As ever there’s going to be spoilers at the end of this piece – very real spoilers which you will not want to read if you plan on reading Judge Dredd’s “Oz” story at some point. Turn back now or face the ultimate punishment!!

Volume 11 of Judge Dredd’s Complete Case Files features several stories where we see the awareness that the Judge department have of the media, showing them to have a savvy understanding of their own brand and a sharp ability to mould the popular opinion into whatever works best for them. In “Reasons to be Fearful”, we see them broadcast psychic nightmares into the head of a vocal critic, tricking him into changing his views in order to stop getting horrific visions. Then, in “Revolution”, we see them undermine a protest march, taking out the organisers in legal ways, planting undercover judges in the crowd to sow dissent, and faking violence so the Judges have ‘no option’ other than the step in and violently put the whole thing down, to cheers from the public.

Tellingly, during that story his Chief Judge tells him that Dredd should not exceed the law… however, he can write the law to suit his requirements. Obviously, of course, that’s the exact same thing as exceeding the law, but worded in the right way to make it sound appropriate. 

Which is why the final story of the volume, the 24-part “Oz”, is such a clever way to end things. The story follows a Sky Surfer called Chopper, who was imprisoned by the Judges for taking part in an illegal racing contest called Supersurf 7. Three years later, and the contest had gone legit, with Supersurf 10 taking place in Australia, now called Oz. The public are hoping that Chopper will be released so he can take part in the contest, leaving the Judges stuck between pleasing the public and upholding their law. As a third option, Chopper manages to make an unlikely escape whilst being transferred, and the story follows him as he attempts to get from Mega-City One to Oz, and subsequently take part in the contest.

So, spoilers: Chopper somehow manages to get there, in a captivating storyline which forces him and his trusty board to slowly make their way across the world, in turn giving us a look at the different cities which exist in Judge Dredd’s world. Also, unfortunately, providing us with some massively stereotyped and somewhat-offensive takes on what the survivors in countries like Mexico and Australia are like now. After 24 weeks of storytelling, we finally get to it: Chopper versus the reigning world champion, in the home strait, with everything on the line. Who will win? And how will Dredd – who has travelled to Oz himself, ready to re-arrest his fugitive – handle the situation?

Apparently that was the exact same dilemma which was bringing about a split between Dredd’s writers at the time, John Wagner and Alan Grant. Wagner was enjoying the more relatable aspects of Dredd as a person, and was going to suggest that Chopper go free. Grant, on the other hand, was pretty clear: Dredd would shoot Chopper in the back for resisting arrest. That decision seems to be the factor which broke up the Wagner/Grant team, but it’s what happens just before that makes this all such a fascinating, and appropriate, conclusion to the media-focused Case Files 11.

Because Chopper loses the race. Clean! He and his rival are neck and neck as they come up to the finish line, but Chopper only just misses out on the finish line, and has to settle for second place. Or, as the cover reminds us, a position of “loser”. There can only be one winner when it comes to Supersurf, after all. Everyone else is just a loser, and Dredd is fully aware of that fact when he strides over to Oz after the race is done, gun drawn. The creative team move back and forth between two concurrent scenes: Dredd dressing down Chopper as he prepares for his arrest, saying “you’re yesterday’s news now. Nobody’s going to give a damn what happens to you” is contrasted to one of Chopper’s fans picking up their TV and tearfully throwing it out the window, demonstrating how easily disposed-of Chopper actually is. When he was a folk hero, his story could have ended with a triumphant victory: now he’s a loser, Dredd can shoot him on live TV with no fears about repercussions.

It’s a reminder of the black-and-white Dredd we’ve seen in the past. In “Revolution” he refuses to make a public move against the protestors, instead using dirty tactics to undermine them, because he doesn’t want to be seen as the villain. But when the Chief Judge was brainwashed into a Sov Sympathiser was back in Chaos War, Dredd marched into the television studio and shot his boss right on camera. Dredd understands that a winner’s mentality is all that’s needed to keep the public onside. He would never shoot his superior officer unless he knew that it’d be seen as a winning act, with no moral shades around it. Similarly, he has the power in his confrontation with Chopper, and they both know it. The public have already given up on Chopper – literally throwing the TV out the room so they don’t even know what happens to him – and nobody is going to care anymore about his fate.

The choice to have Chopper lose the race he seemed destined to win is an incredibly clever twist in expectations. Readers have spent months invested in the character, willing him on just as the people of Mega-City One have been doing – and in the end he doesn’t have it in him to make it to the end. That not only opens him up to be arrested and shot by Dredd, but it re-emphasises how dark and unwinnable the situation is for the people of this future dystopia. Of course he was never going to win the race! The idea of winning is a concept invented to keep people in the business of hope, which is the one thing stopping them from disrupting their clearly-awful society permanently. It’s a slow-motion recreation of the American Dream, where people stay in place because they have the hope that one day they’ll be able to “make it” and live the great life they want. It’s a fable, an illusion, and the Dredd team rip it apart in front of their readers.

Now, the second choice the script takes, which doesn’t work anything like as well, is to have Wagner win the argument. Dredd hesitates in shooting his perp, which allows Chopper’s rival to intentionally bump into the lawman and give our failed hero the opportunity to escape, which he does. Dredd isn’t able to pursue his line of duty any further without causing an international incident, and so Chopper survives the story and heads off into an uncertain future. “There’s always Supersurf 11!” he thinks to himself as he heads off into the Australian desert, and whatever awaits him there. 

There’s something fascinating about seeing Dredd himself caught up in the media scrum he so cannily controls back home on Mega-City One. Demanding that the Supersurf 10 winner is arrested and that Chopper is also brought to justice is the straw which breaks the back of Oz’s Judges. They yell at him for being a stick-in-the-mud and refuse to help him, sending him packing back to America in front of the crowd and the assorted world media. “Spoilsport!” they yell after him, annoyed he’s tried to put his pursuit of the Law ahead of their pursuit of an enjoyable Supersurf contest. 

Massively satisfying, yes, but also a reminder that even Dredd has limits he has to curtail himself to. In Oz, Dredd has no authority except that offered to him by the Oz Judges – and when they get tired of him ruining things, they step right in and tell him to shove off. After a long period of time where readers have seen that Dredd is unlimited in his power, has the public in the palm of his hands, and cannot do wrong, it’s cathartic to see him sent back where he came from, a very public humiliation for his brand. 


2000AD Prog #570: “Oz” Conclusion
Script: Alan Grant and John Wagner
Art: Jim Baike
Lettering: Tom Frame


Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.


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