Sunday, December 4, 2011


(Reprints: America stories from Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.07 and 3.20-3.25, plus Judge Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #250-252)

This week, I'm honored to have the brilliant Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress with me to discuss America.

DOUGLAS: Alyssa, I know you haven't read much of this series before, so here's a bit of background. The original "America" serial appeared in the first seven issues of the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine, beginning in 1990. At that point, Dredd had been a weekly feature in 2000 AD since 1977, and was also a daily comic strip in the Daily Star--this was a very high-profile British comic book, in other words. There are a handful of references to earlier stories in "America," most notably to a pro-democracy uprising that happened a couple of years earlier; as Ami suspects, it turned into a violent disaster because of Justice Dept. saboteurs who'd infiltrated the movement. (The full backstory of how the Judges took over what was left of the country wasn't revealed for another 15 years after this story was published.) "America" itself is one of the most reprinted of all Judge Dredd stories, although it technically isn't a Judge Dredd story.

And, as the way I tend to describe "America" goes, the climax of what may be the best-loved storyline of the most popular British comic book ever involves the fascist cop protagonist having a defenseless pro-democracy immigrant named America shot to death while she's carrying a tattered U.S. flag up the steps of the Statue of Liberty, which is itself in the shadow of a much bigger "Statue of Justice." I mean, this is not subtle. What I'm curious about is why a story about the murder of the American dream would be made by British creators for a British audience and resonate so strongly with them; is the cultural hegemony of the U.S. really so enormous that American national symbols have that kind of weight elsewhere? See also the question I was asking here a few weeks ago about a throwaway joke about Benedict Arnold, and wondering if many readers in the U.K. would get that reference.

(One note on America's name: her last name is Jara, and in the context of a story involving a singer-songwriter and a leftist activist who's killed by right-wingers, that has to be a reference to Victor Jara, right?)

Anyway, I haven't even gotten to the cunning mechanics of John Wagner's story (or Colin MacNeil's art!), or the ways that "Fading of the Light" twists the meaning of the first story and "Cadet" gives both stories a counter-twist. But before we get into that, I'm curious what you made of it as someone who's coming into the series cold.

ALYSSA: It's interesting, because after your initial description of America, I expected that it would leave me outraged, or at the very least het up. Instead, I finished it feeling surprisingly tender—and gratified. In its way, I like it more than anything I've read in quite some time.

Normally, I write less about aesthetics than about ideas. But I was struck powerfully by the completeness of Mega-City One—the consistency of the architecture, the continuity of bureaucratic language from street signs to spoken language, touches of the weather (something a lot of comics don't seem to think about unless it's directly relevant to the plot, or Rorschach's monologues). And I have to say, as a feminist comics reader, I particularly appreciate the way Colin MacNeil draws women's bodies. When America lounges in bed and moves around Beeny's room after the one night they spend together, she looks lean but realistic. The way she shrugs a shirt off her shoulder feels like actual human physical language. When we see America Beeny in her Judge uniform, her epaulets widen her shoulders to the point of ridiculousness, but her body isn't exaggerated to match: it's a measure of her strength that she can stand up under the weight of her office and its meaning.

But in terms of the arc's politics, I agree that the imagery of the death of the American dream is striking. But doesn't the arc of the story and its sequels reflect a conviction not that the American dream is doomed, but that it's reformable? And doesn't that suggest an even deeper engagement with the American idea than a narrative about American downfall would? A story where America validates the worst ideas about its own hypocrisy, where Judge Dredd orders America's execution, and where that decision is never questioned again, would confirm all the worst stereotypes about American police brutality and approach to dissent. A story where an order to stand down isn't obeyed in the heat of the moment, where an avatar of toughness finds himself compelled by the competence of an internal reformer, is much more helpful. I can understand why American readers would resonate to an argument that our cultural and political tendency towards law and order can be redeemed, and isn't so broken as to require violent overthrow. But I am curious about why British readers would gravitate to this interpretation. 

Thoughts? Is my tendency to be Little Mary Sunshine, even in a fascist police state, showing here?

DOUGLAS: Ha! It's absolutely true that the implications of the three "America" stories taken together are pretty heartening. But I think that's only really true after the third one--which was published sixteen years after the first one. For the first eight or nine years of Judge Dredd, it was a series whose hero was a tough supercop; it hinted occasionally at the idea that his politics were pretty questionable, but that was more subtext, a gentle nudge for the older readers. From 1986's "Letter from a Democrat" onward, though, we got to see more of the perspective of characters to whom the Judges are genuinely an oppressive force.

And throughout "America," Dredd's a monster. We don't see much of him early on--he's got his monologue on the first couple of pages, and again a bit later, and otherwise he doesn't turn up for nearly thirty pages. By then, we've already seen Judges being cruel and terrifying, but when Dredd finally shows up, the language he's using is the language of police procedurals, and he is after all trying to take down a bunch of terrorist cop-killers, and so on, so we drift back into thinking that he's in the right... and then he has America killed and makes sure that Bennett is watching, and delivers his speech about how "America is dead. This is the real world." Which is where the story sat for five years or so.

"Fading of the Light" is even crueler; everything about the spark of hope that was left at the end of "America" is corrupted and perverted. If you read it as straight-up allegory, it's unbelievably dark: America is basically dead, but her body is still moving around, possessed (and knocked up) by a rich clown who bought it for his own enjoyment--and even that is falling apart. (The scene at the euthanasium is the kind of black comedy Wagner does beautifully: "death with dignity" deprived of its dignity, with an unctuous nurse who uses "nice" three times in two sentences.) And what happens to the little girl who's all that's left of the real America? What's the worst possible thing that could happen to her? She gets signed over to Team Fascist, to complete the sellout. The bright, happy girl with the lizard from early in the story has become a heartbroken, shaved-headed cadet standing in military formation with all the other five-year-old child soldiers. And that's where the story sat for another ten years, until "Cadet" appeared in 2006.

That's one of the things I love most about Wagner's Dredd, though: he plots in the long term. (We see fallout from events that happened in the strip five or ten or thirty years ago all the time.) "Cadet" has one more little twist of the knife to add--that inspirational letter at the end of "Fading of the Light" couldn't possibly have been written by Bennett--but otherwise you're right: Cadet Beeny believes in fixing the system from the inside, and it's not impossible that she's going to make some progress at it. It's sometimes heartening to think that we're not totally doomed, you know? Still, that hopefulness doesn't seem to have been intended from the beginning. Wagner notes in his introduction to this volume that he hadn't planned for "Fading of the Light" to lead to "Cadet"--"The characters took over, you see, and took me where they would. And now a whole new range of possibilities has opened up."

(The idea of "political reform" in the context of this series is tricky, though. There's a running bit of business in the last few years dealing with Dredd's evolving position on mutant rights, which here as in X-Men stand in for any kind of civil-rights issue you like; Dredd pushes to reform the laws--but he's in the right for dubious reasons, the reforms don't work out, and things turn out badly for everyone.)

I agree that Mega-City One is beautifully realized as a setting, both in the way it looks and in the way its culture holds together. The initial design of its cityscape, I believe, was by Dredd's co-creator Carlos Ezquerra, although Judge Dredd has basically been one big game of "yes, and..."--a whole lot of artists (and a few writers) building on each other's additions. (The "Statue of Liberty reduced to its torch" business that we see briefly in "Fading of the Light" is, as I understand, fallout from a story that Grant Morrison, of all people, wrote during one of Wagner's periodic absences from the series.)

It's interesting that you bring up the way women are drawn in this story (and I agree that MacNeil's really good with character acting, although I prefer the more richly rendered look of "America"--and, for that matter, "Chopper: Song of the Surfer"--to the line-art of the other two sequences in here). Women's presence on panel is a curious aspect of the history of this series. When 2000 AD began, as I understand, there was a distinct line between British "boys' comics" and "girls' comics"; the former didn't even generally have women as supporting characters. (I just found my copy of 2000 AD Prog 60, from April 1978. There is one female character in the entire issue; she doesn't speak.)

I don't think we saw any women Judges at all until well over a hundred episodes in, and I suspect the Judge Anderson spinoff may have been the first series in a British boys' comic starring a woman character. As soon as it was clear that the readership of 2000 AD was old enough that the male readers no longer considered girls icky, Wagner and Alan Grant made a lot of the regular supporting cast women--I'd wager that McGruder, Anderson and Hershey have appeared on panel more than any character other than Dredd himself--although I'd also bet that you can count the number of episodes that pass the Bechdel test on the fingers of both hands.

But yes--to get back to your final point, America does make it pretty clear that its setting is a fascist police state, and that the protagonist embodies that as its enforcer. "Cadet"'s hopefulness does suggest a deep engagement, but I'd also argue that it suggests that the big battle's already lost. Cadet Beeny blames the culture of the Judges for what happened to her mother, but she doesn't blame the broader culture that gave the Judges unlimited power, and neither does "Cadet" as a story, as opposed to "America" and "Fading of the Light." The resistance to the Judges has been smashed in most places and appeased in the rest; this time around, Dredd and company are unequivocally in the right, and the bad guys are cleaver-wielding bastards. Did you feel your sympathies being toyed with or moved around over the course of the volume? Where were they by the end?

ALYSSA: I didn't know about the time lapse between the stories, which certainly alters my thinking about this a bit. I've essentially come to the conclusion that the America trilogy is manipulative, but it's a skillful bit of manipulation.

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. 

The one place where I think our basic sentiments and all parts of the narrative are working in concert, though, is on the subject of gender. America's narrative of how the Judges forced her to have an abortion, claiming (I assume falsely) that her fetus had genetic abnormalities is horrifying. But so is Beeny's story about impregnating the comatose woman he loved so something of her would live on. Nobody here has very much respect for women's reproductive choice, and that's consistently portrayed as a dreadful, warping thing. Similarly, Judge Dredd may be somewhat more sympathetic to Beeny after he has his mind implanted in America's body than Victor Portnoy is, but they—and even Beeny—are fairly united on the fact that it's a deeply unsettling appropriation. There's a difference between youthful love and desire that becomes so overpowering that the person feeling it has the urge to possess the other person, to be deep inside them enough to deprive them of independent thought, of death on their own terms. What happens to America both before and after her death is very difficult to read through, but these awful events seem, to me, to have strikingly feminist aims.

And I think that works in concert with your thoughts about the long-arc story planning at work here. I really appreciate being able to see these characters evolve. Of course it makes sense that confronted with people who play into all of his preconceptions, Judge Dredd would be resistant to reform, but that watching America Beeny make strategically impressive calls informed by her reformist instincts, he'd be persuaded to change his mind. Of course it makes sense that America would be radicalized by her imprisonment, by her forced abortion. And it makes sense that Beeny's death is much of a surrender as the rest of his life. He's unable to move beyond his love for America, unable to move beyond his instinct to disapprove of the system but to collaborate with it. If you can't grow, whether physically or intellectually, you die. Having America's body reject his brain is both a perfect metaphor for their intellectual and political incompatibility, and for Beeny's inability to either buy into the system or to actively resist it.

DOUGLAS: Thanks again, Alyssa! Everyone, go read Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress and The Atlantic and Twitter.

A little bibliographic note: after its initial Megazine run, "America" appeared as the standalone volume America in 1991, then as a two-issue U.S. miniseries in 1993, in the first issue of Classic 2000 AD in 1995, in The Complete America in 2003 (along with "Fading of the Light"), in this version, once again just called America (with "Fading of the Light" and "Cadet"), in 2008, and in Prion Books' The Best of Judge Dredd omnibus in 2009. Strangely, the "America"/"Fading"/"Cadet" edition of the book seems to be out of print now--copies go for ridiculous prices on Amazon. I hope every new edition from now on throws in another story; maybe the next one could include "Judgement Call" from Megazine #300, too.

Next week: into a much sillier arena with The Art of Kenny Who?, a.k.a. The Cam Kennedy Collection.


  1. Great review, really enjoyed reading both writers' thoughts! Alyssa's perspective on things was very interesting too, particularly on the new reader and feminist side of things.

    "What I'm curious about is why a story about the murder of the American dream would be made by British creators for a British audience and resonate so strongly with them"

    John Wagner is American; he moved to Scotland as a young boy, however. I'm not sure if both or one or neither of his parents were American though!

    I love the first America story in particular. It had a profround effect on me the first time I read it (in the 1995 first issue of Classic 2000AD) and completely changed my view of not just the character but comics in general. A brilliant, disturbing and thought-provoking work. I really do think it deserves more acclaim and it acts as a very good 'definitive' Dredd story for any first-timers to Judge Dredd, in my opinion.

  2. Thanks for this great review of one on my favorite comics. A note about the US 2 issue reprint - the very last page of the story was left out! It was years later when I say the original in The Megazine that I saw the actual brilliant ending with Dredd's closing monologue.

  3. These are the 2000AD progs where the Democracy storyline begins and the current JD Case Files reprint book numbers where you'll find them:

    1986 'Letter From a Democrat' prog: 460 Judge Dredd Case Files 09.
    1987 'Revolution' Prog: 531-533 Judge Dredd Case Files 11.
    1991 'The Devil You Know' Prog: 750-753 Judge Dredd Case Files 16.
    1991 'Twilight's Last Gleaming' prog: 754-756 Judge Dredd Case Files 16.

    The Democracy storyline does eventually coalesce with Dredd's own story arc -unofficially named Bloodline stories- that explore the consequences of the effects of Dredd's own 'familial/clone' issues and the issues raised about 'justice' in the Democracy storyline on Dredd himself but it's quite a large story that starts with Dredd's early clone stories and his dealings with his later doubts about being a Judge and the Judge system itself 'the Big Lie'.

    It's an ongoing story that continues to this day and was ramped up another 'personal' notch in 'Origins' which details the history of the Judges and their founder, Judge Fargo -Dredd's clone father- and his/the Judges responsibility/burden of social control under the collapse of old, corrupt 'America' and the future tolerance issues in mutant sectarianism.

    If you want to stick with the old Democracy storyline for now, case-files 9,11 & 16 should do.

  4. For the record, I've been reading these reviews since I found them on Google + and I love what you are doing. I've been buying the trades and reliving Chopper and Judge Death stories. I just ordered the America story, one of my favorites back when I collected this comic in high school. I remember them being really hard to find back then, oh bless the mighty interwebs for giving me easy access to awesome comics. Thanks