(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in September 2019)
Tiny the Tap, lowly mugger, ducks into a darkened Mega City One stairwell, gloating to nobody in particular about his recent escape from law enforcement. The smug perp soon realises his mistake when he sees the unmistakable silhouette of a Judge in front of him, the dull light of the alley reflecting off the enforcer’s distinctive shoulder pads and helmet.
“Ulp!” he declares, throwing his hands up in submission. “Me an’ my big mouth! I – I surrender, Judge!”
However, the creature that steps towards him from the shadows is no normal Judge. A portcullis-visored helmet sits atop a skeletally gaunt face bearing a rictus grin. Abnormally long and thin clawed fingers stretch towards him.
A fanged bleached skull badge bears both the figures name and purpose.
Prog #149 of 2000 AD in 1980 saw the first appearance of the alien Superfiend, a figure who – along with his supernatural companions – would continue to be a thorn in the side of the starring character of Judge Dredd.
Mega-City One, the sprawling Megalopolis that Dredd calls home, was already host to all kinds of oddities including robots, aliens, mutants and intelligent apes, but this would be the strip’s first foray into horror. However, strips with horror elements would continue to appear in 2000AD (the excellent Fiends of the Eastern Front would begin just a few issues after Death’s debut, and later years would see the appearance of the Elder Gods in Zenith, and the contemporary horror of Caballistics and Tharg’s Terror Tales. Indeed, Dredd himself would go on to confront vampires, zombies, werewolves and Satan himself across the years).
For those not in the know – and shame on you – Judge Dredd is the most renowned of all the Judges, a group of law enforcement officers in a future city that covers most of the east coast of North America – at least the bits of it that aren’t glowing with radioactivity from the third World War. Inspired by Dirty Harry, Dredd is as feared as he is respected; a grim and stoic officer of the law, both dedicated and incorruptible.
Life is cheap in Mega-City One, with its duly-appointed Judges entitled to summarily execute criminals – or “perps”, as they’re known. It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to refer to the Justice Department as a fascistic entity, and the Judge Dredd strip is unusual as in the fact that Dredd can be portrayed as the good guy in one issue, and the bad guy in the next – it’s all a matter of perspective. Depending on the storyline, it’s typical to find him fluctuate between the roles of villain, anti-hero and hero.
So, how do you out-bad Dredd, the ultimate bad-ass?
Judge Death is the embodiment of the logical extension of Dredd’s methods taken to the extreme. He hails from an alternative dimension which used to match that of Dredd, but one where their Judges came to a terrifying and grim realisation.
All crime is committed by the living – therefore, life itself is a crime.
Philosophers who undoubtedly argue about the semantics and accuracy of that statement, which is probably why Death killed all the philosophers first.
His costume is a dark parallel and mockery of that of the Mega-City Judges. The symbolic Eagle shoulder-piece is a pterosaur, the helmet visor a grim portcullis. It’s festooned with bones, hanging together with awkward stitches. He clings to the shadows, his voice a low guttural hiss.
The Judge Death storyline also brings us a new type of Judge – We’d been introduced to other judicial departments before; Medical Judges, Tech Judges and the Investigators of the SJS (Special Judicial Squad) but the supernatural threat of Death introduced us to PSI Judges; Judges blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with psionic powers. Dredd would team up with Judge Cassandra Anderson, a cocky and streetwise foil to Joseph Dredd’s stoicism, who would later go on to headline her own strip and enjoy considerable success in her own right.
Whereas Dredd’s signature weapon is his lawgiver – his versatile Justice Department issued firearm capable of shooting multiple ammunition types – Death has no need for such sophistication. He just reaches into your chest, grabs your heart – and squeezes. It’s a simple yet effective trick, and it’s worked out fairly well for him so far.
The popularity of Death meant he’d return for multiple rematches with Dredd, eventually accompanied by even more “Dark Judges”, his undead brothers from another mother. Death and his lieutenants travelled to our dimension from the aptly named Deadworld, a barren landscape of catacombs and corpses.
His companions are Judge Fire; a permanently conflagrant skeleton, who incinerates his victims alive. He’s the only Dark Judge who is armed, wielding a flame-belching trident.
There’s Judge Fear; a gaunt cloaked figure laden with mantraps. His visage remains enclosed within an all-encompassing helmet - to see his face is to confront your very worst fears. Victims who stare into the confines of his helmet literally die of fright.
Finally, we have Judge Mortis; a rattling walking set of putrefied bones with a sheep’s skull for a head. His touch brings death, aging anything he touches into decay and rot.
It was the legendary Brian Bolland who came up with the distinctive look of the Dark Judges, but one of the greatest storylines in 2000ad history (in my humble opinion) would offer the definitive Judge Death storyline through the writing of John Wagner and the penmanship of Carlos Ezquerra, co-creator of Dredd who sadly passed away in October of 2018.
Necropolis was the ultimate Judge Death story, introducing two new characters – The Sisters of Death; Phobia and Nausea – and showing the final culmination of the Dark Judge’s plan, namely their complete and utter domination of Mega City One. Having conquered the city in Dredd’s absence, Mega-City One had been transformed into the Dark Judge’s City of the Dead – Necropolis. A 26 part saga, it saw the ultimate confrontation between Dredd and his undead nemeses, and was a true horror epic that didn’t pull any punches.
Decaying innocent child, anybody?
However, the subsequent overuse of Judge Death in 2000AD (and the spin-off Dredd Megazine) began to lessen his impact and effectiveness. Like when one-liners became more important to the similarly atrophied Freddy Krueger than all those actual murdering shenanigans, with the more we learned of Judge Death’s background and the more quips he made, the less scary he became.
In Boyhood of a Superfiend, we learned that his real name was Sidney De’Ath (yeah, really) and that he was the son of a sadistic dentist. It’s black humour admittedly, but began to transform Judge Death into something a far cry from the mysterious figure we’d come to fear. Excellent artwork by Peter Doherty, but increased familiarity of Judge Death brought nothing but contempt.
Death had become an almost comedic character, his menace considerably reduced. Judgement on Gotham is a classic example of this – an otherwise excellent Batman/Judge Dredd crossover, but played mostly for laughs.
Luckily, Wagner would go on to rectify this, bringing the character back to his horror roots. Dark Justice would make Death and his brethren scary again, as would the ongoing Deadworld strip in 2000AD.
Dark Justice takes place in the far reaches of space, in the claustrophobic confines of a colony ship known as The Mayflower. It’s cinematic, dark and suspenseful and takes the Dark Judges back to their sinister, menacing roots. Greg Staples’s art for this – nearly two years in the making, and all gloriously hand-painted - is terrific. Deadworld, likewise, is an origin story of sorts, but re-treading a far darker path than Boyhood of a Superfiend did.
It’s a shame that the excellent Dredd movie (the Karl Urban one, not the – spit – Sylvester Stallone one) never made it at the box office, because Alex Garland was apparently keen to introduce the Dark Judges into that. Many fans wanted the Dark Judges to be the theme of the first movie, but that – in my opinion – would have been a terrible idea. The Dark Judges are a twisted reflection of the normal Judges, so for them to be effective you have to understand what the Judges are, first. Fans might know that, but the average cinema audience member does not.
They’re Judges gone way too far, a right-wing ideology taken to horrifying extremes. It’s ironic that Dredd wasn’t able to defend his city in Necropolis because he’d effectively retired due to his disapproval of the way the Justice System was working, but that that Status Quo would be replaced by something far, far worse.
So, Judge Death – long may he reign. With a character who proudly rasps, “You cannot kill what doesss not live!” long may Dredd try – and fail – to do exactly that.
So, this neatly ends my triptych of Comic Horror articles (concerning Swamp Thing and Zenith), but it would be remiss of me to not finish this particular one without mention of one of the greatest single comic book panels of all time, easily up there with Spiderman stepping away from the bin containing his costume, Lois Lane cradling a “dying” Superman or Batman’s spine having an unfortunate encounter with Bane’s knee.
To set the scene, Judge Fear – our previously mentioned Dark Judge with the terrifying visage – has launched himself at Dredd, throwing open his visor, showing the plucky Mega-City One Street Judge his true face and barking out his snappy punchline, “Gaze into the face of fear!”
“For a moment the icy chill of terror courses down Dredd’s spine”, the caption tells us, “The shock of his gaze can kill an ordinary man.”
The first appearance of Judge Death can be found in the appropriately titled Judge Death (by John Wagner and Brian Bolland; 2000AD Progs #149-#151, 1980)
Judge Death returns and brings along some chums in Judge Death Lives (John Wagner, Alan Grant and Brian Bolland; 2000AD Progs #224-#228, 1981)
It’s a whopper, but hell of a read and is the definitive Dredd/Death epic – It’s Necropolis (John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; 2000AD Progs #674-#699, 1990)
The Fall of Deadworld tells the origin story of our fearsome four and the fate of their home world from a bystander’s perspective (KEK-W and Dave Kendall, 2000AD Progs #1973-#1981, 2016)