When you think about Judge Dredd, you probably think about two things. Sure, there’s the darkness of the setting – a grim future world where the police rule the streets with an iron fist, willing and able to meet out instant justice to criminals without having to wait for the slow cogs of the judicial system to turn. Secondly, you (hopefully) also think of the humour – the absurdity of the situation, and the way that society has, in turn, become increasingly absurd to counter the horror of the system. However, there’s almost nothing to laugh about in Dreadnoughts.
Although set in the same universe as Dredd, the premise of the two stories in this book is to look back at the work of the very first Judges. There are glimpses of background to be seen (quotes from and references to the founding Chief Judge Fargo, for example) but both stories are examining pivotal moments around the year 2035, when Judges were taking over and the world doesn’t know what to make of them. The Judges in Dreadnought emerge fully formed as a brutal, dictatorial police force.
The first story starts on the streets of Boulder, Colorado, with newly trained Judge Glover brought to an ongoing public disorder situation. The people are revolting, the police are ineffectual, and the arrival of a Judge soon sees bodies on the floor and a line of violent subjugation crossed.
With that sorted, the plot slips into a more pedestrian state. A child is kidnapped and Judge Glover gets involved in the case to try and track both kidnapper and victim down. There’s further messy entanglement with existing law enforcement, and a few wild goose chases and red herrings. It’s fairly standard stuff, not particularly compelling to my mind, and arguably fairly forgettable. Is there any reason why this is an investigation that couldn’t have been solved by the regular police? Not really.
However, one element that’s certainly worthwhile is the art by John Higgins. It’s illustrated with a certain gritty reality – there’s nothing here that’s larger than life, just normal people in different uniforms, basically the same as the people they’re ‘protecting’, but with stony faces and better training. It’s bleak, but deliberately so, and feels a lifetime away from his brighter, sharper work in earlier Judge Dredd stories. And rightly so.
Which makes the second story strangely jarring. This is largely because it’s illustrated in a more outlandish style by Jake Lynch, channelling a little more of Dredd artists like McMahon and Ezquerra than the gritty realism of Higgins.
The story juxtaposes two timelines, combining both the current Dredd timeline and the early days in an interwoven story that’s cleverly executed. However, I’d argue that the idea and the presentation are perhaps stronger than the final result.
The plot sees Dredd and the current era judges looking for an iPad-style tablet that contains the only known coordinates of several stashes of a chemical weapon, hidden from the early Judges by the military. Only, as we see from the historical perspective, the military are no better at looking after it than anyone else, with those early Judges having to force their way onto military bases to investigate poisonings that may have been caused by the weapons being abused.
The link between the two eras is the tablet and the data that’s on it, but it’s a relatively weak link from the perspective of the story, with even Dredd himself commenting on how lucky they were to discover that it even existed. Considering it was lost more than 100 years previously, it’s a very cold case to reopen.
The attraction of going back in time to the early days of the Judges is clearly a compelling one, but I just don’t feel like Mike Carroll has pulled it off. There’s nothing wrong with the grand concept or the application of his meticulous research, but these stories don’t hold together as classics. It’s an interesting era, but as an origin story, Dreadnoughts falls a little flat.