Who doesn’t love a timehopping mind reading x ray visioned electronux wielding bounty hunting mutie and his Viking sidekick? Through revamps, revisions and resurrections Luke goes back through his progs’, various collected editions and reprints to find what makes this a classic strip (and yes, there will be lots of those very predictable puns).
Strontium Dog : A Potted History
Part 1 of 5
By Luke Williams
“Strontium Dog” stars Johnny Alpha, 2000AD’s resident bounty hunter. In the future, mutants are an underclass, restricted to certain jobs. One of these is “Search/Destroy” agent or “Strontium Dog”, named after the element that caused them to be born different from “norms”. Johnny is one of the most famous, known for his white “alpha” eyes giving him the ability to read minds or see through solid objects. Armed with a variety of weird and wonderful weapons, and with his partners Wulf Sternhammer, Middenface McNulty or Durham Red in tow, his name strikes fear in criminals across the galaxy.
There is a lot of love out there for Johnny and his buddies, certainly from this quarter. Even the name of the strip is cool, “Strontium Dog”, the right balance of aggression and enigma, with just a hint of the subject. I have a commission from Carlos of Johnny, Wulf and the Gronk on my living room wall , two copies of the Re:Action action figures (one to display, one to keep away boxed for some yet to be determined purpose) and one of my mates has the biggest man crush on the former John Kreelman.
Despite hunting criminals for money he’s a far more sympathetic and complex character than Old Stoney Face, this becomes more apparent the further we explore his troubled past and upbringing. Although it’s an action strip, the themes of racism and class are strong within it whilst they are never delivered from the soapbox. Like “Judge Dredd”, the strip has been versatile, there have been runs of unrelenting darkness (“Rage“), politics and bringing the topic of racism to the forefront (“Portrait Of A Mutant”) whilst others have a wackier feel (“The Royal Affair”), but works best with a balance (“Bitch”, the “Killing“). It’s seen some changes, from its debut in “Starlord” through to the classic 2000AD strips, Johnny’s demise, the reboot of the strip as “Strontium Dogs”, spin offs like “Durham Red” and “Tales From The Dog House”, his crossovers with old Stoney Face and his rebirth. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive summary, I won’t be covering every story. But I will cover the most significant storylines in the strips now 40 year history.
Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra “hot” from creating “Judge Dredd”. Carlos was aggrieved that despite creating the character his was not the first “Dredd” published and was determined that he would be the only artist to work on the strip – whilst this wasn’t the case, it wasn’t far off.
When you think of “Strontium Dog”, you only ever really think of creators Wagner and Ezquerra and co writer Alan Grant but in fact there is an interesting selection of other droids that have worked on the strip (even if some of their work is not deemed as “canon”). In addition writers wise we have : Garth Ennis, Hilary Robinson, Peter Hogan, Dan Abnett, Stewart Edwards, Lauren Beukes and Bill Henry, whilst artists include Robin Smith, Kim Raymond, Colin MacNeil, Brendan McCarthy, Ian Gibson, Dean Ormston, Chris Halls (Cunningham), Simon Jacob, Jon Beeston, Mark Harrison, Keith Page, Trevor Hairsine, Nigel Dobbyn, Steve Pugh, Paul Marshall and Simon Harrison
The first few issues of “Starlord” set the scene. Johnny Alpha chases crims’ across the galaxy armed to the teeth and with a norse warrior and alien medic “The Gronk” in tow. These short strips set the scene, establishing the Galactic Crime Commission, without naming them introduces Harvey the guy who hands out the jobs and the Doghouse (Kennel just wouldn’t work would it?). Carlos’s art is tight and dense. Very dense, almost baroque. Similar in style to his work in “Battle” on “Rat Pack” and “Major Eazy”.
In these short one and two parters we see the introduction of his sister Ruth and his extended family (art by Ian Gibson), which we return to after the strip migrates to the “Galaxy’s Greatest”.
He battles mad computers and their robot minions,
a two headed laser whip equipped mutie,
and of course, the now possibly unacceptable, “Papa Po-rka”.
“Starlord” was printed on higher quality paper than its stablemate and set off the art better, Carlos also had available to him double page spreads, which he took advantage of in a spectacular fashion. But “Starlord” was not long for this world, and was going to be merged into its older sister comic, about more of which can be read here.
One “match and dispatch” later and Alpha, Sternhammer and the Gronk find themselves in the “Galaxy’s Greatest” alongside fellow “Starlord” refugee “Ro Busters”.
Giving the bounty hunting a swerve for a bit, Johnny and co. gets press ganged into an interplanetary war between two aggressive alien races, before normal-ish service resumes with the classic “Journey Into Hell”.
Around this time 2000AD was temporarily printed on higher quality paper, the same as the late “Starlord”. Carlos takes advantage of the better quality stock and delivers some beautiful (if occasionally slightly disturbing) double page colour spreads.
In pursuit of a rogue SD agent, Alpha, Wulf and the Gronk are transported to another dimension known as Hell. Successfully capturing Fly Eyes (for it is he), Johnny and co. explore the landscape on a sci fi riff on the works of Dante, searching for a means of escape. A great strip, a classic, but quite different from the strips that came later.
The start of SD as we know it today, began with the “Schiklgruber Grab“, the darkness and intensity of the Starlord and early 2000AD strips is toned down, this coincides with the introduction of Alan Grant as co writer.
It’s here that Harvey the Galactic Crime Commission and the Doghouse are finally named. Chronologically it’s the second of Johnny and Wulf’s time jobs, but the first that run in the strip. The target is Adolf Schicklgruber – or as he is more famously known, Adolf Hitler, wanted by the Committee for Ultimate Retribution.
The Committee seeks to put historical criminals who have seemingly escaped justice, on trial. This is also the first place we come across the first of the seemingly endless Stix clan.
Known for their emotionless delivery, duster coat, wide brimmed hat, amazing strength, sneakiness and seemingly prodigious talent for procreating. Whilst not Johnny & Wulf’s main nemeses, they are entertaining baddies, if just a tad slow on the draw.
In the days when one off episodes were still common, between “Shicklgruber” and “The Doc Quince Case”, Tharg gives us “Mutie’s Luck“. Significant for developing the concept of mutants as underclass. Johnny and Wulf celebrating their big payday courtesy of “One Bollock”, come to the rescue of the Milton Keynes Mutant Association. Billy Glum, Nobbly Clarke and Snivel Hurst of the MKMA visit the gambling world of “Vegas” to raise money for the town. Winning big, they are attacked and despite Johnny & Wulf’s intervention Snivel and Nobby lose their lives. Johnny donates the Schiklegruber reward money to Billy and the MKMA become forever in the debt of Johnny and Wulf.
The themes in “Mutie’s Luck” are explored in more detail in the first epic storyline from the strip, and a classic from the early days of the prog’. Johnny Alpha’s origin in “Portrait of A Mutant” .
“Portrait of a Mutant” is a masterclass in comics storytelling. Told in flashback, it starts when Alpha takes a seemingly peanuts job on fugitive Nelson Bunker Kreelman, a man who has links to Johnny’s past.
A series of atomic wars had created a large mutant population, and the war of 2150 was no exception. Prominent politician Nelson Bunker Kreelman has built his career on solving the mutant “problem”.
His wife, Diana Kreelman, whilst heavily pregnant is caught in a radiation storm whilst travelling across the radioactive wastlelands that make up a significant part of Britain. She successfully delivers a son, John, who looks normal, apart from his “alpha eyes”. Young John Kreelman is told he has a dangerous condition, kept away from public life and his (conveniently discrete) mutation concealed by sunglasses. ‘Course this doesn’t stop Nelson from resenting his son and the effect his existence will have on his own political career.
Inevitably Johnny’s secret comes to light (and where we would be if it hadn’t? :)) . Escaping his cruel father, John joins the mutant army, already fighting a bitter civil war with the British authorities and gives himself a new name.
Working his way through the ranks, Johnny becomes a leader of the Mutant army. The mutants struggle against overwhelming odds in a bitter and bloody guerilla war, whilst Kreelman capitalises on the conflict and his star rises.
The secret of Kreelman’s son is uncovered and he is discredited and fades into obscurity. A truce is called in the war and limited rights for Mutants are implemented. The leaders of the Mutant Army are exiled from Earth, and the hardiest join the Search Destroy agency, one of the few jobs available to mutants. At the end of the strip, we return to current events as Johnny Alpha, Search/Destroy Agent, confronts his father, for seemingly the final time. This is an absolutely brilliant, rollercoaster of a strip. It brings the always present themes of racism and class to the forefront, whilst packing an emotional punch. Whereas some origin stories can damage the mystique in a character, this made Johnny all the more conflicted, troubled and sympathetic. It’s a key storyline establishing plot threads that continue to this day.
By now the strip was well established. Johnny’s origin was well defined and the creators had got into a groove. Everything seemed hunky dory. But it wasn’t going to stay like that….
Collections. Where to get it :
Strontium Dog : S/D Agency Files 01 & 02
Strontium Dog : Portrait Of A Mutant
2000AD Ultimate Collection Volume 4 : Strontium Dog.
Best of 2000AD Monthly, 1-5, 15-16