Sometime in the next few years, Judge Dredd will die.
The character is still made of stone, with a couple of tiny sentimental cracks, but he's getting old. Along with 2000ad, he has aged with the comic’s readership and Judge Joe Dredd has gone from being the most feared and respected lawman of Mega City One to a gruddamn legend over the 30+ years of comics he has appeared in.
He has crossed the Cursed Earth, making it in a crawl fight with killer military robots; he rallied against the mad tyrant Cal, when all seemed lost; he wiped out the Soviet city that had invaded his world; and has never been afraid to face down Judge Death, who can kill with a touch.
It only took a few years for the doubts to show in Dredd's impeccable law skills. Seven years into the run, and the relentless and incredibly violent action, jet black humour and punchy irony could only go so far. Dredd began having doubts about the justice system, and how it worked against the citizens he was supposed to be protecting. He managed to hold those doubts at bay with tight boots for a while, but they wouldn't stay still.
Eventually Dredd gave up entirely and walked off into the Cursed Earth. It led to one of the single best twists in 2000ad's history, when the burned and scarred Dead Man, a natural born killer without a past, discovered he was, in fact, Judge Dredd. He ended up returning to the city and saving it from the dark judges for the fifth time, and chose to stay. Judge Dredd wasn't the sort of man who ran away.
The next few years Joe, through sheer force of will, introduced truly democratic elections (the Judges won), and became more open about showing his doubts. There was still the law to uphold, but Dredd, the man of stone, saw that the law could not be as rigid as he was and needed to change. The most recent theme in the ongoing Dredd saga has seen the big man make a stand against mutant prejudice, a deeply unpopular move that is still undoubtedly the right one.
The fact that Dredd is quite happy to change the status quo shows that his primary creator, the mighty John Wagner, is just as bored with the stagnation that comes with any long-running character. Dredd has aged and genuinely evolved in the hundreds of stories he has appeared in. Sometimes he has taken a step or two back into simplicity at the hands of lesser writers, but Wagner has gently steered the character back on course.
Over the past decade, Wagner has produced some phenomenal work on the storyline, especially with the creation of a supporting cast unequalled in modern British comics.
Amongst this cast, there is Judge Rico, a younger version of Dredd, a clone that hasn’t gone bad, who has lived up to his genes. And if there is one thing you can count on in the crazy world of Mega-City One, it’s that he will be Dredd’s replacement.
Replacing characters is never easy for any company that relies on its trademarked characters for revenue. There have been various attempts to replace Bruce Wayne as Batman, but they have never been anything other than obviously temporary. Wally West made a good job of being the top Flash for 20 years, before being quickly usurped when Barry Allen made his recent return.
Poor Wally has often been held up as the legacy hero who overcame that legacy to become his own man, so it was unsurprising to see the disappointment that greeted Allen’s return. It remains to be seen if anybody still cares about Barry enough to support the resurrection, or if this is just another temporary stumble on the rocky path The Flash has been running for the past few years.
Back across the Atlantic and Dredd is running out of time. His replacement was introduced almost 10 years ago and has had time to build up as a supporting character, with the cast themselves often commentating on the inevitability that Rico will take over from his older clone brother at some point.
Rico has no first name, but has proven to be a brave, smart and resourceful judge who has inherited the older Dredd’s flexibility (He also inherited the older judge’s apartment in one of the stunning little six-pagers that Wagner excels at, showing that while Judge Dredd believes totally in the Law, his own judgement has not always been 100% perfect, and he knows it.)
Rico has even surpassed the old man in one impressive aspect. While Judge Dredd has always had the finest jaw in comics, Rico’s chin is even more impressive after he got it shot off and replaced by a steel copy.
It’s been interesting to note the slow path taken in Rico’s development. After initially proving himself, he has only appeared in a relative handful of stories, showing the resourcefulness and determination that is synonymous with the Dredd name, while also hinting at offering the nightstick of justice a slightly more human face.
Like Dredd, he is tough, but fair, (but mainly tough). Unlike Dredd, Rico has shown to be more willing to open his mind to new ideas at a much younger age. He has taken on board many of Dredd’s teachings, while also making enough mistakes to learn his own path.
In short, he shows the potential to be an even better character than the one he is set to replace.
The Judge Dredd strip has always been a lot smarter than it looks, with the hundreds of stories in the series creating a surprisingly complex world that offers some thematically meaty material. Full of clear, crisp storytelling with a minimum of bullshit and just enough humour, getting straight to the point without skipping on the action. Dredd has changed as his city has changed, but over the past few years, he has recognised that it is also getting away from him.
There is a telling moment near the start of Origins, the most recent Dredd epic, where the man notes that he is a little out of touch with the rest of the Judges and isn’t totally sure about who to trust with a vital mission. It’s thrown out there, one line in an epic that redefined Dredd’s origins, but it also says a lot about Dredd’s age, and the idea that his time is done.
He is still a magnificently hard bastard who is just too tough to quit, but the world has moved on. Dredd hasn’t been just Dirty Harry with a bucket on his head for a long, long time, but while he has certainly changed, the world around him has changed even faster and left him behind.
This has been set up in the strip for years, and one of the delights of reading it is the knowledge that it could all end tomorrow for Judge Joe Dredd. He has reached that point where his demise is inevitable.
The way Dredd will go out remains a mystery, although there are two main options. The first one is the most obvious, as Dredd dies magnificently, sacrificing his life in a epic struggle to save the innocent at the climax of a vast storyline that out-actions every Dredd story ever, giving the man the end he deserves.
The other way is just as likely, but a completely different death. It’s entirely possible that Dredd will meet his end on the streets of Mega City One that he loves so much. Taken down by a punk or gangster or simp who just gets lucky and does what millions of others have failed to do – take down Judge Dredd.
For all the epics and sagas that the Judge Dredd story has seen, this might be the most thematically correct way to end his tale. While Dredd is the first man the world turns to in a crisis, he has always been, first and foremost, a lawman on the street, breaking heads that need to be broken, savings the lives of those who need saving. It’s where he belongs and where he may end.
And beyond that, it’s not difficult to see what the overall picture will be. Rico stepping into the older man’s badge, ensuring the continuity of the Dredd name and character. The foundations for this fundamental shift in the strip has been laid, and John Wagner is the only one who will decide when to move on.
It’s just such a pleasure to see this shift starting to take place, especially in the sealed status quo of so many other comics. Actual change and growth goes against the very strengths of some of the world’s greatest superheroes, but that won’t stop Dredd. Not much does.
Not even death.