COMIC REVIEW: Dredd: Underbelly

Dredd-Underbelly

If you’ve spent any amount of time following this site – or listening to our podcasts – you’ll know that most of us have developed a fierce love of the 2012 Dredd movie, starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby.  You can read SilverFox’s review here, in case you missed it.  (Missed the film itself?  Damn…  It’s available on Netflix, and you can pick up the dvd/blu-ray at a very reasonable price these days.  Go! Go!)  Although the film didn’t make a bucket load of cash at the box office, it was looked upon very favourably by critics and fans alike.  Since then there have been various campaigns to try to get a sequel green-lit.  If you haven’t done it already, you can sign the official petition here, keep up to date on the Facebook page here and follow the official Twitter stream here.  The ‘Day Of Action’ campaign saw an enormous boost in digital downloads and purchases of the hard-copy movie, but that was just the beginning.  Now we have Dredd: Underbelly, a direct comic book sequel to the film.  The story follows Anderson and Dredd as they investigate connections between a mass grave of Cursed Earth mutants and a new drug hitting the streets in the wake of Ma-Ma’s fall.  This is not a piece of comic-book fan fic, but a professionally produced project.  Dredd: Underbelly has been brought to us by Arthur Wyatt (writer) and Henry Flint (artist), both regular contributors to 2000 AD.  The story was serialised in the Judge Dredd Megazine over the last three issues (340-342) and will undoubtedly be collected as a one shot comic in the near future.  Does it feel like a sequel to the film?  Yes.  Does it fill the void?  Not even close…

 

underbelly2The first thing to discuss I suppose should be the look of the thing.  As you can see from the first page (left), Henry Flint has really captured the grimy urban sprawl of the movie Mega-city One in its early days.  Taking his cue from the film, he establishes the place quickly then dives straight into the mire of the unwashed masses; in this case with a truck-load of mutants, smuggled out of the Cursed Earth.  It’s great to get this broader glimpse of Dredd’s world, reminding us that there’s more to it than the mean streets of the Mega-Cities.  In fact, should a cinematic sequel ever be made, the powers that be have already said they would take Dredd out into the Cursed Earth, making this comic a nice little segue.  The mutants here are far less outlandish than they are usually portrayed, in keeping with the cinematic style.  It’s a considered move, depicting them as painfully damaged people rather than the kind of outlandish freak show you sometimes see in the Megazine.  Other elements that are faithfully reproduced from the film include the practical (though unimpressive) uniforms of the Judges, the Grand Hall of Justice (which seems oddly more awe-inspiring on the page than it was on the big screen), and some unobtrusive call backs to Ma-Ma and slo-mo dotted throughout.  One thing that will immediately leap out at the film fans, who perhaps have not read the comics before, is how little the Dredd here resembles Karl Urban.  Whilst you wouldn’t necessarily expect the magnificent detailing of the inside-cover portrait to run throughout the book, it’s a real shame that more effort wasn’t made to make the main characters look like Urban and Thirlby.  I think it would would have served the project better in terms of bringing the film fans on board, in the way Whedon’s crew did for the Serenity and Buffy comics.

The creative team have captured the tone of the film very well, though.  Get past the lumpy chin and you have a brutal, pulse-pounding, morally ambivalent police procedural that fits right in with what we know of the Judges and their city so far.  It’s a downbeat world, freshly under the jackboots of the Judge system, where technology has not yet advanced enough for the wacky stuff-to-come, like robots and sky-surfers.  What works well is the sense of a real police force at work in an urban nightmare.  Dredd is not some super-cop here, just a focal character in an army of Judges.  The system hasn’t yet inflated their egos, though you can see that callousness has become deeply entrenched.  Similarly, the citizens have yet to become befuddled sheep to be cajoled and terrorised.  Here’s what Wyatt had to say about it in an interview with Comic Book Resources, Oct 2013

“the focus is on “real world” crime rather than aliens, robots and inter-dimensional travel, which really strips things back to the core in terms of what kind of stories you can tell — I’ve aimed more for “The Wire” than the 1995 movie which, since I usually use a lot of SF or horror elements, has been a challenge.  I think it’s probably one of the strongest things I’ve written as a result of taking those props away.”

I would love to know what the full remit was for this project, though.  Did they genuinely want to craft a full sequel to the film, or is this the first of an ongoing comics series for cinematic-Dredd?  I feel short-changed if it’s the former; there’s just not enough room to give it the scope that it needs.  As another day-on-the-beat episode, though, it works a treat.  The plot is straight-forward, and self-contained, but has a weight and depth missing from the film, due to the plight of the victims.  There’s not a lot of room for meaningful character development as it’s only 36 pages long, but then the strength of Dredd’s character has always been in the slow drip of personality seeping through his grim façade.  I can see Anderson playing a big part in that, should these adventures continue.  She is an experienced Judge now, independent and effective.  We can see that she has become more forthright, prepared to voice concerns about the system.  As she’s earned Dredd’s respect, her comments will start to weigh heavily on his shoulders.  Interestingly, we also learn that she is part of an expanding PSI programme within the Halls of Justice.  This makes the ending a little harder to swallow, but shows a subtle little development of the world.  I was surprised at how little time we spend in Anderson’s head actually, given the nature of the case and the heavy focus on her in the film.  She’s always been my favourite character though, so that’s a personal grumble as much as anything.

Although it’s a pretty low-key adventure there were three stand out moments for me.  The two-panel fight with the human traffickers tells you everything you need to know about the value of life in Mega-City One, in a brilliant burst of bullets.  Second up, there’s a real vividness to the post-mortem PSI scene that manages to be both chilling and utterly kick-ass at the same time.  Whilst I don’t love the way Anderson looks in it, it exudes the fantastic ambiguity that the Dredd comics excel at.  These are supposed to be the good guys, but the fascistic imagery makes you think twice.  Finally, the two page spread showing the incursion into the drugs factory is a master-class in using panel lay-outs to give a sense of movement.  Flint’s break-away architecture, and snapshot scenes give a sense of direction, pace and chaos in an effortless fashion.  Absolutely top-notch work there.  My only real complaint is the abruptness of the ending.  While a drawn out coda might feel out of place and schmaltzy, the terse conversation between Anderson and Dredd, and the parting shot of the mutants felt a little too perfunctory to me.  Again, that would work brilliantly at the end of an episode, but terribly if this is all we get.  If they wanted to give us a genuine sequel to Dredd, I’d say they only partly achieved their goal.  It’s just not enough.  However, if they wanted to stir up more hunger in their readers for a second cinematic outing (or more comic book adventures) I have to say they’ve succeeded admirably.  Bring it on!

Rating 3.5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

Credentials time.  I’m pretty familiar with the Judge Dredd universe through comics, films, books, audio dramas and computer games, but I couldn’t describe myself as a dyed in the wool fan-boy.  While I’ve read several of the major story arcs and a bunch of lesser known stuff, I’ve missed absolutely stacks as well, having never subscribed to the comics.  Hopefully this means I’ve been able to give you a well balanced review of the comic without degenerating into squees or spittle-filled rants.  I guess there were always two ways to look at this – 1. As a comic in it’s own right and 2. As a sequel to the film.  Given that it’s marketed as the sequel to the film and produced as part of a campaign to get a cinematic sequel made, that side of things had to be my main focus.  I’m aware that there are plenty of things to be said on the other side however.  If you want to open out the discussion in other directions – and we’d love you to – please feel free to add your Comments here.

You may be interested to know that a recent episode of Everything Comes back To 2000 AD featured Henry Flint himself.  Not heard it yet myself, so I’m not certain if they discuss this or not.  Would be surprised if they don’t, though.

Click on the link to Comic Book Resources if you want to read the full text of their interview with Arthur Wyatt.

 

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