Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The life and death of Middenface McNulty

2000ad has a habit of gleefully killing of its main characters, but it has also been a comic which isn’t going to let a good character go to waste. Considering most of the comic’s strips feature some kind of future science, weirdo magic or time travel shenanigans, it’s not hard to bring characters back from the dead. Not when the impossible can be explained away in a line of dialogue.

Despite this, it was genuinely surprising to see the recent return of Johnny Alpha from the dead in the pages of Strontium Dog. Alpha was one of the classic 2000ad characters, maintaining a level of excellence for 30 years, built of a rock solid concept of an intergalactic bounty hunter with a fierce hatred of injustice. A man who is spit upon by society, but maintains a solid dignity.

There were always lots of trains barreling out of control, and vicious cannibals and trips to a Hell dimension. Johnny gunned down irredeemable villains, tried to put right all of his wrongs and stuffed a sock in Hitler's mouth. All of this given a real emotional weight with Johnny’s refusal to give in to the anger, to maintain his dignity

Alpha was killed off 20 years ago, slain by evil wizards from another hell dimension to save innocents. His soul was released from a hideous organic trap soon afterward and Johnny Alpha was gone. Stories starring his friends and allies continued on for a while, eventually mutating into the unending and beautiful Durham Red series, but it wasn’t the same without Johnny.

Still, Johnny Alpha and his pal Wulf Sternhammer had plenty of untold adventures from the period before the comic started and about a decade ago, creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra started filling in some gaps with some ridiculously entertaining and curiously inessential stories.

Some of the best Strontium Dog stories – including Portrait of a Mutant and Rangnarok - had filled in Alpha’s background well, but everything after his death was a little stagnant. It wasn’t just that they Alpha was in no real danger because we’d seen his ultimate end, it was just a general pointlessness.

It meant characters that had been long dead could come back as whole new stories spiraled out of past plotlines, but there was no real progression in the story of Johnny Alpha.

And then, after decades of “dead means dead”, this year Wagner and Ezquerra produced The Life And Death of Johnny Alpha with the specific aim of bringing back Alpha with some mystical mumbo jumbo. The 11-part story climaxed with Alpha’s resurrection, but it still came at a cost, with his oldest surviving friend giving up his own life in exchange.

The man who makes the sacrifice has no doubt that it’s worth it, telling the mystical beings responsible for Alpha’s return that he was worth ten of him “and ye’d still get change”, but it’s still sad to see him go.

He makes that sacrifice, and is apparently gone for good, (although, like Johnny, there is always that crazy possibility of his own resurrection somewhere down the line). It’s a shame, because out of the hundreds of brilliant characters 2000ad has produced over the years (and a few thousand duff ones), the Tartan Terror was one of the best.

So let’s raise a glass to Middenface McNulty!

***

Archibald “Middenface” McNulty first showed up in Portrait of A Mutant – Johnny Alpha’s origin story – as the mutant leader of a Scottish militia fighting back against a society dedicated to wiping all mutants out. He was a colourful character with a head full of lumps, (several of which would be shot off over the years), the desire to give any kind of prejudice a good kicking and a small fondness for the drink.

Over the years, Middenface made more appearances in Strontium Dog, always willing to give his pal Johnny a hand when he needed it. He started showing up a lot more after Wulf Sternhammer died in a hail of bullets, serving the role of Johnny’s unofficial partner and comedy drunken sidekick.

One of those simple jobs turned into a river of genocidal shit, and Johnny was gone at the end of it. Middenface showed up a couple of times after that, but most subsequent appearances were in the flashback stories.

It’s fair to say the Strontium Dog strip lost a lot of its humour and humanity without Middenface (or Wulf), with the story occasionally descending into po-faced seriousness, especially when Wagner and Alan Grant were no longer involved.

Middenface’s appearances were always so welcome because he was just so bloody charming, a good friend who would do the job and the buy the first round. Despite the fierce bumps on his head, Middenface was an absolutely honourable character who never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it.

Middenface was always a bit of a comedic character, although he could also be used to tell far more serious stories, especially when his past fighting against mutant prejudice with a broken whiskey bottle and a headbutt was revealed in a number of excellent Young Middenface stories by Grant, who also deserves much of the credit for the brilliance of Strontium Dog over the years.

It was Middenface who would be the first to crack a joke in the face of unbelievable peril, he gave average stories like The Rammy a healthy boost with his fighting skills and drinking in court, (“Purely medicinal, your Jameship.”) He was always up for a song and a dance and could outshoot any man after downing a few bottles. He would travel halfway across the galaxy to avenge his dog.

But something interesting happened in Middenface’s last appearance, a weary melancholy that explains his sacrifice. He drinks to forget all the awful things he’s done. His easy-drinking ways have, over the years, swelled into full-blown alcoholism.

He is still one of the galaxy’s greatest drinkers, but Middenface does it o wipe out his own past, living on guilt at the horrible things he has seen and done in a lifetime of conflict.

McNulty was a stone-cold killer and a great man to have by your side, but over the course of his last story, he often admits to being a lesser man than Johnny. He uses Feral, a character who briefly took over the Strontium Dog strip for a couple of years, and then casually dumps him back to a hugely ignominious end: Feral is fattened up into obesity, gets his nose cut off and burns to death at the stake.

And Middenface knows it. He knows Johnny would have got the information from Feral and given him another chance, or at least an honourable end. Middenface is a broken man who can’t think of a better way to get to his best mate.

He eventually finds Johnny’s body and brings it to giant Stone Wizards, who talk back at him in his own language. (Another brilliant bit of Wagner’s sense of the absurd – vast, eldritch gods telling a wee mutant that he’s cruisin’ for a bruisin’.) And he reveals that Johnny is the best man he’s ever known, who deserved better than a dirty death at the hands of disgusting demons, and that Middenface is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to bring him back. No hesitation, no fear, it’s just the right thing to do.

Nice one, Middenface.

***

The actual fate of Johnny Alpha is still a mystery, he has only been seen slumped in one panel, but that panel also has a big ol’ ‘To be continued’ in it, and there is no doubt that Johnny Alpha is back.

There have been plenty of dubious resurrections in 2000ad’s past, but occasionally something becomes even better and the future of Johnny Alpha is so uncertain that the wait until his next appearance in the comic is going to be interminable.

After all, it’s on the back of a blistering burst of creative excellence from Wagner and Ezquerra, who have built on decades of craft and experience to produce some outstanding comics in the past couple of years. Their work has never been better. Judge Dredd: Mega-City Justice was a stunning piece of work - there is much, much more to say about this soon – and their focus on telling the unknown next stage in the saga of Johnny Alpha is simply exciting

Whatever Johnny’s fate, it will be one without Middenface, which will be a damned shame. He really did bring a lot of colour to the story of Johnny Alpha and the pages of 2000ad.

But this is science fiction - and as Russell T Davies said in another one of his brilliant observations about writing Doctor Who – you can get away with anything in science fiction, because you can explain anything in as piece of dialogue.

So there is always the chance of further Middenface adventures somewhere down the line. This is one of the brilliant things about comics: there is nothing to stop him from returning, because you don’t have to rely on an actor or any kind of production issue.

Middenface could show up again. There is still hopes of an Old Middenface series to balance out the adventures in his younger days. He is too good a character to let lie forever.

And if he does come back, he’s buying the first round. And you’re getting the next three.

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