by Mills, Wagner, McMahon, Bolland
160 pages, Titan Books
Review by Pat Black
The police! What to say about them? They keep us safe in our beds, they sort out really rotten people, and yet they’ll bust you in a heartbeat if you’ve got bald tyres. They are the law!
Well actually, they’re not the law. Not all of it, at least. But Judge Dredd… now he is the law. The future lawman was created by 2000AD, as I’ve banged on about in several reviews now, as a science fiction equivalent to Dirty Harry from the second issue (or “prog”, to the duemillescenti).
An enormous success, Dredd survives to this day, and is arguably one of the few comic book characters to successfully cross the Atlantic from the UK to the States, with his helmeted head instantly recognisable.
Much like Harry Callaghan, Dredd was something of a fascist with a quick trigger finger. What made this especially appalling was that Dredd wasn’t a maverick like the Hollywood character he was modelled on. Instead of a lone figure operating in the margins, Dredd is in fact the ultimate authority figure in Mega-City One, one of the few surviving cities on Earth following nuclear war in the 22nd century. The east coast megapolis is a police state, and the Judges also take on the role of jury and executioner, delivering on-the-spot, harsh justice to miscreants in the city after corrupt politicians fall out of favour following the war.
In The CursedEarth, written by Dredd co-creators Pat Mills and John Wagner, a different Dredd emerged from the brutal lawbringer 2000AD had nurtured in its first year. Tasked with crossing the nuclear desert that divides Mega-Cities One and Two in order to deliver a vaccine that prevents a zombie apocalypse, a more noble, heroic character emerges. He still has the rather arch attitude which many of us will know and love in the police, but Dredd is also scrupulously fair. The law is his religion, and he will never deviate from it.
Dredd takes some “redshirt” Judges as well as state-of-the-art war droids to help in his quest, all packed into The Killdozer, a futuristic battle tank. But the zero on the wheel comes in the form of Spikes Harvey Rotten, a punk rocker with a grenade for an earring, a crook who Dredd brings on board for his skills on a flying motorcycle. The Cursed Earth first appeared in 1978, so punks were all the rage in the UK. In the flawed but ultimately heroic Spikes, we can see echoes of other Judge Dredd supporting characters and anti-heroes such as the skysurfer, Chopper – the perfect foil for the Judge, who, though tough, does have something of a stick up his arse.
When the adventure gets going, it’s breathtaking. I remember the Victor comic reprinting long-running adventure serials that first appeared in the early 1960s, but surely no-one in Britain had encountered a serial quite like this. Part road movie, part classic western, Dredd’s team brings justice to the lawless places in the desert, facing off against marauding man-eating rats, deformed mutants, roaming bandits, bloodbank robots turned into vampires by faulty programming and alien-owning slave drivers who put extraterrestrials to work in mines. In this latter adventure, the Killdozer sees a new arrival, the anteater type creature, Tweak. Dredd senses that Tweak is intelligent, and he helps the alien defeat the evil slave regime while offering him sanctuary. This is one of several areas where Dredd is moved by nobler sentiments quite apart from his usual brutal, by-the-book stance.
The centrepiece of the book, though, is the Pat Mills-helmed Repentance sequence, where Dredd falls foul of an atavistic dinosaur-worshipping town which leaves him tied to a stake as a meaty tidbit for the genetically-engineered tyrannosaur, Satanus. Satanus turns out to be the son of Old One-Eye, the tyrannosaur queen of Flesh, an older, much more violent 2000AD strip also penned by Mills. The king tyrannosaur gets a lot of page-time and you sense Mills relished revisiting the world he crafted in Flesh. The captions get pulpier along with the chapter titles (“THE DEVIL BEAST TRIUMPHS!”) and the carnage factor goes through the roof.
And – get this – Satanus was cloned, with his DNA implanted into an alligator egg – an idea that Michael Crichton would make popular in Jurassic Park 15 years later. Interesting.
As well as shootouts, dino-carnage (Satanus eats the inmates of an entire jail at one point) and brutal action, there’s satire. Dredd fights a group of mutants in Mount Rushmore, and ends up knocking the teeth out of that mountain’s latest addition…. Then-US president Jimmy Carter. Given Pat Mills’ left-leaning tendencies, I’m not sure what to make of this hilarious image – perhaps it’s just a spot of anarchy, something 2000AD employed very well over the years.
Dredd also goes to Las Vegas, where the Judge system has been completely corrupted by some very dodgy Italian Mafioso stereotypes. The comic would later find itself in big trouble with another two-issue strand, which quite openly lampooned some very famous fast food trademarks, which at the time were only just starting to appear in British high streets. All surviving issues were pulped when McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken got wind of what was happening. They cannot be reprinted – even today - although the introduction to this edition does tease us with some inoffensive panels of the banned strips, the Holy Grail for 2000AD collectors.
A satire too far then; the moment where Dredd finally met his match. Not so in The Cursed Earth, though. After a final battle with a demented squadron of war droids left to bake in the desert, Dredd faces one last ordeal in order to deliver the vaccine to Mega-City Two on the west coast. It’s still a thrilling read. The majority of the art is by Mike McMahon, the man who first drew Dredd, and his punk rock, chaotic style contrasts with the cleaner lines and inking of Brian Bolland. It’s the best of Dredd, and a great place to start the Judge’s considerable back catalogue.