Thursday, September 21, 2006

Where do you begin if not at Alpha?

Judge Dredd may be the most famous character to come out of 2000 AD, but ask any remotely longtime reader who their favourite character is, and the name 'Johnny Alpha: Strontium Dog' will never be far away. He hasn't had as many stories as Dredd, but then he's also had far fewer bad ones - you'd be hard pressed to think of a single Strontium Dog tale that is universally derided.

Of course, Alpha was created by the same team responsible for Judge Dredd, the mighty Wagner/Ezquerra combo, again with a lot of developmental help from Alan Grant, who also co-wrote many a Dredd tale. Where Dredd is loosely based on Dirty Harry, I like to think that Alpha is loosely based on that other Eastwood perennial, 'the man with no name'. You could even stretch the analogy by pointing to the films of Sergio Leone, with their famous close-ups on people's eyes as they size up their opponents. Johnny Alpha is all about the eyes.

He's also been in more than one western-style adventure. 'Incident on Mayger Minor' being the most obvious, although as if to disprove my theory, that's a clear pastiche of the film Shane, not an Eastwood movie. Oh, well. Still, there are a lot of Alpha tales set on frontier towns in frontier worlds, where death is only a quick-draw away.

Anyway, what's so special about Alpha? Well, for one thing, he's unambiguously a hero, in a way that Dredd is only a hero when Mega City 1 is threatened. Heroism can be easily to mock, but I love heroes, and it's pretty clear that many (most?) other comics readers do, too. Obviously being a 2000 AD kind of hero, Alpha isn't afraid to kill people. Often with extreme prejudice (no, I don't know what that phrase means, either).

OK, so maybe that doesn't look so heroic, but then Alpha all too rarely encounters people who don't deserve to die. My, that was a clumsy sentence. The point is, the Strontium Dog Universe is a strange mix of complete bastards, race hate criminals, and close-knit, kindly families. Alpha has no difficulty in telling the difference, and dispatching those who are on the wrong side.
See - as well as killing, Alpha loves his families. He's a good man, even in the slightly bizarre-looking Simon Harrison era.

The story behind Strontium Dog is mutation. Unlike the mostly benign mutant X gene in the Marvel Universe, 2000 AD mutations are mostly physical, often unpleasant, and always faintly hilarious. If large numbers of these kind of people existed, they would surely have a horrible life, and would be hounded by 'norms' wherever they went. It's a cruel world. Many a Strontium Dog tale begins and ends with Alpha having to cope with taunts from norms who harass him as he goes about his work.

You'd think all this worthiness would get wearing, but somehow it doesn't. I found this panel rather poignant, in exactly the way that a similar panel in a Pat Mills story would have me rolling my eyes.

Next, heroic anger.


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