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Durham Red: Bitch
by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Carlos Ezquerra
2000AD, $17.99, 144pp
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
While Judge Dredd was easily the most successful character to adorn the pages of legendary British comic book '2000 AD,' he was also far from the only one. A number of other regular characters found a good deal of success in the early days, such as Slaine, Robo Hunter, Nemesis the Warlock and Rogue Trooper. There was also Strontium Dog, which '2000 AD' took on when another weekly science fiction comic, 'Starlord,' was cancelled.

I liked Strontium Dog a lot, because it featured a strong but very human lead in Johnny Alpha, particularly ironic because he was a mutant. In his future universe, mutants are numerous after a global nuclear conflict, the Great War of 2150, but heavily discriminated against. Unlike the mutants found in American comics, who tend to gain superpowers without physical deformity, mutants in Strontium Dog are often the other way around, with characters frequently suffering from severe deformity but less frequently benefitting from superpowers. Alpha is an exception, as he looks relatively normal but his eyes allow him to see through walls. These talents are useful for those who become Search/Destroy agents, futuristic bounty hunters colloquially known as Strontium Dogs.

Durham Red was one of two characters to get their own spin-off strip from the Strontium Dog series, the other being Middenface McNulty. Durham Red's mutation included fangs and a fondness for blood, though she didn't carry any of the other attributes of vampires. While she is often seen as a pariah even among mutants, she was something of a love interest for Johnny Alpha. 'Bitch' serves as her introduction, so it's still a Strontium Dog series, even if it's collected in a Durham Red volume here.

It's also a Ronald Reagan story, of all things, as the typically odd storyline features a group of futuristic freedom fighters from the planet Kaiak, desperate to reclaim their world from the human colonists who have taken over and turned the natives into second class citizens. For some reason, their best bet appears to be to travel backwards in time, kidnap the US president during a trip to Moscow to talk peace with Mikhail Gorbachev, his Russian equivalent in 1987, and threaten to execute him if humans don't leave their planet. Their reasoning is that killing such a major figure, the effective leader of the planet Earth, would change history, potentially stopping the colonization of their planet.

A huge bounty is naturally offered for Reagan's safe return and Strontium Dogs flood to Kaiak to track him down. Johnny Alpha is talked into it by Durham Red, as a fifty-fifty partnership, and that changes the face of the story too, as Alpha is known as much for his moral standards as his ability to bring in the bounties. Learning what the Kaiaks' fight is all about, he decides to help them achieve their goals, while still bringing in Reagan for his bounty.

Strontium Dog was created by writer John Wagner (under the pseudonym of T B Grover) and artist Carlos Ezquerra, names familiar to any Judge Dredd fan, because they created him too. There are similarities between the two universes, but the tone is completely different. Judge Dredd is about the rule of law in a police state, as enforced on a bored public by fascist cops; the judges, whose job descriptions include judge, jury and executioner. Strontium Dog is also set in a pessimistic future, a post-apocalyptic world where most people were wiped out by nuclear war and many of those who survived were mutated by the radioactive fallout. Yet this bleak landscape is filled with stories that are often surprisingly uplifting, as Alpha frequently does good deeds on the scale of stopping genocide and freeing enslaved populations, all while bringing in his man.

Of course, he's not averse to killing people whenever needed, but Durham Red is a lot less touchy about the subject. To her thinking, bad guys are bad guys and if the bounty is for dead or alive, dead is preferable because she can feed off their blood before bringing in their bodies. She even lets them run for a little while to build up their fear because they taste better that way. That she looks cool too, with bright red hair and outfits that show plenty of skin, certainly can't hurt her stature as an anti-hero.

I liked her in 'Bitch' but felt that Ezquerra wasn't always as consistent with his drawing of her as he was with Johnny Alpha. Perhaps that changed later as her stature improved. She didn't just return in other strips and get a spin-off of her own, but expanded into a set of five novels too. In this first outing for her, she adds an edge to Strontium Dog that makes it unsurprising that she'd soon be back again. She plays well alongside Alpha, as happy to shoot him with a stungun to steal his bounties as to lock lips with him.

Ronald Reagan, however, doesn't benefit from a good portrayal. He's consistently depicted as a dimwit who won't shut up, unable to grasp that he's been kidnapped through time to an alien planet, even though the evidence is all around him, believing instead that he's being taken for a ride somewhere in Moscow. He also suffers from an abundance of faux pas, not to mention frequent memory lapses. Yet this is no revisionist painting written years after his presidency was over and his Alzheimer's well known, it saw first publication in '2000 AD' in 1987 while he was still the US president and doing much of what he's shown doing here with regards to Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

What's missing from 'Bitch' is some of the humor I remember from earlier Strontium Dog stories that featured his regular early companions; the Viking Wulf Sternhammer and the timid alien creature, the Gronk. Most of the humor here is wrapped up in Reagan's role as comic relief, while Alpha plays hero and Durham Red plays anti-hero, and, as you can imagine, it gets a little tiring.

What's also missing is a substantial page count. After the weighty volumes of Judge Dredd's 'Complete Case Files', this feels a little thin, 'Bitch' running for 25 issues of '2000 AD'. I'd have thought that the volume would have included 'The Stone Killers', the only other Strontium Dog story to feature Durham Red. It ran for 13 issues in 1988, before she was spun off into her own series. Instead we get 'The Golden Mile,' a skimpy story from the '2000 AD Yearbook 1993.'

As with the 'Judge Dredd' book I reviewed last month, I got a real kick out of 'Bitch' though, which took me again down memory lane to the heyday of '2000 AD.' I'm already looking back to see what else they've brought into the graphic novel format and forward, too, to see what other treats they have in store for us. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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