Amidst the dusty annals of comics history, exists a forgotten classic: an original series by two of the most justly celebrated co-creators, and creative partnerships: John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, the team behind not only the beloved Strontium Dog, but also the genuinely iconic Judge Dredd. Given this pedigree of talent and success, you’d be forgiven for expecting any collaboration between the two to be a thing of greatness, held up by fandom across the world as a celebration of comics as an artform in its own right – but sadly, their 1990s mob story with a twist has been left in the shadows for far too long. After all, if the always-incisive Dredd is considered the peak of Wagner and Ezquerra’s no-holds-barred storytelling, then perhaps, in its own little way, the entertainingly punching-down Al’s Baby should be looked upon as the peak of their gift for frivolity.
For so many reasons other than a resoundingly blissful feeling of “oh no,” it’s a fair bet that most people reading this have either never heard of Al’s Baby, or have blissfully avoided it altogether, despite knowing the creators’ names and creative legacies. Having dominated the sci-fi market in the UK since the 1977 debut of Judge Dredd redefined the potential of a hearty combination of dystopian futures and bizarre macho figures, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra are far from unheard of in the strangely isolated world of American comics; so why isn’t Al’s Baby something that everyone is talking about, already?
The answer might simply be, “because it’s not what anyone expected of these two creators.” Originally serialized in 1991 in still-nascent Judge Dredd Megazine, Al’s Baby is a series that lands somewhere between Wagner’s clear and present love of mobster stories, Ezquerra’s immense gift for caricature and bringing out the best in Wagner’s absurd comedy, and some good ol’ fashioned male pregnancy fetishism.
Yeah, you didn’t see that last part coming, did you?
Al’s Baby tells the story of Al Bestardi, a gangster in the year 2014 who’s as tough as nails, feared from one end of Chi-town to the other. When confronted by his father-in-law, the curmudgeonly misogynistic Don Sarcoma, to find out why he and Velma haven’t given him any grandchildren yet, Al begins to really feel the pressure. Naturally, it would seem that talking to Velma and setting them on the family track would be the solution, but when Velma refuses stating that it would ruin her (already-failing) career as a nightclub singer, it’s up to Al to take things into his own hands with the newly-available technology – inexplicably and hilariously noted as having been “perfected in Florida” – that lets men carry children.
Once his surgery out of the way, and with a newly-baked bun in the oven, Al finds himself balancing morning sickness, a marriage, and continuing his career and the best hitman in town… a matter that becomes even more pressing as rival mobster Mutt McClusky requires a date with destiny after nearly taking out Al (and the baby)!
Somewhat shockingly, the series continued after Al had delivered little Al Junior (of course). The series’ second installment, melodramatically subtitled “Blood on the Bib,” is nothing short of a fever dream, as readers see that Jr. is turning out to be, even at one year old, ready for the mobster life just like his daddy. Al Senior, meanwhile, is busy trying not to be skipped over to be the next in line for the Sarcoma gang, before the story eventually moves on to Al’s second pregnancy and… perhaps sitting in on the role of Godfather because of it? I’ll not spoil it too much for you, just in case.
Here’s the thing: I’m not going to tell you to read Al’s Baby for the plot, because however fun it may be, the plot is merely the cherry on top of what may be one of the most singularly enjoyable comics of the early 1990s. As comics emerged from the latter half of the 1980s – a period that saw the publication and mainstream success of titles such as Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus – American and British comics alike began to lean into their grittier selves, increasingly opting for dystopian stories, deeply-metaphorical anomalies, or just straight unhinged hallucinogenic psychobabble.
Whole hosts of creators who had previously built their careers through throwaway stories, humor strips, and satirical shorts found themselves in the middle of a cultural tornado of reader demand for a more critical look into heroes, villains, and comics overall; all served with a large helping of angst and ennui. Comics were, in short, beginning to dip their toes into becoming the stuff of mainstream culture, and the results were as formative and historically key as they were exhaustingly grim.
As all this was happening, Wagner and Ezquerra —two creators whose careers had been, up until then, arguably built on finding material in future dystopias and wars, and telling stories rooted in the direness of oppression — went for broke, leaning wholly on a story that, for all intents and purposes, did not fit the era it was birthed into. (No pun intended. Well, maybe a little.)
What could have easily been another attempt at a crime story or ordinary mobster saga – and, perhaps, would have been, under different creators – became something categorically odd and unmistakably amusing under Wagner and Ezquerra’s respective pens, giving both a strangely warm-hearted air and an eagerly, gloriously stupid attitude to a story that, had it been rejected or reworked by any person with good taste or sense, would have simply continued the mold set by others. Make no mistake; even as their peers were making solid cases for the idea that comics could – indeed, did – match some of the finest prose of the moment in terms of being considered serious literature, Wagner and Ezquerra put their collective minds together to create something that was, under even the most gracious, forgiving critical eye, very, very silly indeed.
I would be remiss to omit the fact that, surprisingly – considering Wagner has never been much for cultural sensitivity, as anyone who’s read his 1980s Robo-Hunter work is all too aware – the male pregnancy aspect of the story reads as strangely wholesome, even today. While it would be easy to make this an entire potshot at the idea of male pregnancy (in some ways, it does, to an extent), the concept is played more as situational comedy rather than a focus on the gender aspect of things; this is, thankfully, far from any traditionalist take on what roles men and women are “supposed” to take when it comes to children.
Sure, Al may be carrying the baby to please his father-in-law and, therefore, save his own skin, but it’s an idea that he takes very seriously throughout the series and his multiple pregnancies, going so far as to announce to his bar full of mobsters that he’s pregnant and that anyone who has ugly words to say about it will get to swim with the fishes. Despite a few backhanded judgements, Al proudly parades around his growing belly while taking the advice of his right-hand-man Sal, who is determined to make sure Al takes care of himself and has a healthy pregnancy: no smoking, drinking, or overly-dangerous situations — after all, he’s carrying out hits for two now and trying not to stress over Don Sarcoma’s looming disapproval.
Though this is wholesomely funny in and of itself, the laughs stem from things like Al getting morning sickness all over the Don, feeling little kicks while out on a hit, or having to deliver a baby amid a battle with a rival mob — shifting the focus away from gender in favor of having a laugh at the very idea of a mobster having to juggle life and death very literally all at once and with slapstick sensibility. The joke isn’t that it’s a man having a baby, it’s that it’s a mobster having a baby; the gimmick is watching Wagner and Ezquerra build a sitcom out of mafia story cliches, and being more than a little surprised when, against all odds, it actually works.
In the past, I’ve prattled on plenty about the more high-spirited and funny works of the traditionally more serious Alan Moore, as well as the sanctioned buffoonery of the grand old team of Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire, and the spectacular shit-storm that is the seasonal classic Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer, and it’s something I’ve done eagerly, simply because I feel there’s a void that needs to be filled in comics criticism; namely, an absence of talking joyfully about comic creators going entirely rogue from what was expected of them. In many ways, this is exactly what Wagner and Ezquerra do with Al’s Baby; what makes it quite the hidden treasure that it is, though, is just how good the end result actually is.
More than anything else, Al’s Baby shows off how comics, despite the ways in which generations and eras might try to place them into boxes, can do just about anything and make it fun… especially if it’s all done in the service of something entirely and unequivocally stupid that can pay off in ways that continue to matter. Sure, it’s easy to discount books like Al’s Baby that found themselves published during this particular period because they didn’t fit the mold: Where were the quotations from classic novels or Shakespeare plays? Why does it move so quickly, and without ponderous interludes allowing the creators to remind us all how important everything is? In all actuality, it’s exactly that fact that makes it stand out as a breath of fresh air; something that sticks out among the throngs of similar themes and leering, desperately frowning seriousness.
Even today, Al’s Baby still comes at the reader with no hidden agenda, instead opting for wholesomeness, laughs, fun and a delightful brand of imagination that feels as prescient as it is refreshing. In a way, it acts as a time capsule for an earlier era in comics, where having a cheeky laugh and being odd in certain ways didn’t have to carry a heavier message. On the face of it, there’s nothing inherently important about Al’s Baby; there’s nothing that Al’s Baby — surrounded by RAW and Miracleman and Shade and Sandman and all the rest — has to say that feels necessary. Al’s Baby just wants to deliver the entertainment.
That’s what makes Al’s Baby so perfect, so timeless, after all these years, though. It is entertaining, and entirely unintentionally – I genuinely don’t believe it’s what either Wagner nor Ezquerra were planning – that demonstrates why it’s important in ways that are entirely equal to its more po-faced, weighty contemporaries. There’s value in simply wanting to tell a good story and making the reader happy as a result, and there’s arguably more skill in succeeding in that aim in a way that seems as effortless and carefree as Al’s Baby. Sure, as the cliche of the time went, “comics aren’t just for kids,” and yes, comics can be more than just throwaway fun. But, at the same time, comics can also be throwaway fun sometimes. They can make readers smile, laugh, and have a good time. Just as much as any literate, serious piece of comics, comics can be entertaining and joyful.
Al’s Baby is, at heart, evidence that comics can do anything they want to, if their creators are up to the challenge. Isn’t that what everyone wants, deep down?