“I’m glad you’re happy with your new girlfriend, Tim. Just don’t forget whose shoulder you cried on when the last one dumped you. Or when Johnny Alpha got killed by that big flying monster in 2000AD”.
Yes, the hurt and betrayal felt by countless Strontium Dog readers – including Simon Pegg’s Tim from Spaced – when their beloved hero was brutally dispatched still resonates some twenty years on, as Rebellion collect the controversial The Final Solution storyline in its entirety for the first time, in the process finishing up their excellent series of S/D Agency Files collections (this book, despite coming out under its own title, shares the series’ trade dress and is numbered as #5).
Of course, given the fact that Alpha – arguably second only to Judge Dredd in the 2000AD canon – was subsequently brought back for a rebooted series in 1999 that wrote off all previous stories as “folklore”, it’s easier to judge The Final Solution more objectively and in isolation on its quality as a story. Nevetheless, the controversy of the decision to kill the erstwhile hero hangs over the book even in this sense, as the refusal of longtime artist Carlos Ezquerra to draw the story in protest led to something of a compromise on the art front.
It’s not that Simon Harrison’s work is without merit (in particular, his level of detail on occasion is excellent) – it’s just that his style is an extremely acquired taste, and at times downright uncomfortable to look at. His level of character expression is nothing like Ezquerra’s – and while he can draw a nastily sneering, crater-faced villain, Johnny in particular is frequently reduced to a bland, misshapen mask of nothingness. All too often, clarity of storytelling is sacrificed for unsettling imagery picked out of black backgrounds – it’s a very “underground comix” look that feels at odds with the traditional action stylings of the series. Things do pick up a bit when the series moves into full colour and Colin MacNeil takes over – he’s much more similar to Ezquerra, his Alpha has more of the character in him, and there’s more clarity to the story.
And what of that story itself? Well, it’s certainly not the best Strontium Dog story ever – Alan Grant writing the series solo was never quite as good as when working with John Wagner, and here you sense that he’s trying too hard to build up a large enough threat for Johnny’s sacrifice to feel worthwhile. And while, yes, the mass extermination of just about every mutant is something worth losing the character to prevent, the story never really manages to feel as epic as it should – it spends too long bogged down in setup, particularly the lengthy scenes in the Milton Keynes ghetto.
Part of the problem, too, is that – like just about every story after the death of longtime sidekick Wulf Sternhammer – it suffers for want of a good supporting cast. Middenface McNulty is an enjoyable entry point for much of the story (his irritatingly phonetically-written Scots brogue notwithstanding), but angry young rebel mutant Feral (introduced here in preparation for the lacklustre Strontium Dogs spinoff series) is awash with cliché and lacking in any real character – nor do we get any real sense of an attachment to Johnny by the time he’s devasted by his death.
That said, the whole thing is suitably dark – given the subject matter – and there’s a particularly ominous and chilling overtone to the early chapters, particularly a grim sequence involving a zombified Wulf. And the chapter in which Johnny is killed is a well-written trip through his backstory and motivations, while his moment of death is genuinely unsettling.
In the interests of completing the archive set, the trade here is bulked out with a couple of stories from annuals and the like. Of particular interest is “Top Dogs” – written by Wagner (and drawn by MacNeil again) after the publication of The Final Solution, it’s a flashback story that finally answers the age-old question of “what would happen if Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha met?” The answer is an entertaining romp that casts Johnny and Wulf as suit-wearing, time-travelling hitmen, although it does shy away from a definitive answer by arguably providing both sets of loyal fans with a “winning” outcome. It’s probably the best thing in the book, and as the last published Alpha story before the reboot, it makes for a nice capstone.
There’s no doubt that The Final Solution is well worth buying for longtime Stronty fans, as it wraps up what has been a lovely, uniform set of comprehensive archive editions. Ironically enough, however, those fans are probably the people most annoyed by the story, and so who might shy away from it. And while there are far better stories (most notably “Portrait of a Mutant”) for the curious newcomer to pick up, it’s nevertheless an intriguing part of British comics history – even though the context of killing off one of the industry’s most popular figures has been diluted by that reboot.