2000 AD: The Ultimate Collection #5. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 194-197, 200-206, 210-221, 224-233 & 335-345.
It’s January 1981. Welcome back, voorms! The second collection of Strontium Dog stories covers 1981-1983 and are all from the writing and art team of John Wagner, Alan Grant and Carlos Ezquerra, lending a nice sense of consistency and confidence to the Volume. By this time Strontium Dog is established as one of 2000 AD‘s strongest and most popular series, and this collection features a good mix of stories that demonstrate the range of the concept.
The featured story in this collection is “Portrait of a Mutant (1981)”, a 19-part epic that explores Johnny Alpha’s origins and the Mutant War that’s formed a thematic backdrop to the series. (Side note: I find it interesting that Wagner waited almost 30 years to do “Origins (2006)” for Dredd but does “Portrait” so early for Strontium Dog.) “Portrait” is a fun and energetic, if surprisingly straightforward, read. Wagner and Grant front-load the story’s biggest revelation: that Alpha is the son of mutant-hating politician Nelson Kreelman. It’s a classic dramatic reveal, and fits perfectly with the taciturn loner we’ve seen Alpha portrayed as so far.
This leaves the rest of the story to be devoted to the mutant uprising and guerrilla war. Wagner and Grant have a great deal of fun telling a somewhat cliched underdog war story, but with the added layer of absolutely ridiculous mutants fighting the battles: Evans the Fist and his Free Welsh Muties; Clacton Fuzz and his Fenmen. Given Wagner and Ezquerra’s history with publications such as Battle this feels like a homage of sorts to those kinds of stories. Ezquerra is of course excellent at these long, plot-heavy stories (fortunate, as he’ll be doing another epic war story next year for Dredd!), and provides some great characterisation for the various mutant leaders. I like his version of young Alpha as well, which is subtle but different from “present-day” Johnny.
What really stood out for me in this story is how incisive Wagner and Grant are with the anti-mutant prejudice from Kreelman in particular, as well as the other political leaders. Strontium Dog is set in a bizarre sci-fi future often played for laughs, but Kreelman isn’t some wacky sci-fi villain. He’s an abusive bigot who is trying to exterminate whole groups of people. His treatment of Alpha’s mother is shocking in its clear threats of domestic violence, and is clearly deliberate by Wagner and Grant – we’re not meant to dismiss him as some ridiculous baddie, but someone grounded in attitudes and behaviour we can find today. It’s uncompromising and really stands out amidst the adventurous plot around it.
Overall, “Portrait” succeeds at telling a long story well, while adding depth to both Alpha and his world. There are a few great specific moments as well: the changes to Britain after the nuclear war; the creation of the floating Parliament in Upminster (love that joke); and the utterly useless Royal Family are all wonderful little details. We’ll also be seeing many of the characters introduced here later on, particularly Middenface McNulty.
The 11-part “The Moses Incident (1983)” provides the other big story of this collection, and it directs its focus at Alpha and his sense of honour and decency. Indirectly responsible for the death of a young boy, Moses Quest, Alpha embarks on a single-minded quest to resurrect him thanks to an obviously-going-to-betray-Alpha sorcerer Malak Brood. I like Wagner and Grant’s commitment to the idea here – Strontium Dogs are in a dangerous line of work, and given Alpha’s regularly-demonstrated aptitude with blowing up doors, walls and drinking holes that get in his way it’s hardly surprising that there is some collateral damage. The story doesn’t hold back in showing the ramifications of Moses’s death, including the grieving mother and actually seeing the boy’s funeral. It’s doubly nasty of Wagner and Grant to have Moses revere the Strontium Dogs.
Alpha’s obsessive quest to atone for what happened is well played out, and while I’m never hugely on-board with the mystical elements sitting in a sci-fi strip (hello there The Judge Child ), Ezquerra does do a good job with the zombies and other evil trappings of the Island of the Living Dead. But the character work is what mostly stands out – it provides a nice counterpoint to Dredd, who would accept casualties (even a 10-year-old) as necessary in upholding the law. Alpha really goes to pieces over it and puts himself and Wulf in danger to try and fix it – which in the end, he can’t. It has a bit of a pat ending, but in the end I appreciate “The Moses Incident” for taking a pretty dark look at Alpha and the work he does.
There’s a two-year gap between “Moses” and the previous Strontium Dog story, and it definitely does feel like a bit of a different take – more character-based and personal. I’ll have to go back and read Thrill-Power Overload to see why there was such a big break for a popular character.
The rest of the collection is rounded out by some shorter and lighter fare – “The Bad Boys Bust (1981)” is a pretty forgettable story that sees Alpha and Wulf take on some simian criminals called the Bad Boys (not exactly the most creative of criminal gang titles there); “The Gronk Affair (1981)” looks like some light and breezy fun, and is referred to as such in the bonus material in the collection, until you remember that the story sees tens of thousands of Gronks hunted, killed, skinned for their pelts or eaten! Now I was on record in Strontium Dog: Volume 1 as not liking the Gronk, but even I’d draw the line at what happens to them here! “The Kid Knee Caper (1981)” is a quiet favourite of mine in this collection, with a washed-up old Strontium Dog trying to track down a wanted shape-shifter to claim the reward and retire. There’s a dignity and a respect paid to the character that pairs beautifully with Ezquerra’s incredible depiction of man with his head where his knee should be!
Two Volumes in and Strontium Dog remains one of the highlights of the Ultimate Collection. I was a bit concerned in Volume 1 that there was too much reliance on ultra-convenient technology, and despite a lot of time-bomb throwing it is downplayed a bit here. I haven’t talked much about Wulf in the review, but he’s a really great character with a humorous and slightly different view of Alpha’s world. I’m looking forward to Volume 3 in a few months.
Next time: It’s the debut of another classic 2000 AD character as we take a look at Rogue Trooper: Volume 1.