WOQW: Alpha Flight

[SPOILER WARNING: This essay involves fallout from New Avengers #16. If you have not read this book and do not want to know the ending, please click the “back” button on your browser.]

Every so often there comes a point where a comic franchise finds itself hitting the wall. Writers find themselves running out of ideas, good stories become farther and farther apart until finally moves that reek of utter desperation are made. Ultimately once popular books end up withering and dieing.

This happened a lot in the Bastard Age of Comics. How else do you explain the Punisher starring in a rip-off of DC’s popular Reign of the Superman arc? This was followed up a few years later when there was that mini-series in which Frank Castle became an avenging angel. Over at DC the Teen Titans went through a number of dubious incarnations over the course of the decade, introducing a dizzying array of roster changes and new members. None of which really stuck around for more than two years.

Eventually things can get so dire the question becomes not “how do we save this book” but “is this book even worth saving?”

And for Marvel in the case sad case of Alpha Flight, the answer apparently was “no.”

Now let set the record straight… I’m usually a huge Brian Michael Bendis fan, I’ve enjoyed pretty much every issue New Avengers thus far, but I hated this new issue. I hated the over reliance on splash panels, the absolute lack of appearances by the title characters, and yes… I HATED to see Alpha Flight die like that. As far as character send-offs go this ranks right up there with that issue of Starman where the editor convinced James Robinson to have the Mist kill off the Justice League of Europe.

Call me old fashion, but I hate seeing superheroes die. I hate having to cross names off of my fantasy Avengers or Justice League rosters, or having to think up means of bringing them back from the dead. I think ideally the only appropriate outlet for a superhero death scene should be a one hundred page graphic novel written by Jim Starlin.

Yet I weep not for Alpha Flight, a book which had turned into a parody of itself long before… becoming an official parody of itself. Yes there was a time long ago during it’s early years under John Byrne’s wing when Alpha Flight was a very special book thanks to a quirky cast of characters, some brilliant costume designs, and the Great White North provided a welcome change of scenery to the usual New York local found in most Marvel Books. Alas those days are now long gone. As Alpha Flight crept into the late 80s and 90s time was not kind to the book, as a flurry of creative team changes and roster line ups . Over time things started to get very, very weird.

Like the storyline in which the disembodied spirit of Walter Langkowski (Sasquatch) would up in a woman’s body, specifically that of his recently deceased teammate Snowbird. This lead to a period in which Walter changed his name to Wanda and started turning into a white furred Sasquatch. Or how about Purple Girl/Persuasion the teenage super heroine whose origin story was that her mother was raped by a super villain?! (Honest I can’t make this stuff up.) Then there was the time Northstar was showing signs of a mysterious illness, prompting many readers to suspect he was H.I.V positive, only for it to be revealed that he was sick because he was a fairy. I do not use that word as a slur against his orientation, I mean it that writer Bill Malto thought that readers were going to believe that Northstar was a magical being from Asgard.

It’s enough to make the Doom Patrol seem normal.

Then came the ultimate indignity of Alpha Flight #106 a book that should go down in the annuls of comics history as a major milestone, but instead was just another in a long list of embarrassing debacles which befell Marvel in the Bastard Age. This was the issue in which Northstar was finally going to reveal to himself that he was in fact gay (and in fact not a magical being from Asgard) and while that might not sound like a big deal now, but in 1992 this was a major news story. For a few weeks Alpha Flight became the most talked about book in the land. The event was covered in mainstream news outlets. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was debating about it. It was quite possibly the closest Marvel got to a bona fide “Death of Superman” phenomenon Marvel would ever reach.

And it turned out to be an absolute disaster because Scott Lobdell cranked out a stinker of a story about Northstar having to stop a super powered Mountie named Major Mapeleaf who wanted to kill a AIDS infected baby.

Take a deep breath…

Let’s repeat that point again for dramatic effect.

It was a story about Northstar having to stop a SUPER POWERED MOUNTIE named MAJOR MAPLELEAF who wanted to KILL A AIDS INFECTED BABY!

The story also included this wonder of a speech.

“Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear. No one knows them better than I. For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business—
—I am gay! Be that as it may AIDS is not a disease restricted to homosexuals as much as it seems, at times the rest of the world wishes that were so!”

For the record if anyone ever tells you that Judd Winnick’s “Hate Crime” storyline from Green Lantern a few years ago was a bad story, or the arc of Green Arrow which revealed that Mia was HIV positive was heavy-handed you are fully within your rights to strap that fan into a Clockwork Orange chair and force him to read Alpha Flight #106.

Still despite this setback Alpha Flight managed to kick around for a couple of years until coming to a close in 1994. Then in 1997 the team starred in a new book written by Steve Seagle which mixed traditional teammates like Puck, Vindicator, etc with new members who had names like Radius and Flex. Drawn in the muscularly exaggerated, anatomically dubious art style of so many books from the time the new incarnation never really stood out. It was essentially just another superhero team book, only set in Canada. The book lasted about two years.

Then in 2004 we saw yet another incarnation of the book created by Scott Lobdell. Yes the same Scott Lobdell who brought national attention to the pressing issue of Mountie induced infant euthanasia was trusted to reinvent the franchise. Deciding to play the title’s traditional weirdness as a strength the new book could best be described as a parody in the vein of Giffen/DeMatteis-era Justice League. The plot revolved around Sasquatch trying to assemble a new team to rescue the founding members and having to deal with misfits like the Centennial a super powered senior citizen and Puck’s long lost daughter. The roster also included an unwilling Nemisis, one of the team’s former villains and Major Mapeleaf’s son. Despite some unique animated art by Clayton Henry and a fairly good natured tone, the book just failed to catch on with new readers perhaps because it just wasn’t that funny. This incarnation fizzled out after just 12 issues.

So after the original series died a long painful death, the revival failing, and the comedy version flopping we’re left with the team’s rather abrupt slaughter at the hands of a new villain in New Avengers. The D-list Titans who got laid out in Infinite Crisis made a better showing.

In the tortured life and sudden death of Alpha Flight there yet be a lesson somewhere for aspiring comics creators to learn. Perhaps it’s about the dangers of ironclad continuity as each new writer had to carry the burden of increasingly ridiculous storylines. Maybe it’s about what happens when a title strays too far from it’s creator’s original version. Or possibly the moral is that while some characters are timeless, some have lifespans and when they surpass that lifespan for too long they become shadows of their former selves.

In this medium few characters concepts truly stay dead. Particularly those involving a characters or teams that have ran for over 100 issues. Alpha Flight will eventually return in some shape or form in either the mainline or the Ultimate Marvel Universe. The character lineup including a giant furry monster, a dwarf, and Canada’s answer to Captain America among others has proved enduring even if the quality of the comic starring them hasn’t. But for a future incarnation of the book to succeed the creators may have to take cue of the recent Black Panther title by throwing continuity to the wind and simply focusing on creating an exciting story. Unfortunately any revival of Alpha Flight shall face a problem much greater than comics ever revolving door of death.

Alpha Flight’s legacy is that of Canada’s premier super team, vintage John Byrne, and the first openly gay superhero. Unfortunately it’s also that of bizarre nonsensical character changes, lame villains (The Brass Bishop anyone?), convoluted storylines, ill-fated revamps, and a super powered Mountie trying to kill a baby with AIDS.

No book deserves that kind of baggage.

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