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Mike Carroll and John Higgins dive deep into 'Dredd' prequel 'Dreadnoughts'

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Mike Carroll and John Higgins dive deep into ‘Dredd’ prequel ‘Dreadnoughts’

A brand-new ‘Dreadnoughts’ debuts this week in ‘Judge Dredd Megazine.’

Fun fact: Judge Dredd actually debuted in 2000 AD‘s second issue from March 1977. Since then, Mega-City One’s most badass peacekeeper has spawned a veritable smorgasbord of multimedia entries (including one good and one awful movie). That long list includes Judge Dredd Megazine, a cleverly-titled sister publication that launched in fall 1990 for Dredd-adjacent stories (and, subsequently, other titles and projects).

So, just how big does the Dredd-verse really and truly stretch? Look no further than Dreadnoughts. Debuting back in the 30th anniversary issue in January 2021, Dreadnoughts is set in 2035, before the time of Dredd, and explores how our world made the perilous transition into that extra hellish police state of the future. Now, after that first volume, writer Mike Carroll, artist John Higgins, and colorist Sally Hurst are back again for an all-new prologue story.

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According to press for the story titled “Nothing to Fear” the “presence of a Judge initiates a night of violence.” If you enjoyed the Dreadnoughts work collected as “Breaking Ground,” then you’ll find a similar brooding and intense tale that would be more shocking if it just wasn’t so dang prescient and relevant. And if you’re a newbie to the world of Dreadnoughts, then the story should still make plenty sense (even if the sheer volumes of history is one of the best things about Dredd stories).

The new Dreadnoughts tale debuts in Judge Dredd Megazine #468, which lands on shelves on May 15. In the lead up to the story, we got the chance to field both Carroll and Higgins some of our burning questions. That includes some essential background into all things Dreadnoughts, the story’s larger purposes and messaging, what this latest story has to offer, and adding to the massive world that is Judge Dredd.

Mike Carroll and John Higgins dive deep into 'Dredd' prequel 'Dreadnoughts'

Courtesy of 2000 AD.

AIPT: How would you describe Dreadnoughts to the uninitiated?

John Higgins: It’s our own recognizable sociopolitical hell set 10 minutes in the future.

Mike Carroll: Dreadnoughts is a prequel to the long-running Judge Dredd comic-strip. In Dredd’s stories, set about 120 years from now in the oppressive and overcrowded Mega-City One, the Judges have the power to dispense instant justice. If a Judge decides you’re guilty, then they’ll sentence you on the spot. No lengthy, expensive trials, no risk of jury-tampering, no clever lawyers finding obscure loopholes in ancient laws… And no appeals. The right to due process has been hacked out of the constitution.

Dreadnoughts – which is set in the mid-2030s – explores the introduction of the first Judges and the massive social and political impact they have on the people of the USA. So Dreadnoughts is pretty much the USA that we know today but with a couple of steps taken in the direction Dredd’s world. And unfortunately not the fun steps… Everyone wants the “flying cars and robot butlers” future, but the “brutal fascism masquerading as benevolence: future is more likely. There’s not a lot of room for whimsy here!

The strip is written by me, drawn by comics legend John Higgins, colored by the multi-talented Sally Jane Hurst, and lettered by the gifted Simon Bowland. These are astonishingly awesome people with whom to work and honestly I feel quite guilty that I’m having so much fun writing about such a horrible situation!

AIPT: Why is Dreadnoughts‘ main function — informing at least part of what happens in Judge Dredd — such a vital, important storytelling experience?

MC: We’ve all seen and read a lot of stories set in dystopian worlds: with Dreadnoughts and Judges – the accompanying series of prose novellas ¬– I wanted to show how such a world might come about. And the sad truth is that I didn’t have to overwork my imagination: I just had to watch the news and read some books on modern history. It can be quite terrifying stuff! At the most basic level, fascism rises because it’s allowed to rise: scare the people enough and they will willingly submit what little power they have. Scaring them isn’t particularly difficult: you just choose a class, nation, creed or race that’s arguably different from your audience and keep shouting that, “Those people are getting out of control! If we don’t do something about them, they’ll take your stuff!”

JH: The original Judge Dredd writers, mainly John Wagner, have dropped hints and clues to the foundation of the Judges system, with such classic stories as “America” and the “Democracy” series even they were set many years beyond Dreadnoughts, as fans we want to know more – I know I do.

AIPT: How should Dreadnoughts compare to Dredd in terms of tone, feeling, etc.?

MC: Dreadnoughts is a reminder that while Dredd might be a hero in individual cases, in general the Judges are not the good guys. In Dredd’s stories it’s generally pretty clear that the Judges are necessary because Mega-City One is not so much a melting pot as it is a crucible. The Judges are the sledgehammer required to crack down on all the nuts… But we could easily argue that the citizens are crazy because the Judges are so tyrannical. Oppression is fuel for rage, and the cure – astonishingly – is not more oppression.

Consider this… The Judges rise to power in the early 2030s, but over a hundred years later MC1 is still crime-ridden and dystopic. Now, a cynic might suggest that the Judges are not trying to fix the city’s problems: they’re maintaining them. But maybe that’s an argument for another time…!

Dreadnoughts

Courtesy of 2000 AD.

JH: The original Judge Dredd stories created a dystopian Mega-City One, with mutants, freaks and pedestrians being shot by Judges for jaywalking, all part of everyday life under the Judges. The texture created, as in all the best satirical SF, was to extrapolate to the most extreme degree what we saw around us, showing implausible ridiculous dramatic situations, that we could still recognize as a version of our world… if you’re not careful!

That is what we have to an extent in Dreadnoughts, but it is more chilling as Michael has not extrapolated so far ahead and has used a limit on how absurd he wanted it to be.

MC: In terms of tone, Judge Dredd stories can be a lot more light-hearted, epic, whimsical, zany, etc.; we can have a massive alien invasion in one story, follow that with a heartbreaking tale about a desperate, down-at-heel citizen struggling to get by, and the next week Dredd’s up against a mad scientist armed with a device that turns people into rabbits. (A “Bun-Gun” maybe? Hmm… I just made that up to illustrate my point, but now I want to write that story!)

With Dreadnoughts, we have to be much more grounded… Fewer aliens and rabbits, more desperate, down-at-heel citizens struggling to get by!

AIPT: What can you tell us about this latest story specifically? We’re supposed to be able to come in blind, but are there any tidbits you think people should know regardless?

MC: The first two books of Dreadnoughts tell the story of recently graduated Judge Veranda Glover arriving in Boulder, Colorado to join the Judges already stationed there. There’s more of Glover’s tale still to come, but with this new book we’re taking a brief diversion not just to introduce Judge Beckett but also to show an aspect of the Judges’ rise that we’ve not yet really explored: what is it like from the point of view of the ordinary people?

“Nothing to Fear” is the story of a small mountain town in Wyoming where everyone is very much set in their ways, and politically nothing much has changed for decades. If something bad happens, the local sheriff and her deputies sort it out, then people get on with their lives. And then a Judge shows up at the wrong time and everything very rapidly goes south and downhill.

John Higgins described the story as similar to the movie First Blood, where the drifter John Rambo comes to town and the local police don’t take kindly to him, and there are definitely some similarities there. However, much of First Blood is told from Rambo’s point of view: we empathize with him from the start. In “Nothing to Fear,” we don’t see the Judge’s viewpoint. We know nothing about him. Not even his first name. So story-wise, I feel it’s closer to a slasher movie – with Judge Beckett as the monster!

JH: Think “a pale rider on a pale horse” arrives in town and no one is innocent when judged by this Judge – Judge Beckett is scary.

AIPT: Mike, how does Dreadnoughts compare to some of the other Dredd stuff that you’ve written? Do you “like” it more somehow? Is it all that different in your mind?

MC: Dreadnoughts is easier to write than Judge Dredd because Dredd’s stories advance more or less in real time, and that means we’ve got forty-seven years of continuity to take into consideration: There are no handy reset buttons or continuity reboots or past-altering deals with the devil… No rewriting of history here, folks! Aside from a few tiny exceptions, if a thing happens in a Dredd story, then it stays happened. This means that nine times out of ten when I come up with a story idea, it’s already been written. (Occasionally I realize that it’s already been written by me, which is especially annoying!)

Since Dreadnoughts is a prequel series we don’t have to worry so much about what’s gone before, but we do have to be hyper-aware of what lies ahead… right from the start I made a vow that we’re not going to mess with anything already established in Dredd stories.

Dreadnoughts

Courtesy of 2000 AD.

Prequels to a series have a tendency to tinker with the franchise’s established history and that’s dangerous if not handled with extreme care. To compare Judge Dredd with another beloved SF series that begin [in] 1977, with Dreadnoughts we’re aiming to be more like Rogue One than, say, The Phantom Menace.

AIPT: From a visual/artistic standpoint, do you stay connected to Dredd’s “world” or try something different? How do you balance the present with near-future tech/aesthetics?

JH: Visually it is more connected to the now than Dredd’s world. Which makes it a recognizable future, that you as the viewer could step into and feel at home with, the buildings, the cars etc, but you would not feel safe.

MC: We’re so far removed from Dredd’s world that just about everything is grounded in the present day. “Nothing to Fear” is set in 2036, which is only 12 years in the future. If we look back 12 years [mumbles and counts on fingers] that brings us to 2012, and visually not a lot has changed since then, technology-wise. Smartphones and TV sets are a bit fancier, but that’s about it.

I’m not a great artist myself so John and Sally will be much better placed to answer this, but I reckon that near-future science fiction is considerably more work for the artists than far-future SF. It’s the whole verisimilitude – the sense of “realness” throughout a story. With the far-future stuff, the artists can be guided more by their imaginations when it comes to design elements, but near-future stuff has to be grounded in reality: if it doesn’t look and feel credible, the audience will pick up on that.

AIPT: What’s the balance in referencing events and politics happening right now? Do you pull directly from the news? Or is it more subtle?

JH: I don’t for the life of me think Michael Carroll got a certain POTUS elected, I am sure he didn’t start a 21st century European war, or any other conflict for that matter, but… he seems to have his finger on the pulse of what might happen, and then happens! I reckon we need to get the Wally Squad (undercover Judges) to take a close look at him…

MC: I don’t consciously reference current political events, but there are sometimes fortunate (or unfortunate) parallels and it’d be disingenuous to suggest that such parallels are coincidental. I watch the news, I read the papers… Stuff seeps in whether I want it to or not!

The thrust of any Dreadnoughts or Judges story is that the Judge system is coming regardless of whether the people need it or want it. In “Nothing to Fear,” Sheriff Perada is aware of that, but still clinging on to the old ways for as long as she can because she’s savvy enough to know that the coming changes are not going to be to her advantage.

One thing I’ve loved about writing Dreadnoughts is that it’s become a kind of whack-a-mole outlet for certain readers who until now have remained mostly in the background. But some of these lovable little scamps have concluded that Dreadnoughts is being influenced by current events so they pop up angrily yelling, “Keep politics out of comics!,” which shows that reading a story and taking it in aren’t necessarily the same thing. Judge Dredd has always been a political satire as much as a social one.

Similarly, is there an issue with leaning too much into your own personal politics, or are you encouraged to really let it rip in that regard?

MC: Interesting… I’ve never really given that much thought, but there’s no “encouragement” either way! There’s certainly been nothing from editorial suggesting that we take the stories in any specific political direction. I guess it’s possible that’s been done covertly by the editor only hiring writers with certain political inclinations, but I doubt it.

JH: The only criteria we should have is to tell a good story. As it is based on what most people would consider universal themes of crime and punishment, I don’t think we allow any bias to slip in, unless … to see the bad punished and the good protected is a bias!

But then who decides who is bad?

Mike Carroll and John Higgins dive deep into 'Dredd' prequel 'Dreadnoughts'

Courtesy of 2000 AD.

MC: I consider myself to be very left-wing. In the most basic terms, that means I believe that the privileged have an obligation to help those less fortunate, so in the politics of the USA that would probably make me a democrat. But that’s only because the political scene in the USA is artificially divided into two sides that people like to pretend are diametrically opposed, when in reality it’s a lot more complicated than that.

But that said, it’s vital for a storyteller to be able to see more than one side of an argument. With Dreadnoughts, I have to put myself in other people’s shoes and think, “What does it feel like from over here?” Good and bad are not intrinsic, universal attributes: Everyone thinks that they’re right, and that they’re the hero. I have to be able to see things from Sheriff Perada’s point of view: she’s worked her entire adult life to protect herself, her town and her people, and now there’s an irresistible massive political and judicial change bearing down on them and threatening to wipe out everything she’s achieved. That’s got to be scary.

You want to hear something else that’s really scary? In some respects, right now the USA is further along the path to Dredd’s world than the fictional world was in my first Judges book, The Avalanche. The real USA – blindly thundering along on an engine fueled by hatred, fear, greed and lies – is in danger of overtaking the fictional version.

AIPT: Is there a sense that a story/project like Dreadnoughts could be a gateway for a new gen into Dredd? Does that matter at all?

JH: I think that is what we hope for, as it is a basis to the future world of Dredd, most Dredd stories can stand alone and be brilliant entertaining SF, but for a newbie to look at the back catalogue could be intimidating, this should give a ground floor lift into that world.

MC: Dredd’s unbroken continuity is probably quite daunting for new readers: where do you start reading? So maybe Dreadnoughts will help shepherd in new readers: that would be nice! Over time, some readers will naturally evolve into creators, and those of us who’ve been around since the beginning tend to be set in our ways ¬– new blood is always welcome!

AIPT: Any clue and/or hint about what comes next after this story? More chapters, some giant-sized event, etc.?

JH: Yes, Michael, what happens next?

MC: Oh, I have plans…! But there are no giant-sized events on the horizon, unless they’re events that have already been established in Dredd lore. We knew from the beginning that Dreadnoughts and Judges should always focus on “smaller” stories and leave the world-ending scenarios to Judge Dredd.

In these stories the Judges aren’t superheroes: they’re cops. They’re not expected to save the world, but they might just save the town.

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