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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

A Grim Comedy

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Judge Dredd and Doctor Who, a neoliberal dystopia.

Grimdark takes its name from the miniature wargame Warhammer 40,000, and its famous tagline: 'In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.' From this you can deduce much about the genre; that it is defined by a comically exaggerated macabre aesthetic, and concerned with mythos that has violence baked into its fabric.

In the Worlds of Warhammer article for White Dwarf 457, there is an essay about the humour in Games Workshop’s various fictions. The author, Jordan Green, observes how ‘amongst all the misery and grit that defines our settings, it can’t be denied that a very bleak, very "Warhammer" style of humour is an ever-present ingredient.’

It is a good piece, highlighting how Grimdark is not a colourless genre about the direness of life, but a lampooning not only of how the ‘courage of the common man can seem hilariously futile’, but also the way in which systems of belief and ideology attempt to impose order on the world through oppression, which results in an absurdity even in their aesthetics.

In the past I have explored how the satirical edge of grimdark both profoundly gets (and therefore could be said to anticipate) the obscenity of the contemporary far right, but in interacting with this far right's in-built and excessive nihilism, has nonetheless been knowingly appropriated by them. Not appropriated in spite of the satire, but because embracing something mocking their very obscenity further fuels the aesthetics of despair at the core of our time's fascists.

Irrespective of such a strange appropriation, there is a different question to explore here. When I recently composed a list of grimdark fiction, I noticed that much of it preceded or was authored around the same time as Warhammer 40,000 itself. I wanted to look specifically at two examples, how they fit the genre, and how they too anticipate contemporary social decay. My overall conviction, that grimdark (as a comedic genre) is the dystopia of our times, is what I wish to put to the test.

A Grimdark Doctor?

The Happiness Patrol was the most obviously visible side of Helen A’s regime and she wanted its members to be positive, gutsy and talented—she wanted them to have star quality. Helen A long ago decided that the best way to assess these qualities was to ask the candidates to present a variety turn to her in the Forum. It didn’t matter what it was—a dance, a song, a piece of magic, or a stand-up comedy routine. All that Helen A asked was that she felt better at the end of the act, that she left the theatre with a smile on her face. Those who succeeded went on to join the Happiness Patrol; those who didn’t were never heard of again.

A serial based on an episode of the Doctor Who show during the Sylvester McCoy years, Graeme Curry’s The Happiness Patrol (1988) was recommended to me as an example of grimdark fiction. Its premise is straightforward. In a future human world the Doctor visits, the law forbids anything that causes unhappiness.

This list of illegal activities (what will get one declared a killjoy, killed or relegated to the slave caste of drones) includes dark clothes, overcoats, trilbies, shoes, wellington boots, slow music; poetry (except for limericks) walking in the rain without an umbrella; an ‘ostentatious display of public grief’; and ‘evasion of Happiness Patrol auditions’. There is a sense of scale to the misery that fits the genre’s tropes.

Captured dissidents provided the workforce, and they lived in drab prefabricated dwellings hastily constructed on the factory compounds. Known as drones, these men and women were not prisoners, but were banned from most parts of Terra Alpha, notably the city. During working hours, the factories were heavily guarded by the Happiness Patrol

A drone demonstration is moving towards Forum Square. Proceed there directly. Take no prisoners. Summary executions for all drones

I would also like to take this opportunity to squash the persistent rumours about mysterious “disappearances” and emphasise that rural and urban areas are now enjoying a life of harmony and peace. I’m sure you’re glad to hear this. And I’m happy you’re glad.

The required satirical, over the top edge of grimdark is on full display here. Putting to one side the whimsical list of proscribed behaviours, there are details such as ’the tell-tale ice-cream-van music of one of the Happiness Patrol jeeps’, the muzak that plays everywhere and the law enforces painting the Doctor’s Tardis space and time travelling machine a striking pink.

The leader of this world is Helen A, who depends heavily on the assistance of her titular death squads and The Kandy Man, an artificial being made ‘out of glucose-based substances’ who exists to ‘make sweets. But not just any old sweets—sweets that are so good, so delicious, that sometimes the human frame is not equipped to bear the pleasure.’ This is demonstrated, suffice to say.

Eventually, thanks in no small part to the Doctor’s typical mechanisations, Helen A's dictatorship is foiled. ‘I can hear the sound of empires toppling’, wryly notes the Doctor, as the Drones begin to topple the regime. This is probably the least grimdark aspect of the narrative: it makes concessions to hope.

So overall, does it count? It is a liminal example, but what it brings together is the punkishness of Warhammer with a wry, but very nerdy sci-fi twist. The violence is here, notably, and it is typically cartoonish. It came out in the UK a year after Warhammer 40,000 did, and so it is safe to say, then, that it is responding to the same political backdrop.

Thatcher's reign began a few years earlier, and the ideological edifice of neoliberalism, with its chipper, facile consumerism and just below the surface authoritarianism were fully getting going. Grimdark was extrapolating from these contemporaneous develops and coming up with a uniquely up-to-date vision of a social hell. One where enforced positivity under the guise of freedom barely concealed exclusions and class rule.

The Law of Grimdark

America’s Mega-City I—by 2099, the most advanced city on this planet—clean air laws have given it pollution-free atmosphere, anti-litter campaigns have cleaned up the streets—but one type of dirt is more difficult to remove—CRIME!

It may be natural, but it’s not legal.

You work so hard and never stop, and people think you’re gwim and nasty and far too stwict. But Walter know the twuth. You have to be the way you are to make the stweets safe for decent people.

If The Happiness Patrol is one of the most liminal grimdark works, Judge Dredd, which significantly proceeded Warhammer and even came before Thatcher's period in power, seems a clear example of the genre. Bringing together 2000ADs earliest Judge Dredd stories (1977-8), The Complete Case Files 01 features stories from John Wagner, Pat Mills, Robert Flynn, Kelvin Gosnell, Charles Herring, Malcolm Shaw, and Joe Collins, as well as art by Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, Brian Bolland, John Cooper, and Massimo Belardinelli. It is a classic.

In the debut, the titular 'hero' captures a Judge killer, Whitey, who’s then exiled to a futuristic elevated traffic island prison. There is then a series of 4-5 page instalments during which we are introduced to the mega-city (Mega-City 1 encompasses former New York), sewers inhabited by mutants, instant cosmetic surgery and so on and so forth.

The plotlines run on a see-what-works basis, with the aim always being clearly comic exaggeration and irony; in ‘The Statues of Judgement’, for example, Dredd shoots a criminal onto the spikes that halo Lady Liberty’s head, quipping, ‘No one can take liberties with the law.’ Right from the outset, however, there’s a dystopian pathos, ‘Tomorrow I’ll be shot at with laser cannons instead of ancient crossbows,’ Dredd complains after defeating some primitive mutants, ‘that’s civilization for you!’

It is worth repeating: the sensibilities of late 70s to 80s British pop dystopias do justice to the barbarisms of our moment. The mood is apt for a period of decaying neoliberalism, creeping fascism and daily atrocity, with a glib obscenity and detachedness.

The first extended plotline, ‘Robot Wars’, is 40 pages and involves a robot revolution led by the giant hitlerian carpenter machine Call-Me-Kenneth. According to a fan page, ‘writer John Wagner expected to receive some kind of backlash for making [Call-Me-Kenneth] a carpenter who rose up to lead a revolution but was surprised when he received none.’ This Robot supremacist as Jesus trope is typical of the whimsical irreverence both of the Dredd universe and grimdark more generally.

This arc has a prelude chapter too, where Dredd’s characteristic misanthropy begins to take substance, ‘We give robots the ability to think. Give them human shape, and emotions, How long before they develop that other human trait—evil!’ Call-Me-Kenneth is not a developed villain, but is amusing in concept and execution. ‘Hear me, robots!' he proclaims, 'For years we have worked twenty four hours a day—while the evil fleshy ones take it easy. Now is the time to strike back! I, Call-Me-Kenneth, will show you the way.’ Class, its inherent contradictions, bubble below the surface.

Even at this early point, Dredd’s character is clear—there’s an evolution, but it’s not really a substantial alteration to the core idea. For instance, at this early point the comics internal sense of humour actively plays off against Dredd’s own famed humourless dedication to the Law. ‘Given a few minutes to relax you would find Judge Dredd in his apartment, reading his law books.’

You also get the sense even here that he is an explicitly monstrous ‘hero’; for example, the first time Dredd’s face is revealed, the image is ‘censored’, but a group of criminal onlookers—whom he is about to sentence—scream, ‘What’s happened to Dredd’s face—it’s horrible!’ Dredd’s relationships—from his stereotypical Italian maid, to the ‘good robots’ who side with him—are completely unfeeling. He is, in summary, a Kantian monster of unsentimental and remorseless duty.

The titular character is fascinating. He is an over-conformist to this world, to the point he almost makes its own internal logic breakdown. In his consistency he is also a peculiar saviour; in a moral landscape where everyone is out for themselves, he enforces cruel laws dispassionately, ‘Judge Dredd aint got no heart! But without men like him our streets wouldn’t be safe to walk in!’ This is a sentiment often repeated, but does the safety really come from Dredd's enforcement or his strict predictability as an uncaring patriarch?

Dredd’s evil identical clone brother is a fun twist, in a plotline that shows the degree to which Dredd even puts the law above himself. ‘Rico and Joe they were the same person yet one grew up to uphold the law the other to despise it.’ Nor is this the only example of a Judge who turns criminal. An old friend of Dredd's, Judge Gibson, for example, attempts to assassinate Dredd to hide his petty thefts, and again Dredd regretfully murders the man.

For quite a long arc Dredd becomes the Marshall of Luna-1 Moon Colony, where the comics switch gear into a kind of mock Western. There’s fantastic details here, like how oxygen is commodified and those who cannot pay up face death. ‘It has come to my attention that your oxygen bill is now two months overdue. So I’m going to have to terminate your supply’. There, Dredd takes down the crime boss of the moon, handles ‘the revolt of the killer cars’ and wages a war with the sov-cities (the communist mega-cities).

It is during this war that learn of Dredd’s unsurprising xenophobia, ‘I don’t like foreign judges on my patch, especially paid thugs like those sov-cities boys.’ And of his anti-war views, too, ‘We’re no better than the sovs. They use war as an excuse to grab land—we treat it as a game.’ And, ‘war is pointless. War is evil. War is hell!’ This viewpoint all neatly bypasses that war is, in fact, a game in this mythos. That war has really becoming something other than war. War is a pitched, refereed battle between two four-man combat teams and the winning side gets to claim territory.

In one story the hyper-capitalist features of this dystopia are put on display via a life-or-riches TV game show, ‘We’ll risk anything for money and we’re gonna win, win, win!’ Consumerism is a large part of the satire. ‘Incredible!’ Dredd muses, ‘People have got so much money to throw away they even buy dreams for their dogs.’ At the beginning of another episode Dredd muses, ‘Last week it was cars that sing to you—this week a hotel without people—Mega-City’s gettin’ too fond of gimmicks!’

Unsurprisingly this very hotel proceeds to murder its human guests. In ’The Comic Pusher’, the consumer parable is taken to its self-referential extreme, as old comics (such as Judge Dredd) are sold to kids like drugs. Censorship mixed up with hyper-consumerism recalls neoliberalism more than twentieth century fascisms, even if this is the fascist core of neoliberalism being shown up. Occasional throwaway phrases, such as the aforementioned hotel’s obsession with efficiency, truly recall the obsessions of the time. ‘You are inefficient, like all other humans—that’s why I kill them—we must stamp out inefficiency!’

The Neon Knights, anti-robot vigilantes, serve as satires of the KKK; they are undone when Dredd reveals of their leader that beneath his Klan mask he has ‘the face of a… a… cyborg!’ In the end, the Knights hail Dredd and the law. It is an absurdly blunt statement of Dredd’s own fascism. The message of this, and similar arcs, is that the state fascism that rules such an order hardly needs street militias to aid them.

The veneration of authority is at the core of this mythology. And an attendant denial of humanity, too. In such a way that results in spectacle violence at every level, ‘Futsies—people who suffered form the illness “future shock”. Unable to stand the pace of 21st century living, they went into mad killing frenzies.’ Mass killings, a hallmark of contemporary American life, are a common feature of this dystopic world.

The treatment of mental health is fascinating. In contemporary Britain the criminalisation of mental health problems is becoming a norm. In the early Judge Dredd the ‘hero’ prevents a man from committing suicide, sends him to prison and fines a bystander for objecting, ‘The prison psychs will deal with that, lady, My job is upholding the law. You’re fined 2,000 credits for attempting to obstruct justice.’

There is a sense of the interactions of social crises in these comics; the crisis of economy, authoritarianism, mental health, etc. shown to be all one social crisis. And all wrapped up in an ideology that is, at most, an exaggerated version of the ideology under with we live, emerging as these comics were first written.


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