No adult could fail to recognize the comical over-the-top satire that is Judge Dredd. This is a comic-book character who once collared Santa Claus and sentenced him to 20 years for home invasion. He is cop, judge, jury and executioner rolled in to one – Dirty Harry and the police state pushed to their logical limits.
"He's a fascist," says Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay for the comic's latest big-screen adaptation, Dredd 3D. In fact, he's probably the most fascist protagonist in a genre in which the heroes have almost always betrayed a desire to stomp criminals with their jackboots in the name of meting out justice and preserving the social order.
Other characters may hide it better by grabbing our sympathies – whether it's Bruce Wayne trying to avenge his parents or Superman fighting for truth, justice and the American way, even if it is an American way stripped of namby-pamby notions like due process – but not Judge Dredd.
Garland's screenplay ignores the satirical elements of the character, which you could argue is a betrayal of the film's source material. "We played it straight," he said in an interview at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. He said he wrote the movie as he understood Judge Dredd when he was a 10-year-old boy enthralled by the character and blind to the satire underpinning him.
But in its refusal to soften the character, the movie also offers the most unrelenting portrait of the politics underlying comic-book heroes – politics that audiences rarely stop to think about amid all the explosions.
The movie thus instantiates a weird paradox: It's untruthful yet completely honest. There's none of the black-comedy satire that defines the character in the comics. Instead, we get a nasty and brutish cop whose eye for justice never veers from his gun's sight and wants us to revel in his blood-splattering enforcement of the law.
It was always easy to see why readers laughed at Judge Dredd. The more uncomfortable alternative might just be cheering him on.
Here are three of the most fascist characters in comic books, some created to make a larger point, some created purely to crush scum.
Bio The toughest lawman in Mega-City One, a fictional place in a post-apocalyptic future, Judge Dredd has acted as cop, judge, jury and executioner since his first comic-book appearance in 1977. To underscore the fact that he has no identity outside of being a judge, Dredd never takes off his helmet.
Wearing those jackboots on purpose? Over the years, many different writers have either played up or tamped down Judge Dredd's satirical overtones, which have often veered into parody. But the character was first created to satirize authoritarianism.
That's not the voice of liberalism talking "I am the law!"
Bio Since his start in 1929, Batman has become one of the world's most popular superheroes, even if he doesn't have any actual superpowers. Because of his prominence and longevity, the Dark Knight has been a top target for accusations of fascism in comics.
Wearing those jackboots on purpose? The character has always been intended as a troubled but essentially decent man fighting justice for the common man, despite the shockingly right-wing politics of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises.
That's not the voice of liberalism talking "How does one man protect an entire city? By making sure the shadow he casts is long and wide … so that its reach can embrace – or engulf – all that walk here. So that every man, woman and child in the city of Gotham can feel its touch. If you are good, the shadow's wings are a welcome, protective blanket. If you are bad, you know its touch as a black splinter of fear."
Bio The central vigilante in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's pioneering 1986 comic series Watchmen, Walter Kovacs, a.k.a. Rorschach, sports a trench coat, a mask that is a constantly changing inkblot like the test he takes his name from, and a beyond-harsh disdain for what he sees as the scum of this world.
Wearing those jackboots on purpose? Moore has called Rorschach a "very fascist character" and he was created in part to shed light on the politics of so many comic-book heroes, especially Batman.
That's not the voice of liberalism talking "[A]ll the whores and politicians will look up and shout, 'Save us!"… and I'll look down and whisper, 'No.' They had a choice, all of them … They followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn't realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late."