Wednesday, November 11, 2009

1984 - Alpha Flight


Alpha Flight #6-17
John Byrne, writer and artist

After the initial story arc, which ran through the first four issues, issues #5 through #10 were dedicated to individual characters rather than to the team as a whole. By issue #11, the team subplot had picked up enough steam to become the main plot and gathered Alpha Flight for the climatic finale in issue #12.

To sort out some inconsistencies and contradictions in characterizations, Byrne ran a backup feature in the first dozen issues that detailed each member’s origin. The cast of characters was richly developed: Aurora’s multiple/split personality; Northstar’s arrogance and bitterness; the deity-like Snowbird’s attempt to deal with real life; the insecurity felt by the team’s leader Guardian who was a pleasant mix of Reed Richards and Captain America; Puck’s mysterious past; Sasquatch’s scientific mind totally in control of his monstrous side, or was it?

Issue #6 stood out as an interesting experiment that showcased 6 pages of all-white panels with only narrative and sound effects. Byrne took advantage of the Assistant Editor’s month, which normally resulted in goofy antics, and decided to cleverly play around with the medium.

By the end of issue #12, Byrne completely changed the rules. With perhaps his most gutsy move, he killed Guardian. It was an unexpected twist. Sure, a team could survive the loss of its leader, but Alpha Flight was nowhere near a cohesive team.

I remember anxiously waiting for issue #12, reading the in-house ads, guessing at who would be the one to die. I was convinced it was Northstar that would receive the Grim Reaper’s cold touch. Some readers saw it as a gratuitous death, other saw it as Byrne’s attempt to infuse the comic with a bit of reality. Personally, I didn’t like it. However, that in itself was a testimonial to Byrne’s characterization. I cared about Guardian and certainly didn’t want him to die.

The story line was well plotted out and executed. The ending carried with it a haunting sense of tragedy that was still there when I re-read it. In another respect, Guardian’s character wasn’t as established as say Mr. Fantastic or Captain America. Byrne probably didn’t have to work hard to convince his editor of what he planned to do. This event provided him with a unique opportunity to explore a situation which he could never have done on the Fantastic Four.

Byrne’s portrayal of strong female characters, like Guardian’s wife, Heather Hudson, who got stronger as the series progresses, was refreshing. With the Guardian’s death, Alpha Flight needed a leader. However, none of the team’s members seemed up to the task. In house ads hinted at Wolverine leaving the X-Men and joining Alpha Flight as their new leader.

Alpha Flight #17 had a wonderful Byrne reinterpreting Cockrum’s cover to Uncanny X-Men #109. The story is a retelling of that classic X-Men issue in which Weapon Alpha confronted Wolverine over his departure from Department H to join the X-Men. However, Byrne made another unexpected turn and set Heather Hudson up as Alpha Flight’s leader. Throughout the series, she represented the team’s spirit despite the fact that she didn’t have any super powers.

8 comments:

  1. Alpha Flight was one of my favorite Marvel comics of the 80s. I just hate that the team and characters pretty much died with the 80s, too.

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  2. Yeah, you're right, I feel the same way being Canadian. They've tried so often to re-capture that feeling, but never seem to get it right.

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  3. I was 13 when I read Alpha Flight #12. It was one of only two times a comic book made me cry -- and John Byrne wrote both of them.

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  4. Hey Scott, I'm assuming the other was Uncanny X-Men #137, Death of the Phoenix?

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  5. Nope! When Reed comes back to the hospital with Dr. Octopus, but is too late to save his second child.

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  6. Ah, yes. That was brutal. That last page with the heavy black borders is etched in my mind.

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  7. Forgot about the Snowblind cover. A stunner. Great recap of the early series, too. Really enjoyed Alpha Flight up to Guardian's death. Issue #17 was also cool (new and improved uppercut!) and got my friends and I to revisit some of the "old" Byrne X-Men issues. Good stuff.

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  8. Hey The Colonel, I loved Alpha Flight as well and Guardian's death still bothers me! I'd love to one day get a commission from Byrne where Mac survives his armour overload!

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