Thursday, 9 June 2016

Judge Dredd: America (Judge Dredd Megazine vol.2 #1-7)

"Justice has a price.  The price is freedom" - Judge Dredd

I don't know if you have noticed but it's a scary time over in US politics land.  With Donald Trump promising to deport all Muslims and build a wall between Mexico and the USA, well, I know he doesn't stand a hope in hell in becoming POTUS,  however his campaign has turned over a rock under which many people were hiding their noxious, authoritarian opinions and now, rather than be a bit ashamed of those beliefs are shouting them proudly in support of Trump's candicacy and I doubt they'll be going away when he inevitably fails.  So it seems as good a time as ever to cover the critically acclaimed Judge Dredd serial "America" which examines the things America has always prided itself on standing for and how often the reality falls short of the "Dream".  Of course the USA in question is the dystopian future of Megacity One, but it perhaps is telling that immigrants of the Dreddverse believe an image of it very close to our own idealised America.  And with the current militarisation of the US police force, acting as judge, jury and executioner towards young black men whose only crime was being young black men perhaps we can we say we're starting to find the worlds largest democracy beginning to embody the more frighting aspects of Megacity One's system of justice?  Interestingly Dredd barely appears in this story, but the totalitarianism he stands for looms over it as we follow the life of the daughter of a Puerto Rican family named America through the observations and narration of her best friend Benny Beeny as they grow up and make their very different lives in Megacity One and the journey from wide-eyed idealism to... well you'll see.
Dredd's law.
Actually the story begins first with a mission statement from Judge Dredd standing over a body covered in a blood-spattered stars and stripes flag.

Judge Dredd: "I stand four-square for justice.  I stand for discipline, good order and the rigid application of the law - and grud help any limp wristed liberals who say different.  The people like it that way.  They need to know where they stand.  That's why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there.  Towering over Liberty.  Kind of a symbol".

[Interestingly this puts the climax of the events told here quite a long way in Dredd's past, not long before in the pages of 2000AD he had ended up resigning as a Judge and going into exile because he'd lost faith in the brutal effectiveness of the system as he got older freeing sixty-odd democracy campaigners as his last act as a Judge, but we'll cover that period another time. The references to early Judge Dredd storylines such as the war with the Sov's and Blockmania seem to bear this out.] This is Benny's story, narrated as a retrospective.  He wants to tell us about how he loved a woman and still does, "though the spark that animated her has long since been crushed out."

Benny: "And I'll tell you how I betrayed her - and when I've finished you'll despise me for what I did."

He was there from the moment she was born "into this sick world".  And we are shown the birth of a baby girl, Benny is there as a baby, along with his mother.  She asks what Mr. Jara is going to call his new daughter.
America, born of immigrants.
He says the city has taken them in, and given them prospects, "America - the lan' o'the free a' the brave".  So in honour of their new home in Megacity One she is to be called "America".

Benny: "America... how like her name her life would be.. born in hope, with a dream - died in disillusionment and despair."

Then we jump forwards a few years.  Benny is recovering from being beaten up by some bullies.  While America comforts him, a Judge approaches them.  Benny thinks back how because of this meeting he had always been afraid of Judges and symbols of authority.

The adults would tell them the Judges were there to protect them and make the streets safe. But he would see they were afraid of them too. And at night they would be put to bed with the dire threat the Judges would come for them if they didn't sleep.

Benny: "So we didn't need ghosts or goblins or vampires.  We had the Judges.  And they were worse.  We knew they existed."

The Judge reaches the stricken Benny and America and yells at Benny for fighting saying he has enough evidence he is a troublemaker to put him in a Juve-Cube.  Benny whimpers that he is not a troublemaker and pleads not to be sent away.  America tells the Judge to leave Benny alone.
Benny being bullied.
The Judge sneers at her, she responds that she can say what she likes, "my dad says America is a free country"  The Judge says her dad is living in the wrong century, this isn't America anymore, it's Megacity One and that she and her dad have a lot to learn.  He calls in to dispatch to see if Benny or America have records, when told they don't he gives them a warning and departs.

Benny is tearful at this, and future Benny remembers she was the strong one while he was the one who usually ended up crying.  "He was a bad man" says America to Benny when Benny sniffles that the Judge might tell his mum.

Benny: "But we made her cry, in the end me and the Judges.  Oh yes, we got to her in the end."

Benny and America are teenagers next, at a lecture about how the country was founded on "life-liberty-and the pursuit of happiness".  This causes her to stand up and say the Judges have taken Liberty away, they arrest you for dropping litter, can break into your home and beat and torture you on spurious reasoning, and if your not up to scratch genetically they call you a "mutie" and toss you out of the city.

America: "And Happiness - there's a joke!  Look around you!  You see any happy faces? So much for Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness".

The teacher says well, they are alive, "one out of three's not bad."  After the lesson Benny and America go and talk somewhere private.  She is frustrated that the Judges took the power and "nobody seems to give a damn".  Benny says people don't want to take on the Justice Department"it's a lot easier to play it their way".  Then he sings a comic song he made up about Judge Dredd and makes her laugh.
You will never escape their view.
She says he's a natural comic, but she wishes she could see the funny side of things.  She says people come to America "to escape tyranny.  To be free, to have the right to decide for themselves how they want to live". 

She says people need to stand up to the Judges and tell them to stay out of their lives.  She shows Benny the pro-democracy posters she has, which freaks out Benny, it's a crime to have them and put them up.

Benny: "I begged her to stop.  I tried to make her see you could play it by their rules and still live a good life."

She says he's wrong, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness weren't just empty words.  "People died to make sure they'd always be a right".

Benny goes with her once to a pro-democracy meeting. He was terrified and she never asked him again.  After picking up her first conviction at fifteen for putting up pro-democracy posters she became a known troublemaker flaunting her involvement in the cause.  And slowly she and Benny began to grow apart.

He is deeply in love with her by now.  Two weeks before the graduation bop, he asks her to go with him.  She says she is already going with a man called Doody.  Benny blurts out all his repressed feelings for her, and all she can say is she does love him "but... not that way".  Benny turns to leave and she hugs him saying "please don't cry".
Benny gets friendzoned.
He went to the bop alone an performed a couple of his comic songs, "everyone laughed, except the comedian".  America went to West Sector U to study politics, Doody went with her.  When Benny's mother died, she couldn't come and support him as he said goodby as she was at a protest.  Her father does come and watch with Benny as Mum gets recycled, he says of Megacity One, "I weesh we never come... ees no' the great dream place - ees no' America anymore."

Later that night Benny writes America a letter cutting ties with her.  He still has it as she kept it.  He moves out from the block they grew up in and goes to make his own way in the world.

Benny: "The next time I saw America she would have the blood of four Judges on her hands."

Benny was in Megacity Two when war came to Megacity One.  When he returned he looked for America at West Sector U, "no records remained".  His old block survived and he goes and asks about the Jara family.  The neighbour doesn't recall a young woman but remembers the father, "killed hisself - went mad with a Stanley laser.  Got his wife an' a few of the neighbours".  He asks for Benny's autograph, but Benny walks silently away and soon stops looking for her.

Benny: "So I hoped she was alive and I wished her well.  And not a day passed when I didn't think of her."

He had some breaks in his career. He was the voice for some popular jingles, then an agent heard a recording of some of his comic songs and gave him a spot on a popular show.  After that he was made.  Big private residence, pool, garden, droid servants, "I'd been right.  You could play it by their rules and have a good life."
Benny enjoys the fruits of success.
But he lived alone, had a few brief relationships but no one measured up to America.  And now and then he "sought refuge with the ladies of the slab"  And that's where he next encountered America.  He is surprised and when he tells her he can't believe she's sunk so low she urgently tells him to go.

Then she pulls a gun and shoots two Judges as they drive past hitting one in the chest and the other through the head.  Her partners in crime roll up in a pod to collect her, a big man called "Kurd" points a gun at Benny saying "he's seen you"  You know the rules!" and he shoots Benny through the throat, before dragging a distraught America into the pod and making their getaway as Benny bleeds out by the two dead Judges.
More Judges arrive and set up a crime scene, confirming the bullets as from a gun that was responsible for at least two other Judge murders.  There was a note pinned to one of the dead Judges saying "Total War".  Benny is being stabilised and taken to hospital, the Judges think he got unlucky and blundered into an ambush but Dredd wants to question him anyway, "I want these creeps.  I'll give 'em total war."

Once Benny comes too in hospital, only able to communicate by typing, Dredd interrogates him.  When he feels Benny is being less than forthcoming he yells that he could arrest him for obstruction of justice and does he want to do his recovery in the cubes?! 

So Benny lies to Dredd providing a vague description of Kade, and that the woman was tall and dark haired and he didn't recognise them.

Benny: "If I could have talked I wouldn't have held out for a minute.  He'd have squeezed it out of me, had me crawling for the priviledge of informing on you.  Oh yes.  I'm no hero.  We know that only too well."

After he's given his statement, Dredd leaves him be.  Dredd says to a fellow Judge that Benny was likely in the area looking for a slabwalker, but they decide not to prosecute him for consorting, "creep's already lost a career anyway."
Benny lies to Dredd.
Soon Benny is able to leave the hospital back to his lonely home.  A floral company van gains access to the exclusive estate his house is part of, and drives up to his front door. Inside Benny is pouring himself a drink when the doorbell rings.  And there, holding a bunch of flowers, is America.

Benny invites her inside.  He has a cyber implant in his neck allowing him to speak.  She apologises, and he says he's being fixed up with one programmed with his own voice.  His driod butler comes in and says he recognises her from the hologram Benny keeps by his bed.  It says to her that she looks like she could do with a good meal.
Benny and America talk and she thanks him for not informing on them.  He says, "I did it for you, Ami.  Not for Total War."  Killing Judges is murder no matter how you dress it up. She says "there's no other way" but for now she doesn't want to talk about it.  Over supper they reminisce about their childhood.

Benny: "We talked long into the night.  For a few hours it was just like old times, as if the real world had never intruded on our lives".

But finally he tells her the Judges will catch her, and she agrees.  He asks why she doesn't stop, she can come and live with him, she knows how he feels about her.

She says she can't stop now, "they hurt me, Benny.  I can't stop hating them".  He says they'll talk about it in the morning and goes to order his droid to make up a bed for her.  But she has other ideas and points at his bedroom invitingly before pulling him inside...
Benny's dream comes true.
Next day she shows him the letter he sent her.  She kept it because even in her darkest moments she knew someone cared about her out there.  She says she needs one hundred thousand untraceable creds by thursday.  Benny realises she wants the money for Total War, "so that's what this was all about!  Grud!  I should have known!" She responds that last night happened because she loves him.  He says he doesn't think he knows her anymore.  They "better get reacquainted" then she says.

At the big democracy march some years ago she was there, four months pregnant with Dood's child.  The march was ruthlessly suppressed when Justice Department agitators placed in the crowd threw rocks at the Judges.  Dood was beaten and died on his way to hospital.  She was sent to Rehab for "Re-education".
America's sorry tale.
Then the Judges tested the child she was carrying and told her it had a "genetic abnormality" and she had a forced abortion.  She ended up in the Psycho-cubes due to this.  But as she calmed down she realised she had to play along, and got released and hooked up with Total War.  She tells Benny the money won't be used to hurt anyone and if he doesn't want to help she'll leave him alone and he'll never see her again.

Benny: "Oh America.  Were you using me even then?  You knew just the right words to twist me with - never see you again.... No!  I won't believe it of her."

So he agrees to help, "thursday you said..?"  And on that day he meets with America at a drive-in, they sit and hold hands on the swings.  Benny feels contented.

Benny: "If only it could have stayed like that - if we could have walked away, together, turned our backs on the tragedy that had been so carefully laid out before us.  But life doesn't work that way".

He asks her what the money will be used for.  She says it's best he doesn't know.  But he presses her on the matter so she admits it will be used for explosives, "we're going to blow up the Statue of Liberty".
Benny and America's last happy moment.
She says it's to make a point, to make headlines.  The Statue is a "sick joke" - there is no Liberty and "sooner or later the message will get through."  He gets the rest of the details from her, date and time, that they'll be using two hover-pods, one packed with explosives and her piloting the escape pod. He hands her the money and as she leaves she turns and looks at him, "as if she knew."

Then the story shifts to the night of the planned attack.  Dredd and a whole lot of Judges are staking out Lady Liberty.  One reports to Dredd that Benny has been spotted in a pod nearby, should they pick him up?

Dredd: "Negative.  Let him watch.  He earned it."

The two Total War pods fly in and the Judges use disrupters to bring them down.  Kurd climbs out of his and surrenders, he is cut to pieces in a barrage of fire from the Judges as are his companions. America's pod crashes and she crawls out leaving a trail of blood towards a stars and stripes flag on the ground.

Benny: "Yes I remember America.  Struggling to rise - taking those last faltering steps across the concourse."

A Judge shoots her and she falls.  Benny runs to her side.  He babbles that he couldn't do it, be party to terrorism and bloodshed.  Dredd had promised him she wouldn't be hurt, just the others.
America left bleeding.
Dredd tells him to "save your tears from someone who deserves them... she was a Judge killer."  Benny demands to know that if they knew who the people involved were and were tracking them, why wait and take them now, why do it like this?

Dredd: "A little demonstration - to encourage the others.  You're not the only one in show business".

Benny shouts "Damn you!" at him before directing a quieter one at himself.  We then arrive in the present and we see the woman we've been seeing glimpses of throughout the story is Benny, his mind now in America's body and he is performing in this manner for the first time.
America's shell, her spirit long since departed.
She had been declared braindead before she got to the hospital.  He had her made over to his custody and kept her on life support before he made his decision.  Perhaps it was because he couldn't bear to be the one to switch her off and end her life forever.

Benny: "And I know that I did it to punish myself.  Because not a day passes when I don't see her face in the mirror and remember what I did."

But he also wanted to keep her dream alive, because she was right about the Judges, you've got to keep fighting, "you've got to keep looking for America."
Never give up...?
And so it ends.  A remarkably grown up story by veteran Dredd scribe John Wagner, rarely have we seen Judge Dredd so unsympathetic, such an embodiment of a system designed to crush dissent and force the population into accepting the lack of freedom they have in their lives.  It's interesting that despite representing revolutionary zeal, America's personal hatred and bitterness, admittedly caused by what she is fighting against, become twisted into a narrative of revenge where she is happy to exploit a man who loves her to help her in getting that revenge.  In the end Benny's fear of the power of the state trumped his love for America, now there's a metaphor, and he sold her out so he wouldn't lose his cushy lifestyle.  Oh sure, he maybe thought at the time it would be better if America was locked up rather than be party to mass murder and him along with it, but his act of contrition, while epically odd, shows he has no illusions about his motives anymore.  Everytime I see a scandal uncovered in the USA, like the NSA spying scandal that people didn't seem to care about, I think of this storyline.  While it is a criticism of the direction our America is going which resonates more now than when it was first published in 1991, it is also a tribute to the ideals that America was born out of, and how you can't keep taking those things for granted. A downbeat story that works on a number of levels, America is well worth checking out if you are new to the Dredd universe and want an encapsulation of the world he strides through, even though you may have a hard time reading stories where he is the hero afterwards.


  1. ok wow. that was some seriously deep, dark stuff. I never really thought about Judge Dreddd like that before. It's put me off him a bit. looks amazing though.

  2. It's a damn bleak look at what it must be like to be an idealist in the brutally cynical world of Megacity One. It shocked me at the time because it came on the heels of a long period of Dredd mellowing and losing faith in the system, then after Necropolis storyline MC1 started experimenting with a limited form of democracy, so compared to what was happening in 2000AD this was indeed a dark look backwards.

  3. No, are they any good? I heard Benny gets raped in the sequel and that put me off wanting to check it out.

  4. I guess I am partly intrigued by what happened next. But this is such a perfect, selfcontained, metaphorical work that a sequel feels somewhat superfluous.