Review by Roy Boyd
Strontium Dog was created by the men who also gave us Judge Dredd – John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra – for Starlord, a short-lived anthology comic soon swallowed up by its stablemate, 2000 AD. It still regularly appears in that title, with its longevity and popularity probably second only to Dredd. This volume begins a chronological collection of all stories.
Wagner writes the first run, from ‘Max Quirxx’ to ‘Journey Into Hell’, with everything following by Wagner and Alan Grant, despite what the credits claim.
Search/Destroy agents, known as Strontium Dogs, are despised bounty hunters with a bewildering and mostly useless range of mutations, unlike Marvel’s X-Men. One notable exception is our hero: Johnny Alpha. A ruthless killer with a heart of gold, his glowing, alpha-ray emitting eyes are the only visible sign that he’s a mutant, with abilities that include telepathy, X-ray vision and, at least in the early strips, pretty much anything that the plot demanded. Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer, his Viking sidekick, can usually be found plying their trade on frontier planets that combine all the tropes of a Western with science fiction elements. Not dissimilar, in fact, to a sci-fi movie that came out around the same time.
The move to 2000 AD began with a couple of stories far longer than anything that had gone before. ‘The Galaxy Killers’, a space opera featuring spaceships very reminiscent of those by sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss, is resolved when Johnny and Wulf destroy the artificial Wolrog homeworld, yet another blatant steal from Star Wars. The longest story, at fifteen parts, is the frankly mental, though thoroughly enjoyable, ‘Journey Into Hell.’
The best story in this collection is ‘The Shicklgruber Grab’. This plays to the artist’s strengths, Ezquerra having previously illustrated many war stories, and toys with the time travel conundrum about would Adolf Hitler be killed when time travel developed. It’s packed with humour and action, and introduces Stix – a memorable villain based on Lee van Cleef – and then promptly kills him. This wasn’t to stop his identical brothers (and later cousins) coming back to continue in effectively the exact same role. The Gronk, able to eat anything, was another character to be similarly resurrected, and this would become something of a theme throughout the strip’s long history.
Ezquerra is inextricably linked to Johnny Alpha. He drew almost all Strontium Dog stories, and continues, forty years later, to do so. His work is always dynamic, though it can seem a bit rushed at times. Other artists occasionally tackle the character, no doubt cursing the complicated design (even Ezquerra struggles with the helmet sometimes). Ian Gibson produces a couple of chapters, though his style – much less bold than Ezquerra’s – doesn’t suit the strip. Brendan McCarthy draws three stories, and while he’s good, his approach is a bit too dark for this series, which takes an ill-considered turn into horror with his ‘Funfair of Fear’ in the book’s final section, collecting stories from Starlord Annuals and the Summer Special.
While it’s a bit all over the place when it comes to genre, Strontium Dog works best as a spaghetti Western. It doesn’t have the depth of Judge Dredd, largely because Mega-City One is as much a character as Dredd himself and these far-flung stories lack that detailed world building. However, Alpha looks ‘cool as der cucumber’, as Wulf would say, and these tales, ranging from space opera to gritty revenge-driven Westerns, have much to recommend them, not least a blast of nostalgia for any comic readers of a certain age.