Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Alpha Flight Classic volume 1

Continuing the occasional look at series that haven't been given an Essential volume, it's time to turn to Alpha Flight.

Alpha Flight Classic volume 1 reprints the first eight issues of the original series. All issues are both written and drawn by John Byrne.

Alpha Flight had previously appeared in the pages of X-Men as a team of Canadian superheroes sent to retrieve Wolverine for the government agency Department H, before being disbanded due to budget cuts. Up to this point they had largely been a plot device, though occasionally individual members appeared elsewhere but now comes a full series to flesh out and develop the team. The first issue adds a couple of extra members and establishes the former existence of "Beta Flight" and "Gamma Flight" which allows for a pool of further potential recruits. (Though it's lucky the programme stopped there - imagine having an emergency and calling for help only to have "Psi Flight" arrive. That'd be on a par with getting the Great Lakes Avengers or Justice League Antarctica.) But amazingly there's no point in this run when all eight team members go into action together. The nearest comes in the first issue as the original six tackle the beast Tundra with the aid of Marrina, a member of Beta Flight summoned due to misunderstanding the cards. However due to the military not believing him and supply transport, Puck doesn't make it to the party until after the battle. There's one further adventure that brings most of the team together when they go from a training session to investigating a strange alien ship that contains the Master of the World, but Snowbird is absent from the training due to duties in her other identity, Puck is incapacitated before the team even gets to the ship and Shaman stays behind to give him medical treatment. Beyond that the issues explore the individual members, making for a distinctive change from the normal approach of team books.

What's also unusual is to find a US based publisher printing a team of non-US based superheroes, though as John Byrne is himself Canadian there's a degree of authenticity to the series and it avoids the typical US stereotypes of Canada as a land of frozen forests populated by French speaking, beer drinking, ice hockey playing lumberjacks all going "Eh?" while dodging moose and beavers. Instead we get a portrayal of a sophisticated modern diverse country. And the team is drawn from across the whole of Canada with two members living in Ontario (Guardian and Puck), two from Quebec (Aurora and Northstar), one from British Colombia (Sasquatch), one from Alberta (Shaman), one from (as it was then called) Newfoundland (Marrina) and one from the Northwest Territories (Snowbird). A few provinces and territories have been left out for now but there are hints of more to come as shown in a subplot when Smart Alec, late of Gamma Flight, is recruited by Delphine Courtney in Manitoba.

That's not to say there aren't some questionable bits. Marrina's home on the coast of Newfoundland is described as "a closed, frequently inbred community... [where] freaks and sports are not uncommon". In fact it's unclear if "that tiny island" refers to a small offshore settlement or to the whole of Newfoundland. But whichever is the case it feels all too clearly like a stereotype of the province that matches British stereotypes of Norfolk. Shaman calls himself a "Sarcee" but I don't know if that term had been objected to at the time by the Tsuu T'ina people. However Puck does challenge head on casual terms like "midget", pointing out it's now "little people" and he is in fact a dwarf. I also find the references to the "Ministry of Defense" sticking out like a sore thumb as that's a British term not used by its Canadian counterpart and also the spelling is American not Canadian.

There's a strong emphasis on building up the characters, helped by both the solo stories and several issues carrying a back-up strip entitled "The Origins of Alpha Flight", showing the individual origins of Guardian, Shaman and Snowbird and the common ties that bind them, mainly Guardian's wife Heather. With the exception of Sasquatch all of the team get some individual attention in this volume but it's also clear that the series and team are still a work in progress. The team's leader adopts his third name, ditching "Vindicator" in favour of "Guardian", reportedly because of a line in the National Anthem but this is not made explicit on panel. His look may be that of a Canadian Captain America, literally wearing the flag but James MacDonald Hudson is shown as a complex and doubting figure who has found leadership thrust upon him rather than seeking it. Snowbird's origin and nature is a mystery slowly unravelled here and we see her troubles as she struggles to maintain a cover identity as a corporal on a military base when she's often absent. Shaman is the team's First Nations member, a man who initially rejected his family traditions in favour of a career in medicine but after the death of both his wife and grandfather he came to accept his heritage and learnt magic. Puck is a tough, feisty man who is the only character to say "Eh?" a lot but shows both a softer sensitive side and skill at detective work as he uncovers a drugs ring operating out of a hospital. Marrina is the focus of the first extended storyline as both she and we learn how she is an alien adapted to life on Earth; however she also appears to be the first team member to be dropped when she accepts an invitation to stay in Atlantis with Namor the Sub-Mariner to find out more about herself.

The most underexplored member at this stage is Sasquatch but that may just be because of where this volume stops at. Otherwise he clearly fills both the brute strength and scientist roles on the team whilst also having a relationship with Aurora. Or one half of her. Aurora is quickly established as having a split personality with the two halves almost unaware of each other. Her "Aurora" side is relaxed, liberated and free; her "Jeanne-Marie" side is a heavily restrained prim and proper teacher in a convent school. This is a cause of concern for her brother Northstar, who is the team's main jerk, at times putting his foot in it and being unrepentant about using his mutant powers to build his champion skiing career but also displaying a strong degree of loyalty to his sister. With hindsight it's surprising how blatant the hints about his sexuality are, especially in issue #7 as he dwells upon the death of Raymonde Belmonde who took Jean-Paul "scarcely more than a boy, alone and frightened. Frightened of what he thought he was, and what he feared he might become. And Raymonde had led him out of that dark fear, into the bright clear light of self-acceptance, teaching him not to fear his mutant powers, or any other thing." For 1983 this was probably as close to openly saying it as one could get.

Issue #6 was part of "Assistant Editors' Month" when most of the Marvel line got up to some wacky stuff. Here we get a famous five-page sequence as Snowbird battles the ancient demon Kolomaq in a blizzard, representing by blank panels and lettering. These must be the quickest drawn pages in Marvel history but rather than an original joke it feels like a shortcut. Although Snowbird's beast forms are primarily all white, her human form and costume incorporate other colours. Kolomaq is also not depicted as an all white being but instead his face, chest and arms are a distinct yellow. So the joke falls apart as the elements just don't add up. It's also unoriginal as the same joke had been done with more visually appropriate characters in What If? #34, which was broadly the forerunner of "Assistant Editors' Month". It's hard to resist charges of laziness. Elsewhere there are a lot of panels with no background drawn and instead the colourists has resorted to filling them with bright but different colours. The 1980s may have been a bright and multi-coloured era but the effect is distracting.

The villains encountered in these issues are a mix of the big scale and the small. As well as the drug dealing ring Puck deals with there's also Deadly Ernest, a Montreal based crime boss seeking to expand his empire with the help of a death touch. At the grander scale there are the wilderness beasts Tundra and Kolomaq, but it seems the big recurring foe will be the Master of the World, a caveman who encountered an alien spaceship that kept him alive for study but he adapted, eventually turned the tables and is now set on world conquest. Would-be world conquerors are by their nature invariably limited in their aims but the origin shows a good sign of originality.

This series is to be praised for doing things differently from the norm and for the willingness of John Byrne to develop a group who had been intended as a limited use plot device. The need to build up and establish the characters probably explains why there's so much emphasis on them rather than action and although this may not be to everyone's tastes it's a pleasant alternative from the norm. It's just a pity that the art at times slips into lazy shortcuts.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...