Judge Dredd: America as a Critique of Unethical Police Practises

Recently Rebellion 2000AD Ltd collected a series of stories from the long running Judge Dredd “Democracy” storyline in a collection called Essential Judge Dredd: America (2020). In this collection, the stories “Letter from a Democrat”, “Revolution”, “Politics”, “The Devil You Know”, “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”, and the graphic novel America were collected together to illustrate the comic strip as political satire. They provide a good overview of Dredd’s early adventures and the shift from an action-oriented tone to one of commentary. As such I think it is a good opportunity to revisit these stories and discuss this collection.

Judge Dredd is a comic strip written and produced in Britain about a dystopian future United States where the last remaining survivors are crammed into a vast urban sprawl known as Mega-City One. Mega-City One is the Eastern United States, crammed into one huge sprawling mega-complex where citizens struggle to survive on the last patch of livable land that has not been irradiated by a previous nuclear war. This mega-complex is patrolled by a group of futuristic police officers who are known as judges because they have full discretionary power to act as judge, jury, and executioner on criminals. They are a unit of hardened police officers who have the capacity to carry out extreme punishments as they see fit, acting as the absolute and unquestioned authority in this totalitarian system of judicial authority.

Created in 1977 by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Dredd was initially more focused on just being an action-oriented story. When Dredd as a character started becoming popular among younger readers who viewed him as an aspirational figure in much the same way Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) of the Dirty Harry franchise (1971-1988) became popular, especially for those with conservative viewpoints. In context with the rise of populist conservatism during the tenure of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her autocratic tendencies, cracking down on dissenters and protestors, using law and order as a mask to cover up her own desire for absolute power and control (in much the same way as the United States President Ronald Reagan did), the corruption of her administration – and racially-charged actions that resulted in the Brixton Riots of 1981 where a neighborhood of mostly Afro-Caribbean immigrants broke out in protest after years of facing discrimination and police brutality – it became necessary for the self-declared socialist and left-leaning Wagner to make a statement.

The first notable shift was the 1986 seven-page story “Letter from a Democrat” which originated the “Democracy” storyline that would run in Judge Dredd for decades and was a decidedly more satirical approach that used the dystopian premise to comment on policing in Britain. “Letter from a Democrat” depicts Dredd as the de facto villain of his own comic strip instead of being an anti-hero in the same way Dirty Harry was depicted. Harry Callahan (who was very much a model for Judge Dredd in its initial creation) was portrayed as a maverick police officer who played by his own rules, and despite the blatant sexism, racism, and disregard for the criminal’s rights, was intended to generate audience sympathy. “Letter from a Democrat” inverts that formula by making Dredd unambiguously the villain and a member of law enforcement who does not question his superiors, which mitigates the romanticized ideal of a maverick tough guy. Audiences love rogues who can buck the system in a way that perhaps they might not be able to themselves, so having Dredd act as a compliant weapon of a corrupt and oppressive justice department further removes any sympathy for the character an audience might have had previously.

“Letter from a Democrat” focuses on Hester Hyman, a wife and mother who is also secretly a Democratic activist with a group called Democratic Tendency. In the future of Mega-City One, democracy is outlawed and any discussion or activism involved with it is met with a harsh response by the judges. Hyman and her fellow activists, knowing that the judges will attempt to brutalize them, take hostages in a television studio and broadcast their message about wanting to establish a democratic charter for the people. The inevitable result is that the judges do come in guns blasting, thereby rendering Democratic Tendency’s martyrs to the cause. Dredd even interrogates Hester’s husband and blames him for his ignorance: “Let this be a lesson to you, citizen. Democracy’s not for the people.”

A year later John Wagner and Alan Grant contributed another story in the “Democracy” storyline that further reinforced just how duplicitous, corrupt, and power-mad the judges are, and by extension how corrupt the Metropolitan London Police were. In this story a group of activists take up the cause in the name of the slain Democratic Tendency member Hester Hyman and organize a non-violent march. In order to prevent the idea of democracy from spreading among the populace, Chief Judge Silver has Dredd and other judges perform a number of duplicitous tactics to discredit the main organizers of the march. Dredd and his fellow judges undertake a disinformation campaign, not unlike the ones carried out by Thatcher and her administration. As Silver tells Dredd, “I want this movement crushed. On this one you write the laws.” Dredd, as a pawn of the system at this point in the series, complies and begins a campaign of blackmail and extortion to discredit the organizers. Dredd even justifies it to himself, arguing “Democracy is a cancer eating at the heart of our society. Any action we have to take to stamp it out, however regrettable, is justified.” This mentality is not entirely dissimilar from a number of tactics used by conservative groups to justify their own disreputable tactics, exposing Dredd as buying into a fraudulent system without questioning its tenets or motives.

The inevitable result is that the peaceful march is turned into a violent one because of the judges’ tactics and the increased presence of assault team judges in riot gear at the march intimidating the citizens. This allows the judges to blame the violence on the democratic activists. A tactic all too familiar as it is routinely employed by the conservative Right. Judge Silver goes on television to spin rhetoric that would not be out of place on a Fox News broadcast: “This afternoon’s events demonstrate only too clearly what happens when we release our rigid control. If it had not been for the prompt action of my judges there is no telling what devastation would have been wreaked upon this city, all in the name of Democracy.”

Which brings us to the graphic novel America. In this story, Dredd is the de facto villain of his own comic book. Which in itself is a remarkable innovation. Imagine DC Comics presented a story where Superman was the bad guy, but not because of any external causes – Superman is regularly afflicted by magic spells or alien mind control or future dystopian scenarios which depict an alternate Superman that renders him temporarily evil – but because of a shift in perspective. Dredd is essentially the same character at his core, but the perspective shifts from his viewpoint as the focal point to that of an activist named America Jara.

The opening splash pages illustrate vividly the political commentary of the graphic novel. The two-page splash that opens the story shows on one side America Jara in front of a torn flag of the United States with no narration, indicating that she is truly voiceless in this oppressive regime. On the other side is a striking image of Dredd with a close up of his boot resting on the crumpled remains of the flag. The view establishes that the citizens are under the boot of oppression. It brings to mind the George Orwell quote “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” Accompanying this image is Dredd offering an extensive narration of his views. As part of the totalitarian system, Dredd – unlike America Jara – has the right to speak his opinions:

Where do I stand? I’ll tell you where I stand. I stand four-squared for justice. I stand for discipline, good order and the rigid application of the law – and grud any limp-wrist liberals who say different. The people know where I stand. They need rules to live by provide them. They break the rules, I break them. That’s the way it works. The people like it that way. They need to know where they stand. Rights? Sure, I’m all for rights, but not at the expense of order. That’s why I like to see the statue of judgement standing there, towering over liberty. Kind of a symbol.

This monologue reveals just how distorted Dredd’s perspective on law and order truly is. And in the very next page we see that beneath the flag is the body of America Jara, slain viciously by the judges. And like Dredd mentions, the statue of judgement (which is an archetypal judge figure) towering over the graffiti- and bullet-ridden Statue of Liberty. So Dredd is not incorrect when he said it was a symbol, but not the kind of symbol he was referring to. The symbol in his case is the comic book’s warning about fascism and how the conservative mentality can distort perspectives on policing and its responsibilities.

The end of the story brings us back to Dredd’s narration, where his real thoughts are revealed as he observes that about democracy, “We tried it before. Believe me, it doesn’t work. You can’t trust the people. So dream on, creep. But just remember – that’s all it is, a dream. America is dead. This is the real world.” Dredd here is expressing a fundamental contempt for the people and the veneer of rights that he espoused in the beginning narration, albeit in service of what he considers “order,” has slipped away and is replaced by pure and utter contempt for the citizens of Mega-City One.

Dredd would later express guilt over his actions in the march in more recent storylines, such as the graphic novel The Small House, which essentially concludes the “Democracy” storyline. Even in this collection there is a short story called “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”. Here Dredd has a tinge of guilt, that he felt “Responsible for a city where freedom was bound in chains of iron, and justice was but a tiny flicker in the cold, hard light of the law.” At this stage in his career, however, Dredd represses that guilt, deciding that “To feel guilt was to think like a man, not a judge.” The full ramifications of this repressed feeling of guilt would manifest more fully in later storylines where Dredd begins to question the system more.

The story America has a lot of parallels with today’s policing crisis in both Britain and the United States, not to mention my home country of Canada where the RCMP are constantly engaged with colonialist tactics against the Indigenous people. One of the reasons why Judge Dredd has remained relevant over the decades is that unlike most police procedurals or action thrillers, law enforcement is not presented in a heroic fashion. The judges are presented as blunt weapons of fascism and oppression. The judges are an extrapolation of the tough on crime policies of political figures like Thatcher and the American president Ronald Reagan. It has become evident in recent times that the image of the good cop is an untenable fiction that contrasts with the harsh reality. More and more, the police are being used as pawns to serve specific political agendas. As such, Judge Dredd is not only relevant, it has been eerily prescient on occasions.

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Douglas Rasmussen is a writer and academic with a Master of Arts degree in English literature from the University of Saskatchewan. His primary areas of research are Film Studies and contemporary American literature, and he has written on a number of subjects in film, music, and television.

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Also by Douglas Rasmussen:

Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd


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