Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Volume 1 is the first installment of the adventures of comic books ultimate lawman. The satirical British comic debuted in the late Seventies and has been continuing in real time ever since, making our resident antihero roughly eighty-four in 2022. The comic took a deadpan view of the militarization of the police, police brutality, the enshrinement of the law as infallible, and overly violent views of criminals to make a hilarious send up of changing trends. Almost fifty years later, the humor is somewhat spotty because quite a few people hold these views unironically.
Indeed, Judge Dredd’s earliest adventures remain somewhat spotty with the creators having a long way to go until they reach the iconic status they will eventually reach across the pond. In simple terms, the first volume of Judge Dredd’s cases are more the Sylvester Stallone version than the Karl Urban one. It can’t quite agree on what its tone is meant to be: bleakly dystopian, blackly humorous, over-the-top ridiculous, excitingly action-filled, or surrealist. Sometimes the blending works well and other times it doesn’t work at all.
The Judge Joe Dredd of the comics generally is close enough to being the square-jawed hero of other comics that he’s not quite as nuanced or deep a character as he will eventually become. He’s not quite brutal enough to be a complete parody and he’s not quite good enough to be a straight protagonist. Generally, each strip consists of Judge Dredd dealing with some horrible mutant, robot, or street gang criminals in some violent manner then delivers a somewhat stock aesop at the end which is just off enough to not be taken seriously but close enough to real PSAs to be funny.
Ironically, the best strips of Judge Dredd’s first cases are the ones that completely serious. Judge Dredd giving an examination to a rookie judge that must sacrifice his family to become a “true” judge, Dredd confronting a crooked judge that he was friends with from his days at the academy in a duel, and his immortal confrontation with his “brother” Rico are probably the best strips in the collection. These are the strips that are, of course, the ones closest to the later interpretation of the character. They realize Mega City One is inherently funny and satirical enough on its own that it doesn’t try too hard. It also allows the characters to be realistic enough that we can care about their motivations.
The worst strips in the comic are probably the ones from the Call me Kenneth arc where Judge Dredd spends the entirety of his struggle against a murderous robot rampage. Kenneth is a one-dimensional robot Hitler (even called that at one point) who leads a robot uprising before turning against the machines himself. This later results in the creation of an anti-robot KKK called the Neon Knights that is so offensive and stupid it almost becomes hilarious. Accent on almost. It also introduces the baby-voiced robot Walter that is the Jar Jar Binks of Judge Dredd history.
Somewhere in the middle is the extensive Lunar arc where Judge Dredd is assigned to be the marshal of the moon where the entire thing becomes a parody of Westerns. It’s not so much bad as inexplicable since the strip going from proto-cyberpunk to saloons and gunfights on Luna is so bizarre that it defies description. It does at least have the interesting coda where Judge Dredd returns home, refuses to arrest any criminals he passes, and waits until he’s officially reinstated to begin once more cleansing the city of evil.
Anyway, I would recommend people start with one of the other stories as their first Judge Dredd tale. These are okay tales but nothing exceptional in terms of introducing someone to Mega City One and its chief enforcer.