Friday, January 2, 2015

1983: Alpha's Initial Outing part I: Some Assembly Required

By Jef Willemsen (

The year is 1983 and Jim Shooter just had an idea: let's launch Alpha Flight in their own series. After all, the Canadian superheroes had proven remarkably popular ever since their earliest Uncanny X-Men appearances.  One slight problem, as we'll discover in this review of Alpha's initial outings: Alpha's co-creator John Byrne had no idea what to do with them.

Way back in 1979, when Jimmy Carter was president, the Russians were in Afghanistan and buying comics didn't mean getting a second mortgage on your house... There was Uncanny X-Men I#121 which featured the X-Men getting stranded in Canada after a freak weather event. There, they quickly realized the unruly weather was the work of the first Canadian superhero team... Alpha Flight.

"We've no quarrel with you, X-Men..."

Of course that's what they always say, but we all know what's going to happen here... This is comics after all, the good guys always fight the other good guys, it's in the comics rulebook, look it up. Also, John Byrne himself has stated in numerous interviews that Alpha Flight had been specifically created to "merely" survive a fight against the X-Men.

Fair's fair, the parallels should be obvious. Both teams have leaders who discharge energy blasts (Cyclops and Vindicator). Both have imposing powerhouses (Colossus and Sasquatch), the teleporting Nightcrawler should be able to keep up with the lightning fast Northstar and Aurora. The feral Wolverine should be a match for whatever arctic creature Snowbird turns into, while Storm is there to take on Shaman, whose Indian magicks caused the freak snowstorm that stranded the X-Men in the first place.

All in all, it made for a more than entertaining fight. It was actually the first time this still relatively new team of X-Men actually faced a squad of opponents. Sure, they'd fought Count Nefaria and his Ani-Men during their first mission, only to lose Thunderbird in the process. But after that, they mostly encountered only one or two villains at a time.

It made for gripping storytelling, so much so that Alpha Flight quickly became a fan favorite. Readers demanded to see more of these Canadian heroes. And while Claremont and Byrne obliged with a two parter in Uncanny X-Men I#139 & 140 and minor guest appearances in Fantastic Four (Vindicator) or Incredible Hulk (Sasquatch) those just weren't going to cut it. Even including them in 1982's Contest of Champions wouldn't suffice. That's why John Byrne was eventually (t)asked to launch an Alpha Flight soloseries in August of 1983.

"One side, super heroes... This is a job only WE can handle!"

Vindicator's cover blurb really says it all. Alpha Flight's here to do a job none of the super heroes could handle... Simply because it had very little to do with actual superheroics. Remember, this is the first, real taste we get of Canada's premiere superhero team. And guess what we learn on the first page of the first issue: they're already dead in the water... The government decided to cut funding to Department H, which bankrolled Canada's super powered operatives... effectively shutting down the entire Flight program. 

And that led to these encouraging opening scenes.

"I can probably surive. At least I've still got Heather."

We meet the hero of the book, Vindicator, in the deserted, cleared out corridors of Department H... Obviously, things are not going his way. He used to be in charge of no less than 16 Canadian superhumans and now he's basically out of a job because the funding got cut. Exploring the fate of a down on his luck hero would have been interesting enough to explore, it worked for Spider-Man after all, but Byrne went the extra mile by casually introducing the members of these elusive Beta and Gamma Flights. Forget Professor Xavier and his X-Men/New Mutants classes, Canada has three teams of superhuman operatives... all equally out of work. 

Even though John Byrne would later claim he had no idea what to do with the book, the mere fact he subtly introduced two more teams who, storywise, would prove invaluable down the line points to at least some slight notion of long term plotting. For now, for the first issue, all that would suffice is the fact that Canada is in danger... Even if its government is no longer funding the Flight. 

So, who of the discarded Flight members will be the first to notice the coming peril?

"Speak, o my grandfather... the son of your son awaits..."

Now, I'm no expert when it comes to native American rituals, but keeping the bling bling decorated skull of your dead grandfather in a box for fortune telling purposes might just be a bit on the nose he no longer has. Still, doctor Michael Twoyoungmen's ancestor came through and alerted him to the rise of Tundra, one of the seven dreaded Great Beasts of the North... Mythical creatures that would become some of Alpha's primary foes through the years.

Even as Twoyoungmen travelled to the place he sensed Tundra would ascend from, Vindicator had no dead granddad to fill him in. He simply caught the CBC news, where reporters pointed to some mysterious danger about to overtake Resolute Bay. He immediately took off, leaving his wife Heather to make sure her hubby had back up... Like Aurora and Northstar, the siblings Jean-Paul and Jeanne-Marie Beaubier. Though their powers were similar, they couldn't be more different personality wise.

"Deny her? I hate her! She is a devil, a foul imp who uses me.
She is perverse!"

While Northstar, despite his obvious snootiness, displayed a certain resolve, Aurora seemed disturbed. Almost like she wasn't exactly who she appeared to be. In issue 2, we'll learn Jeanne-Marie Beaubier is actually a schizophrenic with a dual personality: the ultra orthodox, prudish catholic school marm Jeanne-Marie versus the flingy, slightly slutty Aurora. It goes without saying these two aspects of the same woman hated each other. But no one told Heather when she found Vindicator's secret Flight control console in their home. She figured she could use the command cards to get her husband some help. Stuffing in all the punch cards (ah, the 80s!) she contacted all the established members, as well as two others...

"They must be Betas who were ready to come up into the first team... Well, "Marrina" and "Puck", whoever you are... I hope you're ready to play with the big boys..."

Speaking of Marrina, this is the first time we meet her... A relatively simple, yet decidedly alien looking teenage girl living off the coast of Newfoundland.

"Yes, the call still pulses in the stone"

I always wondered why Marrina insisted on wearing those bulky clothes, especially when she can survive in freezing waters with just a bathing suit. Guess it's mainly to make the locals feel slightly less creeped out by her, though she does rock that kelp bikini. The pulsing stone is actually an Alpha Flight beeper, relaying Heather's signal. Marria responded immediately, diving into the waters and rushing up the rivers to help deal with the growing threat of Thundra.

But wait, the psycho-sensitive Snowbird arrived first. Let's see what she has to say.

"O Nelvanna my mother, grant me the power I will need in this awful place."

Snowbird's prayers were left unanswered in the end. Tundra rose again, the gigantic plains based demon using the earth's powers to grow to gigantic size. But just then, another Alphan decided to chopper in and take charge...

"At last! Something big enough to really test my strength!"

Don't worry about any innuendos, doctor Langkowski... I say worse things on date nights. But even so, the arrival of Sasquatch turned the tide. By that point, Vindicator, Snowbird and Shaman had proven largely ineffectual against the creature. And then, the orange hued Hulk did this...

"He quickly moves from an annoyance to an actual threat"

Man, just look at that page. That is power... The arrival of Sasquatch really turns the tide, even though things still looked pretty bleak. That all changed when Marrina showed up, riding a massive water spout. She redirected the squall to give Thundra the proverbial deathblow. The water hit and destabilized Thundra's form, so with some help from the superspeedy Beaubier twins he was quickly widdled away.

With their first foe literally reduced to a harmless pile of muck, the assembled heroes were so elated they decided to ignore Department H's rulings and stay together. Just as the decision was made official in the closing pages of the first issue, its time to meet their newest and latest member... the one who failed to respond to Heather's assembly call on time to make a difference.

"I busted my buns to be in Alpha Flight. I wanna be in Alpha Flight!!"

Just what use an acrobatic dwarf would have been against Tundra is a question best left unanswered. Still, Hudson granted Puck's wish, allowing the slightly belligerent little person to join... but his admission quickly led to the first of many scuffles between his various teammates. Heather's no mind reader, so her relatively benign response to this kerfuffle can be forgiven. If only she knew having her most prized possessions stamped on was but the smallest sign of things to come.

"Oh lord... Suddenly, I don't know if this is such a great idea..."

Guess Heather really was a bit of a visionary... because a month later, the second issue of Canada's non funded superhero team opened with a training session in the wild where the various team member's responses were being tested. Unfortunately, Marrina was having a bit of an off day, as Puck quickly discovered...

"I said don't touch me!"

Yeah, having one of your own disembowel a teammate on her second mission does not exactly bode well for the continued survival of this clandestine team. After getting Puck some medical help (more on that next time), Alpha Flight starts to chase down Marrina, eventually locating her somewhere near the magnetic North Pole where they discovered a massive spaceship buried in ice. Like a moth to a flame or a teenage girl to a One Direction concert, she'd been drawn there by the inescapable urge to mate. However, that was all part of a plan hatched by the Master of the World. A villain who would prove to be Canada's answer to Doctor Doom and the Flight's most implacable foe.

The Master had special plans for Marrina...

"I do not wish to rule a world of fish-things"

The "I think not, masked one" line is delivered by the Sub-Mariner (and the Invisible Woman) who had been on a seperate quest in Fantastic Four and conveniently arrived to do a little cross(over) promotion.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We learn the reason why the Master wants Marrina dead. Turns out the aquatic girl isn't a mutant but actually a member of the alien Plodex. This race of metamorphs conquers entire planets with gigantic colonization ships that carry billions of unformed embryos. Once a world's dominant lifeform has been found, its DNA is incorporated in the embryos that are then seeded worldwide. One of those Plodex motherships arrived during Earth's final ice age, but was somehow damaged and crash landed on the North Pole. During the crash, most of the eggs were destroyed.

The embryo that would become Marrina ended up on the bottom of the ocean where it somehow survived until it was found by the Smallwoods after the man of the house dove it up from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

"Within a year, she was very much like a normal child" 

By touching the unformed Plodex embryo her husband brought home, Gladys Smallwood inadvertently made sure the unformed baby became human. She was raised in a "closed, frequently inbred community" which was John Byrne's reason for the locals accepting a bug eyed Simpsons-style amphibian amongst their midst. "Sally, your cousin Ada has webbed feet and she ain't even a sooper-hero... who are youse to judge?"

Even as Namor and the Invisible Woman were dealing with the Master, the Alphans were facing the various traps hidden inside his base, like this magnificent piece of three dimensional danger. Fans often felt Byrne was "phoning it in" when he was writing and drawing Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight on a monthly basis. He tended to leave out backgrounds and started relying on less intricately detailled foregrounds, adapting a more economic pencilling style. While that's certainly true, Byrne could and would still deliver the goods if necessary: watching him draw this honeycomb of bars in spite of all the deadlines (he was also writing The Thing) is worth a cheer or two.

And guess what, in the end (as seen in Alpha Flight I#4) the heroes win... Marrina is freed, the Master seemingly perishes along with his entire underground complex and all seems right in the world.

"Sunnavagun, we made it!"

Sure, you might have survived to tell the tale, Sasquatch... but that doesn't mean every single Alphan will be returning home to share in that particular glory...

"I have invited Marrina to come and dwell for a time in Atlantis.
And she has agreed."

And with that, Alpha Flight loses a teammate in its fourth issue. But that's just the beginning as we'll see in part two of Alpha's Initial Outing. Turns out, there's most definitely more than one "I" in team when the Flight does everything but fight together.   


  1. Man, now I wanna go back and read my old issues of Alpha Flight. I have a love/hate relationship with John Byrne. I LOVE his art on X-Men, but other than that I can give or take him (Usually depending on who's inking him).

    Great point about the backgrounds, too. One of my favorite things about his X-Men run was how tight and detailed the art was (Maybe that was more Terry Austin's doing), but from about 1982 on it seemed like his finished work was getting looser, and many times sloppier. But that scene with the floating bars looks GREAT! I know in recent years Byrne has used this drafting tool grafted onto his art table which allows him to draw extremely accurate three-point perspective. Maybe he had it way back then, too? This is what it looks like:

  2. In several articles Byrne mentions this period of his work. He talked about wanting to ink his own drawings, which he realized he was doing the same task twice, layouts, drawing then inking. He simplified it by rendering figures in ink, which give the figures some great streamlined looks, but yes cuts back on the details of the backgrounds. A noble experiment, but not entirely successful. Still we got 30 some issues of alpha Flight that are unique and to my mind stunning, and it got Byrne to do six issues of the Hulk their after, which were also among my favorites, all as a warm up for his relaunch of Superman. I wish all artists could have such a track record on their "failures". Byrne may not always be one's cup of tea, but he did make an effort to evolve his style. his Fantastic Four showed a lot of progress.

  3. Loved this book, it was one of my three must-haves every month after X-Men and Daredevil. I remember loving the promise of that first issue, and the 3-story Master arc was fun as well, but couldn't help be a bit disappointed when it broke off into individual storylines (which I assume will be covered in the next instalment). Still, even those were very entertaining (especially the Sasquatch two-parter). And it did lend to the power of #12 when the group gets back together.

    It's funny how much of a Wolverine-clone Puck started out in the first issue (just a little scrapper), but he quickly became pretty tame and level-headed...which again maybe disappointed me just a little (although I can't fault Byrne for not wanting to just write a mini-Wolvie).

    Looking forward to more, brings back great comic-collecting memories...

    david p.

  4. James - I personally think Byrne was his own worst inker. I understand he wanted to have complete control over the look of the final page (That's why many artists ink their own work), but to me he just wasn't very good at it and ruined it when he did it. As I mentioned before, Byrne is a lot like Kirby, whose finished work could look vastly different depending on who was inking him. Byrne's work looked best, in my opinion, when he was inked by Austin or Rubinstein, who are both extremely talented inkers.

    I can't help but feel his mid-80's work and later suffered because of the inks, whether they were done by himself or others. And he also had to cut corners when he was writing, since that was another task to be done, so a lot of his art ended up looking very "stock". I can't help but wonder how his art could've evolved if he had just stuck to penciling only and let others handle the writing and inking. People speak highly of his post-X-Men and FF work, but that's around the point where I tap out with him.



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