How to Write a Franchise: The Judge Dredd Case File

Everyone knows Judge Dredd, the futuristic super-cop who serves as judge, jury and executioner in the post-apocalyptic city-state of Mega City One. With his elaborate uniforms, his big gun, bigger motorcycle and memorable catchphrase (“I am the law!”) he is probably the most familiar face in British comics. In many ways Judge Dredd is similar to the big icons of mainstream American comics. The strip is a corporate owned, long-form piece of serialized entertainment. Like Batman Spider-Man, the character is far bigger than the comics which spawned it; being the subject of feature films, a video game, licensed novels, toys and (soon) a TV show. One doesn’t ever need to read a page of Judge Dredd to know who the character is. Also, like these above mentioned icons, Judge Dredd has been in publication for a long time. Ever since his first appearance in 2000AD #2, 7) the character appeared in every single weekly issue of the anthology. Add to that the monthly Judge Dredd The Megazine, launched in October 1990, and you have a truly daunting amount of material.

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files, which seeks to print every single story in chronological order, had published 36 volumes as of this writing – totaling over 11,000 pages of story. They haven’t even cranked out the 2010’s yet! Here, however, the similarities end. Unlike the frequently rebooted and retconned superhero characters, whose past often plays catch up to the present, 8 Judge Dredd has a very concrete timeline: the first appearance of the character took place in the year 2099, and every year in real time is a full year in the life of the character. Thus, in 2020 (our time) the character operates in the year 2142, and Dredd is an older man with all the experience and baggage of a man in his seventies . 9

No one seemed to have made a conscious choice, it’s just something that happened. Yet from that unplanned decision came one of the most interesting results in serialized comics. A story released on December 31st, 1977, when the strip was still finding its legs, was titled “22nd Century Futsie.” 10 That short story depicted a new year’s party ushering in the 22nd century. After that, it became accepted to depict time as moving forward, which changed the whole trajectory of the strip.

In short – events in Judge Dredd have consequences; they cannot be changed, re-written or ignored. Everything that has happened to the character in its pages is part of the ‘canon’ and must be dealt with eventually. The early story with the talking pets? Canon. The one were Dredd gets a cute moppet of niece? Canon. The time he murdered half a billion people with the push of a button? Canon.

That last one, the end of the celebrated Apocalypse War storyline 11 is probably the most important example because it is so over the top and horrible. Our protagonist, leading the charge against hostile forces invading Mega City One, lunches a nuclear strike at the enemy’s own city; becoming the worst mass murder in human history in the process. Garth Ennis referred to it as “the greatest moment in comics history,” because it was both awesome and appealing at the same time. It is not the moment itself that matters so much as the consequences that followed – again and again Dredd had to ponder how justified that choice was, again and again enemies rose up seeking vengeance. In the 2013 storyline Day of Chaos a remnant of Apocalypse War survivors released a deadly virus on Mega City One, killing hundreds of millions and crippling the city. This was Dredd’s doing, this was the result of the choice he made all these decades back, this was the result of his failure.

Compare that to something like Jean Grey destroying a planet in the Dark Phoenix Saga, an event that has been retconned out of existence 12 to allow the character to be publishable. This is just one example, but you can probably look at any favorite long-running superhero character and find plots that took them over the line… only to retreat and reveal the line was never crossed. Events in corporate superhero comics only matter up to a point, something many readers must learn to accept. In Judge Dredd events matter, even if they are uncomfortable. Especially if they are uncomfortable.

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  1. Released on March 5th, 1977 to be exact.

  2. Thanks to the sliding timeline.

  3. Though with futuristic technology that allows the writers to keep him physically active.

  4. in the parlance of the strip a ‘futsie,’ short for Future Shock, is a person suffering from a violent form of nervous breakdown

  5. Which has just been reprinted separately as part of the Essential Judge Dredd line.

  6. Basically, shifting the blame from ‘Jean’ to the ‘Phoenix’ as a separate entity.

  7. Released on March 5th, 1977 to be exact.

  8. Thanks to the sliding timeline.

  9. Though with futuristic technology that allows the writers to keep him physically active.

  10. in the parlance of the strip a ‘futsie,’ short for Future Shock, is a person suffering from a violent form of nervous breakdown

  11. Which has just been reprinted separately as part of the Essential Judge Dredd line.

  12. Basically, shifting the blame from ‘Jean’ to the ‘Phoenix’ as a separate entity.