Written by John Wagner (credited as T.B Grover) and Bill Henry. Art by Carlos Ezquerra, Brendan McCarthy, Ian Gibson, and Keith Page. Lettered by Jack Potter, Peter Knight, Tony Jacob, Steve Potter, John Aldrich, and Paul Bensberg.
When 2000 AD went through a golden period of creativity in the 1980s, Strontium Dog was up there with Judge Dredd as one of the pillars for the science fiction anthology. But the strip didn’t originate there, it got its start in a short-lived sister comics magazine called Starlord (no relation to the Marvel character) in 1978.
A collection of the Starlord material called Strontium Dog: Search & Destroy hits the shelves this week, which makes it a perfect opportunity to take a look these early strips.
Haven’t heard of Strontium Dog? No worries, here’s a quick breakdown of its premise. In the future, parts of Earth were hit by nuclear war. In the fallout of this, many people were left with mutations. These mutants are hated by society and stripped of the right to work, with the only job open to them being bounty hunting. Johnny Alpha is one of those mutants and the comic follows him and his companions on interplanetary missions and adventures, while also dealing with society’s prejudices.
The hatred towards mutants is a running theme throughout Strontium Dog and one that intersects with the X-Men. How it differs is in its approach. In the classic 2000 AD series, the mutation rarely results in fantastic superpowers. Instead, it’s some form of physical deformity such as extra eyes or elongated features. The hate they receive is shown in a very casual manner. Johnny Alpha will often receive unprompted and prejudice name-calling, resistance from “norms” in being able to do his job well, and children throwing rocks at him in the street.
Johnny Alpha is an interesting character who is defined by how he reacts to the prejudice directed at him. Bounty hunting might be the only job he can get a mutant but he isn’t motivated by money. For example, at the end of the first story, “Max Quirxx”, he gives his reward away to a mutant beggar on the street after the money is tainted by the insults local authorities direct at him.
In a lot of ways, these Strontium Dog stories share a similar structure with The Mandolorian. Both feature self-contained stories about bounty hunting on distant worlds (John Wagner would go on to write many Boba Fett comics in the 90s) with an arsenal of cool technology. How Strontium Dog differs is that it’s willing to lean into the weirder side of science fiction.
This will include missions where Johnny Alpha will encounter other mutants with strange abilities, power-hungry robots, telekinetic demons, and an array of aliens. It makes for a universe with a rich tapestry and gives the stories their own personal flavour.
The comic has always been defined by artist Carlos Ezquerra, who is the primary artist for the series up until his death. In these early stories, he’s playing around with style in order to find Strontium Dog’s visual identity. He experiments with the thickness of his strokes, ranging from the thick outlines to loose linework that are densely rendered to create form. It never becomes too jarring as these styles share enough visual components such as the Moebius-like granular linework. This creates texture and tone on a variety of surfaces and creates a grittiness that’s akin to the original trilogy of Star Wars.
I am not overly familiar with British comics of this era, but compared to their American counterparts, Ezquerra’s page layouts are anything but boring. Panels are not restricted to grids, varying heights and lengths, which are combined with overlapping imagery, borderless panels, and rounded ones too. Every page is dense, with very little room wasted. Some might think that it is too busy, but the art communicates a lot clearly in the approximately fives pages that are allocated for each chapter.
While there are a few fill-in artists towards the back-end of the Starlord run, the most notable is Brendan McCarthy – appearing twice. The first time, he is trying to do his version of Ezquerra, with thick outlines that are accompanied by finer ones for texture. It’s similar enough that it’s not jarring going from one artist to another, but it is different enough that you can see McCarthy’s own flourishes. In his other outing on Strontium Dog, a story from an annual that appears towards the back, we get to see him drawn in his own style. As part of this, we start to see some of the more psychedelic elements that he would be known for shine through.
While the best Strontium Dog stories are still to come, these stories are a solid introduction to the classic 2000 AD franchise. Ezquerra and McCarthy deliver top-notch art and the stories offer plenty of weirdness and variety to keep readers interested. This will be right up your space alley if you’re a fan of the Mandolorian or weird science fiction.