The first issue I remember buying was prog twenty-nine or thirty, picked up one summer holiday in Rotorua. It was immediately obvious to me that this was something special. I was already keen on comics, and had read plenty of Superman and Marvel stuff, but British comics had never really appealed to me before – too much football and World War 2, two topics that I found utterly boring. Not only was 2000AD not like that, it wasn't like the Marvel or Superman comics either. It just didn't look like the stiff muscle men I was used to, and the jolly good chaps of Battle or the silly cartoons of Beano or Whizzer & Chips where nothing like this.
You can argue about which artist is most responsible for this, but one of the top contenders has got to be Carlos Ezquerra. He did, after all design Judge Dredd and the look of his world, which have probably done more than anything to sketch out the 2000AD territory. However, I think that just as influential as his work on Judge Dredd is one of 2000AD's other great thrills, Strontium Dog.
Johnny Alpha: Strontium Dog
In my continuing efforts to summon the simple pleasures of my boyhood back into my grey and ashen life, I got myself a copy of Strontium Dog: Search/Destroy Agency Files 01, reprinting the first few years worth four or so years worth of Strontuium Dog strips from Star Lord and 2000AD.
Ezquerra's work on Strontium Dog is just amazing. It has a very European feel, most obviously Jean Giraud/Moebius and the Franco-Belgian school of realists (according to wikipedia!) that's quite distinct from both the American supers and British traditions.
As well as smooth action and exciting and intersting page layouts, the most striking thing is the design. Everything in the Stronty Dog world is beautifully shaped and moulded, nothing is plain or ordinary. Clothes, weapons and space ships all have an amazing distinct look that creates a really specific sense of place and time. His characters designs are brilliant, from the iconic figure of Johnny himself, to the cartoony Gronk and the myriad of freaky mutants that inhabit the fringes of the frames (reminiscent of Kevin O'Neil's wonderful eye for odd robots in Ro-Busters).
Brilliant character design - exactly what you'd expect a Wolrog to look like.
The story was clearly conceived by John Wagner and Alan Grant as a type of space western. For those who don't know the back ground, the Search & Destory Agency is a league of bounty hunters who dispense justice across the glalaxy in the 22nd century, staffed almost entirely by mutants who, despised by the rest of humanity, can't get work elsewhere.
Johnny's an outsider, like Sergio Leone-era Clint Eastwood – the Man with No Name to Dredd's Dirty Harry – and the planets he visits have the rough, dusty lawless quality of the frontier. There's lynchings, posses and stage raids, and when Wulf and Johnny unwind they indulge in old fashioned gamblin, drinkin, whorin and fightin.
You can almost hear the saloon bar piano tinkling away.
Like the western characters he's based on, Johnny's mercenary occupation hides a sense of justice. For every tale like "The Bad Boy Bust" - where a group of bestial outlaws have to be fought to a stand still in standard action mode, there's a more complex moral decision to be made, such as "The Doc Quince Case".
My favourite tale, and the one I remember most clearly, is the trip Johnny, Wulf and the Gronk have to take through the dimension warp to snatch the criminal known as Fly Eyes. The dimension warp takes them to a weird alternate world that looks a lot like hell, home to strange creatures and a population of unfortunates who have slipped through dimension warps over the years. Hell is ruled by a demon who turns out to be one Ronald Fiveways, inventor of the dimension warp. Having been scarred in a lab accident and spurned by humanity for his disfigured looks, he has set up the Hell world as a way of taking revenge.
Of course, no one knows better than Johnny what it's like to be spurned by the rest of humanity, and he has no sympathy for Fiveways tale. This aspect of the story is another typically 2000AD one - like the robots in Ro-Busters, the mutants are marginalised and abused by the rest of society, but rise above their treatment.
I suppose, in a way, 2000AD was in the old fashioned boys' comic business of moral improvement, but these weren't stiff and stuffy goody-two-shoe types. Dredd and Johnny were able to be brutal and merciless when necessary, and they (like Ro-Jaws) have no respect for those who don't meet their standards, but they have an inherent sense of right and wrong, and an understanding that doing right is not always easy, and is an end in itself that not always attracts a reward. They both have a mix of stoicism and moral consitency that I still view as essential to masculinity, a do-er of right and protector of the weak regardless of what it costs you.
This volume, like the Ro-Busters one, is a reminder of just how good 2000AD was. We were spoiled in those days, by this throwaway comic, put together by pasionate group of men (sorry ladies) who genuinely cared about subverting and electrifying the minds of young boys. I'm going back for more, and expect another retro 2000AD review soon, but I've also decided it's time to see if it's true and if 2000AD really has changed. When I was last in Gosh, the latest prog had a new Strontium Dog story starting, written by Wagner and illustrated by Ezquerra. It's a sign, and I'm jumping back in!