Are you looking forward to a new comic book but it’s impossible for you to wait for its release before you know what we thought about it? That’s why there’s DoomRocket’s Advanced Reviews—now we assess books you can’t even buy yet. This week: The hardcover edition of ‘Strontium Dog: Search & Destroy’, out November 12 from 2000 AD and Rebellion Publishing.
by Mickey Rivera. Mutants get such a bad deal in most fiction. In the past they were often monstrous abominations hellbent on killing normal humans, or they were outcasts having to scrape by in some subterranean existence. Maligned by “genetically pure” humanity, mutants such as Strontium Dog’s Johnny Alpha were often byproducts of some great human sin from the past—in the case of Alpha, a colossal nuclear war spread strontium-90 radiation all over the earth which caused widespread deformities and, in some instances, superpowers.
On some level it makes sense to turn the victims of the human race’s negligence or hatred into unappreciated heroes. Throughout early comics children were fed the lie of military altruism. As the 1960s and 70s raged on and America led the industrialized world in a fight to privatize the resources of poorer countries, the meanings of “good guy” and “bad guy” began to mutate accordingly. It’s only in an atmosphere like this that Johnny Alpha, a preeminently smart and tactically cunning subaltern, could thrive in the adolescent entertainment market.
Strontium Dog debuted on May 13, 1978, in the first issue of Starlord, a 2000 AD spinoff magazine marketed towards much the same crowd but with purportedly higher production values. (Compared with 2000 AD it was nearly the same magazine save for the stronger pages and different series.) Published by magazine giant IPC, 2000 AD had launched just about a year or so earlier featuring its future superstar Judge Dredd, created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra. Though Wagner and Ezquerra had helped create Dredd, creative differences led the writer and artist to temporarily split from the character and from 2000 AD—though both have since described their subsequent creation of Strontium Dog for Starlord as the first time they had made something that was truly theirs.
Johnny Alpha himself is an amalgam of laddish tendencies originating from IPC’s boy’s magazines: part cowboy, part warrior, part working-class hero. He’s a mutant, and as such is a victim to his society’s various hangups with mutants. For instance, the Galactic Crime Commission has decreed that mutants are utterly barred from making any kind of living outside of murdering non-mutants (truly a winning long-term strategy for any state seeking to keep an underclass in check). Blessed with a belt-full of bounty hunting gadgets and a ride-or-die viking comrade, Alpha explores the far reaches of the galaxy chasing fugitives.
A dystopian future with obvious parallels to the enduring racist authoritarian tendencies of the present is nothing new these days, but there are few stories with quite the same edge as Strontium Dog. (For example, its gritty take on mutantkind is a far cry from the preppiness of the X-Men.) Wagner writes these early stories with expertly-honed pulp sensibilities, and his daring planetary antics are punctuated by moments of deliciously corny wordsmithing: Johnny’s “electronux” for instance (“with the power of 20,000 volts!”); or his arrival at a world named Paprika, “next planet to Coriander in the Spice system.”
(Oddly, Wagner wrote Strontium Dog under the nom de plume “T.B. Grover,” and continued to do so well after Starlord merged with 2000 AD. His excuse for this is that news outlets would often take potshots at science fiction comics on slow news days—the pen name was meant to protect him from the harassment of real life “norms.”)
While there’s plenty to remind you how good it was to be a kid who could take something like electronux very seriously, Strontium Dog’s depiction of discrimination and pervasive racial hatred cuts deep on a subconscious level. Alpha’s attitude towards his social status is essentially “Fuck you, I’m gonna do me.” The cruelty of not being given a choice except to become a killer for hire is dampened by Alpha’s integrity, though he seems to follow an internal code that is more like the opposite of a knight: serving authority out of compulsion, not because he is noble but because he’s the opposite of nobility. His friendship is an unbreakable bond. His respect for the real victims of the galaxy runs deep. As readers travel around with his posse we get the sense that he is invincible so long as he has at least a few people he can truly count on.
Strontium Dog: Search & Destroy collects all of the Johnny Alpha comics from Starlord’s short-lived run, and restores its two-page color spreads. I feel like Carlos Ezquerra’s art has become legendary due in large part to these spreads, which here are reproduced faithful to the colors of the original print. Forest green, bright yellow, navy blue, orange, and hot pink hues dominate, a dusty, earthy blend which gives Ezquerra’s art an otherworldly glow. Starlord, like its sister publication, used their relatively cheap color printing to magnificent effect and I’m incredibly happy they left the original colors intact rather than attempting to update them.
Most of these stories are drawn by Ezquerra, but there are a few exceptions; within the main series the “Demon Maker” storyline brings in two other artists, Brendan McCarthy and Ian Gibson. McCarthy’s thick outlines and dark expressions gives the early third of “Demon Maker” a fittingly cartoonish horror vibe. The other two installments, drawn with a high-fantasy whispiness by Ian Gibson, tightens Johnny’s jowls and sharpens his nose so he’s more handsome. (Keith Page draws one of the Annual one-shots.) Each artist does an admiral job, but it’s clear by comparison that this is truly Ezquerra’s joint.
Strontium Dog: Search & Destroy archives the early stories of one of the UK’s most important comics. Its world ties together the monstrous technology of the 1970s and the lawless expansion of imperial power which defined the prior century. Nuclear and neutron bombs, space travel, and specialized weaponry speak to the cutting edge of industrialized warfare, while Alpha’s rootless bounty hunter lifestyle nods to the Wild West. Even his “Search/Destroy Agent” title is lifted from the brutal tactic invented by British troops in Malaysia and made famous by American armed forces in Vietnam, both of whom sought to strongarm native populations into submission.
Like with many stories that came out of 2000 AD, America, land of merchandise and megacities, seems to be the reference guide for building a dystopian society. Johnny Alpha and company ride through the universe toward a big hot alien sunset like derelict deputies, embodiments of the enduring fighting spirit of those wronged by megalomaniacal authority figures. Their fate is paradoxically both unfixed yet depending entirely on which way the money is blowing that particular day. It’s always blowing where those in power tell it to, of course. Alpha, like the rest of us modern mutants, is compelled to follow.
2000 AD / Rebellion Publishing / UK £19.99 / US $25.99
Written by John Wagner.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra.
Additional art and stories by Bill Henry, Brendan McCarthy, Ian Gibson, and Keith Page.
Lettering by Jack Potter, Peter Knight, Steve Potter, Tony Jacob, Tom Frame, John Aldrich, Paul Bensber, and David Gould
9 out of 10
Check out this 5-page preview of ‘Strontium Dog: Search & Destroy’, courtesy of 2000 AD and Rebellion Publishing!