Anyone that knows me (or has been to my Twitter — yikes) can’t deny that I am absolutely mad for Judge Dredd. With 42 years worth of material to work with, I consider myself a very lucky fan. Where I go from being a “lucky” fan to a “spoiled” fan, however, is when a story like The Small House by Rob Williams and Henry Flint comes along.
The peak culmination of almost a decade’s worth of progs from 2000AD (including the storylines Judge Dredd: Trifecta, Judge Dredd: Titan, and several others), The Small House — which appeared in it’s original serialized form a year ago — is finally seeing the release of it’s collected edition.
On a surface level the stories act as a tense espionage drama where instead of taking on the ice-aliens of Enceladus or the vitriolic prisoners of Titan, Judge Dredd has put together a unique new team to take on a different kind of foe. The team of Judges are faced against the monstrous Judge Smiley who has been quietly manipulating the whole of the Justice Department from the inside — literally. With ghost judges, alien tech, and tensions with Chief Judge Hershey at their peak, it’s entirely unsure if this is a fight that can be handled within Dredd’s usual code of law.
To say that there’s a lot under the surface of any given Dredd story is an understatement, but The Small House proves that the surly, mean-mugging Judge of fame always has more to him than meets the eye. Luckily, I was able to talk with writer Rob Williams about his experience working on this particular thread of Judge Dredd’s story, and get some of the subtext unearthed for questioning fans who are ready to dive into the collection.
(WARNING! SPOILERS FOR THE SMALL HOUSE AHEAD!)
(But honestly, the progs have been out for a like a year, so….)
Chloe Maveal: The Small House really was the payoff for almost a decade’s worth of setting up. You both seem to really be the masters of the long game in that respect. How does it feel to finally pull it all together? Did you know coming on to do this story where you wanted it to end when you first began with the progs that lead up to this peak?
Rob Williams: It’s a mix of some things planned for quite a while beforehand, and some things made up on the spot. Dirty Frank’s origin story for instance. When we first saw him crawling through the snow, bleeding out and losing his sanity — back in Low Life: Creation — I had in mind that he was part of some top secret Justice Department assassination squad, and that was the turning point in Frank’s life, his sanity, and his morals. I knew I’d tell that whole story someday. But Smiley only came into being with Trifecta and then I made him part of Frank’s origin tale. And now in The Small House you get the whole story. So, it’s an organic process.
Maveal: While The Small House stands on its own really nicely for new readers, the context of previous prog collections really make it shine. The Apocalypse War, Trifecta, Titan collections and a lot of the Low Life stories kind of have a lead up to where characters like Dirty Frank and Judge Sam find themselves in the story — but more importantly what has happened in Dredd’s mind that he is genuinely questioning authority now. Do you feel like the sequence of stories you’ve built up are what will break Dredd?
Williams: I think everyone in the core Dredd writers team writes him a little differently. I tend to write him as this old, angry (very angry) man inside that uniform. I think he’s getting grumpier as he gets older, and that’s one of the things I love about writing him. He’s very human and emotional, in spite of his stoic, iconic image. But that man’s emotions are all churning below the surface. Still, I think his anger is such that he’s got to find the next fight, the next thing to tear down. In The Small House that might well be the whole structure of Justice Department. It’s certainly the long-standing, simmering resentment he’s held for Chief Judge Hershey. He’ll intellectualize it in very simple terms: “a creep is a creep,” “murder is murder” — and so the [spy] master Judge Smiley has to go down. Even if that might mean tearing down the Judges in the process.
Maveal: One of the crowning moments of the collection for me was Smiley’s acknowledgment of the authoritarian status of the Judges by outright saying, “We’re fascists.” That’s an admission that not only matches the realizations that Dredd seems to be coming to, but has the potential to shift the narrative surrounding Judge Dredd completely. Was addressing this something that felt important for the era that this book is being released in and some of the behaviors that we’re seeing in the world now?
Williams: I think so. If you’re going to write Dredd with any import you have to confront that fact. I think you have to remind some of the readership that he’s absolutely not an aspirational hard man figure. Dredd’s world is a cautionary tale. And given what’s happening in our world right now, with the rise of populism and some fascistic acts being undertaken on both sides of the Atlantic, I felt it was time to write a Dredd story that confronted this head on. I don’t think Dredd cares one bit that he’s a fascist. He is the law. If you break the law, you go down. He’s not a deep thinker. He’s the brutal fist that keeps this society in order. And helps keep it alive in a deadly, irradiated world. Dredd’s both bad guy and good guy at the same time, which is the genius of the strip and the character.
Maveal: I can’t have this conversation without asking more about Dirty Frank, who has been one of my favorite characters for years. This story was clearly a big lead up to his fate, which I’m admittedly still too devastated to actually talk about. We’ve been aware of Frank’s brainwashing from Smiley in Trifecta, but that was under Dredd’s supervision and honestly, it felt like a one-off maneuver. When you took on Smiley as a character from Al Ewing, was Frank always a part of the plan for exhibiting just how horrifying Smiley is? (And in contrast, how sympathetic Frank is meant to be?)
Williams: Smiley was invented by Al [Ewing], Si Spurrier and me in a New York bar when we were planning out Trifecta. When he emerged — this stealth Judge who’s been operating behind the scenes for decades, manipulating world events to suit the Judges’ purpose — he fit in with my existing Dirty Frank origin tale. And suddenly he became Frank’s big bad. He helped create Dirty Frank, really, and so he has a huge power over him. Frank’s such a sweet, damaged, deeply honorable character, despite his madness, he’s really the purest character I’ve ever written in a lot of ways. I love him, I know a lot of readers love him, so that means I knew that having Smiley mind-control Frank would be a terrible, powerful thing to do to the character. And I really wanted people to hate Smiley by the end of this. So, Frank’s a pawn in the game. When the final showdown comes for Dredd and Smiley, Dirty Frank had to be part of it. And there’s a big connection between Frank and Dredd. Frank’s one of the few people that Dredd truly respects, I think. That was in their relationship from that start. So… it’s an emotional ending in a lot of ways.
Maveal: The riddle that runs throughout the book says, “There is a house, you know. A small house. And it has no doors. There is no way in…and no way out…but someone lives there.” I have been turning this over in my head for weeks trying to discover the metaphor built in. It clearly refers to the literal small house within the walls of the Justice Department where Smiley resides in secret, but I feel like there’s something bigger there. Is it safe to say that there is a message to be said in that riddle about the nature of being a Judge or — more pointedly — about being a part of an authoritarian regime?
Williams: Yes, that’s in there, definitely. The Small House and its secret corridors are the secret illegal actions that Smiley has been undertaking for decades to keep the Judges in power. Murdering Pro-Democracy figures, international Judges who might come to power in their countries. All very “The Secret History of the CIA.” But The Small House and those corridors is also Dredd’s emotional core. The man beneath the uniform and the helmet and the granite chin. I think as much as the politics and the strip’s history are drivers of the action in The Small House, more than anything it’s the anger inside Dredd forcing him on. The Law is just his way of justifying the violence inside him. There’s a reason that his final line in our finale is, “This is MY house.”
Maveal: Judge Sam really struck a chord with me. It almost felt like he was, in a way, a version of what Dredd could be given the free will of emotion. They almost seem like compliments to each other. Sam has a lot of trauma to process from Enceladus but there’s also an optimism there that Dredd seems drawn to with his current mindset surrounding the Justice Department. Am I off base in feeling like Judge Sam was a character made to mirror invisible parts of what is in Dredd’s mind?
Williams: Sam was, as you say, a true optimist. A good soul who wanted to help people. He was an architect for a reason — he wanted to build. I think Dredd sees so many people and sees nothing but compromise and flaws and frailty. But in Judge Sam he saw an honesty, and so Dredd likes him. Trusts him. He also owes Judge Sam, because at the end of Enceladus, Sam’s actions not only saved the city but they very much saved Dredd from throwing the badge away and becoming just a murderer. So, Sam, Dirty Frank, Judge Maitland and Judge Giant — Dredd trusts these people implacably. He’s been through a lot with all of them. They become his secret rebel gang in the fight against Smiley, where the walls have ears and every Judge could betray them. And that include Chief Judge Hershey. She allows Smiley to operate with impunity, so Dredd doesn’t know how far he can trust her.
Maveal: You stopped very short of breaking the strip through Smiley’s admittance of Judges being fascists and Dredd’s outright rejecting Chief Judge Hershey’s authority. Is this story one that can continue to escalate or is this as far as you feel you can go as a creative team without completely breaking the concept of Judge Dredd?
Williams: Oh, I’m sure we can push it further! One thing I’m a big believer in with storytelling is, “it’s not enough to put a character’s life on the line, you have to put their soul on the line” — and that’s what we’ve done with both The Small House and Trifecta. I’m sure we’ll find other ways to poke Dredd in morally dangerous directions down the road.
Maveal: Lucky for you, I think I’ve finally exhausted myself of hair-brained fan questions. So I have to ask, you and Henry [Flint] have both have worked on some really big 2000AD strips together. What has the collaborative process been like working with each other on something as significant as this story?
Williams: Part of the brilliance of working with Henry is how we really don’t talk much beforehand. Henry gets the scripts, reads the story for the first time there and then, and yet his storytelling’s so perfect. I tend to write a lot of emotional reactions from the characters into panel descriptions. What they’re feeling. So Henry can draw those emotions as subtext and acting performances. The best artists allow a writer to use subtext, as the characters tell the story with their acting. Henry does scale and action so well. There’s a power to his Dredd. He’s one of the greats in terms of detailing the architecture of Mega City One. He’s a dream to work with.
Maveal: The Small House was serialized a year ago in 2000AD. Obviously Dredd has continued since then and you have written quite a few of those stories yourself. What can we expect from you both as far as Judge Dredd stories moving forward?
Williams: I couldn’t imagine writing Dredd full-time. I think it’s really healthy for the character to have different voices telling their own stories. Rory McConville, Gordon Rennie, Mike Carroll and, of course, John Wagner, all keep Dredd’s world rolling along and they’re all excellent writers. I feel if I have a good Dredd story to tell I’ll pitch it, tell it, and then disappear for a bit to do other stuff. That keeps it all fresh. And if I can work with artists as good as Henry Flint and Chris Weston, I’m a very happy boy. I’ve just started a new long-form Dredd story. So: there’s more Dredd world-shaking to come.
The collection of Judge Dredd: The Small House is out now and available for purchase at 2000AD’s web store and your local comic retailer.