Last year’s Dredd movie bombed at the box office. This was a pity, for all kinds of reasons. It was a hugely ambitious British indie (and without a foppish Hugh Grant in sight), and, as covered by Laura Sneddon, two of its three main characters were very strong women—a huge contrast to, say, another British-oriented property about a certain secret agent. Also, Dredd was a ballsy, no-holds-barred action flick. Instead of being a sanitised production, it was gory and messy. When people got shot, you knew it. There was no ‘playing soldiers’, and at times, the body counts felt sickening. Which, of course, was the point, unlike in almost every other current action movie, desperate to pretend it’s riffing off of 1980s 18-rated action fare, but in reality designing a film also suitable for kids.
So: zero chance of a sequel, doom, gloom and goodnight, Joe Dredd, right? Not quite. One thing the film did get was widespread critical acclaim. Like the dire Stallone flick, Dredd made little money, but the property now has a sheen of coolness. People in the USA are recognising Dredd as a hard-as-nails action character and not some awful Stallone vehicle with too much spandex and a large cod-piece. The upshot has been surprisingly swift shiny disc sales, a number-one spot on the iTunes store, and, best of all, a bump in sales for Judge Dredd books. I’ve also seen people increasingly asking for recommendations—they liked the film, so what next?
That’s not so easy to answer. Dredd has a rich history. The character hasn’t been strutting his stuff for as long as certain US characters that have been rather more successful in cinemas, but there’s still 30 years of largely coherent backstory. Also, Dredd has aged in real-time, with no reboots, yet some pretty major evolution along the way. People sometimes argue Dredd never changes, but they are wrong—like creator John Wagner has said, Dredd’s opinions shift much like a glacier, and this is hugely rewarding for long-term fans, watching as the stoic character adjusts his worldview ever so slightly, which nonetheless often affects the strip itself significantly.
There are currently dozens of trade paperbacks available (this being merely the UK selection), which can be rather bewildering for a newcomer. Also, Dredd the comic is a different beast from Dredd the movie—the city in the comic is much bigger and wilder, although Dredd himself often remains as uncompromising as ever.
With such a wealth of material on offer, it’s not easy to pick just a few books to recommend, but some volumes stand out. Mandroid offers a neatly self-contained tale that gives you a good feel for the strip, and America offers a mature take from the citizens’ viewpoint about the near-fascist justice system in the future USA (or at least its east coast, half of which comprises Dredd’s city in the comic). The Pit showcases the police procedural aspect of the strip, with Dredd put in charge of a failing sector house, while The Art of Kenny Who? and Restricted Files 2 provide a bunch of shorter strips, some being wildly absurd. Dredd is, after all, often a blackly satirical strip, not just a future cop who stomps about and shoots people.
For anyone who really wants to jump all-in, the Complete Case Files collections are perhaps the way to go. These include every Dredd strip from 2000 AD and its sister title the Judge Dredd Megazine, in chronological order. Early on, Dredd isn’t really fully formed, being an action-cop for what was at the time a comic for kids. The stories have the seeds of something great, but can be a bit cringeworthy to modern eyes, in much the same way as revisiting early Marvel strips can make you wonder how the strips ever succeeded. But by the third volume you’ve the ghoulish Judge Death making an entrance, and the momentum after that point rarely stops. Many 2000 AD fans suggest starting with volume 5, which includes The Apocalypse War epic, but I prefer the volumes that deal with the fallout from that story, with volumes 6 and 7 offering some particularly strong early Dredd work. Some of the later volumes go off the boil a little, when co-creator John Wagner takes an extended leave of absence, leaving the character to a too-young Garth Ennis and the clearly indifferent Grant Morrison and Mark Millar. However, given the amount of available material to mine, you could happily read for months before you get to that point, and you’ll also perhaps understand why British comic geeks like myself were so excited to see Dredd done well on the big screen, after years of watching spandex-clad superheroes come and go!