Graphic Novel Classic Library: Judge Dredd: America
Some of you may have noticed that we’ve recently changed the format of our popular weekly newsletter, now creating a second one each week dedicated purely to graphic novels. Along with recommendations for upcoming new titles from all sorts of publishers we decided we also wanted to include a suggestion for a classic title, a graphic novel one of us loved and thought was the sort of book that anyone building a quality comics library should have on their shelves. For this week I decided on one of my favourite Judge Dredd tales of the last thirty years, Wagner and Neil’s America and if you’ll indulge me I thought I’d share a slightly expanded version of it on here too. If you don’t already subscribe to the newsletter all you have to do is create an account on our webstore and you’ll be sent them each week (and as we include special limited time extra discount deals on books, including the classic choice, its well worth it!).
by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil, published by Rebellion
Judge Dredd: the iron man of future law and for the last thirty years pretty much the biggest British comics character around. We love him, even though writer Alan Grant has noted that basically he’s ‘a fascist bastard’. John Wagner; one of 2000 AD’s original crew and still esteemed by most of us as a giant of British comics writing; no-one does Dredd like Wagner and in America he gets to spin a tale where Dredd and the Judges are the villains, not the heroes but the violent, repressive regime crushing hopes of freedom and liberty in the Big Meg, maintaining order through fear.
(it all starts so promisingly, a new child born to immigrants in the Land of the Free, America enters the world, Bennett is already there alongside her)
The story is told in flashback by Bennett Beeny, now a rich and famous entertainer but still deeply, utterly in love with the beautiful, passionate America. Bennet was there right at her birth. A joyous occassion as immigrant parents feel themselves blessed by the birth of a beautiful daughter and their good fortune in coming to the Land of the Free, naming her in honour of the liberties and opportunities of the New World. Wagner subtly foreshadows the coming storm, however, when America’s father gets his line wrong, “America, America, God shed hee’s grief on thee”. A neighbour corrects him “that’s ‘grace’, Mr Jara”; a happy occassion but clouds on the horizon, because this is no longer the Land of the Free, it’s Mega City One and democracy is a crime.
As young school student named America asks her history teacher about the old American motto of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. where’s liberty gone, she demands, who around here looks happy? America is fiery, most of her classmates merely sigh, content to go with the party line and not care, her teacher offers no explanation or sense of hope either: “At least we’re still alive, America, one out of three’s not bad.” It’s not enough for America. A fire burns inside her, a yearning for freedom and democracy. As she grows older and goes off to college she seems to the ever-yearning Bennett to be moving further and further from him; he’s so in love with her but knows she will never love him the same way, although he is her closest friend. He loves her passion but fears where it may take her.
He is right to fear – this is a world where the believers in personal freedom and democracy are prepared to commit dreadful acts of violent terrorism against an overwhelmingly powerful authority. Bennett grows to be a famous celebrity, wealthy and adored across the city but still single – no other woman can fill the void for him, only America. When he goes to pick up a slabwalker for impersonal sexual relief he’s shocked to find the prostitute he approaches is a heavily made up America. Thinking she’s fallen on hard times he asks why she didn’t come to him for help before doing this. But its not what it looks like – its a setup and when Judges come to arrest the alleged slabwalker her democracy activist comrades spring an ambush, gunning down the law officers in cold blood. One of them rounds on the dumbstruck Bennett – he’s a witness and before America can stop him he shoots Benny and they leave him for dead.
Bennett survives although his throat is ruined by the bullet and it ends his career. Realising without being able to talk the Judges can’t use their Birdie lie detector on him he slowly types out his replies to their questions when he comes to in a hospital. Despite being shot by her friends he love America so much he can’t sell her out to the Judges and lies, saying he never got a clear look at faces; he covers for her, despite all she’s done. When she approaches him later she knows he didn’t do it to protect her cause but because he loves her. For a brief moment long unrequited love blossoms into romance; Bennett has the only thing he’s ever wanted, America. America, tired of living on the run, looking over her shoulder, falls into the arms of the one person she knows loves her for being her, not for her cause.
For a fragment of time both are happy and Bennett tells her to stay, that even in the totalitarian regime of the Judges its still possible to make your own happiness. He knows she won’t stay even as he asks her, she won’t take the easy option. He knows it will end in blood. America simply can’t ignore the wrongness in her world like so many do. It brings us to an inevitable conclusion, of violent death before an ancient symbol of the liberty she loves and her land has lost. But there’s a further twist at the end and if you haven’t read it then I won’t spoil it here.
(going up against the Judges there could only be one, inevitable outcome, as America is gunned down in front of the Statue of Liberty; yes, the clutching the flag may be almost a cliché but by god its so powerful after the preceding events; script by Wagner, art by MacNeil, (c) Rebellion)
Wagner eschews easy black and white, them and us morality to mix it up; the Judges are indeed violent dictators, as content to scare small children as beat up hardened criminals, but they’re also all that keeps Mega City together, while America and her comrades may have right on their side but they’re willing to commit bloody murder to achieve their aims. Add in glorious, painted comics artwork – some of Colin MacNeil’s finest, in my opinion – the doomed, heartfelt romance, the fierce determination to fight for a cause, the moral quagmire that can lead you into, and you have a powerful incendiary work. It blew me away the first time I read it – can that really be almost 20 years ago now? Re-reading its modern collection, The Complete America (which includes the much later sequels, which are interesting, especially when read directly after the original, but never approach its raw ferocity) its more powerful than ever.
One of the hallmarks of good storytelling is that the writer’s work retains relevance to the changing ages. Wagner’s moving, disturbing script is, if anything, even more relevant to our post 9-11 world than it was when it first appeared. In a world where Western, democratic governments have spied on citizens without judicial approval, restricted rights and freedoms, where policemen routinely use anti-terrorist powers to harass photographers in public places, people are held for periods without charge or trial and legitimate protestors on the street are struck by police batons – all ‘for our protection’ – its a very different experience re-reading America now. What was, like 1984 before it, a warning, now seems sadly prophetic. Its a story of personal responsibility for the state of the world around us and how easily the rights that were earned for us in blood can be removed if too many are content to simply sit back and do nothing, but also of the morality of using violent, evil acts to aid a just cause – can violence ever really be justified? Can good ever come out of bad? And over and under it all a doomed romance. Its simply one of the best Dredd stories ever penned and MacNeil’s glorious painted artwork elevates it to a whole new realm of perfection. A British classic that should be on your shelf.