Judge Dredd: Year One – “City Fathers”

Written by: Matthew Smith
Published by: Abaddon Books

Synopsis: The brutal murder of a Justice Department-sanctioned spy sparks an investigation that will see Dredd trawl the criminal underworld in the hunt for the killer – and he will discover that all is not what it seems in the sector’s murky black market. Something new has entered the system, and unless Dredd can stop it, chaos will be unleashed…

When readers were first introduced to Judge Dredd way back in 2000AD’s second Prog, the character we met was already a hardened veteran of the streets with twenty years of active duty underneath his belt. We never saw the character’s evolution from rookie cadet to full-eagle Judge, apart from in a few flashback sequences here and there. Skipping over his “origins” helped firmly establish Dredd as the law, unflinching and uncompromising – far removed from any doubt and inexperience of his youth.

While several stories have explored Dredd’s origins as a cadet and his initial years as a street judge, there remains plenty of opportunity for writers to explore a less-experienced version of the character. The Judge Dredd series running in 2000AD has always focused on the here-and-now, only utilising flashbacks when necessary, but otherwise propelling the series’ mythology forward in real-time, so it makes sense that Rebellion would make use of alternative media to explore Dredd’s early days.

Testing audience reaction to an “untold tales” series of stories, Rebellion chose to release its Judge Dredd: Year One novellas as ebooks, available only on a digital platform. Not only does this show the companies awareness and willingness to embrace emerging technologies, but it removed the cost of a print run until the series could be established. Once three ‘Year One’ stories were collected, Rebellion printed a paperback omnibus under its Abaddon Books imprint. The company also made use of high-profile writers who had worked on the comic strip, further establishing the stories as canon and “must-read” additions to the Dredd universe.

Matthew Smith, better known to 2000AD readers as the current incarnation of Tharg, showcases his encyclopedic knowledge of Dredd’s world with this wonderfully-written crime thriller. Eschewing some of the more flamboyant elements of Mega City-One, Smith writes a gritty murder-mystery that showcases Dredd’s detective skills over his ability to crack skulls with a daystick, although there is plenty of action in this adventure too! Smith absolutely nails the slow-boil investigative procedural elements of the Judges, echoing John Wagner’s own work on the character in stories such as “The Pit” and “Block Judge”. Despite the brevity of this novella, there are plenty of twists and turns to the narrative and it never feels rushed – in fact, it feels perfectly paced throughout.

Given the timeline for this story, Smith gets to play with one of the seldom explored elements of the Judge Dredd universe: Rico Dredd. Considering the dramatic impact that Dredd’s corrupt clone-brother has had on the character over the years, he hasn’t been featured in the series itself all that often. Debuted and then promptly killed off in the “The Return of Rico” storyline from Prog 30, Rico Dredd has made a handful of posthumous appearances through flashbacks, alternate realities and perhaps most famously, the 1995 Judge Dredd movie. Here, Smith features the character while he is on his road towards total corruption and the awkward confrontation between Joe and Rico stands out as the highlight of the novella. It’s great to see this relationship explored more in-depth than ever before and Smith handles the emotional fall-out of this conversation perfectly as Dredd is torn between his loyalty to the law and his clone-brother. Knowing the eventual outcome makes this encounter between the two brothers even more bittersweet for long-time fans of the series.

In tackling a Judge Dredd: Year One story, Smith has the challenge of showcasing an inexperienced version of a character who is defined by his self-assuredness and commitment to the Law. Too much doubt and insecurity over his role as a Judge and the story runs the risk of contradicting the core tenets of the character as we know him in the present, yet there must be a subtle difference between this ‘Year One Dredd’ and the one we first meet in Prog 2. I’m glad to say that Smith manages to achieve this distinction, largely through the way that the other Judges and citizens perceive Dredd instead of how he perceives himself. There some great moments where we get a glimpse at the emotions from beneath the Judge’s helmet, but nothing that diverts from Dredd’s long-established personality.

Bite-sized, yet full of excitement, this novella is vital reading for long-time fans of Judge Dredd character. In fact, given its ‘Year One’ setting, it is also a great read for those relatively new to the series too. Matthew Smith proves himself to be more-than adept at crafting a tense thriller with an emotional core that comes out of nowhere and pulls the rug out from under the reader. This story proves that there are plenty of interesting stories for writers to mine out from Dredd’s early days, and the effectiveness of the novella format for telling a meaty tale of action and intrigue. “City Fathers” is a strong start to the ‘Year One’ series, and definitely worth reading if you want to see a fresh take on the Judge Dredd character, all these years after his debut…

Score – ★★★★

Judge Dredd: Year One – “City Fathers” is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in paperback format alongside two other adventures as the Judge Dredd: Year One Omnibus, also available on Amazon.

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