Dredd: Underbelly by Arthur Wyatt and Henry Flint is 2000 AD’s first attempt at publishing a comic specifically for the American direct market and it’s a solid effort. Aimed at non-2000 AD readers, fans of the movie will find this story an easy transition into other Dredd related comics, while people who didn’t see the recent movie don’t need to know any backstory other than “I am the law.” Billed as a continuation of the 2012 film, what makes the one-shot story part of the movieverse is mostly cursory (character designs, references to slo-mo); otherwise it could probably have easily fit in the 2000 AD timeline, pre-“Mutants in Mega City One.”
Underbelly somewhat falls under the awkward category of a tie-in/sequel copying the original’s formula. The comic focuses on a new drug that’s hit Mega City One (it even hits the “bigger and better” trope when one judge explains that the new drug “makes slo-mo look like candy”) and the Judges have to crack down on a female drug lord. Thankfully there are some twists thrown in that keep it from being a carbon-copy (and justify the longer page count). Unlike the movie, Anderson’s role is rather limited; at first it seemed like an odd choice, given that she was the viewpoint character in the film, but it makes sense that after the film, she isn’t needed to tell the story. It’s disappointing though, since the two best beats (one comedic and one dramatic) are Dredd’s reactions to Anderson.
The art is the highlight of the comic; Henry Flint is an impressive artist with a talent for interesting layouts. Most pages are partial splashes with panels overlapping them. In an amusing twist, the only page to use a normal grid layout is a visualization of the new drug’s effects. Panels are frequently slanted and many of the horizontal ones contract or expand in height from one side to the next. When all that is combined it gives the comic a sense of chaos and momentum that helps propel the story along (and creates a sense of movement that will help transition movie viewers in to comic readers).
The best layout is a two page spread showing the Judges on a raid. The background is a layout of the building, showing the Judges working their way through the guards, with panels and arrows pointing to the map and giving detail to when and what happened in each location; it’s like an R-rated take on Family Circus. The spread looks fine in digital, but it’s probably worth picking this comic up in print just to see the full scale of the assault.
The characters look great, but the comic suffers from being a movie tie-in. With a few exceptions, Anderson looks enough like actor Olivia Thirlby that it’s passable, but Dredd is given a chin the size of a tower block. It makes Dredd intimidating and would be an interesting design for a regular Dredd comic, but it’s not Karl Urban’s chin.
Overall, Dredd: Underbelly is worth checking out, especially for fans of the movie. I mean, it’s not like there’s any other way to see Karl Urban as a gruff futuristic cop working with a gifted partner.