The Judge Dredd: Mega Collection is coming up on a week old. It’s a fortnightly series, releasing two hardback collections of classic Judge Dredd stories a month. Each issue is £9.99, which is about 30% less than you’d pay for the vast majority of hardback books and graphic novels. The first issue is £1,99 and collects the America storyline plus the various follow ups.
There are three reasons you should buy it if you’re a comic fan. The first is that it’s a ridiculously cheap introduction to a ridiculously cheap collection of some of the best British comics ever produced. The second is that at any one of those three price points you’re walking away with a bargain, something which is in rare supply in comics a lot of the time.
The third is that this is the point where Dredd got interesting.
I grew up with 2000AD and I got used to the three phases the lead strip would move through. There would be one shot or short stories dealing with a crime in Mega City 1 or an unusual new sub culture. These were pretty good a lot of the time and they laid the seeds for the countless in-universe spinoffs that would follows. Giant, Hershey, Anderson and countless others all slowly building a complex and coherent fictional universe.
Then there were the epic, long form stories. These were the blockbusters of Dredd’s world, stories that would unfold over months and often spin out of seemingly unconnected events in those smaller pieces. Sometimes these were brilliant, sometimes, like all blockbusters, they fell flat on their faces. When they worked they soared. When they didn’t, you’d have to sit through them for three months until they dragged themselves off stage.
Then there were the one shots. The short little pop culture parody pieces that kept the comic relevant and up to date but, during the time I began reading it, seemed all pervasive. It got to the point where you could predict when it would happen. A TV show gets big? Mentioned about a month later. Chris Evans’ career begins in earnest (The British one, not Captain America)? Surprise surprise a ginger gobby talkshow host is the perp of the week not long after.
It’s not that these stories were bad. It’s that they were dull. Always competent but necessarily cookie cutter pieces that filled a gap and kept most of an audience engaged. I wasn’t one of them and I began to drift away from the title. Nothing personal, nothing bad, just the sort of cultural coasting everyone does all the time.
America wasn’t the start of the move away from those three formats but it was the point that movement became noticeable. Told from the point of view of Citizen Bennett Beeny, it’s a love story. Not a happy one. Bennett and his childhood sweetheart, America Jara, grow up with very different attitudes to the Judges. Bennett is terrified of them but America sees what they deny the city; democracy.
She decides to do something about that.
John Wagner’s script is a tragedy, a bow drawn across violin strings on the point of snapping. America loses her war, Bennett loses America and the solution he finds is elegant and chilling. It’s a structurally complex story too, told in flashback with frequent interjections from someone who might be Dredd or might be Bennett’s perception of the monolithic face of the Judges. It doesn’t matter. Perps still get taken down. The Judges still win.
But rereading it, I now realize just how complex the story is. It’s collected here with the two sequels, also written by Wagner and together they draw a map not just of Mega City 1’s culture but how to survive it. No one here is clean, and no one is fully dirty. America does dreadful, violent things for what she thinks is right and has very good reasons to think like she does. Even then, Wagner takes great pains to show just how two edged her intelligence is; America knows things could be better, she knows she’s going to die and she knows she can’t stop. Her story becomes a slow motion skid into tragedy, manipulating Bennett even as he betrays her and they both collapse under the impossible weight of living in the city.
The sequels go even deeper. The second story sees Bennett, his mind transplanted into America’s body, facing the ghosts of the past and the prejudices of the present. Bennett’s decision, so difficult it bothers even him, is front and centre here and it gives Wagner a chance to look at bigotry in Mega City 1. Bennett isn’t just shunned because he sings sad songs now instead of comedy. He’s shunned because he’s a ‘bodysnatcher’, someone who’s stepped outside society’s gender norms for reasons that may be penitent but are fundamentally his own. Bennett’s exact location on the LGBT spectrum is up for debate but his presence on it is undeniable, as is how he’s treated. Bennett’s a pariah both from his profession and from America’s friends. As a result his moral choice at the end of the story is far more assertive; freed from the desperate need to fit in and go unnoticed, Bennett, like America before him, makes a final stand. The same body, the same destination but two very different roads.
The third story explores this even further. Bennett’s last action was to sign the daughter he and America had over to the Judges. 10 years into her training, Cadet Beeny chooses Judge Dredd as her assessing officer on her first major investigation. She chooses the circumstances of her mother’s death as her case and Dredd and Beeny butt heads over her direct approach instantly. As far as Dredd’s concerned, she’s picking at a wound that’ll never heal. As far as Beeny’s concerned, she’s working a case and getting some much needed closure.
The first story gets the most acclaim, and deservedly so. It’s a pivot point, a step up in the evolutionary process of Dredd as a character rather than an icon to say nothing of the creative renaissance that’s still going on in 2000AD today. But, for me, the third story is the most complex and most poignant. Beeny’s a very different kind of Judge, a woman who’s faced her anger down and made it her ally. She’s driven and harsh but has a streak of compassion that tempers that. Like her parents she’s been wounded by the city she lives in and the Judges that run it. Because of their sacrifice she’s able to make the changes they never could. She’s adapted and in doing so, has changed her city and Dredd too. In fact, the way Dredd’s written here is revelatory; he’s still the same intensely violent, hyper competent Judge but he learns from Beeny as much as she does from him. The monolithic boogeyman of Bennett’s childhood is gone. In its place is a figure realizing that he’s human, not a concept of law given form, vocal chords and a gun. It’s a quietly brave thing for both Dredd and the writers to acknowledge and it draws a line under the dangerously two dimensional figure he’s been in the past. That ends this often tragic, often brutal cycle of stories on a note that’s as hopeful as it is complex. America’s Dream, thriving, despite everyone’s best efforts.
I’ve talked about Wagner’s script here a lot, but Colin Macneil’s art is just as vital. The characters all live and breathe, the violence is as offhand as it is savage and Mega City 1 has never looked more alive, or more nightmarish. Rounded out with a couple of loosely thematically similar shorts, this is a wonderfully produced collection of some remarkable stories. In the next book, we get something completely different with robot judge story Mechanismo. Life in the Big Meg. Never safe, never the same twice but, from this story on, always interesting.
The Mega Collection is out now and is published fortnightly. The first issue is £1.99, the second is £6.99 and later issues will be £9.99