Original Stories Written by: John Wagner, Alan Grant & Garth Ennis
Original Stories Illustrated by: Colin MacNeil, Jeff Anderson, John Burns & John Higgins
Performed by: Joseph Fiennes, Paterson Joseph, Becca Stewart & Matthew Jacobs-Morgan
Available on: Audible
Synopsis: In Mega-City One, the Judges are the law – acting as judge, jury, and executioner. But how do the citizens really feel about a system where they are powerless? America Jara and Bennett Beeny grow up as best friends, living a fairly trouble-free life in a dangerous city…bar the odd, negative encounter with a Judge. Time draws them apart, and when they are brought back together, Beeny is a successful singer and America has become involved with a terrorist organisation known as Total War, which has the Justice Department in its sights!
America, quite rightly, is one of the most famous and oft-reprinted Judge Dredd stories and so it came as no surprise that it was one of the five stories chosen to headline 2000AD and Penguin Audio’s new range of audio dramas. Despite its ubiquity, I was very intrigued to hear the story adapted into a new medium, especially after enjoying the Doctor Who and Torchwood audio adventures over at Big Finish. As the story of America is well-known to existing Judge Dredd fans, I will focus less on the actual plot and narrative, and instead concentrate more on this specific audio production and how effective it is at conveying the same atmosphere as the original comic book format.
Rather than focusing solely on the America storyline, the audio sets the scene with a chilling adaptation of “Letter from a Democrat” (Prog 460) as Hester Hyman narrates the letter she wrote to her husband before her martyred protest against the Justice Department. It’s an effective and bold introduction to the storyline, and is summarily followed by “Revolution” (Progs 531 – 533) which shows the Judges resorting to dirty tricks to prevent a peaceful march on democracy from taking place. This is a notable moment in Dredd’s history as he bends the law to achieve Chief Judge Silver’s wishes, and as a result, it is actually uncomfortable listening to hear him threaten citizens with trumped up charges and blackmail given how he is usually portrayed as a staunch upholder of the Law.
America views the Justice System from a different perspective compared to the stories that preceded it, positioning Dredd and his fellow Judges as fascists stepping on the freedoms of the individual for the perceived security of the whole. Even now, thirty years after its initial publication in Judge Dredd Megazine, the story is even bit as relevant as it was then. Dredd is wholly unlikeable here, a stark contrast to the heroic side seen when he is tackling criminals, mutants and undead horrors from alternate dimensions. The other Judge Dredd title in this range is the sweeping epic, The Pit, and I wonder how differently he is depicted in that storyline considering that he is cleaning up corruption amongst his fellow Judges.
Joseph Fiennes’ portrayal of Judge Dredd is somewhat different to the other live-action and audio approaches to the character, and I can see it being divisive amongst audiences. He lacks the same deep gravelly voice often associated with the character (the ‘dread’ in Dredd) but after a while, I grew accustomed to his softer-spoken take on the character. There are hints of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in there (one of the original inspirations behind Dredd) and a surprisingly strong American accent underneath, which makes sense considering Mega City One is a future version of the Eastern Seaboard. Fiennes’ take on Dredd drips with contempt for the idea of democracy and he delivers some of the iconic monologues from America with style, although I found it difficult to reconcile his voice with the image of Dredd from the comics (and even the cover art of this release).
The voice actors for Bennett Beeny (Matthew Jacobs-Morgan) and America Jara (Becca Stewart) are phenomenal at conveying the heart of the story, and the sequence of the audio that adapts the actual America storyline is easily the highlight of the whole piece. Jacobs-Morgan does a fantastic job at narrating his tragic relationship with America and his guilt at ultimately betraying her and her cause. This is where the audio drama really comes into its own and helps the emotion resonate off the printed page, bringing Wagner’s words and MacNeil’s visuals to life in a whole new way. Incredibly faithful and accurate to the source material, I was surprised at how well it translated from a primarily visual medium to a solely aural one and most of that success lies at the feet of the incredible soundscaping and voice acting performances. Paterson Joseph supports the story with his smooth narration, but it is used very sparingly here, with character monologues and news reports instead serving to transition the story from scene to scene.
As mentioned, this audio drama exceeds that actual America storyline and instead encompasses the major story beats of the “Democracy Now” story-arc that ran over multiple years in both 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine, with the final half-hour of the audio focusing on the referendum to give some closure to the events of America. While it works as a narrative, it feels like a sudden jump as it skips over the events of Necropolis and The Dead Man story-arc (although they are mentioned), so Dredd’s shift from anti-democracy to endorsing the referendum doesn’t feel as natural as it does in the comics. The decision to remain faithful to the actual comics here actually disjoints the narrative and perhaps the inclusion of “A Letter to Judge Dredd” (Prog 661) would have helped explain Dredd’s change of heart. This ‘directors cut’ of America and the inclusion of earlier and later stories helps to enrich the story and give it a sense of context within the wider Judge Dredd timeline, as opposed to an isolated tragedy.
Overall, this is a brilliant reimagining of Judge Dredd: America, offering something new and different to a story that has been re-released numerous times. The audio direction is flawless, with Chris Thompson’s sound design accurately reflecting the urban sci-fi metropolis that is Mega-City One. The tone of the release was utterly authentic to the actual comics, capturing the unique blend of satire and pathos that shines through each week in 2000AD. This might be the most accurate representation of Judge Dredd’s world seen outside of the comics themselves.
A strong companion piece to the original story, and an exciting new way to experience Judge Dredd, these 2000AD and Penguin Audio adaptations have gotten off to a fantastic start and I can’t wait to listen to the other stories in the range.
Score – ★★★★
Judge Dredd: America is available as an audiobook download from Audible. If you sign up to a 30 Day Free Trial, you are entitled to download this adventure for free. The print format of Judge Dredd: America is also available from Amazon.