INTERVIEW: MICHAEL CARROLL DISCUSSES HIS JUDGE DREDD WORK
I got in a bit of Judge Dredd mood a while back and decided to pick up the latest collection containing the work of Michael Carroll. Unfortunately or fortunately, it wasn’t out yet so I ended up picking up his two Dredd novellas which I enjoyed immensely. I got the collection [Day of Chaos: Fallout] in the end and it was well worth the wait. I decided to ask Michael Carroll about his influences, his take on the character and what it was like working on Mega-City’s most famous lawman.
I know you have followed Judge Dredd from the very beginning but I was wondering what stories you go back to or maybe ones that you think people should visit of they want to get a proper feel for the character.
One of the best things about Dredd is that despite thirty-seven years of continuity, new readers can jump on pretty much anywhere. All you really need to know is that Judge Dredd is a hard-as-nails cop patrolling Mega-City One, a huge future-city that has a massive unemployment problem… Armed with just those two facts – which usually can be gleaned from most Dredd stories in the first few panels – newbies can dive straight in and start enjoying the adventures. Sure, Dredd – like all the good comic-book characters – has a back-story, but most of the time you don’t need to know that. There’s no tragically dark origin that drives him: he’s just a lawman, doing his job.
However, that’s not to say that I don’t encourage new readers to check out the old stuff! The Judge Dredd Casefiles collections reprint almost every story right from the beginning, and they’re very good value. Even though the first few tales are a bit ropey here and there, the character of Dredd and the barely-sane nature of the city are very quickly defined. The second Casefiles book in particular is worth a look, as it contains Dredd’s first two epics: “The Cursed Earth” and “The Day the Law Died.”
Also well-worth a look is the “Apocalypse War” saga (reprinted in the fifth Casefiles book, I think). It’s one of my all-time favourite comic-book stories, and marks the return to Dredd of Carlos Ezquerra, the genius artist who co-created the character with John Wagner.
Of the more recent stories: check out “Tour of Duty,” “Origins” and “Day of Chaos.”
The first Dredd work of yours I tried was the Year One: Cold Light of Day novella. I’m not overly familiar with early Dredd. I was wondering how much you stuck to cannon for the book?
I stuck to the canon very, very rigidly… Which wasn’t too hard because not very much had been written about Dredd’s early years on the streets: when we first meet him in 2000AD #2, he’s already been a Judge for twenty years. The Year One books – as the title suggests – go back to Dredd when he’s fresh out of the Academy of Law.
My task with the story was to present Dredd not as the seasoned old man we’re used to, but as an enthusiastic, almost over-eager, newbie. He’s yet to make his mark on the city. Most of the other Judges have no idea who he is. The citizens certainly have never heard of him – they don’t yet know enough to be afraid!
I had a lot of fun tying The Cold Light of Day in to the established Dredd universe… For example, the events of the book are set around the annual Mega-City 5000 road-race. That first appears in issues 40 and 41 of 2000AD, where it’s an illegal race that the Judges are hell-bent on trying to stop. In my book, set twenty years earlier, the Mega-City 5000 is a sanctioned race, complete with corporate sponsorship and run with the approval of the Chief Judge (it gives the citizens something to do!). Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and so my story explains why the race becomes an illegal event.
There were other smaller touches that I had fun with, such as Cadet Gibson. In the classic “Mutie the Pig” storyline the eponymous killer is discovered by Dredd to be his old friend Judge Gibson. Dredd realises this from the unusual way Mutie the Pig holds his gun in his left hand… So in The Cold Light of Day, there’s a very casual mention of Gibson using his gun left-handed. Little throw-away references like that don’t mean anything to most readers, but there were a few old-timers who spotted them and seemed to appreciate them!
The story had the feel of a police procedural drama. Is that how you see Dredd? A police drama in a sci-fi world?
Absolutely! Dredd is a cop, and I try to keep that in mind at all times. Sure, he has crazily over-the-top adventures every now and then, but he’s not a superhero. It’s always tempting to have Dredd solve every case with his fists because the readers love the action scenes, but I try to keep it reasonably procedural whenever possible. After all, Dredd has access to highly advanced technology, so if, say, someone finds a body-part it shouldn’t take the Judges more than a couple of minutes to scan its DNA and find the identity of the person to whom that body part belongs. The Judges have cameras everywhere (well, not so many since Day of Chaos!), voice-print analysis, psychics, massively powerful computers, and – that utter bane of all Judge Dredd writers – hand-held lie-detectors.
Dredd’s co-creator John Wagner himself has said that if there was one thing he’d change, it would be the lie-detectors! Most of us avoid using them as much as possible, because they make things far too easy for the Judges.
The next novella, Rico: The Titan Years, was interesting as it is told from Rico Dredd’s point of view. I thought it was strange as I was agreeing with him to a certain extent. Was that something you were aiming for?
I’m glad you said that you found yourself agreeing with him, because that’s exactly what I was going for! Because it’s Rico telling the story, he naturally paints himself as the hero. In his eyes, he was only ever trying to make things better. Or at least that’s what he wants his audience to believe.
That aspect of the tale gave me a great opportunity to examine and criticise the Judge system. It’s fundamentally flawed, but – in Rico’s words – so is democracy. His belief is that Mega-City One is kind of stumbling along, steered by Judges who, by their very nature, are far removed from the people they’re trying to police.
Were there particular stories that influenced your take on Rico? How would you describe him?
Rico only appeared in very few Judge Dredd tales, and I used little bits from all of them! Most were told as flashbacks from his brother Joe’s point of view, so Rico never had much development as a character. He was almost always painted as evil, the antithesis of Joe, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting character. The novella gave me the opportunity to explore and greatly expand on the established Rico tales from his own viewpoint.
In Gordon Rennie’s tale “Judgement” (2000AD #1523 – #1528) we see a flashback of Rico killing his mentor Judge Kenner because Kenner was becoming suspicious of Rico’s errant ways. My novella relates the same event but gives Rico a more clearly-defined justification for the killing – at least, it’s more clearly-defined for Rico, if not for Kenner!
On that note: There’s been a very-long-running argument among Dredd fans about what name Rico had on his badge. Should it be “Dredd” or “Rico”? I think the confusion stems, in part, from a different character, Judge Rico, who names himself after Dredd’s brother. So there is a Judge with “Rico” on his badge, but it wasn’t the first Rico Dredd!
My argument has always been that Rico’s badge should show his surname… like every other Street Judge in Mega-City One. Why should he be the only one to have his first name on his badge? This is supported by the very first Rico story (“The Return of Rico” 2000AD #30, written by Pat Mills and drawn by Mike McMahon) in which Rico’s badge clearly says “Dredd.”
But Gordon’s story “Judgement” makes a plot-point of Rico temporarily wearing a “Dredd” badge in order to fool Judge Kenner into thinking that he is Joe, the purpose of which is to lead Kenner to his death.… So I had to make a choice. In my re-telling of the relevant scenes from “Judgement” I omitted the part about the badge-swap. So far, no one has complained!
As for Rico himself: I would describe him as highly intelligent, very practical and very resourceful… just like his brother. But in many ways, he’s a much more rounded person than Joe, who has pretty much zero imagination and almost no ego – which is what makes Joe such a good Judge.
I really enjoyed the novellas. Will you be doing more?
I hope so. No contracts have been signed yet, but I have plans for two more Rico novellas, which combined would come to about 100,000 words, about the length of the average novel.
Moving on to the comics and the collection that was just released. It follows the event Day of Chaos written by Dredd co-creator John Wagner. How hard is it to follow an event like that? It really changes the kind of stories you can tell. Also, John Wagner!
Shortly after Day of Chaos began its run in 2000AD, John sent an e-mail to every other Dredd writer explaining what Mega-City One and the Justice Department would be like by the end, so we had some idea of what to expect. Good thing, too, became a few of us had stories already submitted and in the pipeline, and they needed to be tweaked to reflect the post-Chaos changes to Dredd’s world!
I’m sure that most of the other Dredd writers had the same initial reaction that I did to John’s e-mail, which was along the lines of “Oh crap. This is going to make everything a lot harder!” But that turned out to be a good thing. By shaking up the entire system, we were forced to come up with stories that might otherwise never have occurred to us, or that might not have been possible had the status quo been maintained. My stories “Debris,” “Payback,” “Wolves,” “The Forsaken” and “New Tricks” all came out of that. Without “Chaos” they couldn’t have happened. John’s e-mail got me thinking… “So the Justice Department is almost wiped out, most of the city is destroyed, the population had been reduced by seven eighths… What about the people on the ground? What about Judges who were in the thick of the riots and had to be left behind when their sector was officially deemed to be lost? What about Judges who weren’t in the city when it fell? Wouldn’t other cities send Judges of their own to bolster the Justice Department in Mega-City One?”
As for following John Wagner in general… It’s humbling! He has the remarkable ability to turn Dredd’s whole world upside-down in just a few words, and it always makes me go, “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?” And then, more often than not, it sparks a few more fresh ideas.
The collection also has stories by John Wagner and Rob Williams too. Are you aware of their stuff when trying to come up with your stories?
In general, no. The fact is that most of the time each Dredd writer works on his or her own. We each have certain seeds planted that, hopefully, will be given the opportunity to germinate further down the line. This does work well, I think: there’s no over-arching Dredd story-editor dictating what we can or cannot do. That said, 2000AD’s editor Matt Smith keeps on top of everything and will shoot down an idea if it’ll conflict with something upcoming by another writer.
However, every now and then we will bounce a few ideas off each other. For the Rico novella, for example, I knew that Rob Williams was writing the Dredd story “Titan,” and since the latter half of the novella is set on Titan, I asked Rob for his script, which he kindly sent me. I was able to include some background elements of his story in the novella.
But the best example of this collaboration is the “Trifecta” storyline. Al Ewing was on Dredd, Rob Williams was writing Low Life, and Simon Spurrier was writing The Simping Detective, the latter two being stories set in Dredd’s universe. Now, I’d been forewarned so I knew what was coming, but it has to be the best-kept secret in recent comics history! Some details for those who haven’t yet read it… All three stories were running along nicely in 2000AD, with the relevant heroes mired in their own adventures. Then Dredd gets word that some important data is being held by someone in a particular location, and that episode ends with him booting in a door. Later in that same issue, the episode of The Simping Detective has its hero Jack Point reacting to Judge Dredd kicking in the door. And a similar thing happens in Low Life. All three stories were connected… and the readers, when they copped on, went absolutely nuts! I wish I’d been involved with that, but I’m not complaining: it was wonderful to read it just as a fan.
Despite the setting, your stories have a real life drama feel. Would you agree with that?
That’s good of you to say! I do try to get that feeling into the stories, because I’ve always believed that the best science fiction deals not just with out-there ideas, but with how those ideas affect ordinary people. This is one of the reasons a lot of Judge Dredd stories only barely feature Dredd: he’s a catalyst in many ways. His presence in the world effects a lot of changes but he himself rarely changes. It takes a long, long time for Judge Dredd to alter his opinion on anything!
Dredd’s someone who remains stoic in the face of, well, pretty much anything you can throw at him, so he often ends up as the barometer against which it’s possible to measure the madness of Mega-City One. In “Downtime” — my sole contribution to the original “Day of Chaos” saga (and which was omitted from the recent collections because John Wagner didn’t write it!) Dredd learns that the cadets have a nickname for him. They call him “the Statue of Judgement” – a reference to Mega-City One’s giant statue of a Judge that towers over the Statue of Liberty – because when it comes to the law, he’s utterly immovable.
I have to say I was pretty pleased with myself for coming up with that nickname, but, of course, by the end of “Day of Chaos” the Statue of Judgement has been brought crashing down. And most of the cadets are dead, too… So much for me trying to invent the Judge Dredd equivalent of Batman’s nickname “The Dark Knight”!
Judge Dolman appears in a lot of your stories. Is that coincidental or is he a character that interests you?
Definitely the latter! Dolman’s another Dredd clone, like Rico Dredd and Judge Rico, albeit one who’s a lot younger and quit the Academy before he graduated. He only appeared in two stories before I got my hands on him, but I loved the idea of a Dredd clone who isn’t a Judge. When I was developing my post-Chaos tales I wanted to bring the Space Marines back to help defend the city, and as Dolman was already in space I had the chance to bring him home. And because Dredd’s universe is related in real-time (a year in real life is a year in Dredd’s stories – there’s no rebooting of continuity here, folks!), I knew that by now Dolman would be an adult.
There’s a line in “The Forsaken” where another character refers to Dolman as “Dredd’s sidekick” and in some ways that’s quite accurate. I’d like to take Dolman off on his own Dredd-free adventures, but John Wagner created him so he’s not really mine to play with. Hmm… Maybe I can persuade John to give me sole custody of Dolman!
Which of your Dredd stories are you most proud of?
That’s a tough one…! I like all of them as I’m writing them, of course – I wouldn’t write them if I didn’t like the idea – so it’s only after some time has passed that I can be more objective. Looking back at my earliest stories, I can see flaws in all of them, things I could have done better. But “Caterpillars” stands up pretty well, I think, as does “Unchained.” I think that “Forsaken” is the most satisfying in some ways, because it tells six different interweaving stories. For the most part, “Wolves” works pretty well, but it’s marred by a small sub-plot that just didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, plus there was a bit of a screw-up with the way the artist, Andrew Currie, interpreted the very last panel. I’ve forgiven him for that because his artwork is just so good.
On that note, I have been extremely fortunate with the artists on Dredd. PJ Holden, Nick Percival, Bryan and Alwyn Talbot, David Roach, Leigh Gallagher, Ben Willsher… and not forgetting the legends John M. Burns and John Higgins! With Dredd there’s usually a very fast turn-around so I don’t often get to see the artwork before it appears in print, but I’ve never been disappointed!
Of my more recent tales, I really enjoyed writing “Traumatown” – especially because I was able to bring back the original Judge Joyce for a little cameo appearance.
I assume you have more stories in the pipeline. Any hints of what’s to come?
There are indeed more on the way. I can’t reveal very much at this stage, but I can tell you that I’ve got a six-parter called “Cascade” coming up, with art by Paul Marshall. I love his work so I really can’t wait to see what he does with it!
You’re going to be at San Diego Comic Con signing for 2000 AD. That must be an exciting prospect.
Yeah, that should be fun! The convention itself is enormous. There’ll be something in the region of 130,000 people attending so there’s bound to be a few Dredd fans there! Leonia and I have been to Comic-Con twice before, in 2008 and 2011, so we know what to expect: blistering heat, unbelievably long queues for the big movie panels, a relatively small number of attendees in costume who draw all the media’s attention because some folk just can’t comprehend that the vast majority fans are ordinary people, death-defying scrambles for freebies, and – just maybe, if you search very, very hard – some people selling comics.
But despite that, it’s a blast. The city itself is great and the people are extremely friendly. Plus my oldest friend lives in San Diego so we’ll be spending a lot of time catching up with him and his awesome wife.
Along with the 2000AD signings, I’ll be appearing on the 2000AD panel on Thursday afternoon with Michael Molcher, Jock, Chris Burnham and Henry Flint, and I’m moderating a panel called “Vengeance & Villains” on Friday morning that features some amazingly gifted novelists: Rachel Caine, Marie Lu, Arwen Elys Dayton, Ann Aguirre, Kiersten White, Allen Zadoff and Kimberly Derting. I am jealous of them all!
What other conventions will you be attending?
I’m lucky enough to be appearing as a Guest of Honour at this year’s European Science Fiction Convention in the DoubleTree by Hilton on Burlington Road, Dublin 2. That’s running from August 22nd to 24th and also features Jim Fitzpatrick, Seanan McGuire, Andrzej Sapkowski and Ylva Spångberg.
Then at the end of September I’ll be a guest at D.I.C.E. in Dundrum, alongside far too many great names to list here – that’s going to be a great event, if the previous D.I.C.E. cons are anything to go by!
[NOTE: I forgot to add the next question but one quick follow-up mail later…]
Forgot to ask what you thought of the Dredd movie!
I loved it! I thought the approach was absolutely perfect: it’s a cop movie. No origins, no world-engulfing threat, no superhuman baddie that the hero has to fight at the end. I loved the whole feel of the movie, from the practicality of the Judges’ uniforms to the oppressive concrete sprawl of the giant city… In Hollywood terms Dredd was a low-budget movie, but it kicked the butt of many much bigger films in terms of action and atmosphere.
Plus Karl Urban was spot-on as Dredd. Strong, resolute, unflinching, uncompromising… You could almost say he was the personification of the Statue of Judgement (I’ve not yet given up on that nickname!)