Wednesday, January 28, 2015

1985: Alpha's Beta Flight part II: Shaman's Talisman

By Jef Willemsen (

In the second entry of 
Alpha's Beta Flight we continue our review of John Byrne's second year on the book. After killing the team's leader Guardian back in #12, Alpha was in need of a new leader... so, let's get to it, eh?

Well, ain't that a fine how do you do? It's hard to imagine the average readers' response when they bought the December 1984 issue of Alpha Flight only to find out about half of it was actually a reprint of X-Men I#109, cover dated February, 1978. Well folks, at least Byrne sort of warned you on the cover.

Nowadays, the idea of reprinting about 10 pages of material half a decade old and selling it at premium prices would be unheard of. And yes, sixty cents is still money, especially by 1984 standards but consider this: 30+ years ago, the average, young comics fan only had the far from complete back issue bins to get the complete story. There weren't that many comic book stores around and the internet, where the entire backstory of anyone is but a mouse click away, was still very much a pipedream. In those days Marvel didn't really collect or reprint material. If you came to the party late, you simpy missed the boat. Reprinting X-Men I#109 must have been a more than welcome treat to most mutant fans who came in after the 1980 Dark Phoenix saga that really put the mutants on the map.

And Alpha Flight I#17 was the indirect template for the hugely succesful Classic X-Men, which debuted in September of 1986. The formula was deceptively simple: take an old issue and expand on it by adding pages and subplots to it based on current continuity. John Byrne did exactly that when he used Alpha Flihgt I#17 to tell Guardian's part of the story featured in that old 1978 X-Men issue. Byrne cleverly framed it as a shared memory between Wolverine and Heather, the widow of James Hudson who fought the X-Men in order to get Wolverine back.

We learn quite a few things about Heather and Mac...

                                       "If I'm lucky I won't be fighting anybody (...)
                          Canada's just not the kind of country that breeds world-conquering types"

Well James, that's just dandy. Do try and tell that to the Great Beasts, not to mention the Master of the friggin' World. Still, this early piece of dialogue shows how naive Hudson was. And, as Heather and Wolverine continue their talk, the subject inadvertently turns to the incident that killed Guardian... and Heather's unexpected breakdown.

                         "I killed him, Logan. I killed him as surely as I'd put a gun to his head"

And here's where we get to the true gist of Heather's emotional distress. Five months after her husband's death, she's finally ready to let go of the grief, pain and guilt she'd been carrying around. Moments after Heather has her emotional catharsis with Logan, Puck happens to enter her hospital room and the three of them have a heart to heart about Alpha Flight's future. The widow Hudson wasn't too optimistic...

                                                           "Last rites for Alpha Flight."

However, two midgets pushing the centennial mark were ultimately successful in convincing Heather her husband's dream was still worth fighting for. After carefully considering all the possible candidates for leadership, Heather finally settled on the one, obvious candidate... despite the fact she didn't have any powers, skills or leadership experiences to speak of. 


And while Heather's promotion as a non super powered leader of a superhero team should be at least noteworthy and unique in the anals of Marveldom... In the exact same month New Defenders writer Peter B. Gillis promoted Angel's girlfriend Candy Southern in #138, making her the non-team's leader and chief executive officer. Talk about timing.

But while Candy was content to parade around in Jane Fonda style hotpants, Heather was considering far more serious attire, as we found out in the opening pages of Alpha Flight I#18. Is she ready to become an active Alphan and jump into the fray using her late husband's combat gear?

"No... No to both questions, Judd"

Thanks for answering Heather, though that's not my name. Also... Guess nobody bothered to tell Bill Mantlo, because he'll have you in that armor within 6 months of taking over the book. Still, for now, Heather's only trying on the empty suit on for nostalgia's sake. Probably in much the same way she's still wearing her wedding ring. But fair's fair: as leader she was far more concerned with the nuts and bolts of the superhero business. Acting on her background as an executive secretary Heather was determined to reorganize the Flight into a more structured organization.

She set out to contact Alphans left and right, but only managed to get a hold of Northstar who was at his home in Quebec enjoying some downtime. And no, there's no gay subtext to this scene at all. No, really... There's a girl there too, right?

                                "Since my sister Aurora has chosen to terminate our partnership,
                             I have no further motivation for continuing my association with Alpha..."

Ah yeah, Northstar and Aurora had a rather severe falling out. Not only was the over protective Jean-Paul concerned about his sister's mental health, he also didn't approve of her dating their teammate Sasquatch. Which is more than a little preposterous: after all there's no one more responsible than doctor Walter Langkowski...

                                                        "You said it might hurt a little..."

Guess I spoke too soon, eh? In between issues, Byrne turned Langkowski into a typical Marvel scientist, whose field of expertise magically happens to suit whatever the story calls for. In much the same way Hank Pym started out as an expert on ants but eventually wound up inventing Ultron, the unstoppable adamantium killing machine. In Langkowski's case, the former radiation expert added molecular physicist/mad scientist to his resume. 

Upon Aurora's request, he used an experimental technique to rearrange her molecules making her distinctly different from her monozygotic brother Northstar while still retaining her powers. Why anyone would want to go through with this is beyond insane... But hey, that's Aurora for ya.

Langkowski's reasons for going through with this are far more sinister. He wanted to break up the tight bond between Northstar and Aurora, figuring he'd have her all to himself then. A pretty twisted, manipulative move, though he rationalizes it by figuring he actually did her a favor. Mutants are a persecuted minority after all, so by altering her genetic structure she's technically not a mutant anymore and should be safe... You're welcome. Yeah, and Aurora's supposed to be the nutty one.

Speaking of terrible doctors, Heather couldn't reach Shaman either. Michael Twoyoungmen was contacted by his daughter Elizabeth to help her investigate the mysterious entity that popped out of the skull she'd dug up an issue or two earlier.

"Well, Shaman, is it yea or nay?"

As soon as the inspector left, Shaman told his daughter the mystical energy trail belonged to one of the Great Beasts, Ranaq the Devourer to be exact. He was determined to follow the deadly demon's trail to the source, immediately teleporting away. But he also decided to take his unarmed, untrained daughter along because... well, because she insisted on it. They found themselves near the home of 117 year old millionaire recluse Lucas Sprang and what happens next truly is too ludicrous for words. So let's have Elizabeth tell it in #19's opening recap...

"It can be done!"

The "weird monster" she mentions was actually a plate of scrambled eggs gone mad. Yes, while his American counterpart Doctor Strange regularly faces down cosmic entities and outerdimensional hordes, Shaman's main claim to fame was fighting off a handful of unfertilized embryos. And what's worse, he only won because his daughter suddenly developed mystical powers of her own. Yes, once again Michael Twoyoungmen puts the 'shame' in Shaman.

At any rate, shoving the Ranaq possessed breakfast food down his medicine bag didn't completely defeat the Devourer. In fact, Shaman concluded that Alpha Flight needed to return to the past to deal with Ranaq once and for all. That's why he summoned Puck and Heather to Calgary... because when you're attempting time travel all you need for backup are a midget and a powerless woman still recuperating from crippling leg injuries.

"Not so fast, my old friend."

Luckily for all of them, Snowbird decided to involve herself as well despite not having been summoned for some unknown reason... Narya was acting her usual, semi-snooty way and then she spotted Elizabeth...

"Hail to thee, o promised one.
Thy unworthy servants bids thee welcome and awaits thy least command!"

Having Snowbird bow down in awe of Elizabeth was all the proof Shaman needed that his daughter was destined for greatness. Of course, you'd assume all parents think of their children that way. But then again, if your last name is "Twoyoungmen" and all you get is a girl, all bets are off. Still, without even taking a minute to explain to her what's at stake, Shaman insisted his daughter reached into his pouch to search for something called the coronet of enchantment. Elizabeth complies, even looks into the bag (which is supposed to drive everyone but Shaman insane) to find the headpiece and puts it on.

"Presto Change-o Instant Superhero!"

For now and forever, Elizabeth Twoyoungmen is Talisman, named after the talisman of power she wears on her forehead... And will be for the rest of her life because the headband doesn't come off. Shaman already knew this, but neglected to tell her. It's like beating the proverbial dead horse by now, but Shaman really is terrible at everything remotely close to doing the right thing. 

"There is no time for explanations now, my daughter.
You have just received a great gift, it must be put quickly to use."

Yup, ten seconds after changing his daughter into a mystical being, Shaman is ordering her to go back a hundred years to face a demonic menace. Now thát's fast... Heck, even Professor Xavier allowed Jean Grey at least a chance to say hi to the other X-Men before he shoved her into a uniform to go fight Magneto back in X-Men I#1

So off they went, back in time to discover the origins of the Ranaq possessed skull that wound up buried in Calgary. In a dazzling display of competency, Shaman manages to disguise the Alphans as they search the newly founded fronteer town for clues. They soon hit paydirt when they spot two cowboys, Zeb and Lucas, threatening an old Native mystic. Zeb wants the man to summon Ranaq, who he believes to be a wish granting genie of sorts... and they're even protected from the demon's powers thanks to some convenient magic charms.

"Since Ranaq cannot destroy you, Ranaq is forced to serve you.
What is your desire?"

Much like the genie he's unfavorably compared to, Ranaq is a shifty one. He happily complies with Zeb's very predictable wishes, conjuring up gold, jewels and even a gorgeous woman from thin air. However, when Zeke goes to claim his prizes they might as well be thin air... The amulet that protects him from Ranaq's wrath also prevents him from actually touching any of his prizes.

You can guess what happens next...

"Zeb... I don't think this is such a good idea..."

Famous last words, but the damage was already done. Ranaq had managed to trick Zeb into getting himself possessed by the Devourer's essence. Now, with a human host, Ranaq could really do some damage. Luckily, Alpha Flight was on hand.

"I am Narya, who men call Snowbird,
daughter of Nelvanna."

Despite that actually pretty intimidating introduction, Snowbird and the other Alphans were having an exceptionally hard time fighting him. Not even literal wunderkind Talisman was able to assure victory. That is, until Puck caught up with the old Native and the scared out of his wits cowboy Luke. Together, they came up with a plan: by putting a piece of Luke's magic negating necklace inside a bullet, Ranaq might be stopped. And Luke, as a self proclaimed sharpshooter is tasked to deliver this mystical projectile...

                                  "Truly, there is more to this than I had even begun to guess!!"

Ow Michael, at this point you should have that on your business cards. Following Ranaq's rather rigorous exorcism, the body of Zeb is buried in the exact same spot Elizabeth Twoyoungmen would unearth it a 100 years later. A time paradox prevented (though this reads more like a time loop), the Alphans prepare to return to their own time... but not before learning that even in victory there sometimes really aren't any winners.

For instance, young Luke (or rather Lucas Stang) was in for a hundred years of miserable loneliness. He wasn't allowed to experience any kind of joy or know love, or else Ranaq might return. Of course it's too graphic for a Comics Code approved book, but wouldn't you have put a bullet in your head if you knew you were in for a century of misery?

"... Onward..."

Also... Elizabeth Twoyoungmen is stuck with that outfit and the equally clunky codename Talisman. But more on that plus a bevvy of female villainy in part III of Alpha's Beta Flight: I Sing Of Pink Pearls and Lillies Gilded. 

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