Meet Johnny Alpha
Tripwire’s contributing writer Tim Hayes casts his eye over Rebellion’s Strontium Dog: Search & Destroy out now on digital and webshop-exclusive edition and in print in November…
Writer: John Wagner
Artists: Carlos Ezquerra & Brendan McCarthy
The 19 introductory episodes of Strontium Dog that appeared in Starlord during 1978 before that comic was folded into 2000AD have been reprinted before, but this latest repeat from Rebellion arrives after the 2018 death of artist Carlos Ezquerra, giving the book a feeling of testimonial to go with its historical record. A note of remembrance from the strip’s writer John Wagner points out again that Ezquerra felt more invested in Strontium Dog than Judge Dredd, which at the time had been taken on by others; and Wagner notes that he himself took a while to work out who the character of Strontium Dog Johnny Alpha really was. All of which makes these early strips feel more like an exhibition of Ezquerra’s own personal style than most of the other collaborations underway in the 2000AD family at the time.
Several other strips in Starlord were thick with apocalyptic Cold War dread, but Strontium Dog would have been familiar to any young reader catching a Spaghetti Western on TV. It’s got bounty hunters, sidearms, ethnic accents, lynchings, saloons, homesteads and marauding bandits, plus a protagonist with the perfect Clint Eastwood stare. And it’s got bigotry and prejudice, directed at Johnny Alpha and mutants like him by normal humans who begrudgingly thank him when he saves their skins, before going straight back to shunning him. Even Johnny’s sister tearfully asks him to leave, after he rescues his niece from a reality-warping mutant with a grudge.
Johnny Alpha’s most serious adventures came later and these early stories get more frivolous as the series goes on – eventually his quarries include a giant brain in a jar plotting a musical performance of Oklahoma – although Ezquerra’s art stays singularly individual. The Spanish comics art tradition of shading and tone and fluid lines is in there, although in Ezquerra’s case it butts up against harsher, thick pulses of ink, and faces looking as weathered as a sandstone pillar. His creations are hardly ever conventional beauties, adding to the pathos of characters who are only handsome on the inside; but all of Ezquerra’s grotesques have honour.
This reprint, available digitally now with a print edition due later in the year, does include other artists too. An early-career Brendan McCarthy draws a couple of stories, his drastic use of colour already developing fast; and one episode by an equally early-career Keith Page wanders so far from the Ezquerra model that it almost taps into a US underground comix vein, a strident anti-war parable with a strong hint of Vietnam War hangover. But Strontium Dog, the strip and the character, can’t be easily separated from Carlos Ezquerra, caught here in the early stages of becoming indispensable to the British comics industry and putting down roots that are still there.