I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
When the first Alpha Flight series was released, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to collect it. I was almost equally certain that I was going to love it.
For one thing, it was written and drawn by a creator who’d rapidly become my favorite, largely because of his inspired efforts on Marvel’s first family in conjunction with his storied work on a batch of comics I mostly didn’t even own. John Byrne was the co-plotter and penciller on a run of X-Men that was already considered one of the absolute peaks of superhero storytelling. That span of X-Men comics loomed large to me. Only a few years old, they’d already shot up in price on the back issue market, making most of them entirely out of the reach of my meager accounts. I had only acquired a few of those issues, taking care to concentrate my efforts on the landmark issues, especially those that comprised the Dark Phoenix Saga. In fact, I believe the only comics I’d purchased outside of that storyline at the time were the two issues that introduced Alpha Flight.
When the Canadian superhero team landed in their own series beginning in the summer of 1983, the cover played up their connection to Marvel’s melodramatic mutants. “EXPLODING FROM THE PAGES OF THE X-MEN!” was emblazoned across the top of the cover as the members of Alpha Flight elbowed their way past a crowd of other Marvel heroes, insisting that some unseen foe was a job only they could handle. This scene, as they say, did not appear in the comic. While that was hardly unheard of, there was something about the cheekiness of this issue that forecast, perhaps inadvertently, that this series was going to take a little different approach to the idea of a team of superheroes.
It was was pure superhero comfort food in that first issue, though. The team was torn apart, having lost their funding from the Canadian government. Naturally, though, a threat arises that requires their unique assistance. And since this was Marvel Comics, the threat was a big ol’ monster.
The scattered members of Alpha Flight make their way to the new battleground through various means and are soon fighting side-by-side again.
A little bit of magic combined with the water spout that the aquatically-inclined hero uses for transportation douses the gigantic dirt pile with enough water to diminished him to a mere mound of non-sentient mud. Alpha Flight’s work here is done, no need to thank them, ma’am. But the individual members decide that they want to continue on with their shared adventures, even without a government mandate.
And so it begins, although the series wastes no time in following a very different path. It seemed that Byrne wasn’t especially interested in treating this admittedly unconventional team in an especially conventional manner. Beginning the very next issue, when one of the heroes is hospitalized after a shocking attack, Byrne starts splintering the team again. They don’t break up in some sort of “Fantastic Four No More!” scenario; they simply drift away from shared efforts and all start doing their own thing to a degree. Alpha Flight becomes a team book about what the individual team members do when they’re not hanging out with the team.
That shift locks into place with issue #5, which is essentially a solo story featuring one of the newest team members, a dwarf who goes by the code name Puck. (There was a retcon origin added years later that explained that Puck wasn’t actually a dwarf, but was a tall, strapping man shrunk down to dwarf size as some sort of punishment from a villain. It’s incredibly stupid and best ignored.) Still recovering from injuries sustained in an earlier issue, Puck becomes enmeshed in solving a conspiracy at the hospital. At one point, he reopens his wounds and tries crawling to a nearby phone to call for help.
This may not be revolutionary storytelling compared to the stuff resting on the indie shelf on the other end of the comic shop, but it was quite bold for the mainstream superhero set. Those panels also demonstrate one of the clear reasons I was drawn to Byrne’s work, although I probably couldn’t have properly articulated it at the time. He was always thinking about how he could tell the story visually, truly seeing the form as a merger of word and picture. Superhero comics could get mired in redundancy, captions merely describing that exact action taking place in the panel. Byrne, while plenty verbose when it came to the omniscient narration, largely avoided that pitfall. He wrote like an artist and drew like a writer, rightly seeing the different elements of comic book storytelling as things that needed to complement each other rather than compete.
There was also room for enjoyable tomfoolery. Marvel came up with a promotional scheme called Assistant Editors’ Month. Ostensibly, all the editors were away at conventions, leaving the entire line in the hands of their assistant editors, all of them certain to indulge in pure craziness when unsupervised. Some series were barely different for the month, save the branding stamp on their cover. A few fully gave in to the lunacy. Byrne used the opportunity to have the mystical shapeshifter known as Snowbird battle another character who was primarily colored white. In the midst of their brawl, a major snowstorm was conjured up. Therefore, for several pages, all the panels reflected the situation by presenting pure white, interrupted only by captions, word balloons and sound effects.
Byrne’s playfulness was integrated into stories of superhero adventures that were still thoroughly satisfying. And by the monumental issue #12, it was clear that he was serious about telling his ongoing tale in dramatic, surprising ways. He repeatedly veered away from expected routes, a tendency that became all the more clear when he ceded the title to other creators who wasted no time whatsoever pumping in hackneyed ideas. Byrne has made it clear that he finds his work on Alpha Flight wanting, but I think he doesn’t given himself enough credit for the subtle subversion he brought to the series. He didn’t recast superhero comics as arthouse fare, but he didn’t settle for making it an typically overblown blockbuster either. To use a modern comparison, he made Alpha Flight into something like a daring cable television series, something that edges along with churning ingenuity on HBO or FX. I think, in some ways, Alpha Flight was the series that best prepared me to crave some of the “alternative” comics I’d find my way to eventually. In being willfully different, it helped me see comics as a place for more than four-color fisticuffs that fell into predictable patterns.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum