|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.