This March marks the 35th anniversary of Judge Dredd but, more importantly, this may be the year that Hollywood finally does justice to the hard-hearted lawman of Mega-City One. The character is one of the signature creations on the British comics scene (Empire Magazine ranked him the seventh greatest character in all comics, in fact, one spot ahead of the Joker and just two behind Spider-Man) and a clear influence on the dystopian mayhem of both “Robocop” and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” But, today, for most Americans, the name Judge Dredd draws a blank look or, worse, a groan thanks to the shiny, torpid 1995 Sylvester Stallone film.
That may change in September when Lionsgate, director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point“) and star Karl Urban (Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the new “Star Trek” franchise) deliver a new big-screen version of the anti-hero titled simply “Dredd.” Comics fans of a certain age are enthused by the Urban casting but also remember that Lionsgate gave them an especially tone-deaf version of “Conan the Barbarian” just last summer. Dredd, created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra working with editor Pat Mills, traces back to the earliest days of of “2000 A.D.,” the British comics anthology. To get an early verdict on the revival prospects, we caught up with Wagner, who still works on Dredd adventures on the page but now rarely does interviews.
GB: If you reflect on your years with Dredd, how do you think your view of him or his world has changed? Does his voice sound the same in your mind?
JW: Originally he was a very two-dimensional character, a vehicle for extreme behavior in an extreme society, more of a robot than a man. Today he’s more rounded, more human, a man capable of introspection, of questioning his own beliefs. I still wouldn’t call him a totally three-dimensional character – he would lose something if he was. He needs that robotic aspect to his personality. But he’s a man who could say: “Yeah, I got that wrong. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.”
GB: Talk a bit about his creation — your influences and ambitions at the time.
JW: It was all about making “2000 A.D.” the best comic it could be. It was the story that brought it all together, that provided the missing elements. For years Pat Mills — creator and guiding hand of “2000 A.D.” – and I had been reacting against the insipid, formulaic nature of some of Britain’s boys’ comics. We’d developed stories and characters with a much harder edge and readers’ reaction to them had been almost universally positive. Dredd was that hard edge taken to the extreme – a heartless hero for Thatcher’s heartless, new Britain.
GB: It’s rare for a creator in contemporary comics to work so long with one character. On your best days, how would you describe that accomplishment? On less upbeat moments, how would you articulate the challenge of it?
JW: I’m not sure I take any great satisfaction from the fact; it happened — perhaps through laziness, perhaps because I have a natural affinity for the character. I think if I hadn’t been writing and creating other stories during that time I might see it as a bit of a cul de sac. I still enjoy writing Dredd, though with every year that passes new ideas get harder to come up with.
GB: You’ve taken the character to some strange and dark places. Is there any story, situation or arc that, in hindsight, you’d erase from the archive if you could?
JW: Quite a few. When Dredd was created no one imagined it would last so long. The normal practice in British comics at the time was to run a story for 12 to 16 episodes then give it a break, usually permanent. If the story was popular you might think of bringing it back for another series, and another, but nothing was expected to go on and on. So story lines were used that created big problems further along the road. For instance, Dredd’s handheld lie detector. It was practically foolproof, no citizen could get away with lying to him. Fine for a one-off story, but as an ongoing state of affairs it’s hell on the writer and could make for some very short stories – “Did you do it?” – “No” – “You’re lying, the sentence is death” – The End. I’ve been jumping through hoops ever since to get ’round it.
GB: How do you view the 1995 Sly Stallone film these days? And is that view any different than it was at the time of its release?
JW: My views haven’t changed, though apart from my initial viewing I haven’t seen the film since it came out. They told the wrong story — it didn’t have that much to do with Dredd the character as we know him. I don’t think Stallone was a bad Dredd, though it would have been better and lent him more cred if he hadn’t revealed his face. He was just Dredd in the wrong story. I envy their budget, though. Some of the CGI was very good, and the re-creations of the Angel Gang and the robot. The robot actually came from a Pat Mills story and didn’t belong in Dredd, but it looked good. If the plot had revolved around characters like them the film would have been more successful.
GB: The late 1970s and early 1980s were grim times in England on social and economic fronts. Looking back it’s hard not to sense a lot of that in the comics of the time. What was it like to be in that energized scene with that kind of national backdrop?
JW: The story caught the mood of the time, the new authoritarianism, the need for a rock in a turbulent sea. But Dredd was never meant to be just another hero figure – he was as much a villain, a criticism of harsh and callous governance, and most of the readers picked up on that. Sure, the country needed a shake-up, everybody knew that, but did it have to be done in such a cold-hearted way?
GB: The new film looks like a very different beast than the 1995 one — no Rob Schneider appearance this time around. Tell us three specific things about the project that make you optimistic.
JW: The plot is about Dredd and his world. It’s impossible to cover every aspect of the character and his city – perhaps that was one of the failings of the first film; they tried to do too much and ended up with not a lot. “Dredd” homes in on the essential job of judging – instant justice in a violent future city. I like the actors, they’re well cast and they handled their parts well. Olivia Thirlby is perfect as Anderson, the young psi judge. She gives the character a touching vulnerability. Karl Urban will not remove his helmet and will not kiss his costar.
GB: Describe the place where you work and a bit about your process. “Dredd” always had the Clash as a soundtrack in my mind — is there music when you work?
JW: I find music too distracting. I need silence. My office window looks out on the Shropshire Hills, the nearest house is half a mile away, I’m alone apart from the dogs. That’s how I like it.
GB: Collaboration is king in your field. Tell us a lesson you learned the hard way when it comes to collaboration.
JW: Comedy and action stories can work very well – in fact with comedy in particular you’re almost bound to get a better result if you work as a team. But anything with a deeper emotional content is more problematic, at least I’ve found that to be so. I think it’s because comedy and action are to a large extent clear cut — a joke is either funny or it’s not, one situation is usually clearly more exciting than another (if not, use them both!). But engage the emotions and things become much more subjective and that’s a lot easier to deal with on your own.
– Geoff Boucher
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