There are so many X-Men out there! You can’t walk round your private island paradise anymore without bumping into twenty mutants. But that raises a question which Shelfdust are going to try and answer! Who is the Best Mutant? We’ll be inviting some of the best writers in comics to argue their case! Wait… Tom, what are you doing…??
By Tom Shapira
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha (and his normie partner, Wulf Sternhammer) in his life long mission – to destroy the scum of the universe. In the 22nd century planet Earth is ravaged by a nuclear war, and a large amount of Strontium-90 fallout causes many newborns to become mutants – who are immediately shunned by the rest of the population. Forced to live in ghettos many mutants find, instead, work in outer space… especially as licensed Search / Destroy (S.D.) agents. Because S.D. agents tend to be mutants most people refer to them derisively, but with healthy amounts of fear, as Strontium Dogs.
Some might look at Johnny Alpha and see a figure all-too similar to that other 2000AD stalwart, Judge Dredd. After all, he’s another John Wagner/Carlos Ezquerra creation; another tough guy with a cool helmet and powerful gun. However, where Dredd is a ‘useful monster’ (to quote Douglas Wolk) Johnny is a classic western hero. The strong and silent type who plays it as if he’s only in it for the money, but ends always doing what is right. Think Wolverine… only Johnny hasn’t been overexposed to death (and resurrection, and then death again).
Now, you might protest. Johnny Alpha isn’t in X-Men, or X-Factor, or X-Force, or Generation X, or Exiles, or Weapon X or even Excalibur. Using my ultra-sophisticated brain and powerful eyes I see the fabled letter ‘X’ doesn’t appear in the words “Strontium Dog” even once. To you I answer – the question was about the best mutant, not the best X-person. And I answer farther: In this issue in particular, the opening chapter of the epic Portrait of a Mutant storyline, Johnny outdoes the X-Men in their own classic soap opera shenanigans.
It’s important to have some context first. The early years of Strontium Dog are mostly plot-led affairs. Johnny and Wulf would pop out in a new location, find out which bad guy they need to hunt, and do so as quickly as possible, often then leaving town like a cowboy riding into the sunset. There are no set locations (other than the headquarters from which missions are sent) and hardly any personal stakes involved. It’s the-man-with-name set-up played to a ‘T’. This was the the Man-With-no-Name set up popularized by Spaghetti Westerns. Fitting, seeing how the same creative team made Dredd who was very much in the mold of another Clint Eastwood character – Dirty Harry.
Portrait of a Mutant changed all that. Right from the get go, the first five-page chapter in prog 200, we understand the stakes are different – close and personal. As our tale begins Johnny discovers there’s a new bounty, strictly small change, on this fellow named ‘Nelson B. Kreelman.’ However, instead of moving on to the next job Johnny insists on taking this one; growing even more solemn than usual as he and Wulf make their way towards planet Stavros. As they reach their destination the pair discover that another Strontium Dog, Egghead (guess how he looks like), has arrived there first and wants to claim the reward himself. Johnny isn’t having it, and he goads Egghead into a fight – “I’m glad you [hit me] Egghead. Real glad… I don’t like to kill a man without a good reason!”
There follows a particularly savage Beatdown, magnificently illustrated by the charged Carlos Ezquerra. The readers might be shocked: Johnny is often violent, but in a professional and efficient manner. He deals what amount of damage is necessary and nothing more. Here, however, he’s going out of his way to be brutal, and towards a fellow mutant no less! If he’s willing to do that to Egghead, what is going to do to that mysterious Kreelman? As Egghead slinks away Wulf asks what the readers are aching to know: “You have been strange since you hear der name Kreelman. Vot for do you hate him so much?” The answer: “Nelson B. Kreelman is my father!”
You can’t you have a more X-Men moment than this, the bad guy is the hero’s long lost daddy. Also, Wulf gets the phonetic accent treatment for that extra-Claremont touch. The beauty and power of the moment is because up until this point we didn’t learn much about Johnny’s personal life. The idea that he might have an older name – that he wasn’t always Johnny Alpha – was never brought up before. Johnny was set up as a pro amongst pros, and after years’ worth of set up it was a good time as any to turn up the emotional dial sharply.
Because Strontium Dog has all the emotional background that we think about when we think ‘mutant.’ There’s the allegorical racism angle, slightly assisted by the fact that most mutants in Strontium Dog are just people who look strange (Alpha’s superpowerd eyes are an exception rather than the rule). There’s the protecting-the-a-word-that-hates-and-fears-them angle, Alpha came out to the aid of humans more than once, knowing exactly what would happen once the job was over. More than anything there’s the grudging understanding that things are not going to change easily. As the story open Johnny and Wulf just finish mopping up another group of dangerous criminals only to be met with “get out of here, Mutie freak!” As Wulf notes these are “der the same old insults.”
That’s danger. That’s hate that became so regular that you grow used to it. It become a static, a background noise. You can almost learn to ignore it. Except something like that will never remain a background noise for long, As Portrait of a Mutant evolves we learn more: more of Johnny’s past (as a fighter in the resistance), more of his relations with his father (who more than earned all that hate) and more about the history of Mutants in future Britain. We also learn, to a degree, why Johnny is so taciturn all the time.
It isn’t because he doesn’t have emotions. It’s because he learned to hold back, had to. Society wouldn’t tolerate a mutant who is too loud, too angry. So Johnny holds it. Keeps on holding it. The violence of his profession could become an outlet so he holds it even there, because he wants to be a pro, he wants (without admitting it) to show he’s not a monster. He’s a person. A man of honor. But you cannot remain an ideal forever, and the Kreelman name is the open gaping wound; the memory of what was and could never be. Johnny Alpha isn’t going to run from the past. He’s a man, with a score to settle.
[Also, everything I described takes place in just five pages. Portrait of a Mutant, one of the longest stories in the series overall, is less than 150 pages. Unlike these X-people Johnny knows how to make his point and be brief about it].
2000AD Prog #200
“Portrait of a Mutant”
Writer: Alan Grant
Artist: Carlos Ezquerra
Letterer: Steve Potter
Tom Shapira’s writing has been featured on many different websites, ranging from PanelXPanel and The MNT right through to The Comics Journal. The best place to find him online is on Twitter, right here!
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