Nicholas Lezard

Judge Dredd: the prescience of a 45-year-old comic strip

‘Immediate Justice’, the government’s new policing initiative of pursuing petty criminals, reflects the black-clad law-enforcer’s 1970s methods exactly

Sylvester Stallone as Judge Dredd in the 1995 film. [Richard Blanshard/Getty Images]

In 1977, an enduring character was created for the pages of the IPC comic 2000 AD: Judge Dredd, lawman of the future, the most visible symbol of police procedure – a helmeted, black-clad, motorbike-riding policeman patrolling the streets of Mega-City One, a vast metropolis stretching along the eastern coast of the US, whose remit also allows him – as his honorific implies – to be an on-the-spot judge, jury and, when the occasion demands, executioner. The occasion often demands it.

It is interesting that the two longest- running human cartoon characters in Great Britain represent opposite poles of the psyche. Their names both begin with D, for some reason or none. Dennis the Menace is all about anarchy; Dredd very much not so. His catchphrase, ‘I am the Law’, emphasises his nature as symbol, as figurehead: in the 46 years of his duties, we have never seen his face.

Originally not much more than a tough guy, he quickly became a complex character, the hero/anti-hero of a story in which individual liberty is pitted against the forces of authority. No crime is too small to escape prosecution. Sometimes you don’t even have to commit a crime. In 1995, a one-off strip appeared, featuring a blameless citizen called Eric Spendpenny who is desperate to find a public toilet. His urgency is reported. ‘The reader knows,’ writes Michael Molcher, ‘that Spendpenny is already doomed.’ (He ends up being sentenced for littering.)

I cannot recall a more timely book, with Rishi Sunak having recently announced a new policing initiative, ‘Immediate Justice’, in which petty criminals caught in the act would be forced to pay some form of restitution and penance. Its details remain vague, but I have no doubt that many people are wholly sympathetic to this, and to the idea of Dredd tout court.

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