You know Dredd. Big, beefy, never takes off the helmet. Kind of a jerk, isn't he? Why do we like him again?
Maybe you know him from the excellent 2012 movie starring Karl Urban or the less-good 1995 feature film where Sylvester Stallone played him. Or it could be you're either a fan of the long-running comics series from 2000 A.D. or the character's crossovers with Batman.
Chances are, most of the stories you've seen him in happened in Mega-City One, the sprawling super-metropolis that's made up of most of the United States' Eastern seaboard after a disastrous nuclear war. But this week, we'll get to see what Los Angeles looks like in Dredd's messed-up sci-fi futurescape in Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two. The series -- written by Douglas Wolk, drawn by Ulises Farinas and coloured by Ryan Hill -- transplants Joe Dredd out west as part of an exchange program. Things are different out there.
I talked with Wolk -- a critic who's been kind enough to talk about comics on Kotaku before -- about Dredd and this relatively unseen slice of his world.
Kotaku: I had this thought while watching Dredd [the 2012 movie]: why should we root for Dredd as a character? A letter-of-the-law future cop who's all about upholding a horrific status quo. Why's he a hero? Because, really, he's a dick.
Douglas Wolk: He is a dick! One thing I find fascinating about him is that on a small scale, he is heroic: he protects those who need protecting, he does the things somebody has to do but that most people aren't willing to do, he's unutterably brave and uninterested in personal gain, etc. But he's also a monster, and there's no getting around that; the system he represents is totally broken, and only preferable as an alternative to what there would be without it.
Kotaku: Yeah, he shores up a society of last resort.
Douglas Wolk: So the interesting Dredd adversaries tend to fall into one of two categories: Judge Death, Ma-Ma, etc., who are distinctly worse alternatives to the Judges, or characters like Chopper, who just happen to be on the wrong side of the law. But there's a case to be made that Dredd isn't the hero of a lot of his stories, he's the catalyst -- the most interesting part is the setting and the culture. Dredd himself is nearly a cipher -- he's really sealed off and has almost no self-awareness or self-questioning impulses. (So, when he has them, they're incredibly effective dramatically).
Kotaku:You're setting this series in the fucked-future equivalent of LA. Now, LA is a ripe target for satire. What were the things you forced yourself to steer clear of for being too easy? What did you aim at, for not being dissed the way they should?
Douglas Wolk: Hah! The problem with trying to not be too on-the-nose is that what's obvious to me may not be to someone else -- I think I tried to make things more complicated when I found myself going that way. It's really easy to mock fake tans and plastic surgery, but maybe more fun for me to try to look at it as pressure for everyone to be "beautiful" in a certain prescribed way all the time.
That said, it's kind of hard to go wrong with jokes about L.A. traffic -- that's the central fact of living in that city. But on the other hand there's a lot of stuff in the second issue, especially, about e.g. the fine-art economy of Southern California; I have no idea how much of that even gets through and how much of it is just detail I snuck in there to amuse myself. Meanwhile Ulises Farinas is doing these incredible Akira pastiches and stuff... But I did make a big list of "distinctive things about L.A." and kept coming up with interesting ways to mutate them that could serve the story.
Douglas Wolk: I mean, it's a city that's totally focused on creating and sustaining images. That's something that's also in direct opposition to Dredd as a character: he's all about facts on the ground and stripping away illusion.
Kotaku:You're a comics critic and historian. How did that help you and hurt you in writing a character that you know so well?Douglas Wolk: One thing Ulises and I wanted to do was make a Judge Dredd comic that was specifically American in its look and feel -- that unmistakably belonged to the same universe, but also didn't read like any story before it. He's one of the cartoonists who are on the vanguard of what's going on in the States right now, I think -- the people who've absorbed at least as much from outside mainstream American comics as from inside it and are channeling that power and inventiveness into straight-up full-colour action pamphlet comics. It's been really fun to have a sense of what Ulises (and Ryan Hill, the incredible colorist we're working with) can do that this series hasn't done before.
Evan Narcisse: Speaking of feeling American, it seems like the interpretations of Dredd vary from the U.S. and the U.K. His appearances in American-created comics -- like the crossovers with Batman -- have focused on the gun-wielding badass aspect and less on the satirical aspects of his world. Do you think Americans fundamentally misunderstand the character?
Douglas Wolk: Well, the four crossovers with Batman were all written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, who wrote Dredd's 2000 AD series together for many years -- but, for the most part, they were effectively Batman stories with some of Dredd's cast in them! But yeah, I think it's totally reasonable to do "gun-wielding badass" stories with Dredd, since that's what he is too.
The biggest misunderstanding for Americans in thinking about Dredd is seeing him primarily through the lens of the 1995 Stallone movie, which... was arguably sorta-OK as a *movie* (Ulises is a big fan of it), but I think badly distorted what was interesting about its source material. Maybe a secondary effect of the way Dredd's been presented in the States is that readers can see a handful of very frequently reprinted early stories ("Judge Death," "The Cursed Earth," etc.) as the real thing and everything after that as a continuation of the same franchise. As an analogy, it's like thinking Doctor Who was all "Day of the Daleks" and "The Ambassadors of Death."