Dreadnoughts written by Michael Carroll and illustrated by John Higgins and Jake Lynch, is a comic strip initially published in 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Magazine, now collected into a paperback. As the name doesn’t quite suggest, it is a spin-off from Judge Dredd – but is distinct from the other dozen series set in Dredd’s universe by nature of being several decades before the birth of Joseph Dredd, in the infancy of the authoritarian Judge system. This is an expansion of material found in the now-classic 2006 Judge Dredd series Origins, by John Wagner and the late Carlos Ezquerra, and is accompanied by a series of prose novellas simply titled Judges.
Carroll in Dreadnoughts is not writing, therefore, of Mega-City One in the year 2099, but of Boulder, Colorado in the year 2035. The difference is not simply a matter of toning down the classic judge uniform and removing the golden eagle shoulder pads – though Higgins does a good job following the early Judge designs from Origins, placing them in a restrained and relatively realistic palate – no mega-blocks or neon for Boulder.
The newly-minted Judges we follow in Dreadnoughts, therefore, are struggling with a police force and a population unused to (resistant, even) the Judge system. It might be the law, but there’s plenty that don’t much care for it or its consequences. That our protagonist, Judge Glover enters Boulder by breaking up a protest with lethal force will tell you quite how popular she is likely to become. Glover is an prototypical Dredd – harsh and unlikeable, tempered by competence and an utterly unwavering willingness to enforce the law, no matter the criminal. This said, she’s less faceless than Dredd, and has a slowly unfurling backstory that makes the idea of Judges more interesting than a first glance might reveal.
This isn’t to say Dreadnoughts is utterly unlike Judge Dredd. While Dreadnoughts is less of a straightforward procedural as some Dredd storylines can be, the core of the plot involves the pursuit of a kidnapper in politically fraught circumstances. Other details, such as the unusually articulate protesters being thrown into the van post state-sponsored tutelary dentistry are right out of early Judge Dredd. There’s a few elements to the plot that reference contemporary events to some degree – but this is by no means new (compare the portrayals of President Booth in 2006’s Origins and 2017’s The Fall of Deadworld, for instance).
Dreadnoughts suffers a little from being a prequel. Its proximity to the present day makes the reader ask himself how the dickens the United States goes from what we read in the broadsheets to managing to pass such sweeping constitutional changes with bipartisan support. The sketches in Origins don’t quite suffice. But, as Carroll rightly observes in the introduction, Dreadnoughts may be best regarded as a horror story, and asking what chemicals Dr Jekyll has in his dispensary or how many hitpoints Cthulhu has are pointless endeavours.
Patches of thinness aside, Dreadnoughts is an intriguing and harrowing read, and merits three stars at the very least.
Read Dreadnoughts by Michael Carroll, John Higgins and Jake Lynch