Strontium Dog: Search / Destroy Agency Files 01 – John Wagner, Alan Grant

4 out of 5

The first collected edition of Stront strips (annuals included), covering all of the Starlord material plus the initial run of 2000 AD strips.

As inventive and fun as Dredd can be, it’s also somewhat limiting: circling around its stoney-faced, mono-emotive lead, the strip is pitched very much as satire on the whole, and it took Wagner and Grant at least a decade to start consistently weaving in more nuanced concepts that would eventually lead to Necropolis and further events. These same “limits” can be found in a lot of 2000 AD strips, built as they are, by design, upon pitches. Sam Slade, for example, has to have stories tied in to robots at all times…

That Wagner was able to take this nigh-one beat concept of the Dreddverse and wring so much out of it is telling of his creativity and sensibilities; Strontium Dog allows for all of that but almost without limits: you now have a perfect underdog character as your POV, still giving the strip its satire roots, though now complemented with a personality that can speak to more serious concerns – Alpha’s isolation as a mutant – or ping off of the comedy buddy dynamics of the good-hearted (hearts-ed?) Wulf and The Gronk. And you still have alien worlds and other dimensions and etc. to play with.

All of that potential is right that from the start in those early Starlord strips, and carried through in almost every single entry thereafter. When Alan Grant takes over for several strips in the 2000 AD days, the writer’s more on-the-nose style of satire is a better fit than it is with Dredd, because the emotional tone is so much more flexible and it’s more “excusable” with a constant time travel component to the strip to, say, have your Search / Destroy agent execute a contract on Adolf Hitler.

There are a few downbeats in the material, with one multi-part story prior to the 2000 AD transition feeling a bit confused in its focus (like it may have been abbreviated to make way for the switch) and Alpha’s journey into a Hell dimension, while crazily fascinating for its many, many parts, having a pretty abrupt conclusion. …And the Starlord annuals, mostly scripted by unknowns (literally – they are credited to “unknown”) are pretty faceless, with Alpha replaceable with any rogue, but it’s easy enough to consider those as bonus strips.

Another criticism is to the black and white reproduction of those Starlord strips, which otherwise had really rich colors that are very, very muddy in this grayscale presentation, making the recent-er color hardcover an even more necessary purchase.

But given the several hundred pages of material, and how much of it is awesome – and how much of it is peak Ezquerra, excessively detailed and perfectly paneled – these negatives can’t knock things down too far.

Johnny Alpha – mutant bounty hunter in a future world – is a very simple character and concept, but our creative duo of Wagner and Carlos just know exactly who he is (same for his traveling companions), and bring him instantly to life, so assuredly so that when Grant picks up the torch, not a beat is missed.