What I Like About You: Alpha Flight

I’m sure none of you were asking what my favourite comic was; so here’s the answer!

When I started out reading, I used to say my favourite series was Alpha Flight. As time went by, that changed to John Byrne’s Alpha Flight when I began to realise that only those first 28 issues (plus appearances in Uncanny) really had the magic for me. So, what makes that series in particular so ‘me’ish?

Face it, this picture is only here because I didn't want to go half the article without a picture.
Thunderbolts and lightning – very, very frightening. This is a splash page that makes you sit up and take notice.

For me, John Byrne’s Alpha Flight got everything right:

It is my first love in comics; the series that got me into the hobby in the first place. I don’t know how much effect that has on my answer, but there you have it.

It’s set outside of the USA. I’m sorry, but as an unAmerican, I was drawn to that aspect when I started reading; I didn’t want a bunch of jingoism. I realise now I probably wouldn’t have got that from any series, but when I started collecting, I expected it.

The writing was beautiful; we got to know each character through an individual adventure, dealing with them as people as much as heroes. Issues were built around themes (like ‘fatherhood’), and it wasn’t always obvious. Most of the first ten issues (wait, no – it goes up to eleven) had back-up origin stories for the characters; another rare touch that really helped me know and care about them.

The unique (I found out later) concept of making it a solo book, each issue focussing on a different character or set of characters, with an annual team-up gave me a chance to get to know these characters, to know them as people. The way the corner boxes told you which characters would show up in this issue was one of the nice touches I grew to love.

I also loved little touches like the way these issues played with the credits; The Editor-In-Chief being credited as ‘Important’, for example. This isn’t unique to AF, but it’s where I first saw it.

I liked those characters in my own distant way (I didn’t notice Northstar’s arrogance or Sasquatch’s bullying until people pointed them out to me. I can be kinda dim that way). They were people I liked spending time with, in a world I wanted to visit.

We’ve got the down-to-Earth, practical Mac Hudson, doing what he has to do out of a sense of responsibility. We’ve got Heather, the guide, the real leader; tough and responsible. We’ve got Michael, the surgeon-cum-magic user, stoic and confident. Puck, fun and playful; Marrina, sweet and innocent (when she’s not gutting her teammates, of course).  The twins, Aurora and Jeanne-Marie with her Catholic upbringing (more on that later) and her playful nature and her split personality; vs Jean-Paul whose heart is only for his sister. Sasquatch, playful and intelligent.

The character design is brilliant; they all have iconic looks (a word which here means: the way they appear visually uh, instantly memorable and distinctive.) Their costumes are all their own, all well-designed and catchy.

Sasquatch is a particular stand-out; instead of a shapeless mass of fur, he’s very carefully crafted to have a distinctive look and hair patterns.

And one shall surely die.
The whole team together. An unforgettable combo.

I read a couple of years ago that John Byrne incorporated a starburst into each of them to give them a corporate identity; a subtle touch that added so much to the series. Not uncommon in Byrne’s Alpha Flight.

I also love the mix of power-sets and origins; some magic-based, some science-based, one non-powered character (a dwarf, and Byrne even researched dwarfish in designing the character. Don’t worry, later writers fixed it); an alien, mutants, an engineer. A shapechanger (gotta love those!), a strong guy, fliers, etc…

Then you get the villains; all the stories were character-driven in Byrne’s run. That was the series’ blessing. That was its curse.

I call it a ‘blurse’!

Most of them were tied to the origin of a hero – the Great Beasts to Snowbird (and Shaman, but less so); The Master to Marrina; we wouldn’t have met Deadly Earnest and Nemesis without Northstar revisiting his home; Omega Flight to Mac and the whole team. It gives personal stakes to all the villains, while leaving room for world-beating stakes as well. (Stakes are important to comic book stories, btw. It’s part of why I’d rather read a comic than watch a sport.)

The disadvantage is, it makes the villains less flexible – something I didn’t realise until years after Byrne left, when Alpha Flight joined the Acts Of Vengeance; which of their villains could fight other characters? None – they were all too wrapped up in Alpha Flight themselves.

The designs of characters like Wild Child and Diamond Lil has always impressed me; both look distinctive and not ‘pretty’, but they’re realistic. Especially Wild Child – he doesn’t look normal, but he does look possible; and he should be just another Wolverine-clone-style-character, but he’s quite erudite and well-spoken. (Remember: these are Byrne‘s versions I’m talking about; don’t worry, other writers and artists came along to undo his good work.)

A realistic-looking woman in comics!

The stories, often as not, were based in fantasy, which appeals to me. Much as I like both, I’m far more a fantasy fan than sci-fi; so having Great Beasts, or a man whose origin is tied to the personification of Death (a concept I have a strange fascination with. Don’t call me ‘Thanos’),

Have you tried our new diet plan?
Don’t call me Thanos!

or a mysterious woman known only as ‘Nemesis’ are all good ways to get me hooked.

 

Sometimes I wonder if she knows Spider-Man. Or Deadpool.
A woman in red-and-ebon, pretentious dialogue, that sword… I’m hooked!

 

I love Nemesis, btw. The way she talked, that sword of hers! The possible overtones of vampirism and Joan of Arc (neither of things was mentioned in the comic, but I can’t help thinking them when I read her). To this day, I call her my favourite comic character on the strength of this one issue (it’s her only appearance by Byrne and one of only two appearances by this Nemesis; there’s a Nemesis in volume 3, but she is not THE Nemesis. Her name is Amelia; she inherited the sword from the previous Nemesis. The woman she inherited it from is not the real Nemesis either. Her name was Jane Doe. The real Nemesis has been retired fifteen years and living like a queen in Patagonia).

I’m not gonna say the writing was perfect; there were times it got a little wordy. Okay, very wordy.

Also, I’m not comfortable with Jeanne-Marie’s stereotyped repressed-Catholic upbringing. Interestingly, recent reprints have softened that just a little:

Original version…
… reprint version (Alpha Flight Classic / Alpha Flight omnibus)

Byrne’s art style contains that exact balance of realistic-to-stylised that makes my favourite art; not so cartoonish that it puts me off (cartoonish art puts me off, especially in a serious book), but stylised enough that I can usually figure out who drew the page just by looking at it (see also: Alan Davis, Paul Neary, George Perez, some Art Adams, etc…)

A friend got this for me. Sadly, I've never met Alan Davis.
Alan Davis is my favourite to draw the next Alpha Flight series.

The artwork does take on a noticeable scratchiness in later issues, after John Byrne stopped inking (or stopped doing all the inking).

The colouring (Andy Yanchus) was bright and fairly realistic – what we call ‘brightly-coloured’ today is actually a lot more like the real world of Outside than most ‘realistic’ colour schemes (ie: brown). (You can go Outside yourself and check, but it’s scary out there! Cars shooting a foot away from you on pedestrian crossings and magpies swooping…)

I could write a whole article on how horrible I think modern colour schemes are.

And here it is!

A bright colour scheme like that on Alpha Flight draws me in, helps me to be absorbed into the world. It helps make it look like a world I want to be in.

The lettering and editing are not without their fails; I’m never sure how much of what the letterer does (do they re-spell things? Are they responsible for sound effects, or is that the artist? etc…), but those are the kind of jobs that are usually only noticeable when things go wrong – and I admit they did. At one point, in #7, somebody credits the line “Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so” to Ford Fairmont (not Ford Prefect). (A later letters page says the script was correct on that one.) Or the line: “But if you are truly a child of the gods, you know well my power! Fool it now!” (Which is from the beautifully, hilariously experimental issue six; right before Snowbird fights Kolomaq in a snowstorm. Yes, it looks exactly how it sounds, even if you don’t know who those characters are.)

Next, Shroud vs. Black Panther in a coal mine.Greatest battle never seen!

(NB: As a believer in only one God, you can imagine I’m not comfortable with comics throwing the phrase ‘child of the gods’ around so loosely. I’m not expecting you to agree, or even understand, or even care; it’s cool if you don’t. I just can’t type that line without saying something.)

To me, John Byrne’s Alpha Flight has become my Platonic ideal of comics; when I think of #4 especially, I’m thinking ‘this is what comics look like’. (It helps that I read that particular issue at a very early age.)

John Byrne’s has been collected in an omnibus edition and under the name Classic Alpha Flight volumes 1, 2, and 3. The fact that most of the rest of volume one has not – only a few issues here and there in things like Avengers trades is very telling. (Later volumes, created when everything gets turned into trade, have been collected of course.)

16 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    We were talking about teams and identities, and here’s the perfect example. Alpha Flight is distinct from other teams. They have a reason to exist. They aren’t the Fantastic X-Flight. And for the most part, with a little Wolverine on the side, they were self-contained.

    They also were doing shocking endings before things became vogue (in comics or TV). Even Lost backed out of killing their main character right at the beginning. But you have your lead bumped off early. And not just for shock value (though it was shocking). Byrne had pretty much realized he was kind of a dull, rote character. And he could still get everything it offered in another more interesting character.

    The characters are original too. All their powers might not be, but they’re not just copies of others. In other words, they’re not X-Force. You have strong guy and fast guy and fighting guy and suit guy/gal and magic guy etc., but they all have their own twist. Puck was a brilliant creation that fit well into Marvel’s tradition of “disabled” characters, Daredevil, Professor X, heck they even made Hawkeye kinda deaf. The idea that even being “just a dwarf” he could be just as much a hero made him so compelling. And of course, as you said, they screwed that all up. (If you’re looking for ideas for articles, a follow up on how they screwed that title up might be fun. There was so much wrong). How can you not understand what made the character great and give him a super natural affliction?? Gah.

    In hindsight Northstar and Aurora take on whole new interesting angles. Being heavily Catholic (and a sister who still adheres to it, in some form) and how it works for a gay man. And how instead of just being a Quicksilver creepy obsession/protectiveness with his sister, how does that now look like the bond straight women and gay men often have? There’s a lot that could be done with that still, and it would still fit the original comics.

    I’m sure people get bored, but the Alpha Flight-Hulk switch did not help either title. It got us a cool Hulk vs. the Avengers battle, that unfortunately didn’t seem to have an ending planned, and ended quickly to only be saved (to everyone’s surprise, I’m sure) by Peter David. Alpha Flight stuck around in that direction longer, but certainly not to their benefit.

    Though I still like the Purple Girl.

    1. Le Messor

      “If you’re looking for ideas for articles, a follow up on how they screwed that title up might be fun.”

      Might be, but that *long series of articles* would probably be better served on my Alpha Flight forum; it’s too specialist for a more generalist website like this one. 🙂

      “In hindsight Northstar and Aurora take on whole new interesting angles. Being heavily Catholic (and a sister who still adheres to it, in some form) and how it works for a gay man.”

      Technically, I don’t think Northstar was ever Catholic – they were raised separately.

      “It got us a cool Hulk vs. the Avengers battle, that unfortunately didn’t seem to have an ending planned, and ended quickly to only be saved (to everyone’s surprise, I’m sure) by Peter David.”

      I didn’t mention in the article, but Peter David would be my favourite to write a relaunch (if there ever was one).
      Though it might’ve been a surprise when he saved Hulk ~ I’m not sure he’d built up his rep back then.

      “Though I still like the Purple Girl.”
      Yep, me too.

    2. AFINO

      Doing a thorough and detailed article on “how they screwed that title up” would be cruel and unusual punishment, for the writer and the reader. I think the people who were in charge at MARVEL knew that Alpha Flight #s 29 – 66 (plus the Annuals) didn’t make sense, weren’t entertaining, and aren’t good examples of sequential storytelling. AF # 66 basically admits that the Mantlo era is a farce.

      If a refrigerator doesn’t keep its contents cold/eatable, then that refrigerator would be considered defective. If a car is missing a tire, oil is leaking all over the place, and the engine is in flames, then that car would be considered defective (and rightly so). If any appliance or product did not do what it is supposed to do—what it is purposed to do—then that defective appliance should be replaced with an appliance or product that does what it is supposed to do.

      Comic books, however, can be chronically defective, and not only is there little to no attempt to correct the deficiency, the consumer is expected to accept and justify the defective product with fervor.

      If comic books are supposed to be—at the very least—an entertaining escape, then the Mantlo era did not meet that goal. If comic books are supposed to present a cohesive and/or plausible story, then AF# 29 -66 do not demonstrate the understanding of what a comic books are in order to suspend disbelief or to take them seriously.

      Instead of figuring out what worked, it is as if someone picked out all the stuff that didn’t work with Alpha Flight and amplified it to the nth degree. Even a “demoralized” Alpha Flight deserved ample room to fight the Hulk in AF# 29, instead of cramming |Aurora, Box, Heather, Mr. Jeffries, Northstar, Puck, Shaman, and eventually Snowbird into a regular-sized issue were (let’s be honest) the Flight got their butts kicked—twice [first in Roger’s lab, then in downtown Vancouver].

      Anyone expecting to see Alpha Flight “held together as a team” during the Mantlo era and solving problems as a team will be greatly disappointed. According to THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO CREATING COMICS and GRAPHIC NOVELS by Andy Schmidt: “Boiled down, it’s fairly simple. It means you have a job to do and that job is to tell the story. If you’re writing, drawing or writing and drawing, it doesn’t matter, you’re job is to tell a story and to do so effectively and in an entertaining way.” [from ‘TELLING THE STORY WITH VISUALS’, page 8]

      Anyone looking for a story told effectively and in an entertaining way will be hard-pressed to find it in AF #s 29 – 66 (plus the 2 Annuals).

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Since Byrne was back then, and frankly still is, my favorite artist, I started buying this series from the first issue. However, I only stuck with it for about a dozen issues, just because I was cutting down on the comics I was reading across the board at that point in my life. But I generally liked the series. Your very loving write-up actually makes me think I should probably revisit it, although I don’t know when I’ll ever get around to it given all the other stuff I have to read…

  3. Louis Bright-Raven

    Oddly enough, my first Alpha issue was Byrne’s final issue, #28. I had quit buying comics about 1982 or 1983 (age 10-11), thinking I’d ‘outgrown’ them. I was pulled back in by a kid who was acting out scenes from UNCANNY X-MEN on the school bus home in August of 1985 and I got off at his stop and it so happened his copy of UXM #196 came in the mail so I read that and got back into it with that series… but somehow Alpha escaped me until May of 1986, and somehow, this one lone copy of AF#28 was sitting in a mom & pop grocery store still looking brand new even though it had been out since November of 1985. The Box character on the cover was what drew me to it, I think (I hated the Secret Wars and the Beyonder, so that for darned sure wasn’t it). I was not yet a “Byrne Victim” but I recognized it as Byrne art (I had gotten the Dark Phoenix Saga trade for Christmas of 1985 and sort of was on the lookout for anything Byrne at the time).

    It was an interesting story, and then we get to the end and I was like, “What? Byrne’s leaving to go do HULK?! But I just GOT here!” LOL So it took me a couple more years until I was in college and had comic shops to go see and conventions to attend when I went into my full blown back issue nut phase to get the Byrne run.

    The thing about Byrne’s run of AF, as you point out, is how separate it feels from the rest of the Marvel Universe – I wouldn’t say it’s ‘un-American’, per se. Yes, it’s Canadian based, but since the majority of the MU takes place in and around the greater New York area and doesn’t really have many characters based throughout the rest of the U.S., either, it’s not so much un-American as an non-New Yorker worldview. But it feels almost like an indy superhero comic inside the Marvel U, and very standalone and self-sufficient under Byrne. Post Byrne, while they tried to keep it still stand alone, they were always undermining themselves by bringing in the X-Men or Wolverine or the Avengers or Dr. Strange to try to say, “See? They’re part of the bigger Marvel Universe!”, and that kind of diluted the AF brand, IMO.

    1. Le Messor

      “Oddly enough, my first Alpha issue was Byrne’s final issue, #28.”
      That’s a shame.

      “I was not yet a “Byrne Victim” but I recognized it as Byrne art”
      I would not have recognised a particular artist by style at age 13 / in 1985 (we seem to be the same age).
      Then again, I wouldn’t start collecting comics for another 3 years.

    2. M-Wolverine

      It really did have kind of have a feel that a lot of independent comic hero teams tried to emulate.

      However I think a big portion of all those outside characters were less about cohesion and more about weak sales without Byrne and trying to goose them with guest stars.

      1. Le Messor

        To be fair, Byrne did use guest stars – Sue Storm, The Super Skrull was a villain once. Namor appeared twice. (And that’s without counting the Hulk swap-over thing.)

        I actually think a shared universe was a beauty of comics of that period; knowing the things these people do affect each other (but not in an ‘event every month, “heroes” fighting “heroes” kind of way), knowing they could meet each other, having a shared history.

        I think that’s why I so rarely buy superhero comics outside the big two. (But I do buy indy non-superhero comics, please don’t misread that.)

        1. M-Wolverine

          Those were kind of Byrne’s pet characters though. No one was buying a comic because the Super Skrull was in it. And he had made Sue Richards interesting. Namor wouldn’t even have his own comic again until Byrne did one for him. And it made a lot of sense for him to eventually appear with Marrina around. It wasn’t like the Punisher was shoe horned in.

  4. Louis Bright-Raven

    “I would not have recognised a particular artist by style at age 13 / in 1985 (we seem to be the same age).”

    The physical shell is 45. The spirit… is either a teenager or is infinitesimally ancient, depending upon who you ask / which “how old are you?” online quiz I’m taking.

    As for my recognizing the art, as I would later learn as I got to college and started trying to get all the back issues I could remember having as a small child from the 1970s, it turns out I just really gravitated to Byrne and Perez right along, even though I hadn’t necessarily known their names as I didn’t really pay attention to the creator credits as a child. But I would constantly remember covers or splash page art to issues I had owned and enjoyed and wanted to reacquire, and probably 85-90% of the time it was by one of the two, especially with Marvel titles like AVENGERS or FANTASTIC FOUR. So I think I just recognized Byrne’s AF art that way, even if I didn’t necessarily know the name yet, per se.

    “To be fair, Byrne did use guest stars – Sue Storm, The Super Skrull was a villain once. Namor appeared twice. (And that’s without counting the Hulk swap-over thing.) I actually think a shared universe was a beauty of comics of that period; knowing the things these people do affect each other (but not in an ‘event every month, “heroes” fighting “heroes” kind of way), knowing they could meet each other, having a shared history.”

    True enough, but I wasn’t trying to dismiss those guest appearances by any means. What I was saying was that Byrne could have taken the first 28 issues, removed the other Marvel characters that weren’t his (Namor, Sue, Diablo, Super Skrull, Hulk, Wolverine) and still produced essentially the same stories, because the core team and concept was really developed by Byrne well before he ever came to Marvel.

    As for the shared universe but not in the ‘event’ way — up to that point, yes, that’s how it was more or less run, but it was about this time that SECRET WARS, SECRET WARS II, the Mutant Massacre storyline over in the X-books which would stupidly cross over into THOR and POWER PACK, etc. started to happen (which may or may not have been part of why Byrne left HULK and FF and went to DC to do LEGENDS and then SUPERMAN / ACTION COMICS).

    1. Le Messor

      “The physical shell is 45. The spirit… is either a teenager or is infinitesimally ancient, depending upon who you ask / which “how old are you?” online quiz I’m taking.”
      So… we seem to be the same age. 🙂 (Maybe the ‘infinitesimally ancient’ one doesn’t apply to me so much.)

      “I just really gravitated to Byrne and Perez right along, even though I hadn’t necessarily known their names”
      That’s really cool; I’d feel vindicated to learn I’d been going back to the same people over an over; like I’d known what I’d liked all along.

      “What I was saying was that Byrne could have taken the first 28 issues, removed the other Marvel characters that weren’t his (Namor, Sue, Diablo, Super Skrull, Hulk, Wolverine) and still produced essentially the same stories”

      Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    I bought the first half dozen issues, when they came out; but, not having regular access to comic shops and the fact that it came out around my senior year in high school, when I got very busy made me miss out on subsequent issues. So, I lost track of it, until much later. I enjoyed the unique identity and the international flavor. I always liked the idea of heroes from other countries; but, they were rarely done well. Too often, they were quick national stereotypes thrown out for a quick story, such as those that appeared in the original Contest of Champions or the Global Guardians, at DC. Alpha Flight had a nice mixture of real personalities, national identities, folkloric connections, and “hometown sports-team” vibes. The FF wa a complete team, as was Alpha Flight. Others, like the Avengers, might have a core group, but others came and went and the team element depended greatly on the writer. Byrne made this about a team, from the get go.

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