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?
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.
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.)
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’),
or a mysterious woman known only as ‘Nemesis’ are all good ways to get me 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:
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…)
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.
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.)
(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.)