios, but its main star is one particular Judge, Joseph Dredd, who serves in the huge Mega-City One that covers the entire eastern seaboard.
Created by Pat Mills, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd's first appearance was in 2000AD prog 2 (5th March 1977) – the first issue had been on sale a week earlier. Dredd is, in essence, a motorcycle cop and his early character influences include Dirty Harry and even Frankenstein from Death Race 2000.
2000AD continues to influence science fiction writers around the world and it's impressive list of contributors includes, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Brian Bolland and Mike McMahon.
Here then, in no particular order, are some of the very best stories from 2000AD featuring Judge Dredd...
Judge Dredd Origins
(2006-07, progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535, graphic novel)Writer: John WagnerArtist: Carlos Ezquerra
Origins is one of the longest Judge Dredd storylines to run in 2000AD. For the 30th anniversary, creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra revealed the origins of the Cursed Earth and Mega-City One. Making extensive use of flashbacks, it tells the story of how the Judges rose to power and how the rest of America got nuked. We also get to see a young Judge Dredd, helping to safeguard the system in its early years.
Dredd and some other Judges venture out to pay a huge ransom for the long-lost body of the first ever Chief Judge, Fargo. Not surprisingly, it turns out there were a lot of cover-ups and corruption behind the creation of the Judge system. It's set in 2129, Dredd's debut story having been set in 2099.
Wagner explained to SFX magazine in October 2006, "There were many unresolved questions about the origins of the Judge system and some apparent contradictions that required sorting out... It's a task I'd always shied away from because of the difficulty of making sense of it all while still telling a story that was worth reading – but I knew that sometime it had to be done, if for no other reason than my own satisfaction."
The Cursed Earth Saga
(1977-78, progs 61-85, graphic novel)Writers: Pat Mills, John WagnerArtists: Mike McMahon, Brian Bolland
Judge Dredd must transport medical supplies across the radioactive wasteland outside Mega-City One, known as the Cursed Earth, battling monsters, mutants and war machines intent on trying to prevent him.
The first Judge Dredd story that was of any significant length is considered by many to the point when the Mega-City One lawman evolved into the star of 2000AD. We learn that Mega-City Two, located on the western seaboard of the continental USA, has been struck by a terrible plague. The spaceports are overrun with infected zombie types so Dredd must travel cross-country with a vaccine. Within this risky road trip story, subjects like slavery, genocide and war are tackled from a satirical standpoint all the while Dredd is relentless in his quest, stopping at nothing to complete his mission, despite overwhelming odds stacked against him. There are quirky incidental characters, each appealing for their own reasons and it's all packaged together with gritty, stylistic artwork. This story firmly establishes Dredd as the hard case that we have grown to love.
The Dark Judges
(1980-85 progs 149-151, 224-228 and 416-427,graphic novel)Writers: John Wagner, Alan GrantArtists: Brian Bolland, Brett Ewins, Cliff Robinson
Essentially a collection of the first few stories featuring Judge Death: Judge Death, Judge Death Lives and Revenge this graphic novel is a must-have for any Dredd fan.
Dredd's arch enemy, Judge Death features more than once in this line up and this is the story arc where we first meet him. He is the leader of the Dark Judges, a sinister group of undead law enforcers from the alternate dimension of Deadworld, where all life has been declared a crime since only the living commit crimes.
Judge Death comes to Mega-City One to carry out the ultimate judgement against all citizens, but is stopped by the psychic Judge Anderson. Later, Death escapes with the help of three other Dark Judges (Judge Fire, Judge Fear and Judge Mortis) and Dredd and Anderson are forced to face them on their home territory.
He's is generally a pretty nasty character and can kill just by staring at someone. This Medusa-like murder usually takes place as he hisses the phrase "Gaze into the face of Death..." Judge Death also possess superhuman strength plus the power to inhabit corpses and phase through physical matter.
(Judge Dredd Megazine 1990 vol 1, 1-7, graphic novel)Writer: John WagnerArtist: Colin MacNeil
An almost guaranteed entry in a list like this, writer John Wagner has said this is his favourite Dredd story and 2000AD editor David Bishop has called this “The best Judge Dredd story ever written.”
Told almost completely in flashback, the story is of America Jara, her friend Bennett Beeny and their tragic conflict between the Democracy movement and Mega-City One's fascist police state. Beeny grows up and becomes a famous singer, America on the other hand becomes more disillusioned. She turns into a democracy activist and later a terrorist. The story is one of the most political Judge Dredd stories ever told.
In 1996 John Tomlinson commissioned a sequel, America II: Fading of the Light where it's revealed that America and Bennett managed to have a daughter. Ironically it's arranged for the five-year-old to be inducted into the Academy of Law in order to become a judge, reasoning that the Academy is the only place where she will be safe from terrorists calling themselves Total War, and that she might change the system from within.
Ten years later a third story, Cadet, followed Cadet Beeny's progress through training, when Dredd supervised her during an assessed investigation. She did not hold Dredd personally responsible for her genetic mother's death. She passed the assessment, and has since appeared as a supporting character in Judge Dredd stories not directly related to Total War.
Judgement on Gotham
(1991, standalone magazine)Writers: Alan Grant, John WagnerArtist: Simon Bisley
Judge Death, Dredd's other-worldly arch enemy, managed to travel to Gotham City using a Dimensional Jump Belt and three innocents along the way. Batman defeats Death, who flees in spirit form, but among the remains of his host body, Batman finds the dimensional jump belt and he accidentally activates it, transporting him to Mega-City One.
Many purists will argue over the inclusion of this standalone graphic novel, but the artwork alone is reason to consider. That it's supported by a strong story, fantastic cast and Batman breaks Dredd's nose just adds to its awesomeness. Dredd and Batman square off as you'd imagine and hope for until at the very end Dredd gives just the slightest hint of respect that he now has for Bruce Wayne. Scarecrow and Psi-Judge Anderson add to an amazing story.
From Oz to Necropolis
(1987-90, progs 545-570, 583-584, 650-699)Writers: John Wagner, Alan GrantArtists: Cliff Robinson, Jim Baikie, Garry Leach, Will Simpson, Brendan McCarthy, Steve Dillon, Barry Kitson, John Higgins, Jeff Anderson, John Ridgeway, Carlos Ezquerra
This is a slightly different example and sadly, unlike The Dark Judges, a collection doesn't yet exist of this story arc as it takes place over a number of issues and over a number of years. Many will also debate at which point it's necessary to actually start. However, the excellent fan site Everything Comes Back to 2000AD has kindly put in many hours of reading, taking the storyline back to its earliest beginnings – which isn’t essential to enjoy the main thrust of the plot that comes in the trio of stories The Dead Man, Tale of the Dead Man and Necropolis – but takes the enjoyment level up just that extra notch.
The focus of this storyline is Dredd’s growing disillusionment with the Justice system and his place within in. This comes to a head when he is asked to carry out the final evaluation on a rookie judge Kraken, who is a Dredd clone. Events during the evaluation take their toll on Dredd and he resigns and takes the traditional "Long Walk into the Cursed Earth". In his absence however, Judge Death returns and literally turns Mega-City One into a city of the dead. Dredd is forced to return and confront his nemesis and Judge Kraken, the man who replaced him."
As writer Mike Hodder says, "Kraken, despite occupying the role of one of the main antagonists throughout this arc, is an immensely sympathetic character, and to understand that you need to know where he came from, and to understand that you need to go back to the very beginning of the arc to the Dredd mega-epic Oz. This is a great story in its own right, but it’s the seeds planted here that spring forth a little later in the two-part story Bloodline, compounded by the one issue story The Shooting Match that gives the impression that something is building, that something is going to happen."
Reading this arc is a big undertaking, but one that is immensely rewarding as the themes and strands woven through the years all collide in a spectacular epic. You'll find a few of these stories on every Dredd top 10 list, but this is how they fit together. They're all available in various editions of the Judge Dredd Case Files collections and some in dedicated graphic novels.
Oz (prog 545 – 570)Bloodline (prog 583 – 584)The Shooting Match (prog 650)A Letter to Judge Dredd (Prog 661)The Dead Man (prog 650 – 662)Tale of the Dead Man (prog 662 – 668)By Lethal Injection (prog 669-670)Rights of Succession (prog 671)Dear Annie (prog 671-672)Necropolis (prog 673-699)
Block Mania/The Apocalypse War
(1981-82, progs 236-267, 269-270)Writers: John Wagner, Alan GrantArtists: Mike McMahon, Ron Smith, Steve Dillon, Brian Bolland, Carlos Ezquerra
It's not uncommon for tempers to snap and Block Wars to break out between the massive apartment buildings in the dystopian sprawl of Mega-City One. However, when the whole city descends into block-on-block mayhem, Judge Dredd suspects a conspiracy. It turns out the whole thing was orchestrated by the Soviet citystate, East Meg One – and with the judges weakened, the Sov Judges launch an all-out attack.
The first part of this story, Block Mania was illustrated by the incredible Brian Bolland and features an epic fight in the rain with East-Meg agent Orlok.
Later, in the second half of the story, The Apocalypse War, Dredd and his squad infiltrate a Sov missile silo. Here he is begged by a Sov Judge to spare East Meg One from its own missiles. "There are half a billion people in that city he cries, you cannot wipe them out with a push of a button!" Dredd’s response? “Can’t I? Half my city has been burnt to ash by East-Meg missiles and you’re asking me for mercy? Request denied.” And with that, he basically commits genocide, killing 500,000,000,000 innocents because it’s the only way to save his city. It's a pivotal moment in Judge Dredd's history, it shows beyond any shadow of doubt that he is someone who will stop at nothing to do whatever must be done, regardless of the consequences.
(1995-96, progs 970-999, graphic novel)Writer: John WagnerArtists: Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, Lee Sullivan, Alex Roland
The Pit ushered in the ‘modern age’ of Judge Dredd, one focusing on the day-to-day of a struggling Justice Department sector house in Mega-City One’s most crime-ridden zone. 2000AD started to follow more of the flawed supporting characters as they weaved their way through right and wrong, with Dredd on hand to offer guidance. This had been touched on briefly in the 1983 story The Graveyard Shift, but it's The Pit that explored it to any significant depth.
The Pit is the colloquial name for sector 301 of Mega-City One, which has become a dumping ground for every useless and corrupt Judge in the city. Dredd is brought in to take up a role he’s not done before, Sector House Chief after the untimely death of the previous incumbent, and its his job to turn performance of the sector around and purge it of its corrupt elements.
What makes this a good story is the supporting cast around Dredd, and indeed, many step into the spotlight. Each has their own distinct personalities, each has their own purpose in the story and each has their own secrets that Dredd manages to uncover. Nothing gets nuked and there isn't a bodycount that runs into the hundreds or thousands, but what it gives us is a permanent change to the way in which Dredd's world is shown to us, by the introduction of a number of secondary-yet-significant characters over the next few years.
The Judge Child
(1980, progs 156-181, graphic novel)Writers: John Wagner, Alan GrantArtists: Mike McMahon, Brian Bolland, Ron Smith
A dying member of Psi Division has a precognitive vision that Mega-City One will be destroyed unless the Judges can find the "Judge Child," a boy called Owen Krysler with extreme telepathic and precognitive powers. Dredd is sent after the boy and tracks him across the Cursed Earth to Texas City where the Judge Child falls into the hands of the Angel Gang who escape from Earth. Dredd pursue the gang and the Child across a number of star systems and through various strange encounters with alien worlds.
The first long-form John Wagner and Alan Grant team-up gives us Judge Hershey in her debut appearance, the first encounter with the fearsome Mean Machine Angel, a first look at the cowboy chic of Texas City, Dune-inspired Oracle Spice hallucinations and an alien wasting disease known as "Jigsaw Disease," which causes the victims to vanish piece by random piece.
Brothers of the Blood
(2000-04, progs 186-1188, 1215-1222, 1280, 1281, 1300, 1301, 1350-1356 and 1378-1381, graphic novel)Writer: John WagnerArtists: Simon Fraser, Carlos Ezquerra, Ian Gibson, Colin MacNeil
Not really one story arc, but a collection of loosely grouped stories set around the closest thing Dredd has to a biological family.
Dredd is a clone of one of the founding judges, Judge Fargo. However, he is not the only clone. Way back in prog 30 we were introduced to Dredd's evil twin, Rico and this is a collection of loosely grouped stories set around the closest thing Dredd has to a biological family – his disgraced clone brother, Rico's illicit daughter Vienna and a younger clone who has chosen to also take the name Rico – and the bond they share, these polar opposites and this anomaly in an actual relative that they both care for.
Brothers of the Blood also introduces another Dredd clone, Dolman, who is a cadet at the Academy of Law. He performs well at the Academy, but resents his lack of control over his own life and chooses to leave the Academy and Mega-City One. As a Dredd clone, Dolman is too valuable an asset to let go without at least giving him the opportunity to experience life as a judge on the streets of Mega-City One. So Dredd and younger Rico team up with Dolman and three generations of clone brothers dispense justice, albeit for short while. Instead however, he joins the Space Corps and is transferred to an offworld Academy, though he regularly returns to the city and keeps in contact with Vienna Dredd.
The characterizations of three generations of Dredd, different ages but exact duplicates, gives a unique perspective on what being a judge means in Mega-City One. They are quite literally born to this job, yet they each look at it in from a different perspective.
This feature could not have been written without the help of Andy Poulastides.