Never let it be said we’re not at the cutting edge here on Comics Daily, what with suddenly deciding to review a trade paperback that came out in 2007. But frankly, I bought and read – nay, devoured – this hefty number recently, and thought it worth a bit of coverage – containing as it does a really rather spectacular amount of comics action of a really rather spectacularly high standard.
The world is very clearly divided into Judge Dredd fans and Strontium Dog fans, and I’ve long considered myself one of the latter – hey, Johnny Alpha’s just more of an interesting character than Joe Dredd; and with the likes of Middenface McNulty and Wulf Sternhammer, SD has a far better support cast (my beloved Judge Anderson notwithstanding). But this was based on ad hoc encounters with a random assortment of stories, rather than getting the chance to properly sit down and plough through a lengthy, consecutive run of the series. What I found here by doing so were three of British comics’ finest creators (writers Alan Grant and John Wagner – although strangely the SD stories were usually credited to Grant alone – and the incomparable artist Carlos Ezquerra) at the absolute height of their powers – and, what’s more, working to a quite staggering level of consistency.
There’s simply not a bad story in this book, whether the two nineteen-part epics – “Portrait of a Mutant” and “Outlaw” – that bookend it, or more lightweight efforts such as “The Gronk Affair”. It’s a superb fusion of sci-fi imagination (you can never tire of the Dogs’ inventive weaponry, particularly the often brilliant use of time devices) and often gripping, Western-style, anti-hero-with-a-gun storytelling – with a healthy dose of social commentary and satire, to boot. It’s true that the book generally shies away from in any way judging or condemning Alpha – a man who, at the end of the day, kills for money – but that’s not to say it doesn’t allow him internal anguish and moral conflict, such as in the excellent and unpredictable “The Moses Incident”, in which the death of a small boy from the ricochet of a firefight drives Johnny to the borders of insanity.
It’s the opening story, however, that’s the book’s real highlight – providing as it does the first real internal examination of Alpha’s character, finally giving us pretty much his entire backstory. The masterstroke is to make him integral to the mutants-vs-humans conflict – by revealing him as the son of loathed anti-mutant politican Nelson Bunker Kreelman – as it adds a distinct edge to just about all the stories that follow, and enables a greater level of sympathy for the hero to be instilled in the reader. In telling the tale of the fabled mutant uprising, meanwhile, the story is a constant barrage of excitement and adventure – as well as introducing such brilliantly inspired mutant characters as Evans the Fist, The Torso from Newcastle and the aforementioned McNulty.
From a purely purchase-based perspective, too, these archive editions offer superb value – I actually got this book second hand for a fiver, but even at the RRP of £13.99, you’re getting almost 300 pages of top-class story (and not a hint of decompression – one of the joys of British weekly comics is the amount of story you get packed in), which makes for less than 5p a page. Even better, you’re getting almost 300 pages of Ezquerra art – and it’s impossible to say enough about just how good his work on this series is. Working at such an intense level of detail is tricky enough, never mind having to do so in heavy black and white (nor having to come up with such a wide range of original visual concepts and character designs), but Ezquerra constantly pulls it off with aplomb. Whereas Dredd has had at least two or three artists who could justifiably claim to have done the “definitive” take on the character, there’s simply no such argument with Stronty – it’s Carlos’ book all the way.
This is evidenced further by the book’s only real weak point – a rather throwaway story from an ’82 annual, which is simply lightweight and simplistic, and has an almost juvenile tone to it compared with the maturity of the Grant/Wagner material (although I can’t believe I just used the word “maturity” to describe a book where a character in one story is called Dobie Zitch). That it actually dates from around the same time as “Portrait of a Mutant” is an even more damning indictment of its quality – although its inclusion really doesn’t affect the overall excellence of the book as a whole. If anything, despite being the second volume of the complete archives, leading off with “Portrait” means this actually serves as a perfect introduction to those who’ve never encountered the character before – and if you’re one of those people, then you could do a lot worse than picking it up should you happen to spot it.