By Darran Anderson
[ Part One | Part Two ]
Strontium Dog – The Final Solution (intermittently Progs 600 – 687)
Alan Grant / Colin Mc Neil / Simon Harrison
In the early days of 2000AD, the only character to rival Dredd’s supremacy in popularity stakes was Johnny Alpha, star of Strontium Dogs. In the earth of the future, plagued by fallout from nuclear war, an untouchable caste of mutants exists, brutally discriminated against by “norms.” Alpha was one such outcast, born with Alpha-ray emitting x-ray vision when his pregnant mother was caught in a radiation storm. As far as disabilities go, being able to see through objects and read electromagnetic brain signals is a fairly advantageous one to have, especially given the fates of other characters in the series such as Kid Knee (a man whose head is located on his kneecap) or the Torso from Newcastle (a headless body with an solitary eye peeking out of his chest). When it’s revealed, in then contemporaneous Star Wars fashion, that his father is none other than Nelson Bunker Kreelman, an anti-mutant supremacist leader in fascist New Britain, you have a classic rebel with a cause.
Forced from mainstream society, Alpha is taken under the wing of a group of seditious mutants who are plotting against Kreeler’s regime and his Mutant Extermination Bill. What ensues is a full-blown insurrection with the young Alpha coming of age storming the barricades and leading the charge. Eventually having fought the Kreelers into a corner, the mutant rebels are exiled to the Doghouse satellite from where they gained renown as interplanetary bounty hunters, Search and Destroy Agents or as the nickname went Strontium Dogs.
It’s easy to overstate the satirical importance, it is after all just a comic, but Strontium Dogs bore the traces of the vaguely left-wing anti-authoritarian streak that runs through the comic’s best work. Certainly, Strontium Dogs was a biting attack on ideas of racial superiority and by default on the neo-nazi factions then resurgent in inner city Britain (with their white power agenda and fear of the other) and on the degenerate system of Apartheid still in force in South Africa. Besides that it was a first-class shoot-em-up, filled with splendidly daft characters and superbly preposterous situations.
When the initial military uprising subsided, the series settled into the framework of a spaghetti western, enhanced by taking place across the universe and, through the use of futuristic time-travel technology, across the centuries. Space, time and mutations gave endless creative scope for potential stories. Memorable bounties included a Josef Mengele-style war criminal hiding out at the end of the world and a little-known Austrian corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler. The series multiplied with intriguing side-characters, all of who would be gifted with their own series in time. There was Middenface McNulty a feisty Scottish rebel (and debauched version of old comic schoolboy Oor Wullie complete with sayings “Help mah boab!” and “Jings!”) with trademark head lumps and a taste for the toxic whisky Spirit O’ The Glens, the seductress vampire Durham Red, the extraterrestrial Gronk for whom cardiac arrest was a routine occurrence and the troubled albino-punk berserker Feral.
All were allied with Alpha on his missions, none more so than Wulf Sternhammer, a burly silver-bearded Viking armed with a mighty war-hammer, who Alpha picked up as a partner and who then acted as comic foil to the simmering hero (“Use da cucumber Johnny!”). They quickly became the best-loved duo in the comic’s history and as with all buddy movies, it’s worth noting there is a vague, perhaps unintentional hint of homoeroticism between the two. To my knowledge their relationship was never consummated, at least not in print.
When the going is good you’re soon jolted out of your complacency. The outlaw Max Bubba, seething for revenge having been hunted down by the pair, escaped from custody and ambushed them. Staked out in the desert sun, Alpha is left for dead, whilst Wulf is shot to ribbons whilst resisting. So began the epic ‘Rage’ series, a pathological revenge tale that moved Alpha from hero to anti-hero, back from the brink of death and delivering merciless vengeance for his friend’s murder (in a notable moral departure Alpha torments his enemies, finally wounding Bubba before killing him in cold blood as he leaves hospital).
Having pushed the western revenge tale to its brink with ‘Rage,’ where could the series go? There was only one way — back to the beginning. The mutant uprisings of the first series may have ousted the Kreelers from power but the situation remained in a dangerous stasis. With the most able mutant fighters scattered across the universe in mercenary capacities, fascism reared its head in the form of a warped Inquisition-style church, led by Kreeler’s son (and Alpha’s half-brother) Lord Sagan. Reminiscent of anti-Semitic Nazi measures, they moved towards genocide in increments; covert assassinations of select mutants, hoarding the populace into ghettos (Milton Keynes) and under the pretext of giving them their own land (again echoing the abortive Nazi Madagascar plan for the Jews) they initiated a holocaust. Some remnants of the Strontium Dogs (Alpha, McNulty etc) returned as guerrilla resistance fighters. And then the unthinkable: they killed Alpha. This wasn’t a US comics-style departure where a character who’s seen better times, goes out in a blaze of publicity and is then restored to life as a clone or the death is revealed as merely a ruse, dream sequence or similar cop-out. Thrown into a hellish netherworld, he was blinded and tore to pieces by a winged beast. Alpha was well and truly dead.
The Final Solution divides fans and 2000AD crew alike. John Wagner lamented the loss of a beloved character and claimed it was his biggest mistake. Carlos Esquerra was so dumbfounded he refused to draw the strip and has since denied its legitimacy (they plumped instead for Colin McNeill and, arguably the most original artist to pass through the stable, Simon Harrison). It didn’t help reverse the comics decline in sales, by jettisoning solid bedrock characters like Alpha you could argue the comic lost it’s identity and continuity and became too eclectic too soon. As send-offs go though, this was a stunner, unexpected, unsentimental, hitting like a punch to the solar plexus. You could call it stupidity (killing off a cash cow and a mine of potential stories) but there was no denying the sheer brass neck of it.
Slaine the Horned God (intermittently Progs 626 – 698)
Pat Mills / Simon Bisley
The Celtic Twilight movement of Yeats et al (with all their ancient Irish imagery of glistening salmon turning into alluring golden-haired maidens under the silver apples of the moon) was the commemoration of a time that never existed as a means to avoid engaging with the modern world. “Cultic twalette” Joyce called it. If there were ever an antidote to the more saccharine myths of old, it is Slaine.
Created by Pat Mills, one of the old Bolsheviks of the British comics revolution, Slaine is a subversive but reverential reinterpretation of the old myths and an alternative to the sci-fi model that had previously dominated the comic. Dark, violent, grimly funny, sexy even, it is built according to Mill’s astonishing Golden Bough-level knowledge of ancient Celtic customs, religion and warfare (the series was littered with arcane references to concepts like haruspicy and entities like the Morrigan). At a time when anti-Irish prejudice in Britain was endemic, exploring the full breadth of ancient Gaelic culture in popular form was a commendable act. There the heroism ceased. For Slaine is a vainglorious testosterone-fuelled nutcase, accompanied on his amoral adventures by a repugnant lecherous sidekick, the dwarf Ukko, whom he regularly torments with beatings and insults. His is the mind of a cad locked inside the body of a brute. When in full battle-fury, Slaine undergoes warp spasm (a power, legend has it, “the hound of Ulster” Cuchulainn possessed); his eyes bursting from their sockets, his muscles expanding and contorting, his hair standing on stalks, slaughtering everything in his path. An angel-dust synthesis of Irish mythological characters (from Oisin to The Tain) but shot through with a cynical 20th century twist, Slaine’s lack of any positive qualities, aside from handsomeness, is ironically what makes him so original and so charming.
The series broke new ground in a pulls-no-punches and informed sense, rejecting good and evil motifs for a more complex view of humans as egocentric and maniacal as they’ve ever been. Early series had Slaine pitched against the demon Balor of the Evil Eye and the Fomorians, repulsive creatures that rose from the sea-depths to the west of Ireland to rape and pillage. The artists Mick McMahon, Glenn Farby and the legend that was Massimo Bellardinelli were all integral in the early development of the character, interspersing authentic Celtic living with fantastical scenes of burning wickermen, sky chariots, invading demon hordes and unscrupulous gods. It was with the advent of painter [Simon Bisley though that the strip reached its heights in The Horned God saga. Aided by an ambitious Mills script, Bisley provided a version of Slaine that was cinematic in its lighting and effects, with a degree of fine art prowess that had, until then, only been seen on album covers or in galleries. No artist before or since has had such an exhilarating and popular effect on fans, establishing more than any other series (with its bracing set-pieces and acres of naked flesh) the comic as an adult concern.
Adding court machinations to the mix, The Horned God saw Slaine guided, and tempted, by his morally suspect goddess muse, conspire against the dictatorial Lord Weird Slough Feg, a decrepit living corpse who had ruled illegitimately for centuries. Narrated by Ukko, the tale relates the attempts by Slaine to reunite factional tribes using the powers of four scared treasures. This was Lord of the Rings stuff, if Tolkien’s creation grew teeth and shook off the geeks (one fan the filmmaker Miguel Mesas proving its cinematic potential online). More than that, it was a rollicking alternative to the cultural redundancy peddled by the enyas and riverdances of this cruel world. Jig in front of Slaine and he’d take your head clean off your shoulders.
Indigo Prime – Killing Time (Progs 735 – 744)
John Smith / Chris Weston
“Reality is a jolly dodgy piece of machinery. It’s like the inside of a Swiss watch: it needs constant care and attention. Constant supervision. That’s our job…to oil the cogs and wind the springs. To make sure everything runs smoothly. And it generally does, it generally does…but every once in a while we come upon a flaw in the works. One of them called itself The Iscariot…”
That, in their own terms, is the definition of Indigo Prime, maintaining order in the great scheme of things. Its creator John Smith can be seen as the great unsung writer of British comics, an author with the vision of Alan Moore but a fraction of the credit. Smith has taken comics to their outer reaches and those who cling on are rewarded with some of the finest writing not just in comics but anywhere. His use of obscure, prosaic descriptions, truly disturbing set-pieces and shifting narratives ensure that he is regarded as a visionary by a rare few and is gravely overlooked by most for more commercial, flashier and less inspired writers.
Killing Time was the culmination of the Indigo Prime concept, an mesmerising story featuring Victorian time travel, séances and the black arts, Jack the Ripper, somaforms, Schrodinger cages and the enigmatic operatives Winwood and Cord – “trans-dimensional trouble shooters, metaphysical agents of Indigo Prime and tailors of the space/time fabric.” It’s a multi-layered, highly intertextual, gut-wrenching and head-spinning work, oblique, confusing yes but stay with it and it’s unforgettable.
Disinterested after this peak, Smith would cast aside the project far too prematurely and has yet to gain the sort of commercial results his British Invasion contemporaries have. Despite this, there is no writer who has conjured up more affecting moments in the comic’s history than Smith: the house-storming and end of the world of Revere, the monastery siege in Tyranny Rex’s Deus Ex Machina, the torture gardens of his Rogue Trooper one-offs Enfleshings and Shock Tactics, the sheer mortal dread of his Devlin Waugh piece Swimming In Blood with its vampires let loose in an underwater prison, the Sweeney Todd-esque Robohunter tale Something for the Weekend, Sir?, not forgetting the use of an innocuous harp in this series. Take another look and be dazzled (and scarred for life).
Zenith (intermittently Progs 535 – 806)
Grant Morrison / Steve Yeowell
There has rarely been a more disparaging, jaded hero than Zenith (real name Robert McDowell). A spineless egotist, central but somehow always on the periphery to what is happening, more interested in his own flagging self-worth, his pop star career and chasing skirt, somehow Zenith (like Good Soldier Svejk before him) manages to escape destruction while chaos explodes around him. And while the series bears his moniker it is much much larger than he.
The tale begins in a parallel Earth, during the fall of Berlin where the first Nazi superhuman Masterman battles it out with his Allied counterpart Maximan (William Whitlock), both coming to fiery obliteration when the Americans panic and nuke the city. In the intervening years a new breed has been cloned: Task Force UK, a group of young superhumans who rebel, refuse to assist America forces in Vietnam and join the Hippie underground as Cloud 9. When some began to have thoughts about their superiority over humans and what to do about it, the CIA began covert operations against them. Zenith’s parents White Heat and Dr Beat are assassinated by shadowmen. Lux disintegrated. Spook fell into a mirror and disappeared. The Red Dragon became an alcoholic, Mandala a Tory MP. With the resurrection of Masterman, the superhumans return, some plotting against mankind, some to save them. The resultant battle of wills forms the backbone of the series but along the way there’s demonic possessions, nazi mysticism, Sixties psychedelia, Nietszchean Overmen, a world of reinvented old comic characters and the destruction of entire worlds.
Alongside The Invisibles, this is Grant Morrison‘s claim to greatness, incredibly paced with each episode revealing more and more, one of the only comic series anywhere to step up and challenge the supremacy of The Watchmen as a true comic masterpiece. Criminally it is out of print at present, but served well by websites like Seizing the Fire. Zenith is a treatise not just on what would happen superhumans in the real world but also what would happen to the rest of us in a superhuman world. It makes daunting reading but it’s as compelling and deep as writing comes.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.