Judge Dredd's Mega-City One

12/09/2012 15:54 BST | Updated 11/11/2012 10:12 GMT

As a futuristic action movie, Dredd is focused, brilliantly crafted, utlraviolent - in short, a relief for fans who have had to live with the memory of Sylvester Stallone's gold codpiece.

This costume faux pass has become one of the more memorable images of the lamentable atrocity that is the 1995 film Judge Dredd, which at last has been displaced in mainstream culture by a new envisioning. However, despite the overall success of the film (see Jay Cowle's review) it is still offers only the merest glimpse of a vivid and extensive world created over a period of 35 years.

The character of Judge Dredd has featured in the weekly science fiction comic 2000AD since its second issue in 1977. His appearance has stayed consistent, despite the stylistic variations created by many different artists over the years. His face is mostly covered by a helmet, but what we can see, an improbably stern mouth and rigidly set chin, may as well be carved in stone.

These severe features carry upon their visible surface all of the interior qualities of the man. A character with little psychological depth, Dredd is a long way from the model of American comic hero that Stan Lee created for Marvel in the 1960s. There is no weakness, he doesn't worry about paying the rent, or looking after his elderly aunt. Instead, readers find themselves immersed and invested in the world in which the stories are set: Mega-City One, a walled state occupying the entire East Coast of the former USA, surrounded by a radioactive wasteland.

It was Carlos Ezquerra, co-creator of Judge Dredd along with writer John Wagner and founding 2000AD editor Pat Mills, who first defined the architectural possibilities of Mega-City One. While the initial idea was for a story set in a near-future New York, Ezquerra's images clearly suggested that there was more temporal distance than had at first been imagined. (The setting was changed from the early 21st century to 2099. The city ages in real time, so it is now 2134.) Ezquerra drew Dredd riding along a curved road in the air, behind him a vast, narrow, almost organic building seems to sprout upwards, a techno-Art Nouveau of Ezquerra's invention, echoed in the other, equally tall irregular towers that populate the cityscape.

This initial visualisation was not just a reinvention of an American future through a British lens, but also a European one. As was common practice in British comics in the 1970s, artists were sought from further afield than the UK. Ezquerra was one such artist, initially sending pages from Barcelona, before taking up residency in the UK for over a decade. That the buildings have an organic, almost Art Nouveau feel, certainly corresponds to the vidid science fiction imagery found in European comics in the 1970s, especially within the pages of the French science fiction anthology Metal Hurlant. Maybe we can even see some of the material environment of Barcelona here. It is not hard to see the Casa Mila or Sagrada Familiar in some of the shapes that ascend and bloom. From this, an architecture of radical difference is constructed, which continues to develop today while still referring to Ezquerra's vision, and to the artists who followed in the late 70s and early 80s, particularly Mike McMahon. (2000AD artist D'Isreali offers an excellent history of the city's development.)

In contrast, Dredd director Peter Travis and scriptwriter Alex Garland have built a near-future metropolis, an exaggerated reconfiguration of Johannesburg, where location shooting took place. What they present us with is something far closer to the original pitch of Judge Dredd.

Visually, it works as a cinematic construction for audiences unfamiliar with this world, but the change in architectural emphasis reinforces the greatest failing of the adaptation. In the film, the city is a dystopia, defined by crime and a lack of social order. It is an urban nightmare, our present out of control as a dark future. However, the comics present us with a city that is not of our era, but one where the rules, like the buildings, create an extreme environment. The city is ruled with an iron grip by the judges.

What makes it a dystopia is not the dominance of crime, but the dominance of the law. Dredd himself is an instrument by which a dystopian society is maintained. Normally in dystopian fiction, the reader is guided by a sympathetic protagonist who doesn't fit in, who is desperate for change. In contrast, the readers who encounter Mega-City One have no one to fulfil this role. Dredd loves his city, lives for the law, and enforces it with unyielding brutality. Readers are not led by the hand, but pushed headfirst through a shattered mirror into a distorted reflection of our own world.