“Every woman adores a fascist.” -Sylvia Plath
“We drove past the hatchery, / the hut that sells bait, / past Pigeon Cove, past the Yacht Club, past Squall’s Hill, / to the house that waits still, / on the top of the sea, / and two portraits hung on the opposite walls.” -Anne Sexton
I’m not going to Comic-Con this year, but I have been reading a lot of comics lately, plowing through 2000 AD’s editions of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files and Savage She-Hulk #1-25. They’re wildly different comics projects—Judge Joseph Dredd is the main character in a long-running futuristic comics saga that doesn’t reboot, letting a year pass in his life for every one of ours, while She-Hulk is a mid-level character in the complex Marvel Comics universe. And even more important, they explore wildly different values. And over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why, as a feminist and a civil libertarian, I like both a fascist cop who originated as a British satire of American authoritarian tendencies and a green feminist defense lawyer who was created to preempt a television rip-off of both the Hulk and the Bionic Woman so much.
In coming to terms with the cop, it help that Dredd is a satire of the yearning towards authoritarianism, and that the writing is often very funny. In a confrontation with the Dark Judges, undead villains dedicated to eradicating all life, Judge Fear attempts to drive Judge Dredd mad by telling him, “Gaze into the face of fear!” “For a moment the icy chill of terror courses down Dredd’s spine,” the comic tells us. “The shock of this gaze can kill an ordinary man. But Dredd is a judge—and Judges are not ordinary men!” His response? A solid punch, delivered with the retort: “Gaze into the fist of Dredd!” In another story arc, called Block Mania, Mega-City One’s inhabitants, cramped into massive apartment buildings with strong internal identities, are drugged with a chemical that leads to city-wide riots. Dredd leads the response, but ultimately gets hit with a heavy dose of the substance himself. It’s hilarious watching this highly controlled man go as bonkers as his neighbors, hollering at the Judges under his command, “Now there’s just one thing I gotta know. I’m with Rowdy Yates Block! Who you fighting with?”
The comic also regularly punctures Dredd’s stoicism, particularly with regard to Walter, his lisping, worshipful robot butler who is an obvious stand in for stereotypically gay functionaries. Walter adores Dredd, and embraces subservience and slavery (something that causes him real psychological struggle down the line). But even though Dredd finds Walter irritating, Walter often inadvertently saves him. When Dredd is infiltrating the inner circle of a corrupt Chief Judge, the leader of the Department of Justice, which lead a coup and now rules Mega-City one in a dictatorship, Walter helps him sneak through a secret passageway in the Hall of Justice. During the Apocalypse War arc, Walter, who is trying to help Judge Dredd’s landlord Maria get cured of her Block Mania, finds out that invaders from East-Meg One, the nation that’s replaced the Soviet Union, are flanking Dredd’s forces and about to destroy them. Walter’s decency ends up being more crucial to Dredd’s survival in that moment than Dredd’s competence or authority.
And whether you think Dredd and the Justice Department’s harsh and dictatorial approach to law enforcement is appealing or not, much of what’s fun about the Judge Dredd comics is watching the character grow, both in the arc of individual stories and over time. In the Apocalypse War story, after East-Meg One launches nuclear warheads at Mega-City One, a devastated Judge Griffin tells the member of his command team “I suppose…I’d better inform the citizens.” Dredd’s response is immediately dismissive. “The citizens? What makes you think they’d be interested?” he wants to know. It’s a harsh, if understandable response: he and his crews have worked themselves into exhaustion trying to keep Mega-City One’s residents from trashing their own homes and killing their own neighbors for no discernable reason. But later, as the invasion launches, Dredd changes his mind, taking to the radio to tell the city “I don’t know how many of you are listening out there. I don’t know how many of you even care. But hear this. east-Meg forces now occupy the northern sectors and are sleeping out. Our city faces its blackest hour! Judges are under orders to carry on their resistance whenever and however possible. This order extends to all citizens.” It’s hardly a full reversal—this is an order, not a democratic appeal, and Dredd doesn’t expect very much from the citizens. But he’s acknowledged that they have potential uses, that some of them out there may be willing to fight for their city instead of against themselves.
It helps that, unlike almost any major American comics, Dredd doesn’t reboot. The character absorbs information and assimilates his experiences, and grows from them, and the comic’s writers have to accomodate that growth as they continue to move him forward. As Douglas Wolk and I discussed in a long exchange late last year, in the America arc of the comics, Dredd violently crushes a democratic movement in Mega-City One—and sixteen years later, evaluates the daughter of a lead dissident when she’s up for Judgeship, passing her even though she has a different, more compassionate vision of law enforcement than he does. Judge Dredd is interesting to me as a story about what happens when a man is given tremendous power and authority and begins to explore all the ways he can use it beyond the obvious, violent, repressive ones.
She-Hulk, by contrast, is a character who’s searching for the recognition and legitimacy that Dredd wears as closely, comfortably, and confidently as his armor. Professionally, she represents that which is absent in Mega-City One, counsel for the defense. Where Dredd’s persona is clearly and powerfully unified, Jennifer Walters and She-Hulk are in constant conversation with each other, if not always necessarily in conflict. Judges are forbidden to have romantic relationship, a restriction that’s allowed the comics to explore a range of Dredd’s professional relationships with women, a number of whom he’s mentored without falling into cliche sexual tension. Becoming She-Hulk, by contrast, makes Jennifer somewhat more emotionally and sexually adventurous, a concept that lets the comic tell smart stories about the things women regret doing, and not doing.
It’s amazing, reading the early run of She-Hulk comics, how bluntly feminist the storylines were. One of the things things that most frequently set off Jennifer’s transformation shortly after her cousin Bruce Banner gave her a transfusion of his blood was sexist condescension. And her antagonists frequently painted She-Hulk as an incoherent brute, rather than someone with real, articulate objections to the way she and others were treated. Buck Bukowski, the District Attorney who frequently clashed with Jennifer in court, is prone to telling her things like “Face it, you’d be much better at the sidelines–cheering me on–as my legal secretary.” As Jen, she manages to snap back “Just remember this, prosecutor–like your mouth, the defense never rests.” As She-Hulk, she’s done damage to Buck’s cars in the line of duty—something that’s used as proof that she’s a monster, not that sometimes superheroes have collateral damage.
When Iron Man and She-Hulk first face off—Jennifer’s been investigating how Stark Industries weapons have been ending up fueling gang wars in Los Angeles—Tony Stark makes the mistake of assuming that She-Hulk is a stupid animal. Flying over the California skyline, with She-Hulk firmly clamped to his legs, Tony delivers a lecture. “I’ll try to explain this as simply as possible,” he tells her. “If you let go, you’ll fall–fall back down to the ground! You’ll get hurt.” Jennifer’s response is withering: “No, Iron Man–never! I’m the She-Hulk! But what about you? Could you survive the fall–if your tin suit didn’t work? I can tear it apart with my bare hands–and maybe I should! I don’t like people who try to push me around! I don’t like you! No one pushes me with impunity, Iron Man! No one!!” “You mean…you actually…speak English?” Tony gapes. “So, what’s it sound like to you, little man–Greek?” she punches back. “I don’t know,” Tony tells her as they land. “Guess I just thought you’d be…dumber.”
The lesson he learns is one people who dismiss women who are angry about sexism as incoherent or oversensitive could stand to absorb: that sometimes huge anger comes from a justified place, and that it doesn’t strip women who experience it of their strength, be it rhetorical, physical, or professional. “I’m me, but I’m also her!” Jen meditates before she’s able to control her transformations. “I want to lash out at the injustice of everything! It’s wrong, but at the same time, it feels so right! The rage…so overwhelming! The power…so awesome! God help me, but I almost wish I always was–her.”
And this kind of story illustrates why, while Jennifer may be more physically powerful than Judge Dredd, her job can be harder. While Dredd occasionally faces threats to his legitimacy, as during the reign of the insane Judge Cal when he’s declared an enemy of Mega-City One, his reputation gives him extraordinarily powerful influence, even in a city that constantly requires his attention. He can push his city to change its attitude towards mutants or ask it to hold a referendum on its form of government, and exceptions to norms—like his return from the Long Walk, a retirement ritual that takes Judges into the Cursed Earth region blighted by nuclear war—can be made for him because his record is so sterling. Decades after her introduction, and her struggle to convince people she’s not a savage, Jennifer found herself fighting to be taken seriously again in Dan Slott’s fantastic Superhuman Law arc, after she was fired from both her job as a lawyer for spending too much time on Avengers business and booted from the Avengers mansion for partying too hard. It’s hard out there for a feminist superhero.
But it can also be a delight. She-Hulk has her share of angsty romantic storylines—as well as stories about sexual coercion and sexual harassment—but one of the reasons I keep returning to her as a character is because her personal life isn’t treated as a way to emotionally torture her. In her early stories, it’s fun watching Jennifer flirt with Richard Rory, who becomes one of the first people to sympathize with She-Hulk, and who likes Jen precisely because she’s smart, and capable, and professionally successful, and to allow herself to date Dan Ridge, a childhood friend, who Jennifer had always dismissed as too young for her, an objection She-Hulk dismisses. She’s a superheroine who gets to hang out on the beach, go shopping, take out a few bad guys during a jog in the park, and work at a job where she helps create a new branch of legal practice. The side effects may be non-negligible, but I can imagine that more than a few busy ladies wouldn’t mind having an alternate personality to navigate the heavy lifting and complex fun of contemporary life. As Jennifer herself puts it at the end of her introductory issue: “I’ll learn to live with it. From now on, whatever Jennifer Walters can’t handle–the She-Hulk will do.”
That’s the dream of super-heroes or super-cops, that they’ll pick up where we leave off, keep fighting when we flag, hold the inevitable chaos of society at bay (even as they generally fail to achieve systemic reform). And more than thirty years after both Judge Dredd and She-Hulk made their debuts, him in 1977, her in 1980, we still haven’t disentangled ourselves from our law and order fantasies and their rancid results, or resolved our society’s issues with physically and intellectually powerful women. But I think I love Judge Dredd and She-Hulk so much because they’re procedural heroes rather than gods, because they get cranky, and take sick days, and get fired, and because it turns out that fighting interdimensional psychopaths or arrogant wannabes in superpowered elephant suits can be both tense and funny. And sometimes knowing that is the only way to move forward societies that change an inch at a time when they need to move miles.