Strontium Dog: Search & Destroy HC – John Wagner

5 out of 5

I went back on forth on the rating of this HC collection – which gathers up all of the Starlord (i.e. pre-2000 AD) Stronty material, including annuals and specials – as it’s an utterly gorgeously printed and designed collection, and does the reader right by bringing us all the bits and pieces, and not just the John Wagner stuff… even if some of the stories / art aren’t always necessarily great, and this has been reprinted previously in the SD Agency B & W collections. But it’s the ‘does the reader right’ quality that ultimately swung me, which carries over to a stunning presentation.

Also, I don’t want to mislead: the bulk of the material here is fantastic. Having not read much Stronty before, it’s fascinating how fully established this felt from the get-go – how fleshed out Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra made mutant Johnny Alpha’s world of bounty huntin’, and how easily we’re able to jump right in to loving his partnership with human SD Agent Wulf and the obnoxious-in-anyone-else’s-hands Gronk. With Dredd, I felt like it took a while to feel out the world and character, while Johnny arrives as not just a stock sci-fi character in a weird world, but with some unique aspects that make him stand out: his outcast status as a mutant is carried through quite well, not just for joke fodder but applied fairly seriously throughout, and while all of his time gadgets are a little goofy, it’s an interesting conceit that Search & Destroy agents – bounty hunters – have access to these strange tools, and Wags uses them intriguingly. The villains are nicely varied as well, and give everyone in our trio something to do.

Yeah, it gets a little rough in the last serial before the strip switched to 2000 AD – like perhaps the story would’ve been paced differently if it hadn’t had to accommodate the timing of the change – and the Wagner-less annuals prove just how much the writer brings to the character, who’s otherwise written as a faceless sci-fi hero type. But even in that last serial there are great ideas and interesting character developments, and the annuals have some amazing art from Brendan McCarthy.

Regarding that art: yes, this book deserves its slightly-oversized, hardcover, color printing, because Ezquerra’s early work is so dense with detail that every panel is a treasure, and he uses a lot of fun layouts to play with the action as well. The design (Oz Osbourne, Sam Gretton, Gemma Sheldrake) complements this amiably – a red color scheme with cool end papers, and bold interstital pages introducing each strip.

I’ll be eagerly diving in to the regular Stronty collections after this, so it’ll be cool to see how the character evolved, but this would’ve be a cinch of a character to fall in love with way back when, as even reading the reprints now, Alpha has such a unique, rich sense of identity, and his adventures are surely fun to read to boot.