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Tag: Alpha Flight

Comic-Shop Memories: All About Books & Comics (Part I), 1986-87, Phoenix, Ariz.

I don’t know how quickly I was able to discover All About Books & Comics after moving to Arizona, but it was pretty quick, likely within a month or so after arrival.

The shop was farther from home, about 16 miles from home or a half-hour each way in the car, at 535 E. Camelback Road. Like most comics shops, it was in an unremarkable building, albeit one that had bright letters and even characters at times painted on its street-facing windows.

It would be an understatement to say I was impressed when I first walked into the store. Not only was the space large, but it was crammed to the gills with new and back issue comics — more than I’d ever seen in any other shop. And, I quickly learned, there was lots more in the back. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for, just ask, and they’d come back shortly with the book you needed in fantastic shape. I have a stone-cold mint copy of X-Men #147 I acquired from the “back room,” and an equally nice copy of X-Men #142.

What impressed me most at first was the back issue selection, which was deep. I checked out the X-Men selection and — just in the box — they had just about every issue back to #143, the end of the John Byrne run. The issues before that were prominently displayed along the walls in mylar sleeves for “exorbitant” prices that ranged from $10 to $30 for most except the earliest issues of the “new” X-Men run. Every other title was stocked just as deeply, if not more so, since those early new X-Men issues were the hottest thing going at the time and there were no reprints. So to read them, you had to get the originals. Classic X-Men had just started and it was going to be a while before it got to the Dark Phoenix issues.

A later printing of the first X-Men trade paperback, with a great cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

I say that with one exception, that applies directly to this visit. While checking out a rack in the corner, I came across the first X-Men trade paperback, published in 1984, collecting issues #129-137, for the cover price of $7.95. I had to have this book, but couldn’t afford it at the time. Luckily, Christmas was coming up, and I told my parents this is what I wanted. So my dad drove me down to the store again, we bought it — I was sure it would be gone by that point — and it went home to be wrapped awaiting Christmas morning. I remember reading it that Christmas Day of 1986 and absolutely loving it. I’ll have to do a whole post on that book another time.

The following May, I graduated high school and was due to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson starting in the fall. My dad was working for a personnel company that had a temp business that served American Express, which had extensive operations in the Phoenix area. So he got me a summer temp job at one of their call centers, answering a national informational toll-free number for the Amex business card. The hotline was advertised in USA Today and other high-profile places, so my job was to answer these calls, answer basic questions about the card, take down the caller’s information and pass it on so that an application would be sent to them, or — if they were a larger company — a sales rep could contact them. It was boring and easy. Most of the calls came from the East Coast, so the afternoons slowed to a crawl and I’d read sci-fi books I borrowed from the library at my desk until I was done at 4:30. The perks included being able to look up cardholder addresses in the computer — few comics folks seemed to have Amex cards, but I never stopped putting their names in the system — and a fantastic deli in the complex called The Duck and Decanter, which is still there and makes the most incredible sandwiches. And it was located at 16th Street and Camelback road, just nine blocks down the street from All About Books & Comics!

So 4:30 would hit and, about twice a week, I’d make All About my first stop. I had this summer job and sufficient financial aid to pay for university, so I felt free to spend a little money on comics. I was in full-on X-Men fandom mode at the time, and so these trips were used primarily to raid those deep back issue bins. I’d grab four or maybe five issues per visit, adding in a few other back issues to series I still had holes in — The New Mutants and Alpha Flight in particular. When I started frequenting All About, my X-Men collection ran back from the current issue (around issue #220) back to about #174, with a couple of older issues in there. By the end of the summer, I’d filled it in all the way back to #141, plus annuals. I’d also brought up to date my run of The New Mutants.

I was really interested at the time in the issues from Dave Cockrum’s second run as artist, which I was reading for the first time. They were very different in tone and style than the stuff that hooked me on X-Men: issues Claremont produced with artists Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., John Byrne and Art Adams. But the more I read the Cockrum stuff, the more I really came to love it fully and completely, faults and all.

I also started trying out more comics, still mainly Marvel. Favorites included: Avengers by Roger Stern, John Buscema and Tom Palmer; West Coast Avengers by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom; and Silver Surfer by Englehart and Marshall Rogers. All About was well stocked, and you could pick up at cover price, new off the racks, the last six or so issues of these titles plus any recent annuals. And new comics cost 75 cents at the time, so it was not terribly expensive to try out six or so issues of a new series.

I recall flipping through a copy of an issue of Batman: Year One and not buying it — which was, again, really dumb. I did later acquire those originals for a very reasonable price.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had been getting my subs through Fog Hollow Comics until it closed, and then those subs were transferred to a shop called AAA Best Comics. On Fridays, I would often hit All About and then drive up to Fog Hollow for my subs and then home. It took an hour in the car in Phoenix summer heat — without air conditioning. But this was my thing and I was all in. I almost always went for a swim as soon as I got home to refresh my sweaty self and remember for a moment what it was like to be cool.

The day before I was scheduled to drive down to university with my parents and move into my first apartment with a roommate I had yet to meet, I wanted to get my new comics from All About. It was new comics day, but in those days that was far less of a weekly event than now. The books came in and sat in piles on the counter throughout the afternoon as the staff worked to verify quantities before they could be put on sale. So I waited. For quite a while. I looked through back issue bins. I checked out the small section next to the comics where All About stocked used paperbacks and discount comics. Finally, the new books were freed and I picked up my comics, including X-Men #224, and began the long drive home in the late-afternoon heat.

Cover to X-Men #224 (Dec. 1987). Cover art by Marc Silvestri and Bob Wiacek.

If you’ve ever been to Phoenix in the summer, you know it gets really damn hot. And when the monsoons come, it gets worse because the humidity goes up from nothing to something. This was a monsoon day. I could see the thunderheads building up in the mountains, and was driving toward them as our house was near the foothills of the McDowell mountains. I had sweat through my clothes several times over in my AC-less VW Beetle. And then I got a flat on Hayden Road, just north of Via de Ventura. I pulled off onto a side street and, having no working spare, found a nearby pay phone to call for help. Which took a very long time to come because it was rush hour and our other car was otherwise occupied. So I found some kind of shop to sit in, with my comics, and read them until I got some help and could get home, wash off the day with a dip in the pool and try to prepare for the next day’s events. But I had my comics. That made me happy. And since I had an apartment, I did take with me my collection — about three long boxes at this point.

On to Tucson, and another town of new comics shops.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fragments and an Alpha Flight mall Fantasy, Edmonton, Alta., 1985-1986

There were a few other Edmonton comic shops from the time that I visited but no longer remember. I’ve hunted online for any trace of these shops and they are, I’m sure, long gone and exist now only in the memories of those who shopped at them.

I recall one shop located on Stony Plain Road that I visited some time in 1986. I know the year because the woman who was working there was having a loud conversation with a friend about how much she was enjoying both Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and John Byrne’s The Man of Steel. There were plenty of back issues in this shop, which is what I remember the most. And I remember scoring a beautiful copy, that I still own today, of this pivotal issue of X-Men:

X-Men #166 (Feb. 1983). Cover by Paul Smith.

This was my first issue with Paul Smith art and, when I got it home, I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it. It was double-size, had all kinds of amazing stuff happening in it, and it concluded the long-running Brood saga with a satisfying punch — and still ended with a cliff-hanger that ensured next issue was going to be even better. This was a high point of writer Chris Claremont’s long run and did a lot to cement X-Men as my favorite comic book.

The other shop I recall was located in West Edmonton Mall. For those who don’t know, WEM was as much an amusement park and tourist attraction as it was shopping mall. When it opened in 1981, it was just a nice mall. Big for the times, but nothing too special. It had the usual anchor stores, food court and movie theater (six screens!) where I saw Time Bandits more than once. In 1983, the mall doubled in size and exposed its ambitions, adding an NHL-size skating rink, even more movie screens, a huge McDonalds, and an amusement park area called Fantasyland that featured a handful of rides and attractions for mostly younger kids. In 1985, it doubled in size again, adding a third set of movie screens, a second food court, submarine rides, a dolphin tank, a replica of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria, miniature golf, a massive water park with a wave pool and slides, and two theme streets: Europa Street, which evoked a European feel for high-end fashion stores as tenants, and Bourbon Street, with restaurants and bars for lovers of the night life. There was a hotel with theme rooms planned, and Fantasyland doubled in size, adding a triple loop rollercoaster and “drop of doom” style ride for older thrillseekers. Yes, it was a lot. And legal action from Disney did prompt a name change from Fantasyland to Galaxyland.

Cover to Power Pack #1 (Aug. 1984) by June Brigman and Bob Wiacek.

When the second phase opened, it included an area for smaller retailers who sold things like sunglasses and jewelry. I forget the name of that part of the mall, but it was located above the massive video arcade in Fantasyland. You’d take an escalator up from Fantasyland, and then if you went to the immediate left, there was a small comics shop that sold new issues and had a modest selection of back issues. I remember buying there a copy of Power Pack #1 for $3, which was a good deal at the time. And the store ended up being drawn by former Edmonton resident John Byrne into Alpha Flight #26 (Sept. 1985).

Alpha Flight #26 (Sept. 1985). Cover by John Byrne and Bob Wiacek.

The issue starts with Alpha Flight — newly reunited in the previous issue with its founder, Guardian, who was believed killed in Alpha Flight #12 — undergoing a training exercise with the Canadian Military near Red Deer, Alberta. This takes up 12 pages of the issue’s 22 pages. Guardian then gets a message from his wife, Heather Hudson, that Alpha Flight is needed at West Edmonton Mall! They arrive and some man in a suit tells them everyone was chased out of the mall by these super-powered types who called themselves Omega Flight! The team splits up and each member is defeated by a member of Omega Flight — with help from a mysterious benefactor. Finally, we find Heather, who’s in front of the mall’s real comic shop when Guardian finds her.

Heather Hudson strolls past a comic-shop in West Edmonton Mall in Alpha Flight #26 (Sept. 1985).

Byrne draws the shop pretty much exactly as I remember it, though there appears to be more Byrne issues on sale there than I remember them having.

The story concludes with Guardian revealing himself to not be James McDonald Hudson, but the android that previously posed as Delphine Courtney in the death of Guardian arc. The story continues into Alpha Flight #27 (Oct. 1985), Secret Wars II #4 (Oct. 1985) and concluded in Alpha Flight #28 (Nov. 1985), which was Byrne’s last as writer and artist on the series.

The comic shop eventually moved to a larger retail space on the lower floor. There, it was the last comic shop I visited prior to our family’s move to Arizona. I distinctly remember that visit, and buying copies of the just-released X-Men #213 (Jan. 1987) with Sabretooth fighting Wolverine on the cover, and a copy of The ‘Nam #2 (Jan. 1987), which I had seen in a report on one of the American network news shows and decided to give it a look.

The only other comic shop I can recall was in the now-defunct Heritage Mall. It was mostly a gaming store, but they did have a small rack of comics and I recall thumbing through copies of Star Wars #104 (March 1986) and Power Pack #21 (April 1986) there, likely while just killing time until the next bus home.

And that’s it for Edmonton comics shops. I’ll do one more post on my newsstand experiences there, then move on to shops in Arizona.

Comic-Shop Memories: Starbase 12 Collectibles, Edmonton, Alta., 1985-1986

I don’t recall if this was the very first comic book shop I ever patronized, but it was the first one I remember looking forward to visiting. It was located at 10627-101st Street in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, just south of the big Brick furniture store, which remains a prominent local retailer.

The first time I visited Starbase 12, probably in summer of 1985, my dad was with me, and he thought it was the craziest thing he’d ever seen. Even the idea of a comic book shop was still a novelty back then.

I used to take the bus from school downtown to the shop, pick up some new and back issues, and then head to my dad’s office, on the 16th floor of what was once the CIBC building and is now known as Bell Tower, at 10104-103 Ave., and hitch a ride home.

The shop had a bi-level back issue rack in the middle, by which I mean there was a top level of comics and a lower level. They were all filed alphabetically by title, as is the norm. Back-issue comics were bagged but not boarded, and the shop would put the comics in the bags with the flap on the back side of the comic. The price tag was put along the top of the front side of the comic, and the flap taped over the price tag. I assume that was to prevent people changing the prices.

The back issues were the big draw. For someone just starting out, they had plenty of copies of recent issues of most books, going back a year or two. For some reason, I remember the rack as being orange in color. Prices were usually a dollar, or $1.25, for recent back issues, which wasn’t bad considering the cover price on Marvel and DC comics at the time was 95 cents in Canada and 75 cents in the U.S. On the plus side, there was no sales tax in Alberta, so you didn’t have to allow for that calculation when trying to maximize the $10 bill in your pocket.

New comics were on racks around the perimeter on about three sides in all. These were multi-level racks, so there were, I think, three rows of comics on the top level, and the same on the lower level.

The fourth side had a small glass display case for more expensive comics, and a rack for larger items like the old Marvel Graphic Novel books.

I have strong memories of buying a number of comics there: Marvel Star Wars comics, early issues of Power Pack and Cloak and Dagger, as well as my first X-Men comics, which were issues #203, #204 and Annual #9. I also remember going in there the day Classic X-Men #1 came out in the spring of 1986, and also coming home that day with an Alpha Flight Annual #1 and X-Men #209. I also remember buying Marvel Age #36, with the David Mazzuchelli cover, and Power Pack #20 there around Christmas 1985.

In 1986, the shop was celebrating Marvel’s 25th anniversary by having a drawing for a copy of Fantastic Four #1. I remember seeing that book in the display case, blown away that it was selling for a whopping $100! I don’t remember what condition it was in. I entered, but did not win.

The last time I visited the shop, sometime in 1986, they had put a rack of discount back issues in the front lobby. (You came in the building’s front door into this small lobby, and opened the door on the right for Starbase 12 and the door on the left for whatever business was in that part of the building.)

I don’t know how long the store lasted, though I recall noting on a subsequent visit in 1988 or 1989 that it was no longer there.

But perhaps because it was the first really well-stocked comic shop I frequented, it set the bar for the many shops I would frequent in the future.

Who Can Canada Blame for Alpha Flight #0.1?

Alpha Flight #0.1

The absence of posts on this blog has been exacerbated by the preparations for and the birth May 2 of my daughter, Kaya. All is fantastic here at Bags and Boards central as we’ve spent the last few weeks getting to know each other. I don’t know if she will like comics, but she’s going to have plenty of them around to pass the time with as she grows up.

One such comic is Alpha Flight #0.1, Marvel’s third attempt to relaunch the once-successful 1980s series about a group of Canadian superheroes. As a Canadian who first read the group during the John Byrne heyday of the early to mid-1980s, this issue is a distinct improvement on some of the previous attempts, most notably the humor-infused Scott Lobdell effort that ran a mere 12 issues starting in 2004.

This effort does its best to restore a “classic” lineup with Guardian, Vindicator, Snowbird, Shaman, Aurora, Northstar and Marrina, but fails to distinguish itself from the mainstream mass of superhero comics and fails to do right by the basic premise of the series and its characters.

Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, the story centers on a terrorist named Citadel who seeks to disrupt a federal election by taking out the power grid in Quebec. Alpha’s called in and finds Citadel’s got help from Kara Killgrave, who once was called Purple Girl and was a member of Alpha Flight in the late 1980s when scripter Bill Mantlo was slowly but surely doing his best to make Alpha Flight the worst title Marvel published. The election goes on as planned, with former Alpha liaison Gary Cody winning as the leader of the fictional Unity Party.

Art wise, this is a decent-looking comic but nothing special. The art is by Ben Oliver with Dan Green and colors by Frank Martin. It would be nice to see some zing in the layouts if they stick around for future issues. But without some better writing, the art’s not enough to justify buying or reading this comic book.

One of the long-term problems with Alpha Flight has been the way successions of writers have completely messed up the personal histories of the characters. Mantlo was the king of this, turning Puck from a dwarf who overcame the pain of his condition into a man possessed by some kind of black genie and making the twins Aurora and Northstar into the descendants of elves from Asgard. He also killed off Snowbird and had Marrina go so crazy after becoming pregnant with Namor’s child that the Avengers had to kill her. I’m not kidding — these are actual Alpha Flight stories, and they set a precedent for writers to crap all over these characters. Since then, Guardian’s returned from the dead multiple times in a new body and, according to this issue, has a child with Vindicator that has vanished.

I don’t know how you end up with everyone back in the places we find them in this issue, but Aurora and Sasquatch are still an item; Guardian and Vindicator are back together in Ottawa and more boring than they’ve ever been; Marrina is back from the dead but not quite looking like herself; Shaman is performing open-heart surgery on a First Nations reservation; and Snowbird is back under cover with the police writing traffic tickets in the streets of Montreal. Oh, and Northstar is back after multiple stints with the X-Men living in Montreal with a new boyfriend. (Did you know he’s gay? Well, he is!)

The big question I have is this: If the writers are looking to take this comic back to basics, why would they be so sloppy with the details that show they understand who these characters are and the most basic understanding of Canada and Canadians that really is the only reason for this title to exist? Specifically:

  • Why is Snowbird writing traffic tickets for the Montreal cops when her power symbolically comes from the arctic? Her previous cover was as Constable Anne MacKenzie of the RCMP stationed in the Northwest Territories. It makes no sense that she’s now a “commandant” — which is not a real rank with Montreal police or the RCMP and even if it was, a commandant would not be writing traffic tickets. 
  • The take on Canadian politics is pretty funny. I have a feeling the Unity Party is meant to be some kind of anti-Alpha or radical conservative party, which is just plain boring compared to the real-world insanity of the Republican Party here in the United States.  
  • When did Heather Hudson become a brunette? I guess it may have been previously established that she and James MacDonald Hudson got back together, but they’re in no way a convincing couple. 
  • Shaman was clearly established as being a member of the Sarcee tribe, which was primarily based in western Canada around southern Alberta. His medical practice was always a very basic, community clinic style of operation near Calgary. Here, he’s performing open-heart surgery at the Grand Lac Victoria reservation in Quebec. Neither part of that sentence makes sense with this character. 
  • Walter Langkowski and Aurora are barely introduced. All we know about them is they’re an item. No mention is made of her being Northstar’s twin sister. Also, which Aurora is this? She wears the original black and white costume with long hair, while on the cover she has the white and yellow costume with short hair she wore after Langkowski altered her powers slightly. Also, is she still a split personality?
  • As for Walter, no mention’s made of his code name or where his power comes from. I know the source and nature of his power changed a lot over the years, so an explanation would be nice. 
  • Marrina looks completely different. Makes me wonder if this is a new version of the character. The cover shows the classic version, so some explanation would have been nice.
  • Where’s Puck? I might have missed the reason for this in another book.
  • And boy, do Marvel writers love to write scenes of Northstar being a positive, modern example of the gay superhero. After his recent run in The Uncanny X-Men, can’t Marvel find something else interesting about him? Or is he doomed to be a one-note character? Here’s one idea: he used to be a member of the FLQ, a terrorist organization that sought the separation of Quebec from Canada. (That may have been the only good plot point Bill Mantlo ever introduced to Alpha Flight, so of course it happened in Marvel Fanfare #28 circa 1985.) 

The biggest failing about this comic is there is absolutely nothing Canadian about it. I know that may seem irrelevant to a lot of readers, but when you get right down to it, it really is the only reason I can think of for this comic to exist.

Ask a comic fan to explain what Alpha Flight is about and the answer will surely involve the phrase “Canadian superheroes.” Therefore, these character need to be in some way representative of Canada, how Canadians relate to each other and the role Canada plays in the world. I don’t know if Pak or Van Lente are Canadian, but given Marvel’s track record on this post-Byrne, it wouldn’t surprise me if Pak or Van Lente’s sole experience with Canada was crossing the bridge at Niagara Falls and commenting on how there’s a maple leaf added to the logo at McDonald’s. (Don’t laugh — I’ve had that tale told to me by more than one person.)

Again, I think it’s important for a comic about Canadian superheroes have some kind of Canadian quality to it and Canada is not an easy place to figure out, even if you have lived there. It’s in many ways a lot more regional than the United States and also a lot less known. I get that someone who’s never been to New York could write an OK story set in New York because everyone absorbs the imagery and the icons through the media. But the same is not true for even the best-known Canadian cities like Toronto or Vancouver — and it’s even less true for places like Ottawa, Nunavit, Victoria, Saskatoon, St. John, St. John’s, Moncton, Quebec City or Red Deer.

This comic’s failures would not be so obvious without the high bar set by Byrne in his 28 issues. Even though Byrne was not born in Canada and hasn’t lived there in decades, he understood enough when he did Alpha Flight to inject as a theme Canada’s struggle to define itself and maintain some control over its destiny and resources while dealing so closely with the incredibly rich, insatiable and friendly juggernaut that is the United States. Failing to inject something like this into the book leaves it no different from Avengers North, and not worth publishing or reading.

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