David Bishop: Dredd Dystopias

David Bishop is a writer of novels, screenplays, graphic novels and non-fiction. A former editor of British science fiction anthology 2000AD, he is the co-writer of that comic’s unfiltered history, Thrill-Power Overload: 2000AD – The First Forty Years. He teaches on the genre-focused Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University, including the world’s first postgraduate module on writing the scripts for comics and graphic novels.

At first glance, there might seem little to link Cumbernauld with the future-shocked world of British comics character Judge Dredd.

One is a Scottish New Town, created in the 1950s as a home for Glasgow’s overspilling population; the other is Mega-City One, a fictional 22nd century American metropolis where Dredd and his fellow Judges dispense instant justice.

But two words capture the essence of this unlikely pairing: utopia and dystopia.

Utopia is an imagined place or state in which everything is perfect. The term was first published 501 years ago in a book by Thomas More about people on an island sharing a common culture and way of life. Academics still debate if More sought to outline a better way of life, or satirise the chaos of European politics (some things never change).

As Diane M Watters’ excellent post elsewhere on this blog makes clear, the designers of Cumbernauld had a utopian vision for the New Town, creating the first large-scale realisation of an intensely planned urban settlement. People from across the different cultures of Glasgow were housed side-by-side to forge a socially democratic ethos. The Town Centre brought together the most important functions in a single mega-structure.

The world of Dredd fulfils all those same functions, despite being set 122 years in our future. Mega-City One comprises thousands of citi-blocks, each single mega-structure home to 60,000 people (coincidentally, the population of Cumbernauld). People can be born, live their whole life and die without leaving the block. In the opening pages of America, the title character’s father names his new girl after the land of the free, believing she will have prospects in the Big Meg. She is born in hope, with a dream in her heart.

So far, so utopian – but the prevailing popular narrative about Cumbernauld and the fiction of Judge Dredd tells another story, one far closer to dystopia – the state in which everything is seen as unpleasant or bad, often a totalitarian or environmentally degraded place.

In John Wagner & Colin MacNeil’s graphic novel, America grows up in the aptly named Fred Nietzsche Block, and soon discovers the land of opportunity and hope her father dreamed of is long gone. In its place stands a police state of constant surveillance and control, where the price of justice is sacrificing your freedom. This stark reality drives America to become a pro-democracy activist, fighting for people’s right to live as they wish.

By the 1990s Scotland’s award-winning example of post-war architecture and planning was reviled in the media, the recipient of prizes for being a blot on the landscape. Even now, Cumbernauld gets lazily portrayed as a concrete and steel carbuncle; a failed utopia.

But depiction and reality are two different things. Despite its reputation, Cumbernauld was recognised by the Beautiful Scotland Awards in 2015 (Best Small City category), and won an environmental award the same year. It is home to Irn Bru, and studio stages used for the hugely popular TV fantasy series Outlander. Cumbernauld may not be everyone’s idea of utopia, but it is far from being the dystopia perceived by some outsiders.

Mega-City One is a far darker, grimmer place to live, as Judge Dredd: America shows. When the citizens are given a vote, the Judges granting them a chance to change things, many don’t bother to participate and the majority of those that do opt for the status quo.

Let’s hope the people of Cumbernauld and everywhere else take the chance to make their voices heard. The world of Judge Dredd shows what can happen if you don’t…

David leads a discussion of Judge Dredd: America at Castle Comics on Saturday May 20 at 12 noon.

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