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Mutant Mayhem in Milton Keynes: The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha, Strontium Dog

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Mutants have been popular in comics for decades; ever since the arrival of DC’s Captain Comet in the 1950s in fact, although since the early ‘60s the word ‘mutant’ has of course been more or less synonymous with ‘X-Men’ to many. But Johnny Alpha, the star of the long-running British series Strontium Dog, lives in a world far removed from that of Marvel’s spandex clad, super-powered superstars, where being a mutant is definitely more of a curse than a blessing.

Originally introduced in the short lived but fondly remembered StarLord comic in 1978, Johnny was a mutant bounty hunter, a ‘Search/Destroy’ agent in a post-holocaust world some two hundred years into the future; the SD on their badges and the cause of their mutations, Strontium 90, led the ‘norms’ who hated them to label the bounty hunters ‘Strontium Dogs’, and they were shunned and feared by most non-mutants. The majority of the mutant population had been exiled from Earth and given only one possible career path to follow.

Those in Britain, who were unsuitable for a life of bounty hunting and therefore incapable of leaving their home world, were confined to mutant ghettos in devastated towns like Milton Keynes, out of sight of the better off citizens and of the ruling elite in the floating city of Upminster. As for the universe the Strontium Dogs themselves inhabited, it was one of alien worlds and human colonies scattered across a galaxy which was curiously reminiscent of the old West; a universe of frontier worlds inhabited by farmers, gamblers and bad-men, with Johnny and his kind delivering rough justice.

The original run in StarLord (cancelled and merged with 2000AD after just 22 issues, apparently not because it wasn’t selling but because it was simply too expensive to produce) really told us very little about Johnny Alpha’s world and introduced only the three main characters: Johnny, a mutant whose radiation warped eyes enabled him to read minds and see through solid objects, his ‘norm’ partner Wulf Sternhammer, a gigantic hammer wielding Scandinavian who looked like a Viking (we would later learn that he actually was a time-displaced Viking) who called everyone ‘old cucumber’, and the Gronk, a timid four-armed alien who acted as the pair’s medic out of a sense of loyalty because they had befriended his dead brother (whose pelt Wulf wore as a fleece). When the series transferred to 2000AD however, creators John Wagner (writing under the name T.B Grover), Carlos Ezquerra and later Alan Grant fleshed out Johnny’s world quite considerably.

        

Johnny was one of the very few mutants who actually had a useful mutation, an actual ‘super power’ (although he still relied far more on his guns and his ‘Time Bombs’, devices which would dispose of an enemy by projecting them into the past, to a point where the planet had been earlier in its orbit so that they would reappear unprotected in space). Most other SD agents were simply deformed in bizarre and impractical ways. Sideways Smith, Evans the Fist (who had a hugely muscled right arm growing out of his head), Kid Knee (whose face was on his knee), the skull-faced Welsh mutant Dai the Death and the potato-headed Spud Murphy were never going to be seen as superheroes. Johnny also, however, had a dark secret: he was actually John Kreelman, the son of Nelson Bunker Kreelman, the bigoted politician who had almost caused mutant genocide before the mutant uprising of 2167, when a teenaged Johnny had been one of the leaders of the mutant army - an uprising that led to the exiling of most mutants from Earth to the orbital space station called the Doghouse!

Most of the early Strontium Dog stories were, if not light-hearted, at least humorous to an extent (although it was always very much an action/adventure strip), with odd characters like the sad, alcoholic Kid Knee and bizarre situations like those Johnny and Wulf encountered in The Schickelgruber Grab, when they were despatched through time to hunt down and capture Adolph Hitler, providing laughs as well as pathos.

       

As time went on however, the strip began to take itself more seriously. Portrait of a Mutant - a lengthy flashback tale in which we learned about Johnny’s past and first encountered his sadistic father - began this trend, with later stories like Outlaw, in which Kreelman returned and took over the SD Agency with the aid of Alpha’s taciturn arch-foes the Stix brothers continuing it (the Gronk, who had provided a lot of the comic relief, was written out in this story).

Finally in 1986, the series turned a dark corner when, in the story Max Bubba, Wulf was murdered and Johnny left for dead by an old enemy. Johnny was subsequently partnered with, at one time or another, both his old ally the Scots mutant Middenface McNulty (introduced in Portrait of a Mutant) and the vampiric Durham Red, but a lot of the humour was gone from the strip. After having been a 2000AD mainstay for years, Johnny’s days now seemed to be numbered.

In 1990 - John Wagner feeling that the series had run its course - Johnny Alpha was killed off in the downbeat epic Strontium Dog: the Final Solution, a decision which so upset original Strontium Dog artist Carlos Ezquerra that he refused to have anything to do with it; instead, Johnny’s supposedly last adventure was illustrated by Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil.

         

The story of Johnny’s world eventually continued in various spin-off series, including Durham Red (the vampire woman having proved something of a hit) and Strontium Dogs (which partnered a now militant and gun-toting Gronk with a young mutant named Feral). The latter series never really caught on though (the writer, Garth Ennis, later admitted that Feral was simply not an interesting enough character to carry the strip), and Johnny Alpha remained a popular character, repeatedly being resurrected through the medium of time travel, first in a couple of Judge Dredd stories and later in a series of flashback stories, as well as appearing in a very different medium: audio stories from Big Finish Productions, released on CD, with Johnny voiced by actor Simon Pegg. By this time, Wagner had admitted in interviews that killing Johnny had been a mistake.

Finally, in June 2010, Wagner and Ezquerra set about rectifying the mistake. The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha saw Johnny’s old friend, reporter Precious Matson, trying to uncover the truth about Johnny’s death with the aid of Middenface McNulty in a story which effectively wrote off everything since the final episodes of The Final Solution as folklore, lies and garbled half truths. Eventually, Precious and McNulty learn that (in a scenario which directly contradicts the original story) Feral had actually brought Johnny’s corpse back from the hellish other dimension where it had supposedly been destroyed (Feral is killed off immediately afterwards). In the final episode to date, McNulty bargains with the mysterious Stone Wizards to restore Johnny’s life, apparently at the cost of his own. The story has yet to be concluded (Ezquerra has had significant health problems in the meantime) but at the time of writing, it appears that the original Strontium Dog is at last on his way back. And it’s a return that’s long overdue.

For more on Strontium Dog check out the available trade paperbacks from Rebellion.

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Comments

  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 20, 2011 at 4:55am

    I wonder how many nanoseconds those wimpy X-Men would last against Johnny Alpha. Wolverine, unkillable? Let's see how he handles being dumped in the vacuum of space by a Time Drogue...

  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 22, 2011 at 12:17pm

    Oops, my mistake! I think I knew that, too. That's what I get for writing with a beer in my hand...

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 23, 2011 at 2:11pm

    Very interesting piece. Looks like we have something of a "Rogue Trooper" situation in terms of continuity-straightening, though...

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