Spoilers in review

The 28-part title story that makes up the bulk of this collection is the usual Strontium Dog blend of politics, guerrilla warfare, spaghetti Western and horror with a sword & sorcery bent. The fascist New Church stage a bloody coup, killing the government and laying blame for the deaths at the feet of the mutants. They then begin to deport all mutants to a hell dimension under the pretext of sending them off to a utopia. From the title itself, the Holocaust comparisons are never far from the surface, nor are they subtle. Our hero, Johnny Alpha, intervenes and ends up stranded alongside the terrified mutants in the horrific world they’ve been consigned to. Suffice to say that things don’t go well for Alpha.

Simon Harrison handles the art for the first 23 episodes. Many readers hated his artwork at the time, and it’s easy to see why. He’s clearly got talent, but his energetically messy style suits neither this tricky-to-draw character nor a story largely set in a bizarre hell dimension.

When originally serialised, there was a break in publication of almost a year, then the story returned with a quick recap before concluding. Fortunately, Colin MacNeil takes over on art duties, and he does an outstanding job, helped by the fact that colour is introduced. It may be heresy to say so, but there’s no denying he handles the strip better than Carlos Ezquerra ever did. His earlier black and white work was good, but his artwork here is superb, characterising Alpha well and supplying great vistas.

For bonus material we have three one-offs from annuals and specials. ‘Incident at the Birth of the Universe’ features art by Kevin Walker. He’d become one of the better 2000 AD artists and also work well at Marvel, but this early in his career he struggles with a story that calls for a great deal of cosmic weirdness, and the results are amateurish. ‘The Town That Died of Shame’, has a more traditional Western setting, with a Brendan McCarthy colour double-page opening spread and MacNeil providing art for the remainder of the story.

Finally,there’s  ‘Top Dogs’, a 29-page story that’s co-creator John Wagner’s sole contribution to this volume. Johnny and Wulf travel sixty years back in time to Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One in pursuit of some villains. Unfortunately this brings them into contact with Old Stony Face himself and, as we’ve seen before in assorted Dredd/Batman crossovers, Dredd doesn’t normally play well with others, especially when they’re time-travelling vigilantes. This is a great story, beautifully drawn and coloured by MacNeil, with a script that’s full of humour and clever plotting. Without a doubt, the highlight of this collection.

So, a book that football fans would call a ‘game of two halves’. Harrison’s work is poor, but that’s offset somewhat by MacNeil’s contributions. While Wagner had a point, that bounty hunters probably wouldn’t have a long life expectancy, it still grates to see a much-loved character meet his end. Especially when, as had happened ever since Sherlock’s apparently fatal tumble off the Reichenbach falls, there’s little doubt that said character would be later revived. It also seems odd to have a Strontium Dog collection without Ezquerra, who disagreed with killing Johnny and refused to work on this story. Time has proven him right, with Alpha inevitably being resurrected in a variety of ways since.