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Monday, November 10, 2008


The brooding visage of Johnny Alpha, 22nd century mutant bounty hunter and hard-as-nails badass.

Having sung its praises often enough on this blog, and especially now that the series’ entire run is being reprinted in sequence, it’s high time I got around to reviewing the original run of STRONTIUM DOG, one of the flagship series in Britain’s venerable 2000 A.D. sci-fi comics weekly, and in the process hopefully garner it some new readers.

STRONTIUM DOG chronicles the late-22nd century exploits of intergalactic bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, a mutant S/D (“Search and Destroy”) agent — derisively referred to by the general public as "Strontium Dogs," so the series title is rather akin to BOSS NIGGER in intent — from a segregated anti-mutant Earth who is utterly clever, ruthless and tougher than leather, armed with an arsenal of deadly high-tech future weaponry and gizmos. Accompanied by his hulking time-displaced Viking partner, Wulf Sternhammer, and occasional comic relief alien medic the Gronk, Johnny’s adventures depict his various assignments and they are mostly fun as can be, but when I discovered the series during a trip to the UK in 1981 it was with the final chapter of the five-month-long “Portrait of A Mutant,” the tale that gave long-time readers the hero’s previously unrevealed origin.

My first exposure to STRONTIUM DOG: I enjoyed it so much that I became a fan for life.

I enjoyed that last chapter so much that I was intrigued enough to track down all of the previous segments of the serial, which I managed to do before returning to the US, and I’m glad I did since at the time virtually no American comic shops carried 2000 A.D. Happily for readers in today’s far more comics-friendly marketplace, such is no longer the case and the original run of the series (1978-1990) has been collected in five volumes under the banner of STRONTIUM DOG: SEARCH/DESTROY AGENCY CASE FILES followed by THE KREELER CONSPIRACY, the first collection of the rebooted version that began in 1999.

An iconic cover from STRONTIUM DOG's classic period.

Written by John Wagner (usually with uncredited co-author Alan Grant) and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra — the guy who also designed Judge Dredd — STRONTIUM DOG offers what could fairly be termed a “Spaghetti Western” in space, loaded with action, bizarre mutants and alien life-forms, and seasoned with a wicked sense of gallows humor and does not disappoint. That is unless the stories aren’t drawn by Ezquerra — these collections are complete, so they contain several one-shot stories culled from assorted annuals and specials and none of the artists come close to Ezquerra’s real deal — especially in the case of the controversial “Final Solution” arc found in book five, but we’ll be getting to that soon enough.


This first volume collects material including the earliest stuff from the series' days in STARLORD, a weekly sister magazine to 2000 A.D. that folded fairly quickly and saw STRONTIUM DOG and RO-BUSTERS (I'll cover that one in a future post) transfer residence to 2000 A.D. where both went on to become classics (and in the case of RO-BUSTERS, featured art by a young Dave Gibbons and spawned what may be the best robot comics series of all time, THE A.B.C. WARRIORS). Initially a series of stand-alone stories, STRONTIUM DOG became popular enough to allow the creators to craft the first in what would become a long line of epic adventures, the fondly-remembered fifteen-chapter "Journey Into Hell," in which the heroes find themselves stuck on the aptly-named Hell-World in a dimension that mirrored the general conception of the realm of the eternally damned. That bit of business is followed by "The Schickelgruber Grab," a time-travel story featuring Johnny and Wulf heading to Nazi Germany in pursuit of Adolf Hitler so he can finally face justice in the future. It's all quite juvenile, as is fitting for a series in what was then a comic aimed squarely at young lads, and I know plenty of people in the UK who read "Journey Into Hell" when it came out and still hold it very high esteem, but out of all the classic material I find this collection to be the weakest of the lot. That's not to say it's bad or unentertaining by any means, but it just can't stand up in comparison to the stuff that immediately follows.


This is the point where the series undergoes a bit of a shift into a darker tone and does a bit of growing up. The creators had fully sussed out what they wanted to do with their characters and the future society they operate in, so they established the history and parameters of the 22nd century with the tour de force "Portrait of A Mutant," the nineteen-part origin of Johnny Alpha. Opening during the aftermath of the Great War of 2150, a thermonuclear conflict that killed 70% of the British population and spawned huge numbers of often horribly deformed mutants, we witness the birth of John Kreelman, born after his mother was forced to walk through a radioactive wasteland during the last days of her pregnancy with him, absorbing massive doses of Strontium-90 and causing the child to bear a startling mutation to his otherwise basically normal appearance: the child is born with eyes that are stark white and as he grew he discovered that they allowed him to see through solid objects and control the minds of others. Unfortunately for him, little Johnny's father was Nelson Bunker Kreelman, a politician on the rise with a rabid anti-mutant agenda clearly intended to mirror that of Hitler and his 20th century campaign against the Jews of Europe. Despising his "impure" son on sight and determined not to let the fact that his own son was a mutant ruin his genocidal plans, Kreelman first hides the boy's eyes behind a pair of goggles, claiming he has a sensitive ocular condition, but that measure isn't a sure enough deterrent so Kreelman locks his abused son away in an isolated tower for several years. Escaping at around the age of sixteen or seventeen (with the aid of his "norm" older sister and a gun provided by his mother, her dying act), Johnny flees to the countryside and joins up with the guerrilla forces of the Mutant Army, a ragtag "terrorist" group who violently oppose Kreelman's fascist killers (dubbed "Kreelers"). Realizing it wouldn't be a good idea to let it be known that he's their greatest enemy's son, John Kreelman changes his name to Johnny Alpha (after the Alpha rays emitted by his eyes) and embarks on an education of death. Taking to guerrilla training like a duck to water, the hard-as-nails man who would gain a galaxy-spanning fearsome rep is forged in the fires of a righteous war against the forces of racial prejudice, and it's one hell of a grim tale. This volume also includes such notable entries as "The Gronk Affair," in which Johnny and Wulf travel to the Gronk's homeworld and massacre the living shit of of a bunch of stone cold bastards who are killing the Gronk's people in order to make a fortune by selling their highly-prized fur and meat, the over-the-top assassination competition of "The Killing," and "Outlaw," but the absolute gem here is "Portrait of A Mutant." STRONTIUM DOG earned its classic status with that one and it's justly hailed as one of 2000 A.D.'s finest hours, so if you buy any book in this series this is the one to snag. Everything that made the series great kicks off here.


The "Spaghetti Western in space" continues with "The Big Bust of '49" (Johnny and Wulf aid in the cleaning-up of a town populated by hardened outlaws) and "The Slavers of Drule" (which introduces Johnny and Wulf's cozy little home on the remote Smiley's World where they spend a lot of time outdoors doing manly things like chopping wood, an element that led to erroneous reader assumptions that the pair were homosexual lovers), but the heavy-hitters here are the "Max Bubba" and "Rage" arcs, epics of savage violence, torture, murder and concrete proof that revenge is a dish best served cold. By this point STRONTIUM DOG had moved well past its kiddie-strip origins and often featured balls-out mayhem, but "Max Bubba" and "Rage" pair up to form the darkest material seen in the series before or since and it's quite a jarring ride. "Why," you may ask? Let's just say that Max Bubba proves to be a villain of the highest (lowest?), most sadistic order, and by the time "Rage" gets going you'll want to see him put down like the rabid animal that he is.


After the highpoint of intensity seen in the previous volume, the creators took steps to quell the rumors about Johnny being a homo by introducing Durham Red, a sexy mutant S/D agent whose mutation is identical to vampirism, minus the pesky vulnerability to sunlight. Debuting in the somewhat lackluster — and overlong at 24 chapters — "Bitch," Durham Red is that laziest of creations, the hot vampire chick designed to make fanboys drool, and she in no way deserved the popularity she achieved, eventually spinning off into the STRONTIUM DOGS, the turgid-though-well-illustrated SCARLET APOCRYPHA and DURHAM RED series. It's at this point that STRONTIUM DOG, though still readable, began to flounder, and it looked like it might be time to put Johnny Alpha out to pasture.


Sweet jumpin' Jesus in a basket of fried chicken...

Ignoring the advice of fellow Johnny Alpha boosters Chris Weston and Garth Ennis, I read this volume a few days ago, and, well...

"The Final Solution" was Grant's ill-advised story arc that killed off Johnny Alpha in such a way that he could never be resurrected — I know it's comics and all, but considering the parameters of 2000 A.D.'s science it just ain't doable without time-travel and that would have been lame beyond words — a decision that led Ezquerra to refuse to draw the demise of the character he co-created, as well as pissing off the fans to such a degree that the story is still considered controversial some eighteen years after the fact. Without the series' signature visual style, STRONTIUM DOG just does not work, and the art by Simon Harrison during the story's first half is, well, I’ll get to that shortly. Let's forget for a moment that this was the story where Johnny Alpha was killed off for no good reason. Judged solely on its merits as a 2000 AD serial, both in terms of story and art, I have to say I don't think I've ever encountered something worse from 2000 AD, and I've read a hell of a lot of it. Grant was waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay off his game here, and there's really no excuse because, as much as I wouldn't want to see it, the death of Johnny Alpha could have made for compelling reading even if we had no idea who the fuck he was. A lawman/bounty hunter whose violent lifestyle leads to an inevitable hard end? One would think that would be simplicity itself, but what made it to the page was a needlessly drawn-out affair that's boring to boot, and introduces the young Wolverine knockoff, Feral.

And then there's the..."artwork" of one Simon Harrison.

I don't even know where to begin. I totally agree with Ezquerra's decision not to draw this debacle, but how in hell did a no-talent like Harrison ever get a paying gig, let alone the epic final arc on one of the magazine's flagship series? His art was the kind of stuff that I would never have passed if seen as a submission, and it's especially irksome to me that I ended up spending a long time lingering over panels that I found so utterly visually repellent in order to try and figure out just what the hell was going on in each murky and distorted illustration. I've seen plenty of bad art in my thirty-six years as an active reader of comics, but seldom have I seen anything as cornea-wiltingly horrid as this indecipherable scribbling. I couldn't even recognize Johnny and Middenface McNulty (a Scottish mutant and semi-regular), two characters whose adventures I've devoured since the Summer of 1981, for fuck's sake! If it sounds like I'm angry, let me spell it out for you: I shelled out around thirty bucks (import pricing) for this waste of trees and I am positively livid. Appalling and disappointing in every way, and I can't trade the fucker back in to where I purchased it! Chris and Garth both tried to protect me, but I did not listen to the warnings of people whom I consider knowledgeable and compassionate friends, and for that I stand exposed as a moron. There's an old saying advising one "don't put your dick in the crazy," and once more I have ignored a warning that should have been carved in monolithic slabs of stone that would dwarf Stonehenge. A failure in every way, this book just made me sad and is easily the sorriest coda to a once great series that I have ever read. I read it solely to be able to comment on it with some authority, but I can honestly say this volume can be skipped outright without damaging your STRONTIUM DOG experience in any way.


So Johnny Alpha was dead and 2000 A.D. soldiered on without him. Nine years passed and eventually Wagner realized he must have been out of his fucking mind to snuff a great character and a good series in the process, so he rebooted STRONTIUM DOG in 1999 with Ezquerra back and in fine form, setting the new series before Johnny's death and passing off much of what came before as "folklore." The new series of STRONTIUM DOG still retained its signature tone, but it had also grown up in much the way 2000 A.D. itself had, offering a more adult edge to its heroes' tales and adding elements of mild sex to quell the longstanding allegations that Johnny and Wulf were star-hopping “friends of Dorothy.” Anyway, this first collection of the SD reboot is a hell of a lot of fun, more than making up for the awful previous Ezquerra-less volume. This latest book contains "The Kreeler Conspiracy" (the power of which stems from the events chronicled in Volume 2's "Portrait of a Mutant”), a trip to a backwater artists' colony that leads Johnny and Wulf to an inescapable and deadly "Roadhouse," and "The Tax Dodge," in which Johnny's refusal to pay his considerable back taxes (a sum he feels no obligation to pony up because the government of Earth declared him an exile in years previous) brings him to the attention of Earthcom Internal Revenue and persistent collections agent Orville J. Paxman. While not as good as the stuff from STRONTIUM DOG's glory days, the material here earns a solid eight out of ten and that's pretty good, especially when stacked up against much of the other stuff 2000 A.D. was turning out at the same time. I recommend it, but urge you to check out the first four collected volumes, especially Volume 2, before cracking open THE KREELER CONSPIRACY.

So that’s all that’s thus far available of the series in collected editions, and I’m eager to read more from the reboot. And if you can walk away from this overview with two solid pieces of advice, listen to me when I tell you to pick up volume 2 and utterly avoid “The Final Solution,” the two adding up as perfect examples of just how great and just how flamingly bad a series can be.

1 comment:

M said...

Everyone seems to hate Simon Harrison's art. so let me be the first to opine that it's awesome, brilliant and a wonderous breath of fresh air as a style.

There's no lines in it, just jagged, blobs of black ink that somehow make an image, yeah it's somewhat distorted and the proportions may be off here and there, but often that's to add motion to the scene. I appreciate that art is a personal taste and that Harrison's work is not to yours, but to call him a 'no-talent' is both offensive and demonstrably incorrect.

I was Gutted when they pulled Harrison off the Final Solution programme (despite the fact it was obvious he was struggling to keep up with the publishing schedule) and didn't think that MacNeil's work was a fitting finish to the stroyline. Tho that is in part becuase it was colour and I prefer black and white comics.

I also really liked the story, and thought it was good that Johnny died, yeah it was sad, but 2000AD is not Hollywood, it can't always be a happy ending. Great heroes need great deaths and Johnny's sacrifice was in character and meaningful.

My main complaint with the collected volume of the Final Solution is that the pages are too small, and, iirc, have a white border, thus rendering the images smaller than they appeared in the original comic and thus missing out on the glorious detail of Harrison's work. Maybe you should photocopy some of the pages up to double scale to appreciate his work.