29 July 2011

Dredd: Once Bitten, Twice Hopeful...

I don't know how many of you remember 1995's Sylvester Stallone take on perhaps the most famous character in modern British comics? Judge Dredd, in most people's memories, was an absolute disaster: the plot was a overloaded hodge-podge of stories, the comic relief was risible -- and not in a good way, the film lacked any of the depth and satirical wit of the strip, and it got the hero fundamentally wrong. And yet, oddly enough, it was still better than Batman Forever, which the critics of that year somehow neglected to pan, leading to them being surprised when the absurdity that was Batman and Robin came along.

I am the Luuuuuuhhhhh!!!!!
Truth be told, the 1995 Dredd wasn't all bad. Diane Lane was very watchable, and even at his hammiest Max von Sydow brightened the screen, and in terms of design I really liked it: Mega-City 1 looked good, and both Mean Machine and the misplaced Hammerstein were spot-on, and things like the bikes and the prison ship were great. But then there were the judge's uniforms.

I've seen a hell of a lot of people sneering online at them, dismissing them as leotards with gleaming pads, and drawing special attention to Stallone's mighty codpiece, but the thing is, stuff that can look great in comics just looks implausible on the screen. Why do you think the cinematic versions of the Batman and the X-Men shun spandex for body armour and leather? That's why, at least in terms of design, I'm looking forward to next year's sally at Mega-City One's finest, with Karl Urban in the title role.

Until this week we'd not had much to go on in terms of what the new judge's uniform would look like -- a distant blurry shot of a judge on a none-too-promising bike, a very murky headshot of Dredd, and the above picture of the film's eponymous hero pointing his Lawgiver at -- well, who knows?

But then, this week, Empire featured a host of shots from the film and some enterprising soul decided to scan them and post them online for the whole world to see. They're encouraging, I think. For starters, we can see that Urban's Dredd isn't a pumped up ogre. This is as it should be. I'll always remember David Bishop explaining to an aspiring artist at the UK Comic Art Convention back in the day that Dredd isn't meant to be a musclebound giant -- he's more of a lean, mean, fighting machine. And indeed, early Ezquerra and Bolland drawings of Dredd were anything but overmuscled, while such artists as Mike McMahon and Brendan McCarthy did wonderfully skinny Dredds.

Perhaps more encouraging still is the fact that the uniform's been changed to look more practical, more gritty. The shoulder, elbow, and knee pads, which have grown to proportions as impractical as they are impressive in the comics, have been reduced to a far more plausible size, not unlike those from the strip's earliest days. The tight leather-esque suits have been ditched too, in favour of something that looks like a natural development from modern riot gear. It looks genuinely futuristic, but rooted in the present; it suggests a future with a past.

The one concern, I feel, lies with the helmet. I've already seen people grumbling, saying that it looks silly, as though it's too big for the judges' heads. I don't blame them, really, but I think they should hold their fire. The simple fact of the matter is that the judges' helmets are very difficult to get right. For all that some people didn't like the helmet Stallone wore -- though they liked things less when he removed it -- it represented a decent stab at handling some serious design problems with the helmet of the comics. 

There are at least two big problems with Dredd's helmet, as we see it in 2000AD

In the first place, it only looks good if we presume Dredd's head -- and indeed the judges' heads in general -- is very small. And I mean very small. Even the most realistic takes on Dredd's helmet presuppose that he has an astonishingly tiny head. Dredd wasn't the only character so afflicted in 2000AD. After all, one look at Torquemada's helmet in 'Nemesis the Warlock' should have got you wondering what kind of abnormal had a head that could fit into that thing. For all that Bryan Talbot is a comic genius, I never really bought his Torquemada, because he was clearly a normal man wearing an impossible hat; Kev O'Neill, on the other hand, just drew freaks, and so could get away with it

Linked with this is the whole issue of the back of the helmet; if the helmet protects the nape of the neck adequately,  it bars the wearer from looking up or from shooting when lying down, such that the only helmets that could really be plausible in this respect are ones that are flared out at the back.

Those are simple issues of ergonomics, but I think there's another issue too, and that's vision. Dredd's helmet is almost always drawn such that he must be squinting at the world through a narrow slit; certainly, he'd have had no peripheral vision, and you'd rather think that's something he'd want. Stallone's helmet didn't skimp in that respect, ensuring the visor was very wide, and effectively removing the nose-guard. 

Having loved comics and gotten my school magazine banned through my strips when a schoolboy, I used to go to comics conventions back in my late teens, speaking to artists and editors in the hope of getting advice and maybe -- eventually -- becoming a comics artist myself. I got encouragement, too, especially from Bryan Talbot and Steve Pugh, with both of them saying I'd definitely make it if I just practised more -- and my finals soon put paid to that, with life taking a different course soon afterwards. Looking through my portfolio, Steve Pugh was very impressed by my take on Dredd, commending my design work on the helmet in particular. I think it was obvious that I'd spent a lot of time trying to resolve the issues of vision and mobility.

As it happens, I think the vision issue's not a big deal; we can just assume there's kind of an lcd display running across the inside of the helmet, effectively giving the judges a far greater field of view that the visor itself would allow. But that still leaves the fact that the helmet needs to fit on the head, needs to allow the head to move, and needs some padding inside it to cushion any impacts.

Unless you've lots of hair for padding anyway. In which case you'll probably ditch the helmet.

All round, I think the new uniform looks great. I just hope the script, directing, and acting are as good -- and given that Alex Garland penned 28 Days Later, there must, at least, be some slight grounds for hope.

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