Thursday 21 February 2013

Fic 'n' Pix: Judge Minty

Fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat.
- Elizabeth Bowen


In painting you must give an idea of the true by means of the false.
- Degas


-Anonymous Citizen, Judge Dredd #151

All roads lead.

I’m staring through a reflection at a city that isn’t really there.  That’s how this story begins. 

On the table in front of the reflection there’s a ticket and a notebook. The notebook was a present from Cardiff – it links directly to Death Junction, where an original page of The Judge Child Quest is still hanging.  The ticket’s a more difficult thing to explain.  It seems to be real, but the way things are going lately that’s no guarantee.  Everything smells of eagles.

Judge Minty’s story began in Eagle Comics’ fifteenth issue of Judge Dredd, way back in January 1985.  Dredd had just returned from Xanadu and Don Uggie, Umpty and Des O’Connor’s surprise Christmas were waiting to meet him.  This was the first time that it had been possible to buy a Dredd comic in a British newsagents, which made it a big deal. 

The newsagents was dark in comparison to the shock of colour flashing from the pages of the comic.  The shop was on the same road as my infant school and the Adam Cortez Psychic Experience set that I first watched Hellraiser in.  Everything tasted mint green back then.  Laced with dark chocolate coatings and crunchy ice chunks. 

In thirty-five minutes time some storylines are going to intersect but not in a big enough cross-over to justify the sort of hype Bruce and Joe get.  This story’s totally improvised by the characters, so the importance, or otherwise, is entirely dependent on how they react.  There’s no-one watching the continuity either.

I’m fifteen minutes away from assaulting a Judge and having my photo appear on Twitter.  Steven Sterlacchini is about six years on from wanting his own Judge helmet but Daniel Carey-George might have the very thing (he’s been creating a veritable prop-house of custom replicas after all).  Stephen Green is five years on from the Monster Mash that he’ll meet Sterlacchini at.  In 1976, Carlos Esquerra is drawing Dredd for the first time, and in 2010 he’s wearing his honorary Judge badge. 

The image of an eagle really starts with Horus, before gliding from the scalding sands of Egypt to pollinate other ancient cultures – morphing like Simon MacCorkindale into a slightly different shape to suit each.  By Jove, the Romans can’t get enough of it.  Caesar’s crimson face stares impassively forward as he glides through the city – the sceptred eagle proving his divinity. 

1980 opened cold.  I didn’t read prog 147.  By 1985 the black and white Eagle Comics ads running in 2000AD were becoming irresistible.  I’d discovered Denmark Street and Warrior.  Things were changing all the time.  Birthday money could be swapped for a parental phone call that would be exchanged for an impossible stretch of time until a hard-backed cardboard packet of mini-series arrived with the bills.  The six-issue Judge Child Quest is the first post I can remember opening.

Rumours were spreading, and one day, wandering down the endless hill of Park Street I found another vault of dreams.  Nemesis the Warlock (in colour) – all seven issues in one mylar bag.  And the first five issues of Judge Dredd (in colour) – all covered in Bolland.  Every colour tasted fresh.  Baxter paper was a luxury that I truly deserved – and Mando, though the equivalent of wholemeal really, was just as nourishing.

It’s February 2009 somewhere, and at the Highland Expo there’s an announcement that changes everyone’s lives.  Covers are recreated.  Mike McMahon draws Minty again.

The school seen in the opening panels of M*****man’s Golden Age experiment, ‘Trends’ had two sets of main stairs.  One for up and the other for escape.  At the bottom of the escape set was the school’s reprographics room and a payphone.  When I’d graduated from drawing Dredd epics in my notebooks it was a natural shambling move to the heady world of ‘self-publishing’.  This basically involved an awful lot of enthusiasm-over-ability and harassed technician's man-hours combining to produce booklets that time would chew to bits.   

I’ll tell you the payphone story when you’re older.

Eight days after my 2009 birthday Edmund Dehn is announced as playing Judge Minty.  In November the casting of Dredd’s revealed and comic fandom does a whiplash-inducing double-take as a result. 

There’s several thousand people who were lucky enough to be exactly the right age to be comics fans through the Eighties, especially in the UK.  The weekly comic had always had its own secret societies stuffed to the gills with anonymous members.  Some of these initiates have gone public over the years, revealing the secrets that were guarded so jealousy for so long.  Often they’d wait until they’d achieved lofty positions of power, so any ridicule could be picked off with automatic lasers or attack dogs.  You know the type: that chat-show fellow who had to apologise every time he said anything out loud; the Kate Bush backing singer; the brothers who sound like sisters; the man who resurrected the Macra; the chap who wrote ‘Trends’ and brought the TARDIS to life (who also features in the, frankly gob-smacking payphone story – simmer down, I told you: when you’re older).  All of them producing a sort of fan-fiction themselves.  But, in many cases, a compromised and impure sort of fan-fiction, because it doesn’t matter how much you adore it – if you get paid then it isn’t really love.  According to the Beatles.

Ten days to Christmas 2009, and Rotherham’s become the future.

The Nineties have just arrived, and it’s all going a bit bleak and arty.  Even Kreator have released an album that doesn’t feature a painted cover.  Music and comics are starting to interconnect for me – it’s mostly hormonal though.

Let's go back at the top of the escape stairs now, because that’s where they store the music rooms.  We’ve got a couple of special guests today – a pair of studio engineers from Bristle (near Nailsea).  They’ve been working with a lovely lady called Sam Howard and they’re looking for volunteers to help with things and stuff.  I can’t remember why, but I get swept along and after helping out with a gig round the corner from Park Street end up making my microphone-enhanced stage d├ębut.  The rush takes twenty years to recede.  My hair doesn’t show the same decency.

Over the next few years I keep bumping into Sam Howard’s single in the original Spillers, just down the street from Henricks.  In 2012, one of the studio engineers releases (with a chum) an album of music for an imaginary Judge Dredd film.  All of the track titles are written in the secret language we were talking about earlier.  It’s got no connection with the 3D Dredd film.  Which is strange, as they say ‘thanks’ to it in the credits.

In June 2010 a shoot is announced.  It’s going to take place in London and the Cursed Earth of North Wales. 

It’s 1995, sometime around my birthday, and I’m sat in the Park Vaults in Cardiff, scribbling nonsense in a notebook.  I’ve had a soft spot for the Park Vaults since I found it four years before while trying to fix everything that I’d broken as a result of mixing music, comics and hormones.  Computers that weren’t the size of a car were almost commonplace, and it looked like there might be a future there - they made sense after all.  Phil Lynott had died in 1986, so it came as a shock to find I was having a conversation with him.  Lovely bloke.  Everything was flexible, you see.  The boundaries weren’t confirmed and I was invincible.  Four years later, still scribbling, a young couple started up a conversation with me.  I can’t remember what we talked about, but the gentleman said I reminded him of Iain Banks.  He didn’t say which one.   

Later that evening I watched Judge Dredd in the Capitol.  The bit with the comics was good.

It’s twelve days after my birthday in 2010 and the first work-in-progress trailer for Judge Minty goes live – comics fandom breathe a collective sigh that speeds up global warming by 15.6%.  Ten years earlier it would’ve taken a week to download the trailer.  And if someone phoned you during those seven days, you’d have to start all over again.  That November, in Johannesburg, a revolutionary 3D rig is being put through its paces.

In 2006, Alex Garland starts writing a script.  In November 2011 this blog begins properly and Judge Minty’s wrapped (in a Dorset quarry).

It’s now.  When I finish texting my friend I’m going to go into the CCA.  Everything feels sharper and clean.  Everyone’s smiling and a bit polished.  It’s like looking out from inside a soap bubble.  That’s the text sent. 

Nine months and seven days into 2012 and I’m wearing two pairs of glasses in a dark room full of strangers.  There’s no need to worry, but I don’t know that yet.  The following month the first Judge Minty screenings are announced.  It's been mentioned in the Dredd credits, but I was too busy being relieved to notice.  I’ve still got the cinema ticket in my wallet when shaking John Wagner’s hand.

The CCA’s deceptive.  Used to have a third-eye back in the day.  As soon as I’m through the door I spot the Judges patrolling and nearly lose my nerve.  I ask someone behind the counter where stuff is – mostly to try and stop the Judge looking at me.  It doesn’t work.  The lady starts to show me where stuff is, as requested, but the Judge has come over and he’s standing right next to me.  She’s talking but I can’t hear anything but blood.  Grud, he’s huge.  I’m aware that I’m having a moment, but what can you do?  Brazen it out?  How? 

“Judge Dredd always knows.”

“Judge Dredd always knows.”

This is irrational and crazy.  I’m not a kid – what the hell’s going on?  He’s still there.  He’s still there.  What have I done wrong? 

All of sudden I’m in a warehouse that seems to be an indoor concrete beer garden.  The lady’s stopped talking and - Dredd’s gone.  He’s walked over to another Judge.  Jack.  Wait a minute – Judge Jack?  But, didn’t he-? 

The lady’s stopped talking. 

Say something or she’ll think you’re a futsie.

“Ah.  Thanks.  Sorry.  Sorry about that.  I was being intimidated by Judge Dredd there.”

The moment passes and I pluck up some guts from somewhere and try and take a photograph of Judges Dredd and Jack without sounding spuggy.  I fail totally, get papped, and, instantly, I’m on Twitter.  The Judges don’t break character.  It’s massively disconcerting – especially when I bump into Judge Jack.

“Assaulting a Judge…”

The sentence just hangs there.

All roads lead.

The costumes are magnificent.  It doesn’t matter if they’re real-world practical, like the South African ones had to be, because I’m part of a secret society that knows all the magic words to fill the gaps.  I’ve proved this by nearly losing it when confronted with a fictional character refusing to be pretend.  The last time this happened wasn’t in the Alien War on Trocadero like you’d think, but in an end-of-pier exhibition in fag-end Seventies Blackpool when I was confronted with a Dalek.

The showing is announced and the beer garden starts to move up the fire-escape.  I spark a nervous conversation with a fine fellow I kind of recognise through Facebook.  Ten years ago that sort of social interaction would’ve been a madman’s dream.  Maybe it still is.

The seats are laid out fine, so I push myself to a middle seat in the second row.  I’ve been doing this since Hellraiser, I don’t see why I should stop now.

It’s February 2013 and Steves Sterlacchini and Green are being directed to their seats for the Glasgow Film Festival screening of Judge Minty.  Half of them will later admit that this is the first time they’ve stayed when there’s an audience present.  They sit in the middle of the front row.  Behind them someone’s scribbling in a Beano notebook.  Judges line the walls, daysticks ready. 

John McShane introduces the evening.  There’ll be two films.  Not fan films.  Films.  The first one is based on Battlestar Galactica.  The second one is John Wagner’s favourite Judge Dredd movie.  Then there’ll be a Q and A about making fan-films.

We start off with Foghorn Films’ Battlestar Galactica – By Your Command, which does the job just fine.

And then, Judge Minty.

From the opening shot – which made me cover my mouth – it’s right.  Years and years of effort have gone into this film – much more than just the handful since Mr Sterlacchini’s quest for a helmet.  This represents at least one lifetime.  And it doesn’t compromise, because it doesn’t need to sell itself.  It only needs to be true, because only by doing that does it justify its existence.

There’ll be talk of intellectual properties and such later on, but that kind of misses the point.  I’ll try and explain. 

You can be a best-selling author, with a fanbase that stretches around the planet – and you can write the most heart-rending love letter to your favourite series – channelling years of ideas and emotions and seemingly wasted hours into one glistening behemoth of a tale – but you’ll still have to rewrite it at least three times and settle for an Ood.   


"Because these aren’t your toys.  These are our toys.  If you want to play with them there are rules.  We call them brands.  Y’know?  Popular with cattle at one point.  Here’re your wages."

And there’s not one damn thing wrong with that.2  There’re so many professional fans involved now that it’s great we’ve got a faceless beast that cares nothing but how the product’ll play in Arkansas.  It trims the fat and the indulgence and does its best to keep the brand alive.  Because if the brand dies, then the money goes away.  Sometimes the planets align and the system spews a thing that everyone loves, but it doesn’t happen often.  The larger the budget, the more simplified the language.


Without a budget acting as a safety net you can do daring things.  In many ways there’s no choice.  No-one’s going to tell you that something can’t be done because if you believed that then you wouldn’t have started in the first place.  And because you’re speaking in a secret language you can let the audience do some of the work.  Why not hint at Otto Sump?  After all, who’s going to remember that skeleton in a swimming pool with a single gunshot punching daylight through the skull?  How about the Aggro Dome?  Des O’Connor block?  If anyone gets that, they’ll think Christmas has come early.  Stick a reference like that in a Cineplex and the critics’ll have a barney.2  

Why stop there?  You’ve got everything to lose, so chance it all and trust that this is the right road to go down and throw in a continuity shot that’s so blatantly subtle you don’t need to draw attention to it.  The cover of Judge Dredd #9 maybe?  Or how about the Land Raider?  Or Judge Urban?  Go crazy – they’ll love it.  They felt exactly the same way you did.  And if you add a character called Aquila?  Well…

Even the credits to this are superb.  No, I’m not telling you why.  Go and see it.

The lights come up and the film-makers get up from in front of me and walk to the stage and the microphones.  The Q and A goes fine – there’s no stumm.  Or hailstones.

I corner the Steves and, in the special language I’ve been going on about, blabber incoherently about how great they are and how special this moment was and would you sign my ticket please and do you mind if I talk about all the things I should have done in the Q and A but I was just too shy and - oh are you leaving here?  You are? Can I get a photo of you please? 

Thanks.  Thank you. 

And then I’m back in the beer garden and the blush is fading.  Even though Steve Niles is there and Mr McShane, being a true gentleman, asks me if I’m going to come along and say ‘hello’, I decline. 

Twenty-eight years is a long time to hold your breath, even if you don’t know you’re doing it. 

March 2013.  Judge Minty rides into Cardiff. 

All roads lead.

Special thanks to (in no particular):

John Wagner and Mike McMahon for Prog 147.
Steve Sterlacchini and Stephen Green and everyone involved in making Judge Minty.
The Judges.
The staff of the CCA and the GFT. 

1.  (Wagner/Grant/Bolland)  See also: Block War 

2.  Quiet at the back!

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