As Judge Dredd turns 45, we discuss the IP with 2000 AD’s Matt Smith, and The Cartoon Museum’s Joe Sullivan

2000 AD editor Matt Smith and Cartoon Museum director Joe Sullivan on why the character Judge Dredd still endures…

Joe, Matt – thanks for joining us. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the comic 2000 AD. Matt, how do you describe it?
Matt: 2000 AD is a weekly sci-fi anthology comic, ostensibly edited by The Mighty Tharg, an alien from the planet Quaxxann in the Betelgeuse system. He came to Earth in 1977 to gift Earthlets thrill-power via the action-packed, eye-popping stories contained within the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Together with his creator droids working out of the Nerve Centre, they’ve crafted some of the most popular and iconic characters UK comics have ever seen.

Most notably…
Matt: Chief among them is Judge Dredd, the zero-tolerance cop policing the anarchic 22nd-century metropolis of Mega-City One, or MC-1. Judge, jury and executioner, he dispenses summary justice on all those that have broken the law.

And Joe, how do you see Dredd?
Joe: Judge Dredd is a sort of space Clint Eastwood in a Mad Max world. Mega-City One serves as potential endgame for where the world is as it continues to stock nuclear arsenals, undermine foreign governments, and pump pollutants into the sky.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum
Yes; the dystopian view of the world we see in Judge Dredd often seems to foreshadow real issues… Tell us about that. How do you keep things dark, relevant and prophetic?

Matt: During much of its life, the main writers on the strip – John Wagner and Alan Grant – would often look at the day’s headlines and see how they could extrapolate that into an science fiction story… Push the absurdity and stakes so far so that it fitted into the bizarre future setting of MC-1.

Does that apply to the tech, too?
Well, in the case of technology catching up with the strip, such as the palm-encoded Lawgiver Gun, that was simply ingenious writing on their part. Today, the writers are equally using contemporary events as springboards for ideas, but it seems as each year passes a series about a totalitarian state skews closer to the world we’re currently living in.

“It combines sharp writing, action and black comedy and a superbly evocative setting.”

Totalitarian is an excellent word; that’s helpful! If I understand correctly, Dredd first appeared in issue two of 2000 AD. How did the character come about?
Matt: John Wagner originally wrote a series about a Dirty Harry-style cop called One-Eyed Jack for the comic Valiant. Jack’s no-nonsense approach to the law would be something of a precursor to Dredd. When 2000 AD was being developed, he had an idea about a policeman in the future. Artist Carlos Ezquerra designed the uniform and bike around the eagle motif. Founding editor Pat Mills was toying with a supernatural strip called Judge Dread, and the retitled name was eventually attached to Wagner and Ezquerra’s creation.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum
Why does the character endure, do you think?

Matt: A combination of witty, sharp writing, engaging stories mixing action and black comedy, a superbly evocative setting in MC-1, and some of the best artwork seen in comics in the last 45 years.

Joe: The thing that endures for me is Dredd in combination with the world. The stories tap into enduring modern myths of antiheroic loners, and a planet headed for collapse – with a generous helping of machismo fantasy in there too! But for me it’s the world he exists in and how he reacts to it. I think people can easily see how Mega-City One could be a logical end-point of today’s world, and that worries and fascinates readers in equal measures.

Interesting. And in what ways has Dredd changed and been reinterpreted over the years?
Joe: The way I see it, the thing we’re trying to draw out in the exhibition is how Dredd himself ostensibly hasn’t changed that much… He came out fully formed – design-wise at least. The changes I see owe much to the individual style of the writers and artists – particularly an artist’s drawing style and the way they create their pages.

Can you give us an example?
Joe: From the physical, cut-and-stick techniques utilised in the 1970s, to the crisp lines of the 1980s and the acetate overlays and detailed inking of the 1990s, to the introduction of digital techniques in the 2000s… The different styles create different atmospheres for both the character and the world.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum

Matt: As a character, Dredd’s evolved from the almost machine-like dispenser of justice to a fully rounded character, with doubts and occasional feeling. Wagner has been very good at developing Dredd, writing him as a man growing older and his viewpoint of the world changing. When other writers have taken on the character, it’s proven how difficult it is to get the balance right… Dredd as the hero and Dredd as the villain.

Joe: All that said, outside of art techniques, I’d say there’s been one really big reinterpretation of Dredd, which Sylvester Stallone was responsible for… And it didn’t go down well!

Yes, it didn’t hit quite the right note, that, did it? When was that?
Joe: That was a long time ago; 1995.

A long time ago – but still there’s pain! As the editor of 2000 AD, Matt, what does your job actually entail?
Matt: Commissioning stories, finding artists for projects, scheduling, editing scripts for lettering, writing editorial copy…

And how did you come to be in that role?
Matt: Before joining 2000 AD, I previously worked in book publishing – I was a desk editor at Pan Macmillan for three years.

When was this, sorry?
Matt: 2000, appropriately enough! But I’d been reading 2000 AD since 1985, so when the job of assistant editor came up, I jumped at it. I joined the prog as Rebellion became owners, and then became editor at the beginning of 2002.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum
About four years before London’s The Cartoon Museum opened! And until April 24th, Joe, that museum is running a 2000 AD exhibition: Dredd @ 45. As the museum’s director, what might visitors expect to see?

Joe: Dredd @ 45 is a capsule exhibition in our ‘In Focus’ space. It gives a window back in time to see how comic art has changed since Judge Dredd first appeared in 1977.

And do you feel his design has changed much?
Joe: No, as Matt says, his design has remained pretty much the same since then, but the way he’s been drawn has evolved as artistic techniques have improved. I’m pretty sure the digital tools of today could’ve featured in the pages of an early issue of 2000 AD as mad futuristic sci-fi tech!

“I can’t deny I’m a lucky guy to be doing what I do!”

Joe: And because Dredd’s always kept pretty much the same look, it acts as something of a control case. We can compare and contrast styles and techniques of the different artists who have worked on the strip over the past 45 years.

Dredd aside, what else is in the museum?
Joe: Alongside Dredd @ 45 we have loads of other great stuff on display! Everything from historic caricature to modern newspaper cartoons, as well as original art from comics like The Beano and Watchmen. We also currently have an exhibition called Laughter Lab, where we worked with scientists from the University of Oxford to create a participatory exhibition that investigates what makes a cartoon funny.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum
Fantastic! Let’s not give any spoilers for that! Running a cartoon museum might seem like many people’s ideal job… How did you come to be doing it?

Joe: I can’t deny I’m a lucky guy to be doing what I do! I’ve been working in museums for about nine years, and I joined The Cartoon Museum in 2020 from the Natural History Museum. Most of my career has focussed on working with people who don’t usually visit museums and finding ways for the museum to support their interests and needs. Comics have been a really useful part of that, for example with refugees or neurodiverse people, since telling stories through drawing is both therapeutic and non-verbal. As a big comic fan, I was delighted to join The Cartoon Museum when the opportunity came up.

What made you want to put on a 2000 AD exhibit? And how did you go about staging it?
Joe: We have a long-standing relationship with the publishers, Rebellion. We also held – several years ago – a 2000 AD retrospective exhibition at our old site.

Ah! Which was very near The British Museum; Holborn way?
Right! So with the 45th Anniversary coming up, we and Rebellion discussed what the museum could do to support it, and settled on Judge Dredd as the focus. We try to give visitors an insight into the creators of comics and cartoons, and how they’re made… Hopefully to inspire our visitors to pick up a pencil themselves and draw something! The idea of charting how Dredd was ‘always different, always the same’ was an idea that resonated with us because it meant we could exhibit art across the spectrum of Dredd’s 45 years as well as charting the developments in art techniques during that time.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum
Brilliant. For those that’d like to take a look, where is the museum now?’

Joe: We’re at 63 Wells Street, just off of Oxford Street. Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road tubes stations are a very short walk away, so we’re really central!

What’s the one thing visitors must see at all costs? And until when does the exhibit run?
Dredd @ 45 runs until Sunday 24th April. The one thing you need to see in the exhibition is an excellent video by the artist Tom Foster. It both parodies and talks about how he draws his 2000 AD pages.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum
I’m glad you said that! That parody is my kind of humour so I agree! Chaps, we need to wrap this up… Final question: In your opinions, what kind of licensing opportunities best suit the material? And what would you personally like to see happen with the property?

Matt: Action figures always go down well, as do deluxe art books such as the Brian Bolland Apex Editon, which is out imminently. I think we’d all like see another Dredd videogame utilising PS5 technology… And while we’re making a wishlist, a 10-part Dredd TV series would be just the ticket.

But not a Stallone sequel! And Joe?
Joe: No, not a Stallone sequel! A Dredd open-world video game would be pretty great, something similar to Batman: Arkham Knight… Something where you can head around Mega-City One on your motorbike, and all the side-quests would be crimes to solve. All of the quest end points would be a choice of what justice to mete out. Tagline: YOU ARE THE LAW!

Fantastic! Thank you chaps, lovely to talk to you both. Fascinating stuff.

Matt Smith, 2000 AD, Joe Sullivan, The Cartoon Museum

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