Going right back to the genesis of the Judges, Michael Carroll and John Higgins deliver a horrifyingly believable tale of the descent into fascism that leads us to the world of Judge Dredd. It’s a brutal and powerful tale that should be essential reading for all.
Dreadnoughts debuted in the 30th-anniversary issue of the Judge Dredd Megazine, a close-up look at the very earliest days of the Justice Department and the nightmares of a very near-future America by Michael Carroll and John Higgins. It’s powerful, it’s brutal, and it’s ever so good.
Back in the Spring of 2035 we could almost feel the nation crumbling around us.
Damn. That’s a bloody stunning opening line on a bloody stunning opening page. The one used for the cover. And it was that image that sold the series for me the moment I saw it, a perfectly iconic image of the Judge and the reflection of the protestors.
And thankfully, Carroll, Higgins et. al. manage to take that initial wow moment and the strength of the idea and deliver a powerful, terrifying look at the loss of democracy and the fundamental shift in a country’s freedoms. But it’s how they do it that is so impressive, not by taking a view of the big issues but by going in so tight on just one small part of the issue, focusing not on the huge political changes at the level of the Justice Department but by cleverly looking at the experiences of the newly graduated Judge Veranda Glover, 40, as she heads to Boulder, Colorado to add to a team of four Judges struggling to deal with the problems of mass unemployment and growing civil unrest.
And it’s that tight field of view that makes Dreadnoughts so satisfying. And so horrific.
Because, just as Michael Carroll points out in his introduction, this might look like a straight bit of sci-fi, but it’s not – it’s a horror story. And a quite brilliantly done horror story at that.
Of course, we’ve seen the past of Dredd’s world before, particularly with the brilliance of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra‘s Origins, but that was broader, covering so much ground.
As I say, here in Dreadnoughts, Carroll, along with Higgins, Sally Jane Hurst, and Simon Bowland, go a different route, telling the story of the fall of a country by concentrating on (jack) boots on the ground, going close to the Judges bringing about the fall of democracy and the descent into fascism as the world of the Mega-Cities, the Justice Department, and Judge Dredd comes to pass.
Through Glover’s actions in Boulder, we are invited to imagine the world beyond, as the Judges system begins to take hold, as these highly-trained, you could go so far as indoctrinated, Judges exercise their unprecedented legal powers. Again, as Carroll puts it in the introduction:
“answerable to no one else, the Judges are going to straighten out the system once and for all. Get the country back on its feet and on an even keel… and nothing is illegal for those that make the laws.”
Set in 2035 AD, just four years into the new Judges system, the brutal and violent response to the breakdown of American society that begins the undermining of democracy, Dreadnoughts covers very little in terms of time, but so much in terms of showing us the real effects on the country of this fundamental and horrific shift to fascism as the American people stumble into swingeing reforms and erosion of hard-won liberties.
What makes it even more terrifying, just as all well-written, well-imagined near future fiction does, is that it’s not too large a leap to imagine something similar happening. We’re just 14 years into the future here and, although you can’t really imagine anything like this happening quite that soon, you know that all it really needs is the wrong politician in charge and the wrong set of circumstances – after all, the last few years have shown us practically anything is possible.
And if that first iconic image was the hook to get you into the series, the first few pages should sell you on it completely, the tone set so quickly, Carroll using Glover’s voiceover as a scene-setter, Higgins and Hurst allowed to go dark and brutal immediately, and just don’t let up.
As we follow Glover investigating a child kidnap, a tight procedural story unfolds against that backdrop of the changing world, with Carroll intertwining the local procedural with the bigger issues so perfectly – it’s a work where the little touches show us so much of the huge, sweeping changes. Such as the moment when Glover investigates the kidnap and uses her new powers to make immediate decisions, invariably leaving the police questioning and the civilians smarting.
But one of the most telling moments comes as the leader of the Cloister, the group under investigation by Glover for the child kidnap, is giving his big anti-Judges speech, about them being “inhuman stormtroopers… unstoppable dreadnoughts… shattering the capstone of civilisation.”
Glover just pushes him to one side, tells him to shut up.
It’s a subtle little metaphor for everything that’s happening here. It’s deliberately low-key, but as powerful a moment as any you’ll find here.
And as we get further and further into the story, Carroll gives us more and more, with a storyline that emphasises the huge nature of what’s going on in this shifting world where the rule of law is changing to the rule of the Judges, but does so by focusing on the issues on the ground, concentrating on Judge Glover’s kidnapping case.
And with Higgins and Hurst doing an incredible job on the art, whether it’s those iconic moments I’ve talked about, the grind of the procedural, the many essential scenes of Glover butting heads with those above here, with the cops, with the public, and through to the action scenes of the storyline – of which there aren’t, of necessity and to the benefit of the book overall, all that many. But nevertheless, this is some of Higgins’ best work of his career on a book that could well define both his and Carroll’s careers to date.
This collection also contains the 2000 AD Dredd story, ‘The Paradigm Shift‘, a five-episode serial published before Dreadnoughts, with Carroll beginning to play around with some of the concepts explored way more directly in Dreadnoughts. Perhaps not as essential a read as Dreadnoughts, but it’s an entertaining addition to the entire storyline and the bigger picture we’re dealing with here.
Dreadnoughts, however, IS essential. It’s the best thing that was in the Megazine last year – in fact, the best thing that had been in the Megazine for many a year, and that’s taking into account the many excellent strips we’ve had over the last few years in the monthly. But no, Dreadnoughts just had that sense of gravity, of import about it. This is Carroll and Higgins and Hurst and Bowland carving out the very beginnings of the world of the Judges and doing it just so powerfully well.
It is brutal, it is brilliant, a look at the very earliest days of a world all of us who read 2000 AD and Judge Dredd know so well. But make no mistake about it, this is a terrifying horror tale that we should all be taking notice of.
Dreadnoughts – Book One – Breaking Ground – by Michael Carroll, art by John Higgins, colours by Sally Hurst, letters by Simon Bowland. (Originally serialised in Judge Dredd Megazine 424-429)
Also contains The Paradigm Shift – by Michael Carroll, art by Jake Lynch, colours by John Charles, letters by Annie Parkhouse. (Originally published in 2000 AD 2082-2086)
Published by 2000 AD & Rebellion on 1st November.