Sneck! Mutant Bounty Hunter In Radio 4 High Culture Shock!

Strontium Dog

Mutant Bounty Hunter Johnny Alpha, AKA Strontium Dog, from 2000 AD, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra

I’ve published a few pieces recently about comics, and particularly 2000 AD. Last week it was reported that Judge Dredd was going to be taking on Nigel Farage in the form of a hate-mongering politico, Bilious Barrage, in Mega-City 1. Now in today’s Radio Times there’s also news that another favourite from 2000 AD will get a mention on radio: Johnny Alpha, the mutant bounty hunter and hero of the strip Strontium Dog. He’s due to get an appearance on a programme about a new cycle of poems about the element, from which he and the other Search/Destroy Agents took their name The (Half) Life of Strontium.

The blurb in the Radio Times says Strontium is the 38th element in the Periodic Table and was discovered in 1792 by miners in the Scottish village of Strontian. Robert Crawford’s new suite of poems elaborates on the connections between the village in Argyll, the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki and the mutant bounty hunter, Strontium Dog.

The programme’s on at 4.30 pm. on Radio 4 on Sunday, 12th April.

The strip took its name from Strontium 90, one of the radioactive elements in nuclear fall-out. The Strontium Dogs were mutants, who were legally prevented from holding any other jobs on Earth except as bounty hunters because of their mutations. The strip combined detective adventures in a kind of future galactic Wild West, as the strip’s hero, Johnny Alpha, and his norm partner Wulf Sternhammer, roamed space bringing criminals to justice.

Alpha took his name from the alpha particles emitted by his mutant eyes. In the strip these gave him X-ray vision and the power to read minds. In practice they’re very weak. You can block them with a sheet of paper. Not that science fact necessarily gets in the way of a good tale. 2000 AD generally had a strong satirical edge, and wasn’t averse to tackling serious issues. In Strontium Dog the strips’ creators used the mutant hero and his deformed friends and enemies to explore issues of racism, prejudice and the British class system.

Alpha’s father was a ruthless right-wing politicians, Nelson Bunker Kreelman, who was determined to carry out a policy of mass murder to cleanse an irradiated Britain of its mutant population. Alpha’s own mutation was carefully hidden in order to safeguard his father’s reputation. In the event, Alpha rebels against his father, and leads a mutant revolt from one of the ancient symbols of British identity, Stonehenge.

The mutant’s victory is limited, however. Although they are tolerated, their opportunities are very limited. They are segregated into mutant ghettos, and are very much second-class citizens. When Alpha and Wulf travel, they are forced to find accommodation in the hold or in the second class cabins, as mutants very definitely may not travel first class with ordinary humans. And the discovery of mutant relatives, especially offspring, is still a major source of shame for respectable middle class Brits.

In one strip, the king of Britain, Clarkie II, attempts to bridge the divide between norm and mutant by marrying a young mutant lady with a duck’s bill from the Milton Keynes mutant ghetto. This is a step too far for his subjects, and the idealistic king is hounded, forced to abdicate, and flee into space.

It’s a slightly irreverent, but also curiously sympathetic look at Prince Charles’ actions at the time. This was before his marriage with Lady Di fell apart, and the Prince was still popular with many Brits. He also appeared to be genuinely and deeply concerned with the plight of his poorer subjects as Maggie’s recession threw millions out of work. And so the strip’s creators, Aaln Grant and Carlos Ezquerra, were able to present a fantastic version of the Prince of Wales showing his social concerns in the future. In this case, it was marrying well out of his class with a mutant girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

And what Crawford’s poem also shows us, is that apart from great literature, the major figures of British arts also started off like the rest of us: reading and enjoying the four-colour funny papers. They’ve now grown up, and Dredd, Alpha and the rest are heading upmarket alongside . At least on the radio.

Reagan Dog

Never afraid to treat authority with the amusement it deserves: Strontium Dog and his partner, Durham Red, rescue a Ronald Reagan kidnapped by time-travelling aliens.

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