Judge Dredd And The Possibility Of Reform

The charming and ridiculously smart Douglas Wolk did me the favor of sending me the Judge Dredd trilogy “America,” “America II: Fading of the Light,” and “Cadet,” about a singer, an anti-Judge activist-turned-terrorist, and the child they eventually have together, and then asking me to discuss it with him. Our very long conversation about the books, including their startlingly beautiful and fully-realized backgrounds, and their pretty awesome gender politics, as well as whether it’s possible for fascists to embrace reform, is up here. Some thoughts on the core story about pro-democracy terrorists taking on the Judges:

As a former student activist, I have a somewhat complicated relationship to America, the Democrats, and even to Total War. I should be clear that most of my activism was working through the democratic process—registering voters, agitating down at City Hall, asking questions in forums—though I did get arrested for occupying the admissions office at my college as part of an action to push the university towards more progressive financial aid reform. (Pro tip: singing the same folk song as a round for three hours will speed up the rate at which the university decides to arrest you, which can be useful when you’ve been sitting in the same hallway all day.) And so part of what strikes me about America and her cohort is that they’re kind of terrible activists. The march is a good idea—but the Democrats don’t plan for there to be instigators in the crowds, or to document their work. There doesn’t appear to be much of an organizing program. The terrorist campaign waged by Total War is fairly stupid as propaganda: yes, killing Judges demonstrates their vulnerability, but it’s guaranteed to bring down reprisals. And their plan to kill celebrities during an awards show without any plan for a communiqué is a huge wasted opportunity to reach the masses. I’m frustrated with them because I’d like them to be better.

And of course, that’s sort of the point of the book. We see the Democrats and Total War from the perspective of a very weak sympathizer. And we see the Judges from the perspective of their most articulate representative, who gets space to break down ideas about why democracy isn’t particularly representative. Nobody gets a fair chance for a rebuttal. The comic works for the same reason the Judges maintain an effective hold on government—they control the narrative.

This was my first go-round with Judge Dredd, but I’ll definitely be back. The character’s obviously been around for decades, but he feels particularly timely, a logical extension of both our law and order fetishes and our anti-hero obsessions in a way that subverts both.