Judge Dredd –both the long-running comic series and its titular character– is rarely subtle. In the opening pages of the classic 1990 story America, for example, Dredd himself explains the series’ central conceit without a hint of irony: “Justice has a price. That price is freedom.” And in case the contradiction isn’t clear enough, he is standing in front of the Statue of Liberty, which is overshadowed by the much larger Statue of Justice. Whatever that image may lack in subtlety, however, it makes up for in economy: everything you need to know about Judge Dredd’s character and the comic series itself is contained in that splash page. In fact, America itself stands as a classic Dredd story because it is a perfect introduction to the world of Mega City One, and an amazing example of worldbuilding in comic book storytelling. Available as a collected edition –along with its two sequel stories– in the United States for the first time, Judge Dredd: America is essential reading for both Dredd fans and novices alike, and remains just as culturally and politically relevant as it was twenty-five years ago.

One of the reasons Judge Dredd is such a beloved series –its long-running and uninterrupted continuity– is same reason it can be difficult to dive into. Unlike other decades-long franchises, Dredd has never been rebooted, and its major storylines have important and lasting ramifications for the series. In addition to that, most of Dredd’s most important and influential moments –such as “The Apocalypse War” and “Necropolis”– were written by co-creator John Wagner, who continues to shape the character’s personality and mythology. These factors make reading Judge Dredd an engrossing experience, but can make it hard to pick a good “entry point” for the series (although, “The Apocalypse War” was the first Judge Dredd story I read, and I was hooked instantly). With America, Wagner and artist Colin MacNeil offer a story that fits squarely within the larger Dredd narrative that is accessible to new readers because it explores the themes of the series, showing what makes Dredd tick.

DreddA

Interestingly, even though America serves as an introduction of sorts to Judge Dredd, he is not the main focus of the story. Dredd himself only appears on a few pages, however, what Dredd stands for, what he represents, permeates that rest of the comic. The central characters are America Jara, a first-generation American born to Italian immigrants, and her neighbor Bennett Beeny, who narrates the story. Although she is named after the elusive “American Dream”, America grows up witnessing the harsh conditions of Mega City One and the brutal tactics of the judges (again, it’s not exactly a subtle story). While Beeny –a hopeless romantic who pines after America– becomes a successful musician recording novelty songs, America becomes disillusioned with the judge system and joins the burgeoning pro-democracy movement, which draws special attention from Dredd himself. Although Beeny initially tries to “keep his nose clean” and avoid the political reality of Mega City One, his love for America draws him deeper into the debate.

DreddB

Despite Beeny’s attempts to persuade her otherwise, America becomes more “radicalized”, taking part in the Democratic March and joining the violent anti-judge organization “Total War”. Although Beeny is sympathetic to America’s pro-democratic ideas, he believes that the judges will brutally crack down on any dissent, and the ill-fated demonstration at the end of the story proves him right. The conclusion of the story –which I won’t spoil here– adds a clever, thought-provoking twist on the story’s familiar themes, and actually sets up two sequel stories that are included in this new collection. 

For a story that explores the seemingly “black-and-white” issues of liberty and safety, America is a brightly colored story with lush, painterly art from MacNeil. This painted art gives the story an appropriate amount of gravitas while allowing the slightly satirical tone of classic Dredd comics to peek through. MacNeil’s art also makes for some iconic splash pages, which often underscore the larger themes of the story by mimicking the Cold War, Soviet-era propaganda that clearly influenced Dredd’s style. However, unlike some other painted comics, the pages here do not feel static or overly-posed because MacNeil also uses some inventive full-page layouts to keep the action and story moving. The art helps make this feel like an important Dredd comic by giving it a sort of timeless feel, and an oddly beautiful one despite the serious tone of the story.

What makes America an effective and influential story is that way it portrays life in Mega City One from the eyes of its citizens. While most stories are told from Judge Dredd’s perspective, here we see him the way everyone else does, which makes him –and Mega City One itself– more interesting. Although Dredd is ostensibly a “good guy” who is protecting the city from violent crime and invasion, the judge system is inherently anti-democratic. It is clear through Dredd’s brief monologues that bookend the story that, for him, justice is synonymous with order at any cost. In fact, he is an ominous presence in the story, serving as the main antagonist of sorts: a stand-in for a corrupt and unfair system.

DreddC

What makes Dredd a compelling character is not that he is a simple “good” or “bad” guy, it’s his unwavering commitment to this post-apocalyptic band of “justice”. Despite its lack of subtlety, America manages to address some complex themes that remain a part of the contemporary political and social debate. Wagner shows the problems with extreme viewpoint form either end of the political spectrum, while also pointing out that doing nothing is not a feasible option. For a comic that has some pretty heavy-handed symbolism, it remains an alarmingly nuanced examination of freedom, justice, and democracy.

This new collection also features two follow-up stories by Wagner and MacNeil, which showcase the sort of long-term narrative that makes Judge Dredd unique. “The Fading of the Light” is a direct sequel that follows up the twist at the end of America. It touches on many of the same themes of the initial story, but doesn’t feel like a necessary continuation of the story. The other sequel, “Cadet” is fantastic story that explores the concept of justice from the eyes of a young judge, and makes for a fitting conclusion of sorts to the larger epic of America. Interestingly, as the stories in the collection dive into more morally and politically ambiguous ideas, MacNeil’s art becomes more crisp as moves from a paint to a “cleaner” pencil style. Taken together, these three stories offer a well-rounded examination of Mega City One and its complexities.

Since America was never included in the on-going Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files reprints, this new collection is an essential book for Dredd fans. It also is an ideal book for people unfamiliar with Mega City One since it is a perfect introduction to the world of Dredd. Even more than that, America is a modern classic deserves a spot on your shelves alongside other comic books of the same era, such as Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, although I might argue that America has aged a bit better than those examples. Everything that makes Judge Dredd an enduring –and relevant– character is here on these pages.

Judge Dredd: America is available at your Local Comic Shop or Amazon.

Overall Score
95 %

One of the greatest Judge Dredd stories ever is back in print and available in the US for the first time. Its a perfect introduction to the character, and a timely examination of political and social themes.

About The Author

Paul R Jaissle is a philosopher, collage artist, and musician. In his free time, he enjoys reading comics (especially ones with Batman in them), listening to power pop, and watching wrestling.

Comments are closed.