“The law is everywhere.”
Judge Dredd has always been a fascinating franchise with a very intriguing framework. Here’s a lawman of the future, but in a dystopian, fascistic military state and his decisions are absolute. The Judges are the judge, jury and executioners as Dredd likes to put it — he is the law. Many legendary and iconic creators have tackled the character and franchise, playing with a vast array of elements in the world of Mega-City One while getting at Dredd himself through a myriad of approaches. From Anti-Hero to a straight-up villain, there’s a lot of angles that very much work.
Mark Russell’s made a name for himself with his incredibly relevant, hard-hitting yet humorous political work over the last few years. Whether it be the prophetic Prez, the insightful Flintstones or the meticulous Snagglepuss, Russell consistently entertains while expressing powerful messages. Being exceptionally skilled at taking existing properties or icons and using their core thematics and central ideas to tell powerful tales carrying a great deal of meaning, Russell brings over that same talent to Judge Dredd in Under Siege. Filled with his striking sense of humor, existential themes, charming dialogue and thought-provoking ideas, Under Siege is very much a Mark Russell book. But more than that, it’s an exceptional Judge Dredd story that stands alone and stays absolutely true to what is at the heart of the property.
Max Dunbar’s art is also a phenomenal choice for the story, as he brings the world of Mega-City One to life with great flair. Paired with Jose Luis Rio’s colorwork, which utilized a lot of greens, yellows and blacks, the artwork establishes a great sense of tone moving between the brighter bustling streets of Mega-City One to the dirty and grimy areas of the city. Bearing the spirit of other past great Dredd creators such as Carlos Ezquerra and Brian Bolland, Dunbar brings a completely fresh perspective and lens to the book while taking having the key elements from the past that strike a nice balance. His Dredd isn’t nearly as textured or as viscerally expressive as Bolland’s and the grit he brings is vastly different from Bolland’s as well, which the coloring also plays into, but it’s a great contemporary look at the world and character. There’s a slightly more cartoonish and over-the-top aspect to the art in comparison to the past, with elements of Joe Madureira and even Humberto Ramos at times. That kinetic power and sense of movement really comes through, with Dunbar and Rio’s Dredd being a lot less bulky and sleek in terms of overall design. But regardless, the grit and sense of reality that many have grown to associate with Dredd remain and come across strongly.
The entire story is essentially an action-thriller, with Dredd and Beeny, the two Judges, going into the Patrick Swayze Block, a detached area on the outskirts of Mega-City One. The Judges discover a mutant invasion from beyond the city and working alongside its inhabitants they try to survive and stop the invasion. All four issues take place in the block and are firmly built around its place and history in Mega-City One. It’s a fairly simple premise that’s incredibly accessible to any reader, from a veteran Judge Dredd fan to a new reader just beginning. The gritty and low-scale action thriller elements make it a great jumping on point for readers only familiar with the cinematic incarnation of the property. But beyond that simple framework and setup, there’s a lot going on in the book that’s incredibly fascinating.
The opening is remarkable telling of the approach being taken by the team, as Dredd’s ominous shadow emerges, talking about judges, the uniforms and most importantly, the law. Law is very much at the center of the story being told, as the creative team attempts to examine what it even is, especially in the terrifying world of Judge Dredd. Dredd’s entrance in this opening sees him enter an illegal football match, shooting down those who stand against him and charging the rest for their crimes as he sees fit. This is the world Dredd operates in, where a sport is a great crime but many other horrific and terrifying activities are acceptable in the eyes of the law. Which then really begs the question- what even is it, what is its purpose and why does it even exist and how do we deal with it when it has only failed us time and time again?
The setting at the heart of the story, the Patrick Swayze Block, was originally made to provide low-cost and sustainable housing for people. But that never came to fruition as all of that was abandoned. It is now a dilapidated, abandoned, detached and forgotten mess full of strife. Many people still live there, scrounging off what little they can get, as unemployment and poverty run amok. Once a golden promise made to the people, Patrick Swayze stands now as a decaying symbol of possibility, of what once could have been but never was.
We’re given glimpses of ‘Kidney Huts’ in the series, places that pay you for your kidney and have various schemes and plans, down to enrollment of one’s entire family. These are people who will take a young boy when the time comes to extract his kidney away in exchange for money. Such things are perfectly alright and acceptable in the eyes of Mega City law, but football isn’t. That’s where the line is drawn. It’s a horrifying reality to even consider and the creative team shows us that through various ways, all of which deeply inform our characters. Gilberto (dubbed Mayor) and Tiger, the leader and second-in-command of the Patrick are really our lens into this broken dream that is Patrick Swayze.
Similarly, even the attacking forces of the mutants and their forces have a degree of understandable motivation. They’re people who have been discriminated, despised and marginalized all their lives and they want is to live, just like everybody else does. Under the veneer of wacky and outlandish plans and hilariously evil actions, there’s a sympathetic emotional core that drives the force and its leader.
Russell’s trademark humor really comes through across the book, from outlandishly odd but spot-on assessments of human nature and existence via a fictious ‘Church of the Holy Question Mark’ (fans of Gerald from Flintstones are bound to enjoy this) to silly visual background gags such as ‘Seccubus’ with a winking woman being etched onto a literal bus.
Simon Bowland’s lettering work is also incredibly remarkable in how it helps guide the reader through the kinetic events in every jam packed issue, whilst also making all of Russell’s dialogue land. There’s a lot of incredibly silly lines but Bowland manages to make all of them click and work, while bringing the best out of every moment with his glorious SFX lettering choices. Dredd’s Lawmaster mowing down a foe with a gigantic CHAKA-CHAKA-CHAKA is vastly different from the BANGs and BOOMs and it all works to great effect, as Bowland makes sure to convey even the smallest of sounds in a dark and relatively quiet environment. Even ricochet noises and efforts don’t go by unnoticed and the work really helps build effective tension and lends the events weight that is vital.
Judge Dredd: Under Siege is a clever action-thriller with a powerful, relevant and incredibly resonant message. It’s a book that explores humanity and human society’s struggle in the face of the ideals and institutions they believed in and upheld failing them. Mark Russell, Max Dunbar, Jose Luis Rio and Simon Bowland have made a remarkable standalone story that you will find yourself recommending to your friends all year. This is a special one.