The Price Of Freedom
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its seventy-fifth choice, Judge Dredd – America, by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil published by Rebellion and reviewed by Tripwire’s contributing writer Joe Gordon…
Judge Dredd – America
Writer: John Wagner
Artist: Colin MacNeil
“Rights? Sure. I’m all for rights. But not at the expense of order. That’s why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there, towering over Liberty. Kind of a symbol.
Justice has a price. The price is freedom.”
I’ve had a strong desire to revisit Judge Dredd: America recently. Having just read the Judges Omnibus Volume 2 by Mike Carroll, Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliott-Coleman, a prose series which explores the early days of the Judge system and how it replaced the traditional policing in what used to be America, before the Atom Wars and Mega City One, I’ve been pondering some of the issues the stories raised, Trying to replace a broken, corrupt judicial system with one which is truly impartial, where the colour of your skin or your wealth will not matter, only the crime, leading to instant justice. But at the cost of freedom, liberty and, ultimately democracy. The three tales in Judges reminded me of Wagner and MacNeil’s America, one of my all-time favourite Dredd stories, and I had to revisit it.
America begins with a beautiful but very sad looking woman, preparing for a stage show, staring into the dressing room mirror in a nightclub, as the dialogue recounts a doomed love for a woman, America, and how through tragic events she was lost, betrayed. The story is being told by Bennett Beeny, an entertainer, a man who has known America Jara – Ami – since she was born in a neighbouring apartment when he was a toddler. They grew up together, the best of friends, but as they got older and she went off to college, they drifted apart. He was deeply in love with her, but knew she cared for him, but not romantically. Their previously tightly-bound lives move apart with age, and besides, Ami has something else, a fire within her, a fire that burns for the restoration of liberty and the overthrow of the totalitarian Judge system.
Ami joins the Dems protest group – the citizens demanding the return of democratic control of their city, but when peaceful mass protest is met by dirty tricks and heavy-handed violence, she and others abandon peaceful means and form Total War, a terrorist group who will use violence and murder to achieve their aims. It’s at this point Ami and Bennett’s lives cross paths again, accidentally, when he recognises her posing as a “slabwalker” (a street sex worker) in a set-up to ambush and kill Judges, with Bennett shot in the cross-fire. As he painfully recovers Ami covertly visits the now wealthy and successful Bennett, and tells him of what was done to her on that peaceful march that drove her to resort to violence, and also to ask for his financial help. He begs her to stop, to stay with him, but he knows she won’t. She’s committed to the cause, and that cause is planning something big, something violent, with his money to fund it, an idea he can’t stomach.
There are so many fascinating, compelling elements to America. Wagner, the Dreddfather, delivers a script that weaves in the Big Issues – morality, freedom, justice, human rights – but also the personal, human-level problems – friendship, love, trust and betrayal. Those Big Issues resonate as much today as they did back in the early 90s, perhaps even more – we only have to think about the Draconian laws brought into Western democratic nations following the horror of 9-11, intrusive measures, curbs on freedoms and rights, but “for our safety”, of how many will sacrifice some freedoms for safety, or at least the feeling of safety, and how others are happy to use that to garner more power to themselves.
There’s the question of violence, from the state, from the individual – Total War are so sure of their cause they will kill for it, not just their enemies, but if innocents are in the way, they are unfortunate collateral. But the Judges are just as stubborn and violent in turn, and there’s an argument that their fascist, violent state has effectively created a violent monster in return. It’s a question our own troubled world has pondered – why would someone be prepared not just to kill, but to murder innocents for their cause? What drives someone to terrorism? A sense of desperation, of no other avenues being available, mixed with a burning anger for bloody revenge. Not that this story condones their methods here, nor the Judges, and that’s where much of the power of this story comes from, that mixed morality where none can truly hold the moral high ground, but at the same time when we see monsters, we also see the wretched circumstances that made them into monsters.
But while those major moral musings are important, for me it is the personal touches that really ground America. The childhood friendship between Ami and Bennett is beautiful, and Wagner perfectly captures that moment so many of us will remember, of friends from our youngest days, the people we thought inseparable from us, who grew and moved off as we all got older, the pangs of longing for a deep, desperate love that may never be returned, but which remains there, pure, unfulfilled. The moments when Ami is back in Bennett’s life, the thing he has dreamed of all his life, but is she using him, his love, just to get the money she needs for The Cause? Almost certainly, and yet she clearly loves Bennett too, she sees a life she could have had with him, content, wealthy, safe, loved, but the price would be to ignore the wrong she sees in the world, and she cannot turn her back on that.
MacNeil’s painted artwork is stunning, some of the finest to grace the pages of Dredd over the decades. We see a Judge towering over Ami and Bennett when they are children – there was never a time Judges weren’t there, a threatening presence in their lives – the armoured lawman standing over the small children, Bennett scared, Ami defiant, determined to protect her friend. Elsewhere MacNeil uses that child’s perspective, depicting the Judges from a low perspective, so the reader is looking up at them, standing powerfully above, fascistic power incarnate. Moodily lit and deftly using colour, MacNeil is as effective as showing bloody violence – from the Judges, from the terrorists – as he is the tender moments, the childhood flashbacks, and some iconic scenes (a bloody America with the flag of that now vanished Republic facing hordes of heavily armed Judges before the Statue of Liberty). Both he and Wagner craft a central character, a woman who is immensely strong, powerful, driven to stand for her principles regardless of cost, and yet also clearly marked by that cost, but knowing no other way to live with herself but to carry on.
It’s a powerful tale, dramatically, morally, emotionally – we have conspiracy, we have action, we have a fight between opposing ways of living, but we also have romance, and betrayal and happiness and regret, and an ending that will break your heart. It’s a story not afraid to depict one of the comics’ biggest characters as a brutal, freedom-repressing fascist, another lens to view the complex world of Dredd through, and one which makes you think, makes you feel, and comes all wrapped up in that glorious, painted artwork.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far