By Arthur Wyatt, Matt Smith, Henry Flint, Phil Davidson and Chris Blythe
Oh man, how great was Dredd? Remember how Karl Urban never took off the helmet? No origin story, just a straight, grim, violent, Dredd-ful sequence of events that blew your synapses wide open like a shot of hi-ex? *Chris Farley voice* That was awesome. If you’re one of the few who have yet to watch it, stop reading immediately and go check out why it developed into the cult-hit beloved by so many. If you did see it, high-five! And then rejoice to know that 2000AD, the trusted caretakers of all things Dredd, have released Dredd: Urban Warfare, a collection of three stories set in the movie universe that greatly expand and enrich the world so ferociously introduced back in 2012. Taking its cues from the traditional Judge Dredd thematic commentary on social class oppression and authoritarian force, Urban Warfare decisively earns its badge as an authentically gritty and compelling Dredd tale, while making sure to develop the character of the mammoth city itself.
First up is Top of the World, Ma-Ma, an origin of sorts for the film’s villainess and playfully titled to reflect the events of that film. Uh…spoiler warning for a three year-old film, I guess? Written by Matt Smith with artist Henry Flint and Chris Blythe on colors, it is, unsurprisingly, a dark and tragic tale of how Ma-Ma would evolve into the twisted, powerful drug-lord she would come to be. Despite its future-setting, it’s a depressingly timeless account of an individual from the lower rungs of society trapped by her circumstances, unable to break the bonds of oppression from her pimp or from society at large. Ma-Ma here isn’t the manipulative, forceful narcotic matriarch we’ll all come to know, but rather a prostitute with plenty of flaws that hopes for a better life via the only means she believes can set her free from the gutter that life has thus far dictated is her destiny. Smith opts for third-person narration boxes to lay the near-noir mood on knowingly thick and to reinforce the age-old dialogue of the haves vs. the have-nots while developing the vicious rationale Ma-Ma will use to begin her transformation from the controlled to the controller. Dredd is a window dressing in this story, a looming background figure embodying the status-quo while Smith lets the harsh actions of Lester go unnoticed until Ma-Ma has already completed her metamorphosis. Flint’s heavy line and overlapping panel layouts do well to emphasize the asperous tone and Blythe’s colors are richly ominous, even if they may be overly dark in places. Top of the World, Ma-Ma is a tightly executed affair and one that fans of the film will find enriching more than excessive, but it is appropriately bleak as all get out and serves as a black mirror that reflects the unfortunately familiar nether many recognize in our own, less caustic world.
From prequel to sequel, Underbelly by Arthur Wyatt and returning art team Flint and Blythe takes place after the events of the film. It’s largely focused on a human trafficking scheme (okay, mutant trafficking scheme) that’s involved with the development of ‘pysch’, an extremely potent and dangers successor to the drug ‘slo-mo’ from the film. Most striking are the visuals as Flint and Blythe seemingly create a whole new genre best described as cyber-dank with radioactive mist colors of orange and green lingering over the massive, oppressive futuristic block structures of Mega-City one, all illuminated with electric blue hues. There is a two-page splash of a labyrinthine warehouse filled with judges and lawless drug enforcers, complete with teleprompter-like panel close-ups, that is jaw-droppingly fun to get lost in. Dredd takes a much more central role into the investigation of how a pile of dead mutants relates to the newest drug to hit the streets and he’s his usual, stoic self pitted against a fun duo of scum dubbed “Beauty and the Beast.” Wyatt crafts a fun action procedural complete with depressingly direct speech (that’s a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one) and he clearly has a great grasp on Anderson and her role as the audience’s more optimistic, humanist voice in a world sadly too far gone. Packed with jagged, relentless visuals (Flint’s panels fly about like broken fun-house mirrors) and eerily contrasting colors, Underbelly asks if the concept of justice is truly possible when the scales have fallen so far off their pivot point.
The meat of Urban Warfare is found in the longest story titled Uprise by Wyatt, artist Paul Davidson and Blythe on colors once more. The thing about Judge Dredd, regardless of medium, is that it presents a world that begs the audience to question if the Judges are the reaction or the precursor to the disastrous state-of-affairs it finds itself in. If law and order failed to create a peaceful society than how is a more zealous and ruthless policing supposed to make things any better? It’s a chicken and the egg scenario, except both the chicken and egg are basically filled with shit. But even in that scatological reality, there can be glimmers of hope. In Uprise, Wyatt scripts a tale of corruption and revolution, one in which neither truly wins. We’re presented with the slum section of Mega-City One named “The Spit” and it’s exactly as inviting as it sounds. Again exploring how the more fortunate will do everything in their power (without getting their own hands dirty, of course) to continue to widen the gap from those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, Uprise chronicles the efforts of a one-woman revolution (or terrorist, depending on your perspective) group trying to disrupt the building of a mega-elite tower in the middle of The Spit and the debased efforts of those looking to burn it all to the ground and start over in the name of “progress.” Basically, neighborhood gentrification commentary, but with robots and crazy amounts of explosions. Like, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” amount of combustion up in here.
Wyatt again utilizes a third person narration in lieu of first-person Dredd dialogue in boxes for the very reason that makes Dredd so great: there’s no additional insight to gain. Dredd IS the law; that’s his perspective. There’s no doubt or questioning, just a code and the means to achieving that code even when presented with revelations that might shake the formerly law-devout, Dredd pursues his mission to bring the true perpetrators of The Spit riots to justice. There’s a fun wrench thrown in to more easily help Dredd establish who that is, in the form of the mysterious character Wallace, but it never changes his driving force. The story itself could easily be the basis for an actual film sequel (though the lack of Anderson would be a shame) as it moves from beat to beat weaving an exponentially complex web (but not overly complex) that stacks the odds against Dredd and the very likable rookie, Judge Conti. Davidson’s style is sketchier and more angular than Flint’s and at times could be described as a toned-down Darick Robertson meets Charlie Adlard with layouts that would look at home in the latest Rucka/Lark joint (a particular scope-targeted flashback calls this comparison to mind). His design for the robot enforcers is an inspired blend of Terminators and Star Wars’ IG-88 and the detailed backgrounds really give the moribund state of The Spit great life. Blythe uses a similar palette here as he does on the other tales and again occasionally makes things just a tad too dark in places, but is equally as responsible for creating the grim reality we find ourselves in with his texturing and contrasting warms and cools in harmonic hue. Uprising, ultimately, is about not getting your voice drowned out and about fighting the good fight, whatever and however one might define that. And robot blowing-up. It definitely is also about blowing up those robots, man.
Did you see Dredd? Great, there’s plenty here that will leave you satisfied with a well-executed fleshing out of that established universe. Did you, for some ridiculous reason, not see Dredd? Great because it is in no way required to derive the sheer joy of exploring the very alive (in a zombie-like sort of way) Mega City One and these three yarns set therein. Dredd: Urban Warfare does what all good Judge Dredd tales do: it thrills with its surface-level action while subtly planting questions in your brain about society’s structure and its reasons for being through exaggerated caricatures of the all-too real tribulations found outside its pages. Go give this one a try and wait with bated breath for Karl Urban to don that signature helmet once more because the best elements of Judge Dredd should never be relegated to “cult-favorite” status.