"Year One" comics have a tough job. They must stick to a hero's fundamentals, but differ enough to show how he develops into a familiar character by the end. They also have to serve double duty as jumping-on points for new readers and continuity-friendly stories for old fans. Happily, "Judge Dredd: Year One" #1 is up to the task. Writer Matt Smith and artist Simon Coleby have clearly put a lot of time and effort into keeping the gritty, slightly antisocial feel of the original "2000 A.D." strips, while showing enough about Dredd and his world for a new reader to get on board without being lost.
The plot revolves around a sudden outbreak of psychic manifestations among the youth of Mega-City One, but Smith keeps it grounded in Judge Dredd's street-level world: when the kids of 2080 AD get psychic powers, they use them to beat up bullies and steal cash. There's none of the world- or universe-spanning quality of some of the "Judge Dredd" epics, at least not yet, and this fits the smaller scale appropriate to a "Year One" story. Hopefully the action will continue to take place solely in Mega-City One; the city is the heart of the Judge Dredd concept, after all, and Dredd himself is in his first year on the job-- not usually the time to go roaming the cosmos and palling around with aliens. At the same time, pitting Dredd against psychics gives Smith a good opportunity to establish Dredd's no-nonsense personality, as the Judge has no patience for the uncertainty of psychic powers in his black-and-white world of the law.
When the original Judge Dredd strip began in "2000 A.D.," Dredd had been on the streets for twenty years. Thus he hit the comic stands as a fully-established lawgiver and death-dealer. "Judge Dredd: Year One" portrays Dredd as, well, a fully-established lawgiver and death-dealer. His ethos is developed, he has his gun and bike, and he has no hesitation in blowing away a kid in one of the series' classic street executions. Readers who pick up the book hoping for an uncertain novice Judge will be disappointed, but frankly, portraying Dredd in that way would water down the mythic power of the character. This is a guy who gets name-checked in real-life discussions about the rule of law and the role of police officers in civil society, so to show him as anything other than a faceless, self-assured lawman would be untrue to the character. That being said, it is hard to find a difference between this and any other Judge Dredd tale, as he battles weird crime on the streets of Mega-City One. It remains to be seen if the series will reference or retcon any particular Judge Dredd continuity, or whether it will simply be a tale of a young Judge who's already figured out who he is.
"Judge Dredd: Year One" comes carrying all sorts of old-school cred, including a fantastic alternate cover by original artist Carlos Ezquerra and a strangely bland one by Dave Sim. (Why they chose Greg Staples' overly-slick digital painting for the standard cover is anyone's guess.) This respect for the classic strip carries through in Coleby's art. Where the original Judge Dredd comics featured Mike McMahon's wild lines or Ezquerra's ultra-heavy ones, Coleby has a much more clean, modern style. Nevertheless, heavy black ink shadows are everywhere, swallowing faces and bodies whole. The art is stiff at times, but at its best it really captures the classic feel of the black-and-white "2000 A.D." strips while updating them to a modern aesthetic. Leonard O'Grady's coloring also deserves recognition; he works almost wholly in muted palettes that fit both the dystopian future of the series and its conversion from black and white. There are occasional spikes of color -- a red bike here, blue hair there, some explosions -- and they stand out as flashes of focus in the weatherbeaten city.
Overall, Judge Dredd fans should be pleased with "Judge Dredd: Year One" #1. It doesn't break any new ground, but that's not really the role of a "Year One" comic. The writing and art both respect the strip's thirty-year history, and the book is shaping up to be a solid tale of extreme street justice.