Saturday, January 3, 2015

1984: Alpha's Initial Outing Part II: The I In Team

By Jef Willemsen (

The year is 1984 and John Byrne is bravely soldiering on with Alpha Flight, a series he writes and draws but really doesn't care for. Still, Byrne didn't let on and even came up with some remarkably innovative ideas as we'll see in part II of Alpha's Initial Outing.

Before we get to the often discussed sixth issue, let's briefly cover issue 5 which was the first of a series of standalone tales. Byrne figured that since Alpha Flight was still effectively disbanded as far as the government was concerned, there was no team to speak of.

In a way, that makes sense. The book opened with Alpha Flight's funding getting cut and even though the team decided to stay together after defeating Tundra in their debut issue, they still had no money, no charter, not even a headquarters or place to gather. Is it any wonder they drifted apart?

That's why the fifth issue deals with Puck, one of Alpha's newest members who almost died when fellow recruit Marrina went nuts and nearly disembowelled him back in issue 2. Now we find out how Eugene Milton Judd, the dimunitive dare all's real name, is doing.

"You chicks must think I'm about the dirtiest guy in the hospital, eh?"

Truth be told, it was a bold choice on Byrne's part to focus pretty much an entire issue on a virtually unknown character who only had a handful of lines in the two issues he ever appeared in. Still, to his credit, John Byrne figured the best way to introduce readers to his latest creation was by showing just how awesome a hairy, pint-sized Canadian adventurer could be... Even without claws or a healing factor.

Judd accidentally uncovered a drug ring operating out of the hospital, after catching one of the nurses shooting up one night. Rightfully suspicious, the still gravely injured hero decided to don his duds and investigate the matter. He was able to covertly snoop and sneak, eventually hitching a ride on top of the van that delivered the latest supply to the hospital. One back at the supply depot, he fought and defeated the dealers, only to realize he was nowhere near healed.

                                       "Urrg... must be... losing... lot... blood..."

One really has to admire Byrne's visualization choices. Puck's impending black out is slowly hinted at. From the obvious trail of blood in the first panel, to the subtle whiting out in the second shot, followed by the bottom sequence that really tells the complete tale without any necessary dialogue. 

In the end, Puck is saved and the issue ends with him unmasking the ringleader of the drug cartel: the doctor Shaman entrusted Judd's care to. The physician tried to subtly kill Puck with a fatal insulin injection but Puck was ready for that and smacked the syringe right out of his hand.

"You create junkies, doc. That makes you about the lowest slime I can think of, eh?"

Just look at Puck without his mask. It's obvious this is the face of man who's been to hell and back. He's known suffering, hurt and loss but still he soldiers on, even if he's about to literally spill his guts. With him properly established, the issue closes out and that brings us to Alpha Flight I#6, the infamous white issue. 

It all started with a bunch of miners who accidentally set the Great Beast Kolomaq free. He's the second member of this feared band of evil deities that managed to return to our plane of existence in a relatively short while... and he couldn't be more happy about it.

"Free! Free! After a thousand years!"

Since this is still the Alpha Flight era in which the actual team doesn't appear, Byrne left it up to Snowbird to deal with Kolomaq. The issue was actually loaded with information about the Beasts, Narya, her ancestory and many other tidbits that would prove essential down the road. And it all led to a monumental fight that no one would see because Kolomaq whipped up a blizzard.

For about six pages, this was all we got. Blank panels, sound effects and dialogue that told all we needed to know about a mostly white heroine fighting an equally white villain in the heart of a snowstorm. Pretty ingenious as far as gimmicks go, though most consider this the ultimate in Byrne's shameless attempts to cut down on his workload.

Fair's fair: this story took place during 1984's Assistant Editor's Month, a line-wide event that had all the books' regular editors taking a break to attend the San Diego Comic Con. They left their assisants in charge, which allowed them to go a little crazy and experiment with the format. In

And if you still feel this was a poor excuse for Byrne to phone it in... Remember he was also writing and drawing Fantastic Four at the time... And that month's issue, #262 to be precise, featured the trial of Reed Richards who was facing galactic judgement after saving the life of Galactus. Not exactly a quick and easy topic to cover, especially when the Big G himself showed up during the proceedings. In a memorable moment, we learn that the cosmic devourer is so sense shattering every alien race processes his presence differently.

                      "A million and more alien eyes look upon him who is Galactus...
                                             And for each race the vision differs" 

For my money, inventive and memorably pages like that allow you some leeway. One can forgive Byrne for extending the white-out "gag" a page or two more if you consider he compensated by taking the time to come up with over 25 alternate Galactus lookalikes in the same month. In the end, as the captions assure us, Snowbird emerges injured but victorious after burying Kolomaq beneath an avalanche she caused right in the middle of the blinding snowstorm.

Issues 7 & 8 still don't feature Alpha Flight in, well, Alpha Flight. Taking so much time to focus on individual members was positively unprecedented and left a fair number of fans to wonder what the point of having a team book was when the actual team was nowhere to be seen. Still, this is all part of Byrne's devil-may-care approach to the title... Wildly experimenting just to see what will stick. In this case, he put the spotlight on the super speedy twins Jean-Paul and Jeanne-Marie Beaubier.

Back in issue #2, Jeanne-Marie acted a tad flakey when her schizophrenia took over during the fight against the Master. No wonder her slightly protective brother wanted her to get help. In this case, by taking her to meet with one of Montreal's finest psychiatrists.

                                  "There is nothing "the matter" with me, Jean-Paul (...)
                                      Doctor Bosson has simply confirmed that fact"

Considering Aurora/Jeanne-Marie would actually prove to be a semi-functional schizophrenic, the dear doctor is indeed a bit of a quack. But with the matter of his sister's mental health left (un)resolved for the moment, Jean-Paul is confronted by another ghost from the past, his old gay lover Raymonde Belmonde.


Now, despite the fact the late, great Tallulah Bankhead was famous for claiming there was "a touch of the homosexual in all of us", what caused John Byrne to make Northstar of the same sex persuasion? Well, back in 2004 he had the following to say about the subject:
"One of the things that popped immediately into my head was to make one of them Gay. I had recently read an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN on what was then (the early 80s) fairly radical new thinking on just what processes caused a person to be homosexual, and the evidence was pointing increasingly to it being genetic and not environmental factors. So, I thought, it seemed like it was time for a Gay superhero, and since I was being "forced" to make ALPHA FLIGHT a real series, I might as well make one of them Gay.

From there, it was a process of elimination. I didn't want the homosexual character to be one of the girls, since that was something people tended to associate (rightly or wrongly) with Claremont books. Mac Hudson and Heather were happily married and I did not want to mess with that. Michael was widowed with a daughter, and that way lay what I considered too much of a cliche, if he turned out to be Gay. Besides, as a Native Canadian he was already the resident "minority". The new guy, Puck, had his own set of problems. Sasquatch would be just too damn scary!! So I settled on Jean-Paul, and the moment I did I realized it was already there. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must have been considering making him Gay before I "decided" to so so.

Of course, the temper of the times, the Powers That Were and, naturally, the Comics Code would not let me come right out and state that Jean-Paul was homosexual, but I managed to "get the word out" even with those barriers."

And so he did, even though Mr. Belmonde wasn't too long for this world. He was the next victim of a gangster known as Deadly Ernest, a World War I veteran who was unable to die after he spurned Mistress Death back during the Great War. Properly annoyed, Death granted St. Ives' wish to survive and made him immortal. She did add a vengeful twist by making sure his touch instantly killed all living things. This curse first manifested itself when he returned home after the war and hugged his wife and infant daughter, inadvertently murdering them. 

In the end, "Deadly Ernest" was killed by his supposedly deceased daughter Isabelle who returned from the grave as the enigmatic Nemesis and ended up dismembering her dear old dad.

"The silver blade glimmers, ghostlike, invisible when seen on edge.
A shining white scythe flat on.
And in less than a second... it is all over."

Now, while all these solo tales of the individual Alphans were perfectly fine and serviceable, it didn't exactly tell any kind of cohesive story about the actual group. That's why the issues started to include short backup stories that briefly told the team's origins. The first few issues revealed how James McDonald Hudson went from being a bookish scientist who designed a mechanized mining suit to becoming Vindicator, Canada's premiere superhero. 

Byrne then recounted the history of the other Alphans, starting with Shaman. Born Michael Twoyoungmen, this Canadian Aborigine refused the teachings of his people, prefering to study the white man's medicine. He became a physician who married, had a daughter Elizabeth, and moved in next door to Heather McNeil's family.

All was right in the world, until Michael's wife got cancer and he ultimately proved incapable of healing her. Thereby breaking a promise he made to his daughter who did not respond too well to this double betrayal.

                                                 "Don't touch me! Liar! LIAR!"

Following the loss of his wife and his daughter turning against him Michael grew ever more despondent until one day a woman arrived with a package. Turns out it was the skull of his recently deceased grandfather who had served as his tribe's shaman. And despite the fact he lacked a mouth, let alone any inclination to scream, ol' grampa Twoyoungmen had quite a few things to say.

"Now, place my skull to one side, and take up the medicine bag on which it rests.
Open the bag grandson... Open it, and take out a handful of pine needles"

Spoiler alert: when he tried, he failed. Over the next two issues (5&6), Byrne showed how Shaman slowly embraced his legacy. A Native American (or, Aborigine) well versed in the western ways, who all but renounced his roots following an intense, personal tragedy... Only to realize his ultimate salvation lies in embracing his inescapabe legacy?

Why yes, that *does* sound a lot like Forge, the Cheyenne sorceror/mutant turned corporate mogul/inventor who Chris Claremont would introduce a few months later in August 1984's Uncanny X-Men I#184. A total coincidence to be sure, and at any rate, Shaman was still first ánd best.

Just look at these inspired panels.

                           "Do not think of pine needles. Know them. Touch them.
                                                 Feel them. Smell them (...)
                                                       Let them be real."

With Michael Twoyoungmen in place as Shaman, the next two issues (7 & 8) focused on telling the origins of Snowbird. Turns out the shapeshifting Alphan was actually an Inuit demi-goddess tasked to fight the gods' ancient enemies: the Great Beasts. But how she came to be is a tad ironic, if you consider who the gods chose to be the father...

"Now, mortal, will you grant yourself one night of pleasures... as the price for saving the world?"

Eagle eyed fans at the time realized Nelvanna's blonde sperm donor with the fancy headband was actually Richard Lawrence Easton, the weird little hermit responsible for raising the Ancient Beast Tundra back in Alpha Flight I#1. For, y'see, Easton was an archeology enthusiast contacted by Nelvanna and Hodiak just after he discovered Tundra's headpiece on a dig. 

He agreed to a one nighter with Nelvanna, but no one told him the gods have a slightly different concept of time.

"Thus does Richard Lawrence Easton flee the lands of men, into the realms of madness."

If nothing else, it's obvious Byrne used Alpha Flight to indulge his love for the spooky and the macabre. This particular sequence with Easton alone feels like something out of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, especially with the knowledge Easton would eventually be the one to raise Tundra.
Talk about an ironic twist. Still, he delivered the goods or so to speak: Nelvanna was pregnant with child and in time, needed a physician to guide her during birth...

So, who you gonna call?


As one of his first real acts as Shaman, doctor Michael Twoyoungmen assisted Nelvanna. Unfortunately, to bind the otherworldly baby to Earth, he used a spell that literally bound her to Canadian soil, which would prove a horrible mistake down the road. Shaman brought Snowbird into the world and took it upon himself to raise the rapidly growing faerie child, assisted by his old neighbor Heather McNeil and her husband James Hudson who considered both viable recruits for Department H's Alpha Flight initiative.

Speaking of recruits... John Byrne introduced yet another subplot in these issues. A mystery woman who began visiting some of the former Flight recruits... like the extremely smart and thoroughly unpleasant Alec Thorne. 

                                           "My name is Delphine Courtney.
                              My employer and I are involved in a project you may find of interest."

More on that in the third part of Alpha's Initial Outing: Oh My, Omega!


  1. I fondly remember the comic store trip where I picked up that "Trial of Reed Richards" issue (I also picked up Alpha Flight's #7 and 8 that same trip, so I guess Assistant Editors' Month was already old news...)

    I always interpreted that Galactus scene differently, I thought the small panels on htat page were all the different alien races in attendance at the trial, observing Galactus (and, we are told, perceiving a different being). I never considered those heads were all supposed to be Galactus. Is Byrne's intention clarified anywhere for sure? In any case, it's a very cool page. I loved Byrne's Galactus better than anyone else's rendition.

    also, small correction, the Trial issue was #262, not #257 (although that was another Galactus issue, where he destroys the Skrull throne world...think you covered that in your Frankie Raye pieces). Once again, amazing Byrne art for that one, especially the double-splash of Galactus riding through space...

    Byrne's original villains weren't always the most inspiring, but Nemesis was a pretty cool concept.

    david p.

  2. Hi David, how right you are... it was FF 262 instead of 257. Consider it corrected!

  3. For a book that he didn't want to do, I consider Alpha Flight to be some of Byrne's strongest, most inventive work. Ahead of its time, really.

  4. Puck and Northstar were my favorites. A dwarf super hero was inspiring by itself, but he was very likeable as well. Northstar I loved because why shouldn't there be a prickly bastard whose only interest in the team and superheroing is because it's a way to bond with his estranged sister? When I was a kid I didn't get the subtle gay stuff but now it's so abundantly obvious and cleverly done! I remember getting some early AF issues in those bags-of-three department stores used to sell at a discount. Snowblind was definitely one of the issues, as well as the Puck-centric one. I had never heard of AF but enjoyed it a lot. AF will always have a special appeal to me. Especially the very early issues.



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