Graphic Novel Reviews

Strontium Dog: The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha - The Project

(2012) John Wagner & Carlos Ezequerra, 2000AD, £14.99, trdpbk, ??pp, ISBN 978-1-781-08043-6


The 'Strontium Dogs' were characters that first appeared in the IPC comic Starlord back in 1977 and which was carried over when that publication merged with 2000AD a couple of years later. Johnny Alpha, the strip's principal character, has had regular appearances in 2000AD (as well as very occasional ones in The Judge Dredd Megazine) ever since.

The Strontium Dogs are mutants resulting from nuclear war. Originally this war was – it was loosely implied – around the same time as the one which took at the time that Judge Dredd's Mega City One was formed. However, back in the 1980s the timelines of the various 2000AD characters were never worked out as few of the editors thought that the comic would still exist three decades hence. Since then there have been a couple of Judge Dredd – Strontium Dog crossover tales (notably Judgement Day) that clearly put Johnny Alpha as living a century or so in Dredd's future. The Strontium Dog mutants are shunned by normal humans ('norms') but a few can earn a good living by being bounty hunters and tracking down criminals across the galaxy. Johnny Alphas mutation is that he has eyes that enable him to see through walls. He also happens to be a good shot.

Over the years there have been a number stories that elucidate Johnny's history: that he was the son of a British political leader who despised mutants; that he had a partner who had been an historic Viking called Wulf, but who had subsequently been killed, and for a while Wulf and Johnny had a companion medic who was a short timid alien called the Gronk. (Incidentally in the early 1980s 2000AD granted Hatfield's Hertfordshire University PSIFA and Cambridge University's SF Society the rights to have the Gronk as their respective society mascots and use his likeness.) In all two gronks left the Strontium Dog team and subsequently Wulf was killed. Then, in the millennium's first decade, a story was published in which Johnny Alpha himself was killed in another dimension…

Which brings us up to this graphic novel: The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha: The Project compiled from weekly strips published in 2000AD in 2010 and 20111. Actually this graphic novel is really " The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha Chapters 1 and 2" of which 'The Project' is chapter two, but I digress and this is perhaps too much information for most readers albeit an important distinction for serious aficionados and students of the genre.

In The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha: The Project the death of Johnny Alpha is being investigated by the biographer Precious Matson. The story is told with occasional editorial interludes that make it clear that the graphic novel's narrator is purportedly in the future and looking back on Alpha's life in part using Precious Matson's own work which has since (from the narrator's perspective) been published as Johnny Alpha: A Life. From all this you can gather that The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha: The Project is a key graphic novel in the overall Strontium Dog story arc.

The story begins with Precious Matson seeking out a Strontium Dog called Middenface McNulty who occasionally used to work alongside Johnny Alpha. (Middenface is an occasional character in the Strontium Dog strip and a couple of times had a spin-off strip himself in the Judge Dredd Megazine with much input by another 20000AD stalwart, the Scottish Alan Grant, and Middenface himself is a Scot.)

Middenface McNulty has fallen since Johnny's death and is now a bit of an alcoholic. Precious reveals that Johnny's body was not left at the site of his death but immediately brought back to this dimension. And so the precious and McNulty agree to investigate together. This investigation was to take them to a number of planets and inadvertently cause others (who would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie) to try to stop them…

The story has all you would expect from John Wagner: a great tale, some wonderful sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) as well as the occasional dashes of humour, some of it a tad black. The illustration is by the Strontium Dog original illustrator, Carlos Ezquerra and is in full colour (back in the 1970s we only had black and white). The letterer is not the strip's original letterer, the late great Tom Frame, but Simon Bowland who is as capable with a steady hand that portrays italic and bold much as Tom would himself.

The graphic collection also contains a short black and white bonus strip: 'What If…? Max Bubba Hadn't Killed Wulf?' These 'What If…' strips are occasional stories that portray 2000AD characters (often former characters) under different circumstances. As mentioned, the historic Viking, Wulf Sternhammer, was originally Johnny Alpha's bounty-hunting partner but was killed by the mutant criminal Max Bubba. This story recounts what might have happened had Wulf originally escaped Bubba. A short but a wonderful nod to the character that will delight 2000AD and, in particular, Strontium Dog aficionados.

In short, The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha: The Project graphic novel is an integral collection for 2000AD and, in particular, Strontium Dog regulars. Those seeking a flavour of 2000AD's characters and so are over the years acquiring just a dozen or so graphic novels from the 2000AD stable will find this a key one. One would of warning, chapters three and four of The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha are to follow, but be assured (as some of us have seen what is to come in the weekly comic) the wait will be worth it.

Jonathan Cowie

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