For modern readers the Greek word “apccalypse” has become synonymous with the idea of a great cataclysm, usually one that lays waste to the advanced civilization of humankind and hurls humans into the clutches of a hardscrabble existence. But formally the word means “uncovering,” with the connotation of casting aside false illusions and revealing truth.
The British comic-book series JUDGE DREDD takes its inspiration from the SF-gente of post-apocalyptic literature. This subgenre doesn’t exclusively deal with a post-nuclear cataclysm, but DREDD, conceived in 1977, follows the well-worn path of an atomic aftermath. Although DREDD is British in origin, most of the character's stories take place in a futuristic version of the United States. The American “land of plenty” has been reduced to a radioactive wasteland, inhabited by scrounging human tribes and mutated lifeforms. Amid the wasteland known as the Cursed Earth, only three mega-cities abide, protected from radioactive menaces by great domes, and in all three teeming metropolis the citizens are controlled by armed lawgivers called “Judges.” The titular Judge Dredd is one of the toughest of this tough breed, and his adventures in Mega-City One—a science-fictional version of New York City—are often tinged with irony and satire. While some of Dredd’s antagonists include monsters and career criminals, often he’s in the position of a gun-toting babysitter, constantly curbing the irrational behavior of the citizens.
The five-part serial “Judge Dredd brings Law to the Cursed Earth” takes Dredd out of his city, where he’s so often employed in enforcing draconian rules, and into the land of no law. Though Dredd himself believes in the law as an absolute—and even speaks of himself as an incarnation of it, as in his catchphrase “I am the Law”—his mission “uncovers” some interesting aspects of humanity, at once ape and angel.
Dredd learns that Mega-City Two on the West Coast desperately needs a vaccine in order to stave off a plague that transforms its human victims into cannibal zombies who cry out for “forbidden fruit,” i..e., human flesh. Lacking flight-machines, Dredd and his fellow Judges can only traverse the distance overland, using in part a huge armored transport-vehicle called the Killdozer. Yet technology isn’t all the hero needs for his quest; he needs to fight chaos with one of its own lawless agents.
With his usual “gentle persuasion,” Dredd coerces a long-time petty criminal, Spikes Harvey Rotten, to go along on the mission-- reason being that Spikes is “the best biker in the business,” having honed his skills running guns to mutant tribes. Spikes’s last name is implicitly a tip of the hat to Britain’s punk movement, exemplified by singer Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and the artists on the Dredd serial draw Spikes to reflect the familiar image of the disrespectful punk. But even though Spikes hates judges as much as Dredd hates criminals, the two of them prove to be a good team as they cross the perilous badlands.
Religious tropes are a familiar aspect of post-apocalyptic stories.The name "Cursed Earth" may have been conceived with a mind to the Bible's association between the earth and the curse placed by God upon the murderer Cain, familiar from the King James translation of Genesis 4:10:
Cain is not specifically invoked in the saga, but the Cursed Earth is without question a land overrun by wandering tribes of malefactors, though to be sure the judge does encounter a few pockets of human goodness. References to Biblical and other mythic materials appear throughout this serial, Dredd and Spikes contend with (1) a fanatical, Moses-like lawgiver who condemns transgressors in his tribe to be eaten by rats, (2) robots who suck blood from human victims in order to keep alive the last President of the United States, (3) a tribe of killer mutants, one of whom is significantly named “Brother Gomorrah,” and (4) a genetically engineered tyrannosaurus named Satanus. The malevolent dinosaur, in fact, proved so popular with readers that he became a recurring foe for the righteous judge. Arguably Satanus might have better named “Grendel,” for in his backstory the predacious dinosaurwas spawned by a “hag-mother” rather reminscent of the nameless mother of Beowulf's monstrous enemy. However, Satanus went further than Grendel, for in his original incarnation the tyrannosaurus attempts to murder his dam. She kills him instead, and he's only revived in his genetically engineered form by the folly of futuristic scientists.
As I said before, Spikes actually proves a decent partner to Dredd, choosing to support the judge at times when the punk might've run off and left Dredd to his own devices. There's never a sense that Spikes does so because his baser instincts have been ennobled by his mission, and his criminal nature comes forth when he and Dredd find themselves taking on a new ally, an anteater-like alien creature named “Tweak.” Tweak is an intelligent creature who sacrificed himself for his people, pretending to be a dumb animal in order to deceive space-faring humans and to prevent them from plundering his homeworld. Spikes hears Tweak relate his earns at least some of the Tweak’s tragic story, but when the punk learns of the riches of the alien’s world, he cares about nothing but finding some way to harvest those riches for himself.
Tweak, both telepathic and precognitive, foresees that Spikes is doomed to die during the voyage, and allows the punk to think that he gains access to the planet’s mineral rights. As a result, Spikes dies in defense of the mission, though his true motivation is pecuniary, so he can prove that he’s “not just a punk.” It's a mark of the ambivalence of the Pat Mills/John Wagner that Spikes' death takes on a heroic aura, even though his ambition is to exploit a planet full of innocent creatures.
Only Dredd and Tweak make it all the way to Mega-City Two with the life-saving vaccine. Yet in the last stretch of the arduous journey, the Judge undergoes hallucinations in which he thinks he’s being attacked by all the denizens of the wasteland. He shoots at the mirage-figures, declaring that, “I’ve beaten all of you! I’ve beaten the Cursed Earth!” Still, though he succeeds in his mission, and even manages to send Tweak back to his planet, Dredd’s concluding thought is:
Return to Mega-City One and maybe a little peace and quiet. But whatever’s waiting for me there, it can’t be as bad as—the Cursed Earth!
It’s something of a reluctant salute to a worthy enemy, and perhaps an acknowledgement that the forces of law and order can never totally defeat the forces of chaos—much less, as the title declares, “bring law” into the wasteland that mirrors the lawlessness of human ambition.