Tuesday, 31 December 2013


by Colin Liddell

Every society and civilization has its heroes, either gods, humans, or a mixture of both. It has been the fate of America and the global Western civilization it leads to be represented in this respect first by cowboys and latterly by caped and masked crusaders.


The first hero paradigm of this civilization was the cowboy, but because this was also associated with what would later become the major taboos of this civilization – namely racism and sexism – the cowboy proved to have its limitations. As this hero paradigm started to fade, it was replaced by another that shared its essential characteristic of embattled individualism, but shorn of its ‘unfortunate historical excrescences.’ This was the superhero, initially the creation of comic book writers and artists.

In contrast to the cowboy, the superhero was more urban, less WASPish, and less macho. In fact, in his double life and outlandish costume there was even a hint of the racial outsider about him and even a tinge of the homosexual. Today the superhero paradigm almost occupies the same prominence in Hollywood that the Western once did.

Nothing makes this transition from cowboy to superhero, as well as the underlying link between the two genres, clearer than the advent of Judge Dredd, the futuristic lawman from Mega City One, a vast, sprawling Dodge City of the 22nd century. Even the timing is indicative. The real death knell for the Western was Mel Brooks’ scathing parody, Blazing Saddles, which came out in 1974. Judge Dredd appeared just three years later in an early edition of the British sci-fi comic 2000 A.D.

While superheroes had gradually been eclipsing cowboys in the popular culture since the 1930s, Dredd was interestingly the most overtly Western one, suggesting a final transference of the cowboy mojo into the new ascendant superhero paradigm. Dredd was essentially a cowboy of the future. He rode a “Lawmaster,” a heavily armed motorbike with artificial intelligence that was capable of responding to vocal orders; in other words, a substitute horse. His weapon of choice was the “Lawgiver” pistol, a replacement for the old six-shooter of Western lore. Instead of six bullets, however, it fired six different types of ammunition. He also wore a badge, just like a sheriff and, of course, his catch phrase “I am the law” wouldn’t have been out of place in the mouth of Gary Cooper.

Then there is the Clint Eastwood connection, someone else who presided over the death of the Western and helped to transmute it into something else in the guise of his hard-boiled detective Harry Callahan. In Dredd there are elements of both The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry. Dredd is a tough, uncompromising, no-nonsense lawman, who likes to go it alone; and while Eastwood’s cowboy was anonymous by name, Dredd is perpetually faceless beneath his helmet – a facelessness that is highly significant as we shall see. He even wears his helmet when relaxing at home in the Rowdy Yates Block, a residential complex named after Eastwood’s character in the Rawhide TV series. For the essence of the cowboy to survive beyond the 1970s it had to mutate into something like Dredd, and in Dredd it did.


It is an odd fact that this quintessentially American hero was the brainchild of a man who grew up in the Scottish port town of Greenock. The child of a GI and a Scottish war bride, John Wagner was born in the USA in 1949 but moved to Scotland at the age of 12 when his parents divorced. As I can testify, moving to a tough, working-class Scottish environment at that tender age can be quite a shock. (In my case I moved back to Scotland from South Africa at the age of 11.) That experience, no doubt, played its own part in Wagner’s development and subsequently that of his stoical, law-obsessed character.

Greenock: The original Mega City One?
After a spell working for D.C. Thompson, the Dundee-based company that has long dominated the UK comics market, Wagner worked on a freelance basis as a writer for a wide variety of comic projects, including, surprisingly enough, several aimed at little girls.

Before his creation of Dredd, he also wrote the excellent Darkie’s Mob, a war comic serial published in Battle comic about a skin-headed maverick British soldier fighting the Japanese behind enemy lines in Burma. Darkie has much of the same psychological atmosphere and aura of violence of Dredd, and makes one wonder what traumas the young Wagner may or may not have endured in Greenock in the 1960s.

While Wagner came up with the hard-bitten, flinty soul of Dredd, Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra, another veteran of girl’s romance comics, came up with Dredd’s rather interesting look – part gay biker, part padded football star, with a just a hint of Spanish bullfighter. Making him look like an actual cowboy would have been way too obvious, and, of course, have defeated the purpose of modernising and transmuting the Western’s hero paradigm into something more acceptable to multiculturalized and transgenderized modernity.

Although Dredd is in essence a Western hero, the environment he operates in is in fact the exact opposite of the Wild West. A cowboy, after all, is a heroic figure set against a largely empty or at least sparsely-populated landscape. The resonance between the man and the mountain, or the man and the plain, is essential to create the all-important sense of freedom.

This environment, in which civilization is only a tentative presence, allows the cowboy to exist more fully as an individual. The acts of the man are more than equal to the processes of society, something that translates in the modern mind as “freedom.” This is not a world where Marxist dialectics and class dynamics stand much of a chance. This myth of the socially disembodied individual is the essence of the cowboy and was too valuable to the Global West to throw away with the cowboy boots, saddle, and spittoon. It had to be updated and rebooted.


Whereas the antisocial aspect of the cowboy has some validity in 19th-century frontier America, it is a different story in Dredd’s world, or our own. Mega City One, the vast metropolis of the 22nd century, is a city of hundreds of millions, stretching along most of the East coast of the present-day United States. It is a dystopia of claustrophobia, reflecting some of the ideas of the future prevalent in the past, when it was assumed that the developed world was headed for a Soylent Green future of vast overpopulation.

This population density is one of the basic elements of the Dredd stories. In early comics criminals are incarcerated on Devil’s Island, a detention facility from which they cannot escape, as it is located on a particularly bad traffic island with non-stop, high-speed traffic all around. In short, Mega City One is a seething mass of humans, mutants, robots, and even aliens. But despite this, just like in conventional Westerns, the acts of one man – Dredd – are more than equal to the processes of society and the grand social forces of history.

There can be no doubt that Mega City One is an exaggerated form of present-day modernity with all of its problems. Such a society deserves a more complex and integrated cultural icon than that offered by the gun-slinging sharp-shooter always on the move, but in Dredd and the modern superhero that is exactly what it gets.

The equation (crowded modernity) + (need to maintain the centrality and potency of the individual hero) explains the rise of the superhero. In essence the superhero represents a necessary caricature and gross simplification of a complex world. In this we can see a dichotomy between two notions of history and society, one typically assumed to be left-wing, the other right-wing:
(1) The People are everything
(2) The Great Man is everything
This links to the ideas expressed by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes, Hero-Worship (1841), in which world-shaking events are attributed to the agency of great men, rather than the ‘herd-like’ masses. Carlyle’s best example is Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam.
“…this deep-hearted Son of the Wilderness, with his beaming black eyes and open social deep soul, had other thoughts in him than ambition. A silent great soul; he was one of those who cannot but be in earnest; whom Nature herself has appointed to be sincere. While others walk in formulas and hearsays, contented enough to dwell there, this man could not screen himself in formulas; he was alone with his own soul and the reality of things. The great Mystery of Existence, as I said, glared in upon him, with its terrors, with its splendors; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, 'Here am I!' Such sincerity, as we named it, has in very truth something of divine.”
In this passage, which has much of the Covenanting, messianic flavour once common to the part of the Scotland that Carlyle was from, the individual genius and spiritual superman trumps all else. Only he is capable of the higher consciousness that allows him to access “the reality of things” and “The great Mystery of Existence.” The spirit of history is focused in those great individuals who through their person connect the sublunary world to the transcendent one, where all is possible. The rest of humanity, we are to assume, are little better than zombies, living in a darkness and irrelevance that will finally manifest itself in their anonymous deaths.

It is notable that Mohammed operated in an environment not dissimilar to the ones we see in Westerns – dry, arid, sparsely populated, and devoid of the mass-driven dialectics of Marxism – and, indeed, this even bears some resemblance to the area that Thomas Carlyle grew up in, a sparsely-populated pastoral area dominated by sheep and cattle husbandry.

Modern America’s culture and iconography still recycle a myth appropriate to a Western landscape that is now quite at variance with the reality for the vast majority of Americans. Their country is increasingly a crowded and interdependent social matrix, where the Great Man shrinks in importance, while the People – and the agencies and bureaucracies that operate in their name – swell. The centrality of the People is apparent even in the outpourings of America’s officially sanctioned “rightist” lunatic fringe. An extract of Glenn Beck’s populism amply demonstrates this:
“Let me tell you something. I believe that were it up to you or me, just regular schmoes in America, the Freedom Tower would have been done years ago. And it wouldn't have been the Freedom Tower; it would have been the Freedom Towers – because we would’ve built both of these towers back the way they were before! Except we would’ve built them stronger! We would've built them in a way that they would've resisted attack. And you know what? My guess is they would've been 25 stories taller, with a big, fat COME AND TRY THAT AGAIN sign on top. We would’ve built it with our bare hands if we had to, because that’s what Americans do. When we fail, when we face a crisis, we pull ourselves up and make things better. I believe the only reason we haven't built it isn’t because of Americans. It's because we're being held back. And who is holding us back? Politicians. Special-interest groups. Political correctness. You name it – everybody but you.” Glenn Beck speech, September 11, 2009
There you have it: the ‘little great men’ held back by the evil big men – and with utopia only a breath away! If only the small man can be ‘free’ greatness will ensue…


But while the ‘regular schmo’ has been coerced or even inspired in the past to build vast edifices or, through collective action, match the greatness of the great man, in the modern world he has no desire to pull himself away from his entertainments, distractions, and consolations to somehow heroically rebuild the Tower of Babel represented by the Twin Towers (the ultimate sign of equality!) with his own “bare hands.” In the absence of coercion or inspiration, in short, historical forces, history ends. Action loses its social dimension and becomes a superhero narrative removed from reality and another distraction like the NBA for Beck’s “regular schmoes.”

The receptiveness of our culture to the superhero is apparent in our most characteristic forms of warfare, the drone and the missile. In place of the blood and sweat of heroic men and vast armies, struggling and achieving greatness through pain, sacrifice, and death, a zombie-like, metal appurtenance soars through the sky delivering death and vengeance at no apparent cost to ourselves; even allowing us the armchair pleasures of viewing the destruction of ‘our enemies’ – yet another entertainment and distraction as we are suckered into supporting another team that has nothing to do with who we are or who we could be. The superhero is the cultural manifestation of the unreality we have created in other areas.

In addition to the tension between history-as-mass-act and history-as-one-man-show, there is also the dichotomy of history-as-participation and history-as-passive-spectacle. One Judge Dredd story more than all the others shows the tendency of superhero narratives to ‘dehistoricize’ the masses, and, in doing so, destroy their identity and consciousness.

The Apocalypse War, written by Wagner and Alan Grant, another Scot, and illustrated by Ezquerra, was serialized in several issues of 2000 A.D. in 1982, at a time when the Cold War was entering its late intense phase. In other words, the historical forces of the late 20th century were at a high pitch. At that time Soviet forces were fighting in Afghanistan against US-supported Mujahedeen, and NATO was introducing cruise missiles to counter the threat posed by the recent introduction of the intermediate range, mobile-launched Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles. Having grown up in Greenock, a town near two nuclear submarine bases – Faslane (Royal Navy) and Holy Loch (US Navy) – Wagner must have been particularly aware of the spectre of the Cold War.

The most obvious thing about the story is the completely dominating role of Dredd. The great sweeping themes of historical struggle between nations are effectively reduced to a crime bust by a solitary lawman with the entire forces of Mega City One reduced to sidekick status.

Marshall Kazan, leader of East-Meg One.
Following a massive nuclear strike that wipes out most of the city, the Sov-Bloc forces, commanded by Marshall Kazan, land and take over most of what is left of Mega City One. With no regard to problems of scale, the story then shows Dredd leading a successful guerrilla war against the invaders. Dredd then leads a hand-picked team of judges to capture an enemy missile base, from where he launches Armageddon on East-Meg One, destroying the rival city.

He then surrenders to the East-Meg forces so that he will be taken to the command ship of Kazan. Here he is tortured, but then Kazan’s former second-in-command, Izaaks, who has been demoted to cadet status because of Dredd’s former successes, helps him to escape. Dredd then hunts down Kazan, while the Sov-Bloc guards, disgusted with Kazan’s tyrannical behaviour, stand back. After executing Kazan for crimes against Mega City One, Dredd demands that the Sov-Bloc forces unconditionally surrender. Izaaks, who now seems to be in charge, complies.

The mood of this story echoed the tone of the mainly Tory-dominated press coverage at the time, which generally supported the UK government’s robust response to the Soviet Union, but the comic story also raised the awkward question: how could the real West, without a deus ex machina like Dredd, face off the ruthlessness then associated with the Soviet Union?

Another issue was the nature of Dredd himself. Although there is much to admire in Dredd’s physical heroism, there is a sense of a psychological vacuum. Dredd has a mechanical, inhuman quality that is emphasized by his invincibility and ruthlessness. His motivation throughout remains in the shadows. By comparison the East-Bloc characters Kazan and Izaaks seem positively human.


One problem with recreating the dynamic of the Western in a world of mega cities is that the seething masses are unwittingly reduced to little better than sheep or insects, while the heroes are forced to exist at a higher and implicitly anti-human level. This explains the stony-faced stoicism of the judges, which is taken to extremes in Judge Dredd. He lacks emotion and communicates with people like a robot, viewing them merely as either citizens or lawbreakers who must be punished, whatever the extenuating circumstances. Needless to say such a reductionist attitude is a very attractive mindset in today’s overcomplicated world, where the atomization of society and alienation of the individual has similar effects.

Having emotions would equate Dredd with the masses he guards and rules so zealously, and would make his hero status an absurdity. In this way, the hero-principle works to devalue not only the historical processes in favour of the Great Man, but the Great Man himself is gutted and turned into a kind of automaton, while the People are reduced to background noise.

In almost every tale, Judge Dredd is the determining factor between survival and disaster. In The Robot Wars (progs 10–17) he defeats a robot rebellion. In The Cursed Earth (progs 61–85) he transports a vital vaccine through a post-nuclear wilderness to Mega City Two on the West coast, in the process reliving a psychedelic version of America’s frontier history. In The Day the Law Died (progs 89–108), he is the incorruptible praetorian standing between the status quo and the Caligula-like tyranny of the evil Judge Cal. By mentally subtracting Dredd, entire cities are destroyed, wiped out by viruses, or ruled over by flagrant psychopaths.

Although Dredd is ostensibly doing good, such unrelentingly heroic narratives based on a single character also create a feeling of ambivalence, a sense that something is deeply wrong. We get a feeling that the hero is merely a band-aid for a beheading. In story after story, Dredd, like any other superhero, seems to exist for no other reason than to prevent systems that would and perhaps should collapse, from collapsing.

Considering the two opposed notions of history – the People as everything versus the Great Man as everything – it can at least be said that, despite their contradictions, both views are at least dynamic, implying some development, some progress towards something. The tribes and classes struggle and create revolutions, kingdoms, and states, which also struggle, leading to empires, new technologies, and ideologies. Likewise, the Great Man. Mohammed, Columbus, or Napoleon, steps forward and new religions, continents, and political realities come into being.

Both views of history initiate stages of struggle that are essentially meritocratic and progressive. Dredd, however, is the antithesis of all this. He stops struggle because all struggles are de facto crimes, while his own power lacks any kind of vision. He is essentially a conservative on steroids acting as a dead weight on the society he polices. But there is something worse: with no agenda, vision, ambition, or even interests of his own, he has none of the elements that lead to human consciousness, thus he is also the negation of consciousness, or power without consciousness.

This becomes apparent when we ask the question, what exactly is Dredd fighting for? What is this important thing that he feels compelled to make any sacrifice for? Mega City One? But Mega City One is a dystopia, an ugly entity in which superfluous people lead pointless lives, a cancer-shaped urban sprawl that corrals humanity into an undifferentiated mass, where anything looking like progress is deemed just another crime.

Another influence on Dredd.
Perhaps this has something to do with the dead-end nature of the punk rebellion which was another tangential but important influence on Judge Dredd. The year of Dredd’s birth – 1977 – was also the year of the Sex Pistols and Anarchy in the UK. It is no coincidence that the Judge’s most common insult is “punk.” Mega City One is 1970s, pre-post-industrial Britain writ large and transferred to an America of the future. The period of 2000 A.D.’s greatest popularity, when I read the comic, coincided with the Thatcherite “De-industrial Revolution,” in short, the death of the skilled working class and its replacement with a deskilled service labour force with an expanded and bloated welfare punk tail.

This was the wave of the future for a Western consumerist world that could figure out ways to pay for massive imports without exporting much in return, and it is this society of economic dislocation – or even pointlessness – held together by welfarism that we find frozen in place by the power of the Judges.

While Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a place of endless drudgery it was at least mitigated by classy art deco settings. Dredd’s Mega City One, however, is a place of dreary, enforced leisure amidst surroundings that evoke a multi-level pinball machine crossed with an American strip mall. With an unemployment rate of over 90%, the populace leads ugly and aimless lives in vast apartment blocks containing upwards of 50,000 people each. They do not, like the people in Star Trek’s world supposedly do, spend their time on self improvement.

Essentially this is the kingdom of Nietzsche’s Last Man overseen by the Übermensch in the persons of the Judges, but whereas Nietzsche’s Last Men and Übermensch represent antithetical concepts of humanity, in Judge Dredd they have reached a stagnant and disturbing symbiosis. The Judges serve as a bodyguard and facilitator of the most passive urges of the People, while the struggle to defend and control the People gives the Judges an empty simulacrum of purpose. This unholy alliance is not just some quaint notion confined to the pages of a comic book. There are disturbing parallels with modern day America and the West in general, where we see welfarism rising in tandem with the paramilitarization of policing and the burgeoning of the Big Brother surveillance state.


The main source of the drama in the Judge Dredd stories comes from the fact that many of the inhabitants of Mega City One – worthless as they are – are unsatisfied with their Last Man lifestyle. Animal comfort and vegetable existence in a gargantuan welfare police state do not satisfy every soul, and many of the crimes that Dredd has to suppress are driven not by poverty or real need but by excesses of hedonism or thrill-seeking behaviour. Other crimes are crimes of ambition – mutants, robots, or errant judges, like Judge Cal – who wish for recognition, power, or god-like status, or who simply crave a challenge to kill the monotony of a civilization that only exists to negate itself.

Left to their own devices, it is clear that the inhabitants of this world would, in their search for meaningful conflict, eventually break out of the torpor and meaninglessness of the Last Man – yes, people at heart are good but not in the way usually meant – and would even start to move, in their confused way, in the meritocratic direction of the Übermensch, or at least towards something more meaningful. But, unfortunately, the ideal of the Übermensch already exists in Mega City One, in perverted form, in the person of Judge Dredd, who instead constrains them to their negative condition.

The end of history or urban planning gone wrong?
This situation reflects the ambivalence felt in a number of philosophical systems about the so-called end point of history. These include the paradox posed by the Hegelian singularity, the point at which the dialectic of history resolves itself in “perfection,” where the rational (the ideology) and the real (the world it describes) become identical. The Frankfurt School critiqued this idea, pointing out that the rational depended for its existence on remaining separate from the real so as to maintain a subject and an object and a critical distance. Because of this, the “end of history” was viewed with great trepidation.

This led them to the conclusion that, as the singularity approached, reason would become unacceptable, because it would no longer be “transcendentally critical” and would cease to stand in “opposition to the world.” There was thus a need to pre-empt this process and circumvent the climatic moment.

While the Frankfurt School saw the unfolding of history as a flawed messianic trajectory with complications towards the end, others, like the German philosopher Oswald Spengler, saw it as a cyclical process, where stagnation and decay lead to a stage of “Caesarism” or brutal tyranny that is finally resolved by a descent into barbarism and the start of a new cycle of civilization.

If we set Dredd against this philosophical background we see that, from a Frankfurt School perspective, he represents the moment when reason becomes a negative factor, when it becomes sheer, blind, technocratic power, a non-critical tool of oppression that blindly affirms the status quo.

In Spenglerian terms, Dredd is an even greater evil – endless Caeserism combined with ‘comfortable barbarism.’ Aided by the compliance of the passive majority, he opposes only those who seek to disrupt the pointless civilization of Mega City One, and, in the process, stops the great wheel from turning. Caesarism is married with decadence. Kali Yuga is infinitely prolonged, the Last Man endlessly extended on the fist of the Übermensch.


Dredd is a great man but with no agenda or consciousness to critique the system he unthinkingly obeys. He is a vacuous entity – an anti-Übermensch set next to Carlyle’s “deep-hearted Son of the Wilderness” with “the great Mystery of Existence” glaring in upon him. He lacks consciousness and the true sense of time of the “transcendental subject.”

In "Ontology of the Future" a chapter in The Fourth Political Theory, Alexandr Dugin writes about the threat posed by technology and globalization to the human subject. His words unwittingly evoke the spectre of Dredd:
“Developments in the human genome project, cloning, advances in robots, and new generations of cyborg all bring us close to the advent of post-humanity. The goal of this process is to produce creatures that will lack an existential dimension with zero subjectivity. Simulacrums can be made not only out of reason but also from unconsciousness. The most important facet of this process is the abolition of the present. Such post-human creatures and inanimate objects…have no sense of the present.” Alexandr Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory, p167
Dredd, with his cyborg-like enforcement of “The Law” and his imposition of stasis on the nascent creative chaos of Mega City One, is the ultimate tool of oppression and agent of “chronocide” – a criminal against time. This is unwittingly revealed in the story that best captures the negative essence of this futuristic cowboy character, Judge Death Lives!

Published in 1981, this tale pits Dredd against Judge Death, a horrific, spectral form from an alternate reality in another dimension, where life itself has been judged to be a crime and all the inhabitants have accordingly been killed by Death and his three fellow judges – Fear, Mortis, and Fire – who clearly evoke the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

While an enemy and apparent opposite of Dredd, Judge Death is in fact a mirror image of Dredd and Dredd taken to his logical conclusion. Not for the first time we are presented with a false dialectic.

Dressed like Dredd, unrelenting like Dredd, he is driven to extinguish all life in the same way that Dredd suppresses anything that can upset the dystopian status quo of Mega City One. Like Dredd he is a being whose consciousness is an unthinking code, ruling over a world that he has frozen into a state of rigor mortis. Judge Death’s gaping Black face is nothing more than Judge Dredd unmasked in the performance of his anti-duty of eternally prolonging the state of Kali Yuga.

Judge Death – the anti-hero of the anti-civilization.

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