It had been quite a few years since I last read Judge Dredd: America so I recently re-read it again, and I must say that the power of its message has not diminished even one iota. A few people may grumble that it is not a proper Dredd story as Old Stoney Face himself hardly features. And while that may be true, the few instances where we do see him are some of the most iconic moments in the story. One thing nearly all will agree on though, is that it is probably John Wagner and Colin MacNeil’s finest work.
When I first read America I was floored by it, it left me emotionally drained. The ending especially, was like a gut punch. It made you question the nature of the Judges and their world. But it also showed the world of the Judges from a normal citizen’s point of view. And reading the story again it impressed me even more. It is a stunning piece of work which could quite easily sit alongside such comic book greats as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns or any other comic which is seen as the best in the medium. But it could be argued that the subject matter is more resonant, it is something more vital, powerful, like a chilling prophecy on where our own world is heading especially in this climate of fear, surveillance and people’s rights being slowly eroded.
The story centres around two friends, America Jara and Bennett Beeny, childhood friends growing up in Mega City One. Beeny is bullied as a child by other other kids but find’s a kindred spirit in America Jara. Beeny falls in love with America but feels that she is out of his league. His fears are soon confirmed when she falls for someone else. However, Beeny can never get America out of his mind. He sends letters to her but they soon grow to lead totally different lives. Beeny becomes a successful comedian and singer, whilst America Jara joins a terrorist organisation ‘Total War’ which is intent on taking out the fascist Judges. But even as they drift apart, Beeny still yearns for his childhood friend and love. A chance meeting years later has terrifying consequences for Beeny, and it will ultimately lead to tragedy for both.
America is a love story first and foremost, and a critical look into the oppresive way of life for the citizen in Dredd’s world. Dredd is not the protagonist of the piece, but rather an antagonist. We see him at certain times such as in the beginning showing his views on where he stands:
”The people, they know where I stand. They need rules to live by – I provide them. They break the rule, I break them, That’s the way it works”
These words follow to Colin MacNeil’s iconic artwork of Dredd standing on the American flag. The statue of Liberty in the background, but that itself is overshadowed by the collusus statue of Judgment. A symbol of liberty, sacrificed for the harsh laws of the Judges. It is ironic because America Jara’s father names her America for the fact that as an immigrant, he is proud to be accepted in the land of the free. But that is a false notion as he himself soon discovers. Freedom is long dead, and oppression reigns supreme. And nowhere is this more clearer than in the opening panels.
Wagner’s storytelling is mature, affecting, tragic; a critical look into the world of Mega City One, and the life of two of its citizens. This story is a far cry from the earlier Judge Dredd comics, there is a very little humour in this story. But what makes America such a powerful read is due to the beautiful painted artwork by Colin MacNeil. It has an almost dreamy feel to it. It is an artistic achievement of such resounding beauty and power, once I started reading it I could not take my eyes off the panels. There were images in the comic which have now seared themselves onto my mind, images such as the one I have mentioned (of Dredd standing before the statues of Liberty and Judgement) but also images of a child Beeny standing with his ice cream on the ground as the figure of Judge Dredd on his bike looms near him. It is a chilling look into a system gone awry, where citizens have very little say on politics and how their city is run with the fascistic Judges controlling how a person should live. It reminded me of other great fictional works such as Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, and George Orwell’s 1984, of a totalitarian state or police state which posseses all the power over what people can do or say.
The collection has two sequels to America. The first is called ‘The Fading of the light’. Again Wagner and MacNeil are on script and art duties respectively. It is not as powerful a story as the original, but nonetheless very enjoyable. We get to see Bennett Beeny with his daughter ‘America Beeny’. He is very ill and hasn’t got long to live. The media see him as a loony but as we soon learn in the story that is far from the case. We have a troubled man still trying to come to terms with his guilt. We are introduced to a devious character called Victor Portnoy who blackmails Beeny into carrying out a bomb attack on an award ceremony. I found it a really intriguing and engaging read. The artwork (by Colin MacNeil) is maybe not as stunning as the original painted style of the first story, but I still loved it. Also it shows the versatile nature of MacNeil’s talent (his later work on Insurrection is some of the best comic art I have seen in recent years). There’s also a really harrowing rape scene towards the end which made me nauseous. And the fact that a Judge is near the incident and fails to intervene makes you the reader as furious as the victim. It’s a really moving story which I thought was a good sequel to the orginal.
The third story in the book called ‘Cadet’ shows Bennett Beeny and America Jara’s daughter America Beeny as a young adult working as a Cadet (trainee Judge). The decision for Beeny to become a Judge was made by her father in the previous story, as he felt that she would be most safest in the the Judge’s Academy of Law. It’s not surprising it’s the poorest of the three stories seeing as the orginal story and even its sequel was a hard act to follow, but even then it is much better than the dozens of comics I’ve read over the years. And this was really the first time during my read that I laughed out loud! I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet but if you do read it or have done, you’ll agree that the perp had it coming! One character I haven’t yet mentioned but who is ever present in the background in all three stories, offering his assistance and unflinching loyalty is the character of Robert, the (robot) butler of Bennett Beeny. He is such a likeable creation, sort of like C3-P0 but with brains! I really loved the character and how he always stood by Beeny, and assisted his daughter in her investigation too. It makes one wish that they too had a robot butler like him! All in all it was a really enjoyable read.
I can now see why America is regarded as the greatest Judge Dredd story by many. It’s a really beautiful, moving, tragic story made doubly brilliant by MacNeil’s stunning artwork. It is such a shame that John Wagner has not had the same recognition as some of his peers, especially in the U.S, but thankfully due to the recent Dredd movie there does seem to be a lot of awareness for the character everywhere. America has to be one of the greatest comic book story ever written, and one I hugely recommend to all comic book fans.
I’ll leave you with these powerful words from the story itself:
“You can’t ignore whats going on. You can’t bury your head in the sand and forget what the Judges are doing to us. You’ve got to keep fighting. You’ve got to keep looking for America”