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In Association with
Strontium Dog - The Life And Death Of Johnny Alpha: The Project
John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra
2000 AD / Rebellion graphic novel £14.99

review by J.C. Hartley
Brought up on Dan Dare in The Eagle before being introduced to the hip sophistication of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, I was a bit sniffy about 2000 AD when it appeared in the late 1970s. Although not regularly reading comics then I reacted against what I saw as excessive violence, and the fascistic portrayal of Judge Dredd, even while acknowledging the satirical content. By the early 1980s I was reading comics again but had revived my interest in Marvel, originally as complete a set of titles as I could obtain every month, and eventually just the X-titles. This bias towards Marvel meant I missed most of the British revival in comics carried on by 2000 AD, Starlord, and Warrior, missing V For Vendetta, and Marvelman in the process, as well as the early work of the various writers and artists who would be ultimately spirited away by Marvel and DC to work in the United States.

I did follow Grant Morrison's Zenith however. When I bothered to think about it I realised there was more to 2000 AD than ultra-violence, there was great humour, satire, and pop cultural references. One strip featured a city containing a tower block called the Anthony Burgess Building, and in an interview for a Sunday supplement John Wagner and Pat Mills revealed their ideal actor to play Judge Dredd in a movie would be Bruce Forsyth, 'because of the chin'.

What had attracted me to Marvel was that in the hands of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby the comics and characters created a whole self-referential universe, something Dez Skinn attempted to reproduce with a range of titles in the UK. In Marvel, real issues were tackled, such as the ethics of vigilantism, and discrimination, albeit within the guise of humans versus the mutant homo superior. Marvel's corral of superheroes had real lives, experienced self-doubt, and were forced to confront the sometimes unpalatable results of their activities. In Marvel, heroes died. What eventually drove me away from Marvel comics was what I saw as an escalation of violence for its own sake, the abandonment of ordinary people as supporting characters, and the endless round of retconning and resurrections.

Apparently 'normal' characters would be transformed into superheroes, thus removing individuals the reader could identify with, and old storylines would be revealed as false memory implants or the results of imposture. In an issue of Alpha Flight, writer-artist John Byrne revealed that team-leader Guardian had not been killed in an explosion, rather he had been projected through space to the moon Ganymede where he was rescued and repaired by its alien inhabitants. Shock horror, the aliens, unfamiliar with human physiology had not known what was Guardian, and what was his superhero exo-skeleton, and consequently had turned him into a cyborg.

Brilliant as this storyline was, it was revealed to be all a blind, Guardian had not really been revived; the impostor was robot super-villain Delphine Courtney. This story was a brilliant piece of obfuscation and deconstruction, unfortunately it was later revealed to be true. John Byrne went on to suggest a means to bring back Jean Grey the former Marvel Girl/ Phoenix, an action that seemed to open the gates for everyone to come back, right up to the return of Captain America's sidekick Bucky Barnes. Interesting then that an event that reduced Spaced's Tim to crying on best friend Mike's shoulder, the death of Johnny Alpha, is here exposed to a piece of retconning itself.

The bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, veteran of various mutant wars, died in an act of self-sacrifice, in order to open a supernatural portal to allow others of his kind to return to Earth and escape from the extra-dimensional killing fields in which the genocidal Lord Sagan hoped to carry out a mutant final solution. This much is mutant-lore, establishing Alpha as a martyr and hero to his kind. Triple-breasted mutant hack Precious Matson, an old friend of Johnny's, who shared an adventure with him, arrives at a bar in the quaintly-named Desolation of Paisley in Scotland, seeking out Alpha's old comrade-in-arms and fellow search-and-destroy bounty hunter Archibald 'middenface' McNulty.

Middenface is in the throes of an ongoing bender and continues to be so throughout the book. Wracked with guilt for what he sees as his cowardly abandonment of his friend, McNulty is sceptical when Precious tells him that Alpha may be alive but agrees to accompany her to get to the truth. Barry Roberts, a former foot-soldier of Sagan's, and Fish Wilson, a mutant survivor of the holocaust, direct Precious and Middenface's attention to Feral, another bounty-hunter, the last person to see Johnny Alpha alive, and the source of the legendary story of the martyr's final moments.

Feral reveals that he rescued Alpha's body and took it to the Stone Wizards to be revived; however the Wizard's price was that Feral should sacrifice himself in Alpha's place, something he could not bring himself to do. Acting on Feral's information Middenface and Precious find Alpha's uncorrupted body and take it to the Stone Wizard's who make the same demand of McNulty. This is probably the best sequence in the book, where the Wizards, literally and graphically columns of stone, initially baffled by Middenface's Glaswegian, rapidly teach themselves the lingo and hector him in his own patois. It appears that Alpha's death-in-life is due to some form of demonic possession and having extracted the entity responsible the Stone Wizards are able to restore the mutant leader to consciousness; what's more they spare McNulty.

In chapter two: The Project, a morose and withdrawn Johnny Alpha is the subject of an assassination attempt. With Middenface, he returns to the Doghouse, search-and-destroy's orbiting satellite, where another attempt is made upon his life. Alpha reveals precognitive powers which he cannot explain, and as the story progresses he maintains a dialogue with something in his head, which suggests he is still harbouring some form of possessing entity although this one appears to be benevolent, if twisted. Gradually, Alpha begins to expose a conspiracy behind a sickness, the 'lurgy' afflicting Earth's mutants. This disease is revealed to be the work of Sir Pelham Grenville who, under the pretext of providing free food, has introduced a contaminant into the mutant's diet causing atrophy of the reproductive organs in order to effectively sterilise the mutant population. A prisoner of Grenville, Alpha is facing death, and on that cliff-hanger the book ends.

Toffs' plots to wipe out mutants seem to be the default storyline for Johnny Alpha and I would imagine long-term readers might feel they've seen it all before. Middenface is the heart and soul of the strip, and without his very human failings and humour this would be a dour read. The art is suitably gritty and unglamorous. Interesting for me, the alien assassins dispatched to kill Alpha bear a passing resemblance to Jeff Hawke's old adversary Chalcedon. Not a bad read, but the fact the volume leaves you hanging mid-story is a bit of a gripe for this reviewer.

Strontium Dog - The Life And Death Of Johnny Alpha: The Project

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press