Oh man, how great was Dredd? Remember how Karl Urban never took off the helmet? No origin story, just a straight, grim, violent, Dredd-ful sequence of events that blew your synapses wide open like a shot of hi-ex? *Chris Farley voice* That was awesome. If you’re one of the few who have yet to watch it, stop reading immediately and go check out why it developed into the cult-hit beloved by so many. If you did see it, high-five! And then rejoice to know that 2000AD, the trusted caretakers of all things Dredd, have released Dredd: Urban Warfare, a collection of three stories set in the movie universe that greatly expand and enrich the world so ferociously introduced back in 2012. Taking its cues from the traditional Judge Dredd thematic commentary on social class oppression and authoritarian force, Urban Warfare decisively earns its badge as an authentically gritty and compelling Dredd tale while making sure to develop the character of the mammoth city itself.
First up is Top of the World, Ma-Ma, an origin of sorts for the film’s villainess and playfully titled to reflect the events of that film. Uh…spoiler warning for a three year-old film, I guess? Written by Matt Smith with artist Henry Flint and Chris Blythe on colors, it is, unsurprisingly, a dark and tragic tale of how Ma-Ma would become the twisted, powerful drug-lord she would come to be. Despite its future-setting, it’s a depressingly timeless account of an individual from the lower rungs of society trapped by her circumstances, unable to break the bonds of oppression from her pimp or from society at large. Ma-Ma here isn’t the manipulative, forceful narcotic matriarch we’ll all come to know, but rather a prostitute with plenty of flaws that hopes for a better life via the only means she believes can set her free from the gutter that life has thus far dictated is her destiny. Smith opts for third-person narration boxes to lay the near-noir mood on knowingly thick and to reinforce the age-old dialogue of the haves vs. the have-nots while developing the vicious rationale Ma-Ma will use to begin her transformation from the controlled to the controller. Dredd is a window dressing in this story, a looming background figure embodying the status-quo while Smith let’s the harsh actions of Lester go unnoticed until Ma-Ma has already completed her metamorphosis. Flint’s heavy line and overlapping panel layouts do well to emphasize the asperous tone and Blythe’s colors are richly ominous, even if they may be overly dark in places. Top of the World, Ma-Ma is a tightly executed affair and one that fans of the film will find enriching more than excessive, but it is appropriately bleak as all get out and serves as a black mirror that reflects the unfortunately familiar nether many recognize in our own, less caustic world.
From prequel to sequel, Underbelly by Arthur Wyatt and returning art team Flint and Blythe takes place after the events of the film. It’s largely focused on a human trafficking scheme (okay, mutant trafficking scheme) that’s involved with the development of pysch, an extremely potent and dangers successor to the drug slo-mo from the film. Most striking are the visuals as Flint and Blythe seemingly create a whole new genre best described as cyber-dank with radioactive mist colors of orange and green lingering over the massive oppressive futuristic block structures of Mega-City one illuminated with electric blue hues. There is a two-page splash of a labyrinthine warehouse filled with judges and lawless drug enforces complete with teleprompter-like panel close-ups that is jaw-droppingly fun to get lost in. Dredd takes a much more central role into the investigation of how a pile of dead mutants relates to the newest drug to hit the streets and he’s his usual, stoic self pitted against a fun duo of scum dubbed “beauty and the beast.” Wyatt crafts a fun action procedural complete with depressingly direct speech (that’s a compliment, even if it does sound like one) and he clearly has a great grasp on Anderson and her role as the audience’s more optimistic, humanist voice in a world sadly too far gone. Packed with jagged, relentless visuals (Flint’s panels fly about like broken fun-house mirrors) and eerily contrasting colors, Underbelly asks if the concept of justice is truly possible when the scales have fallen so far off their pivot point.