The Cursed Earth is an extended saga within the Judge Dredd chronicles, which was later reprinted (without the 'banned' bits) as issue eight of Judge Dredd: The Mega Collection. When first published it marked the first 'proper' Dredd epic, taking up a full six months of 1978. (An earlier pseudo-epic entitled The Robot Wars had been published within a few short months of the start of the early 1977 futuristic-lawman stories. However, for all its cinematic scope, this earlier tale is sometimes dismissed by Dredd historians, and it certainly lacked the sheer build-up and sense of grandeur associated with the 1978 tale.)
The story is essentially a sweeping epic extending over a backdrop that is the radioactive hell-on-Earth surrounding the civilisation represented by Mega-City One. World War Three has reduced much of America to an irradiated no-man's-land, populated by mutants, slay-riders, marauding renegade robots, and much, much more. The crux of the story centres around the plight of Mega-City Two which has succumbed to a deadly virus, 2T(FRU)T, which has reduced most of the population to the level of demonic cannibals with an insatiable hunger for human flesh, the "forbidden fruit." Dredd's mission is to make his way across the Cursed Earth, guided by the criminal Spikes Harvey Rotten, and ensure the secure delivery of a valuable antidote to the virus. En route to Mega-City Two Dredd must overcome endless seemingly insurmountable odds, which take in corrupt future societies (Las Vegas has been completely over-run by mafia hoodlums) demented droids (who seek out fresh blood from victims in order to prolong the life of the last president of the United States), and even, in an extended saga of graphic brutality, exceedingly vicious tyrannosaurs (including Satanus) and other dinosaurs brought back into being from prehistoric times.
The 'banned' chapters
Two sets of stories, taking up four weeks of the Cursed Earth saga, appeared in the original 2000 AD comics of 1978: these failed to materialise in any format whatsoever in any of the numerous reprints since the early Eighties, until they were finally published in 2016. These were 'Burger Wars' (art by Mike McMahon) and also 'Soul Food', which was inked by Brian Bolland. Although these tales are as bizarre and unrestrained as any of the surrounding escapades, the main reason for their failure to reappear until 2016 was likely more down to nervous IPC execs surveying the finished items, which included heavy use of famous, copyrighted characters, and perspiring at the thought of incoming lawsuits as a result. Apparently, no such actions were ever seriously put before a law-court, but the suits at Fleetway and IPC chose not to bite the bullet and release these controversial oddities. The people running Rebellion (which bought 2000 AD in the year 2000), however, were made of sterner stuff.
'Burger Wars' told the story of the conflicts of McDonald and Burger King franchises, who have resorted to outright murder in the lawless wilderness of the Cursed Earth: instantly-recognizable imagery of a corrupted 'Ronald MacDonald' especially singles this one out as a hot potato.
The second 'banned' strip, 'Soul Food', took the concept of trademarked characters even further, and we see a demented Colonel Sanders (of KFC fame) lookalike undertake bizarre biological experiments, which included a full-scaled 'Jolly Green Giant', a francophone Michelin Man, and — perhaps most bizarrely of all — a set of twin Alka-Seltzer boys depicted as outlandish living advertisements. These two stories were achingly missed by Dredd aficionados and represented a gaping chasm of missing thrill-power whenever true fans revisited this epic saga. Their eventual reappearance in 2016 was greeted with widespread appreciation.
Even when revisited today, the Cursed Earth story impresses the true Dredd enthusiast, with its sheer ambitious scope, unending drama and imaginative, if grim, scenarios. What it lacks in surface polish and subtlety, it more than makes up for with unbridled verve and gritty drive. Incredibly, only two 2000 AD artists worked on this highly detailed venture: Brian Bolland and Mike McMahon, undoubtedly the two key Dredd artists of this period. McMahon in particular took on the greater bulk of the duties — he must have had his work cut out on the Dredd strip during these early years. One episode of the 'Tweak' adventure seems to have been pencilled by Bolland and inked by Dave Gibbons. Although it would take a brave newcomer to the Dredd saga to be able to read through the entire story in one sitting, this tale does however reward the committed Dredd enthusiast with relentless thrills and breathtaking action sequences.
True, the overall tone of the piece is rough around the edges in parts, with McMahon's still-developing artwork being a little difficult to decipher in some of the overdetailed panels, but the sheer spirit of early-period Dredd shines through unabated, in a way that is seldom seen in contemporary Future Lawman stories. Dredd originator and writer John Wagner was by this stage exhibiting sheer mastery of the comic strip medium, and within the chaotic frames of this essential early Dredd epic, he and co-writers Pat Mills (who actually wrote most of the episodes) and Chris Lowder let their imagination rip in a scenario of total bravado, exuberant overkill and thrilling drama.
See also: Cursed Earth (location).