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Posts Tagged ‘John Wagner’

Watching awards ceremonies is like eating junk food: enjoyable in an unmemorable way, but even while you’re doing it you know it’s no good for you. They’re all either brazenly political or hopelessly populist, and the BAFTAs last night were no exception. While surely no-one could object to Sir Christopher Lee being honoured (and didn’t he look frail? I could never have imagined Christopher Lee being frail, it’s just not in the essence of the man – it’s like Lady Gaga being demure or Ed Milliband being dynamic and authoritative (sorry Ed). At least the voice is still there), anyone who did take the proceedings seriously would surely be peeved by the absence of major gongs for Inception (I guess releasing it in the summer killed its credibility) or for Barbara Hershey’s turn in Black Swan.
  
So, anyway, I went for a bit of a ramble on t’internet today and found myself on Barbara Hershey’s Wikipedia page. While I was there I took the opportunity to add a link to one of her films which had been overlooked (Kevin O’Connor’s barking-mad picture-postcard action-comedy, Trial by Combat – almost unknown, but one of my favourites) and wanted to…

Well, look, as you may know, the thing about Wikipedia is that everything on there needs to be sourced. Not necessarily a good or famous source (I‘m listed as an authority in the article on The Chrysalids, for heaven’s sake), but something external. And I tried to find an appropriate source on t’internet, but I couldn’t. However:

Okay, on the left we have a picture of the American actress Barbara Hershey, taken (I would guess) in the late seventies. The picture on the right – which I think you will agree bears something of a resemblance – is of the American peace officer and sometime-head-of-state, Barbara Hershey, who first came to prominence in the late seventies (she is, as you may have guessed, fictional).

It seems very obvious to me that fictional-Hershey is clearly based on real-Hershey (the name and appearance are surely something of a giveaway), but without a signed statement to that effect from John Wagner and Alan Grant (fictional-Hershey’s originators) you can’t say so on Wikipedia without sparking one of those tedious outbursts of Wikipedantry that normally stop me from contributing to the site.

Still, digging through the internet I found lots of interesting stuff out about a film which it’s not impossible that fictional-Hershey may in fact be appearing in, Pete Travis’s Dredd. I knew this movie was on the way, but I wasn’t aware it was actually shooting – it is, in South Africa – and it’s due out next year. (Like Dark Knight Rises, Avengers, Man of Steel, Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla, Bond 23 and half-a-dozen others weren’t already enough to get me somewhat overexcited already.) [Some of these movies were later postponed, obviously. – A]

Quite why the makers of Dredd have opted for that title I’m not entirely sure; it seems a little obtuse, not to mention superfluous as everyone still calls, and will continue to call it, the new Judge Dredd movie.

You probably already know who Judge Dredd is if you’re reading this, but I suppose there’s a chance your exposure has been limited to the 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, which nobody in the world appears to like. Okay then: Judge Dredd is the title character of a long-running British comic-strip set in a dystopian future version of America. Atomic wars have reduced most of the planet to poisonous wasteland and the human population is confined to autonomous city-states. Horrible living conditions and mass unemployment have caused skyrocketing crime rates, which in turn have led to the adoption of a brutal, authoritarian political system, with the abolition of democracy and the law enforcers themselves being given the powers of judge, jury, and executioner.

Judge Dredd is, of course, foremost amongst the lawmen of Mega-City One, an analogue and amalgam of New York City, Washington, and most other major cities on the east coast of America. My description has probably made this strip sound excessively grim and downbeat, but the odd thing is that much of the time it’s almost written as a black comedy: one strip tells the tale of a citizen who tries to distinguish himself by growing his nose to enormous proportions, another deals with a brief fad for custard pie throwing, and a personal favourite of mine sees Dredd assigned to protect a famous football team following death threats made against them: the threats turn out to be bogus, but unfortunately by this point Dredd has already found grounds to arrest most of the players and the manager…

One of the things that distinguishes the strip is that, yes, Judge Dredd is a bastard. He shoots or arrests nearly everyone he meets, he treats the Law basically as God (‘law-fearing’ is the nicest thing he can find to say about regular citizens, which is interesting given that at one point ‘I am the Law’ was virtually his catchphrase), and most of the time he has no issues with being the chief enforcer for a totalitarian regime which practices savage population control (tranquiliser chemicals in the atmosphere and discreet euthanisation of the senile elderly) and deliberately rules through fear. (One story deals with the plight of citizens whose terror of Dredd has led to them becoming delusional and institutionalised. When informed of this, Dredd is indifferent, saying it’s the price they have to pay for law and order – things would be much worse in a democracy. And when the doctor involved asks why they should take Dredd’s word for it, Dredd tells him to watch his mouth or he’ll end up in a padded cell himself.)

In one famous 1982 strip, Dredd earned himself a special place in comics history by becoming personally responsible for the deaths of 800 million people, when he launched a nuclear strike against the Mega-City’s Russian counterpart (the ‘Sovs’, as they are called in the peculiar argot of Dredd’s world, were attempting to conquer Dredd’s home, so it was hardly an unprovoked assault – but it’s difficult to think of another fictional character who would both want and be permitted to do such a thing).

Dredd’s status as a brutal, relentless, inhuman figure is neatly encapsulated by the fact that, 34 years on from his first appearance, we still have almost no idea what he looks like. He wears his uniform helmet nearly all the time (even in the bath, according to some accounts) and his face has only been seen when it’s been temporarily altered or horribly scarred. (The face of the man Dredd was cloned from was pictured in one early story, but as the cloning connection was not established until much later, it’s generally accepted that this isn’t binding.) And in many stories he isn’t much more than a cipher or an incidental figure in the background, not unlike Morpheus in many of the best Sandman tales.

So Judge Dredd is actually a rather complicated and unusual figure, as comic-strip heroes go, both personally and narratively, and this may explain why the Stallone Dredd movie was such a disaster. These ambiguities of the character were ignored, along with the weirdness of much of his world, and – the crowning indignity – Stallone was permitted to take the helmet off. The question is, can the new movie do any better?

Can no-one make that helmet work as part of an actual costume? Oh, well. (Pretty sure the real Dredd always shaves, too…)

Well, early days yet, but everyone at least seems to be on the right page. The concept art for the movie strikes the right balance between the world of the comic and something that will appear credible on the big screen, and leading man Karl Urban seems to know where he’s coming from with the character (the helmet stays on). Rather than an epic adventure, the plot of the movie is instead a day-in-the-life type story, focussing on Dredd and a young trainee (Olivia Thirlby) he’s assessing.

As I’ve already mentioned, Dredd can be a difficult character to empathise with, and the inclusion of the trainee character will no doubt provide a figure the audience can actually identify with. What’s slightly surprising is that the trainee is a new version of Judge Anderson, one of the most successful characters to spin off from the strip (the many mid-Eighties panels of Anderson zipping and unzipping her figure-hugging synthi-leather catsuit, mostly drawn by Brett Ewins, played a pivotal role in my own development as a heterosexual male). Anderson is psychic, and I’m curious to see how the film handles this – it’s one thing that in some ways makes her less identifiable than Dredd. We see Anderson’s face rather a lot, too, and she doesn’t look much like Thirlby. Thirlby, if we’re honest, looks rather more like Judge Hershey – but there you go…

However, most of the Dredd fanbase seem happy with proceedings, and Dredd creator John Wagner has given it his seal of approval, which must count for something. As usual, I remain hopeful – I’m not sure that a single movie can do justice to the scope and richness of a character and a world which has been in development on a weekly basis for over three decades, but it’s surely worth a try, and a good Dredd movie would be easily capable of challenging any of the other big-name releases out next year, in terms of quality if not box office.

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