The Tek-Judges of Anubis (The Last War in Albion Part 27: Judge Dredd, Ro-Busters)

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This is the third of ten parts of Chapter Five of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Future Shocks for 2000 AD from 1980 to 1983. An ebook omnibus of all ten parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation

Most of the comics discussed in this chapter are collected in The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: After successfully launching Battle Picture Weekly and the controversial Action for IPC, Pat Mills and John Wagner were given the task of launching a sci-fi comic, which they called 2000 AD. The comic's flagship was the iconic Judge Dredd, featuring hard-edged futuristic cop Judge Dredd patrolling the mad streets of Mega City One.

"The Tek-Judges of Anubis have eaten a poison-weed and they shall die soon." - Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, Judge Dredd: Book of the Dead

Figure 200: Judge Dredd is largely unreceptive
to requests for leniency or mercy. (Written by
Malcolm Shaw, art by Mike McMahon, 2000
AD
#6, 1977, click to enlarge)
But the heart of the strip’s appeal came in its combination of the anti-authority leanings of Kid Rule OK or Look Out For Lefty with the noble bad guy protagonist of Hellman of Hammer Force. Judge Dredd takes for granted that its audience would recognize that its protagonist was deeply unsympathetic. The standard set-up of a Judge Dredd story involves Dredd going to great lengths to bust some “creep” whose crime seems relatively minor. Even if there is a proper villain, it’s not uncommon for a Judge Dredd strip to end with some minor accomplice getting arrested by Dredd, who inevitably rejects any pleas for mercy. An early story, for instance, ends with Dredd arresting a man for receiving an illegal but presumably life-saving organ transplant, proclaiming him to be one of “the real villains” in the illegal transplant ring he’s busting. 

The strip, in other words, is an aggressive satire of what would become known as the broken windows theory of policing, in which focusing on small crimes against the social order - vandalism being the textbook example - was believed to reduce crime in general. In practice, of course, broken window policing became an excuse for police forces to focus on petty crime committed by poorer people, and was little more than an excuse for neoliberal crypto-fascists like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to arrest more racial minorities. Dredd predates both Thatcher’s Britain, which came into power in 1979, and the broken windows theory, first codified in 1982, but this only added to its power. It meant that when Thatcherism rose to power the artistic resistance to it was already worked out and ready.

Figure 201: Like Figure 97, this Brian Bolland
cover of 2000 AD #11 caught a young Alan
Moore's eye.
It’s unsurprising, then, that when Alan Moore encountered Prog 11 on a newsstand, he fell in love. Initially, at least, he was drawn in by the cover - a Brian Bolland number featuring the villain from that week’s Dan Dare. Bolland - who would go on to find acclaim as an interior artist, primarily on Judge Dredd - combines meticulous, clean linework with incredible depth in its shading with a flair for the grotesque that can render even the most outlandish of visual concepts in intricate and captivating detail. His cover to Prog 11 is further boosted by a heavy use of reds, oranges, and yellows, and a satisfyingly pulpy speech balloon as the ashen, red-eyed man on the cover proclaims, “Follow me into the sun… you will share the death of a Martian warrior!” 

But this was May of 1977, and Moore, sci-fi fan that he might be, was twenty-four and rather old to be drawn in just by lurid sci-fi pulpiness. This was the year after he’d been writing the avant-garde play Another Suburban Romance, and after he’d sent his fan letter in to Bill Griffiths at Arcade. The sorts of things that appealed to him weren’t just violence and cool imagery. Indeed, Moore describes the appeal of the magazine to his twenty-four year old self in terms of the “really funny, cynical writers working on 2000 AD at the time,” and how he 
Figure 202: Ian Gibson's Jack Kirby pastiche from
the explosive finale of Robot Wars (Written by
John Wagner, 2000 AD #17, 1977)
“thought these people were intelligent” due to the “satirical stuff” in the magazine. In Prog 11, at least, it’s fairly clear what strip he would have been talking about, and, unsurprisingly, it’s Judge Dredd, which was in the midst of its first multi-part story, The Robot Wars

The Robot Wars concerns a robot uprising in Mega-City One and Judge Dredd’s actions in stopping the uprising. It is a self-consciously over-the-top affair, with lots of gratuitous violence, but all of it stylized - the strip doesn’t even try to pretend that the robots are there for anything other than letting them get away with the sort of violence that got Action cancelled. But this time it’s couched in a cartoonish, openly silly aesthetic of big, humorously named robots. The story culminates with an installment drawn by Ian Gibson, whose sketchy, slightly cartoonish style morphs into a dead-on Jack Kirby parody for the dramatic finale, as Dredd and the robot messiah Call-Me-Kenneth have a showdown on an aerial oil tanker. It’s a big, frothy cops-and-robbers spectacular with robot criminals and sci-fi cops.

Figure 203: Prior to the start of Robot Wars,
Judge Dredd made the moral legitimacy of
a robot rebellion unequivocal (Written by
John Wagner, art by Ron Turner, 2000 AD
#9, 1977)
Except that the script makes no effort to hide the underlying ethics. The issue before the war kicks off is a story that opens with a robot named George begging for his life, pleading his master not to order him to set himself on fire and melt. His master does not relent, ordering him to kill himself, and we watch as the robot weeps and burns to death as a crowd of onlookers watch the marketing demo of this new vintage of “K Series Robots,” which “are almost human. They think, they feel… but the obey!” Having shown this grotesque horror, the entire story line that follows is about Judge Dredd trying to stop these robots from rebelling against these conditions. Call-Me-Kenneth is, in this regard, a troubling figure. Like any good villain, his demands are totally sensible - he does not want to be a slave. He inspires other robots to overthrow their enslavers. Yes, they do so violently, but given the horrors imposed on them, even this seems wholly reasonable. Tellingly, Call-Me-Kenneth is said to have been a carpenter robot - which is to say, he is explicitly positioned as a robotic equivalent of what William Blake describes as “Jesus our Lord, who is the God of Fire and Lord of Love to whom the Ancients look’d and saw his day afar off, with trembling and amazement.”

Figure 204: Rioters burning down Newgate Prison in the 1780 Gordon
Riots.
Blake, for his part, loved a good riot, or at least did in his youth. A lifelong political radical (though his politics were, in the end, ensnared in the same labyrinth of visions as the rest of his genius), at the age of twenty-two he found himself swept up in the 1780 Gordon riots, in which a bit of anti-Catholicism stirred up by Lord George Gordon marched en masse upon Parliament to protest a bill relieving Catholics of several long-standing penalties dating back to the Popery Act of 1698, which, among other things, placed a bounty on Catholic priests. A riot broke out, and, like any good riot, quickly spread to encompass other causes. Blake found himself swept up in a crowd and witness to the burning of Newgate Prison, in which Lord Gordon would die, jailed not for the Gordon Riots (where he was acquitted of high treason due to the effective legal defense from his cousin, Thomas, Lord Erskine, based on the argument that the form of treason Lord Gordon was accused of was not technically treason under the Treason Act 1351, a defense that saw Lord Erskine quickly become the star lawyer of London) but for defaming Marie Antoinette. In later life, Blake himself would stand trial for treason after getting into a fight with a drunken soldier, John Schofield, who Blake would go on to fantasize about being “bound in iron armour before Reuben’s Gate” in his epic Milton. And Call-Me-Kenneth largely exists in the same tradition, at least on first appearance.

Figure 205: Order is restored as the uppity robots return to
their proper place as slaves, allowing a happy ending.
(Written by John Wagner, art by Mike McMahon, from 2000
AD
#15, 1977)
Or, as Judge Dredd explains it, “we give robots the ability to think, give them human shape, and emotions. How long before they develop that other human trait - evil!” And Dredd’s position never wavers - he unhesitatingly fights the robots like they are the greatest evil ever to come to the world. And sure enough, Call-Me-Kenneth positions himself as a robotic despot, torturing and killing robots in scenes actively reminiscent of George a few issues earlier, and actively comparing himself to Hitler. Once he does that, of course, all moral nuance is gone, and the audience is free to root for Judge Dredd as he reprograms Call-Me-Kenneth’s robots so that they all begin chanting, “I am the slave of humans!” With slavery restored, the loyal robots of the world are given pleasure circuits to reward them for their servitude, and Judge Dredd is left with a funny robotic sidekick named Walter in the style of Doctor Who’s robotic dog K-9.

Figure 206: William Blake reveals the
Proverbs of Hell (The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell
 Copy H, Object 10,
1790)
The strip makes zero effort to have a coherent morality - by any reasonable standard the audience should be on the side of the robots, but the strip never once allows for the possibility that the robots might have anything resembling a point. The revelation that Call-Me-Kenneth is a Hitler-esque despot is totally extraneous to the plot, shoved in to create a vague moral justification, but the entire point of the strip is to call the reader’s attention to that fact, bringing them in on the joke. “OK, you got Action canned because it was full of violent working class fantasies,” the strip says, “so we’ll write violent fantasies you like instead.” Or, as William Blake put it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

So it is hardly a surprise that such a bleakly multi-layered satire would appeal to Moore. Or to anyone else - 2000 AD was a runaway success, with Judge Dredd quickly establishing itself as its star strip. And so when Moore devoted himself to a comics career, his initial plan - the never started Sun Dodgers - was imagined as a pitch to 2000 AD. Once he turned to scripting he took steps to land this dream assignment again, but was advised by Steve Moore to start with a smaller script, and so he produced a short Judge Dredd script, which his friend helped him look over, and which he then sent to IPC. Alan Grant, then a sub-editor, thought it showed promise, but politely explained that Judge Dredd was John Wagner’s baby (“Which I should have realized,” Moore notes in hindsight) and that Moore might try his hand at a different type of script.

Figure 207: 2000 AD editor Tharg the Mighty,
shortly after giving his script, art, and lettering
robots credit for their drudgery in Prog 36.
But this narrative, oft-reported as it is, does not quite hold together. For one thing, this submission would have been in late 1979/early 1980, at which point John Wagner had several gaps in his streak of writing the character, including the massive Cursed Earth epic written by Pat Mills, and Jack Adrian was doing semi-regular fill-ins on the character. Moore would have known this, because in 1977, in Prog 36, 2000 AD took the largely unprecedented step of giving its writers and artists credits, albeit with the humorous conceit that they were not people but “script robots” and “art robots” working under the lash of fictitious extraterrestrial editor Tharg the Mighty. And so Moore had every reason to think Judge Dredd might be a strip he could write. Certainly if it was as out of the question as Grant’s account suggests, one wonders why Steve Moore, who mentored Moore on the script, did not mention to his protege that his script had no chance whatsoever of being published.

To some extent the reason is simply that the script, “Something Nasty in Mega-City One” (Moore specifies that “if possible, the word “NASTY” should look as if it has been sculpted from decomposing flesh… vile, worm-infested, and just about to crawl off the page and into the readers [sic] lap.”), isn’t all that good. It’s a competent piece of setup for a presumably multi-part story about Judge Dredd fighting an alien monster, but it has none of the satirical bite that Moore so admired in Judge Dredd. But neither did every Judge Dredd story, so this isn’t disqualifying as such. The truth, one suspects, is not so much that Grant wouldn’t consider another freelancer on Judge Dredd as that Grant wasn’t going to put this particular promising face onto the magazine’s flagship strip for his first go at things. And Moore’s script, while good, is not so good as to make that an at all difficult to understand decision. 

After all, there was loads else in 2000 AD. Judge Dredd may have been the magazine’s flagship product, but over the years it was joined by other classic strips. 2000 AD was a weekly comic, and thus existed on the slippery tightrope of perpetual deadlines. Strips that didn’t seem popular were ruthlessly culled, and new ones sprung up regularly to replace them. The nature of the industry, particularly under IPC, was that entire magazines went under regularly, and when one was popular there were always a rush of clones. When these clones faltered they were summarily chopped, typically by merging them into a more popular title, which would print a few installments of the cancelled title’s most popular strips under a joint masthead before quietly axing them and the cancelled magazine’s space in the title. 2000 AD was involved in this twice over the years, as both Starlord and Tornado were merged into it.

Figure 208: The original inspiration for Nemesis the Warlock
Starlord actually ended up being the source of some of the other major and famous strips in 2000 AD. Both Strontium Dog, another strip featuring a nomadic loner, and the Ro-Busters, a robotic rescue squad bearing more than a slight resemblance to Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds franchise. Ro-Busters later spun off the ABC Warriors, which had design work from Kevin O’Neill, who would in turn go on to create Nemesis the Warlock with Pat Mills, which provided a major stepping stone for Bryan Talbot’s career when he succeeded the punishingly slow O’Neill on art duties. (Nemesis, idiosyncratically, is a spin-off of the Jam’s song “Going Underground,” which 2000 AD used as the pilot of an aborted series called Comic Rock that loosely adapted pop songs as comic stories.) Other stand-out strips included Rogue Trooper, originally by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, which told the story of a genetically modified soldier who carried with him the minds of his three fallen comrades Gunnar, Bagman, and Helm, who lived in chips mounted, fittingly, on his gun, backpack, and helmet, and Sláine, a sword-and-sorcery gorefest created by Pat Mills and his then-wife Angela Kincaid, which provided a breakthrough opportunity for Preacher cover artist Glenn Fabry. These were supplemented by a wealth of short-run stories both classic and deservedly obscure. 

Figure 209: Bax the Burner reacts badly to the concept of
being told not to do things. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Dillon, 2000 AD Annual 1982, 1981)
Moore wrote for several of these, albeit not in the pages of 2000 AD itself. He wrote Ro-Busters tales in the 1982, 83, and 84 2000 AD annuals (all published in December of the year before, the annual being designed as a Christmas present), Rogue Trooper in the 1983 and 84 ones, and ABC Warriors in the 1985 annual. He acquitted himself well in all cases. His first such story, the Ro-Busters story “Bax the Burner,” is a decent story about an abusive mutant boyfriend, which Moore, in a very early interview, took special pride in, noting that it “was the only one in which I’ve hung the plot around a strong emotional content and not had the whole thing come off as being incredibly trite and sentimental,” which is a fair self-assessment. His subsequent two Ro-Busters strips were more humorous - one in which the robot Hammerstein accidentally reverts to his ABC Warriors-era persona and starts smashing things, and another in which the Ro-Busters go up against the Stormeagles, an even less thinly veiled ripoff of Thunderbirds. [continued]

Comments

Theonlyspiral 3 years, 7 months ago

I don't have anything substantive to add really, but I do have a question: have you altered your writing style on the last few Albion entries? I'm finding much more approachable than previously. Of course that could be that we're on Moore rather than Morrison.

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Mark Pontin 3 years, 7 months ago

You aren't receiving sufficient response to this project, I fear.

Still, I find it the most worthwhile project you do and appreciate it. I hope that the long-term view -- when it reaches completion in book-form -- will bear that out.

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