Retro Reviews: Alpha Flight’s Northstar By Furman, Carrasco Jr. & Others For Marvel

Northstar #1-4  (April 1994 – July 1994)

Written by Simon Furman

Pencilled by Dario Carrasco Jr.

Inked by Ian Akin (#1), Jack Keefer (#1), Mark McKenna (#2), Brian Kane (#2), Tim Dzon (#3-4), Danny Bulandi (#3), Bruce Patterson (#4)

Colour by Bob Sharen (#1, 3), Chi (#2, 4)

Spoilers (from twenty-five years ago)

I’m not sure I even ever knew that the Northstar miniseries was a thing.  By the time Alpha Flight was canceled, it had been more than a year since I’d read it, and I’d lost all interest in (if not love for) these characters.  The miniseries continued from the end of the parent book, and took the same creative team with it, so my expectations are low. The covers are nice though, and it’s cool to see Jean-Paul back in his original costume, so I have some minor hope.

Jean-Paul was originally a very interesting character, but as time went on, he became little more than a generic background superhero.  Even his coming out of the closet added little to the character because of the way he was mostly ignored. I wonder if, in this series, Furman did anything to enrich him.

Let’s find out…

Let’s track who turned up in the title:
Villains

  • Double Trouble (Weapon PRIME; #1, 3)
  • Tigerstryke (Weapon PRIME; #1, 3-4)
  • Killspree (Weapon PRIME; #1, 3)
  • Yeti (Weapon PRIME; #1, 3)
  • Arcade (#1-4)
  • Short Fuse (#3-4)
  • Mister Nice (#3-4)
  • Link (#3-4)
  • Barb (#3-4)
  • Sadista (#3-4)
  • Carl Kerridge (#4)

Guest Stars

  • Guardian (Heather Hudson, Alpha Flight; #1-2, 4)

Supporting Characters

  • General Jeremy Clarke (Canadian Military liaison; #1)
  • Raul (#1)
  • Max Belmonde (#1)
  • Mariel (#2)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • In a secret Department K facility in St. Johns, General Clarke tasks Weapon PRIME, his very 90s team, previously seen in X-Force, with tracking down and arresting Northstar, to keep him out of the public eye.  Jean-Paul is in Ibiza, partying with some people who might be his friends, but whom he doesn’t seem to like very much. They tell him they are tired after so much partying, but he wants to keep going. They run into paparazzi, and Jean-Paul playfully uses his speed to mess with one of them.  Another reporter asks Jean-Paul about a bomb in a Quebec City bus station, and he attacks the man, threatening him. The reporter, Ritchie Ward, vows to take Jean-Paul down. Jean-Paul returns to the villa where he is living, and talks to himself about how having total control of his life for the first time is making him miserable.  There is someone in his house, who knows why Jean-Paul is unhappy. Not long after, Jean-Paul’s car is seen leaving the house. Weapon PRIME attack it, rather loudly, trashing it and injuring the driver, who it turns out, is not Jean-Paul but the guy from his house. None of this noise is noticed by Jean-Paul, back at the house, or by the reporter Ritchie Ward, who sneaks towards the villa.  We see him attacked, at super speed, and beaten with his own camera. Jean-Paul is woken up by a call on a high-tech video phone system that happens to take up the corner of his bedroom. It’s Heather, calling to warn him that she discovered that Clarke has Weapon PRIME coming after him, and that the reporter’s body was found, and that people think it was Jean-Paul who killed him. The timelines here make no sense whatsoever, as it’s pretty much that moment that Weapon PRIME bust into the villa, and find Jean-Paul gone.  He is flying away in his Northstar costume, talking to himself about how that reporter brought up his separatist days, and being hunted by Weapon PRIME. He thinks about his argument with his friend Raul, who encouraged him to embrace the change coming in his life, which made Jean-Paul mad, making him leave. Northstar lands somewhere – I’m not sure if he’s still in Spain or if he’s returned to Canada. Wherever he is, when he lands, he is surprised to be met by an old friend, Max, the nephew of his old friend Raymonde Belmonde.  Max tells him that he was attacked in his bed by someone who wanted him to know that it’s bad that he knows Jean-Paul. He left him with a photo of Jean-Paul and a woman he identifies as Mariel, in Paris. Jean-Paul thinks someone is targeting his old friends, and then he talks about how Raymonde pulled him out of the gutter, took him in, and helped him to accept himself. Nowhere does Jean-Paul’s sexuality get explicitly discussed, or even alluded to. When John Byrne introduced us to Raymonde, it seemed that he was implying they were lovers, but here he is shown as more of a father figure.  Jean-Paul tells Max to go to Toronto and find Heather Hudson for protection, while he plans to go to Paris. Suddenly he’s attacked by Weapon PRIME, who he seems to know a lot about based on his short conversation with Heather. They fight, and Northstar holds his own very well, but then remembers he’s supposed to be protecting Mariel, and flies off, just as Yeti and Tigerstryke are about to run into him, causing them to collide into one another. Jean-Paul heads for Paris, with Tigerstryke yelling behind him. Meanwhile, we see that the person hunting Jean-Paul is Arcade, who boasts to himself that he’s got the whole world set up as Murderworld this time.
  • Northstar arrives in Paris, and goes to Mariel’s apartment, which he finds in a shambles.  As Jean-Paul berates himself for being too late, a large boxing glove comes through the apartment wall.  Jean-Paul recognizes Arcade’s face on the helicopter it’s attached to, and figures he’s behind the two robotic mimes that attack him at the same time.  As they fight, one of the mimes severs the gas line, and Jean-Paul escapes just as the apartment explodes. The Arcadecopter drops a souvenir of the Eiffel Tower, a clue as to where Jean-Paul should head next.  In Toronto, Heather worries about Jean-Paul. He arrives at the Tower, and remembers coming here with his friend Mariel. He was feeling a little too exuberant, and flew, which caused her to admonish him. He got angry and left the country, which he now regrets.  He’s attacked by Arcade on a tank, who explains that he has to run around the city finding five bombs that he’s planted in key landmarks, starting in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Each bomb will help spell out Mariel’s location. Jean-Paul rushes to Jim Morrison’s grave, finding a bomb marked M.  As he continues to rush around, he determines that his friend is in the Metro, the Paris subway, but he figures that the last bomb will be a real one, so he goes there first. Searching the tunnels, he finds Marial hanging from the ceiling. A train is approaching, but as he works to free her, he is attacked by more of the robot mimes.  He uses his circus skills (I’d forgotten about his circus days) to hold Mariel against the ceiling as the train comes through, destroying the mimes. Outside, Mariel and Jean-Paul talk, until they are interrupted by a toy clown, signifying to Jean-Paul that he now needs to return to his circus days. Arcade is in Russia, preparing for Jean-Paul’s arrival, and he is bragging to someone that he has a plan in place, just as we see a bunch of tough-looking circus folk.
  • Jean-Paul is in Russia (why Russia?  We are never told) getting beaten up by some circus people, with Arcade calling the shots.  He refuses to explain to Northstar why he’s been hunting him. Jean-Paul starts fighting back against the circus people, avoiding the traps that Arcade has set for him.  He beats most of his foes, and thinks about the joy he felt when he was with the circus, before he got roped into the separatist movement (for people unfamiliar with Canadian history, the French-speaking population of Quebec often has called for self-government, violently so in the 70s).  Lost is thought, Northstar gets attacked by Weapon PRIME, who somehow know he is in Russia. In Vancouver, Arcade’s unidentified employer worries about PRIME’s involvement, and how it could derail their plans. Jean-Paul decides to surrender, thinking that it might be a way to disrupt Arcade’s intentions, which surprises Tigerstryke and his teammates.  As they are about to take him into custody, Killspree gets attacked from behind, by the circus folk. Jean-Paul stops Tigerstryke from firing at them, and instead leads him up to the sky so he can use his battlesuit, which is modeled on Guardian’s, to discover where Arcade’s mind control technology is broadcasting from. They destroy it, and the Russians all return to normal.  Looking through the wreckage, Jean-Paul discovers a tarot card from New Orleans, and decides to de-surrender himself and instead continue to play Arcade’s game. Tigerstryke is about to shoot him down, but is instead blasted from behind by an unseen figure (who Northstar muses is a “Guardian angel”). He flies to New Orleans, and thinks about how tired he is. He enters the shop he was sent to, and is gassed by an old lady robot.  When he wakes up, he’s in a reconstruction of the scene of a bombing in a Quebec bus station. He is called a murderer by a bunch of zombies, and starts to feel very bad about things. A person with a scar across his face holds a scalpel to his neck while four other very 90s villains (think long-haired ape man, a woman wearing Baron Blood’s headgear, the lovechild of Triton and a cactus, and a black man with an ugly suit and glowing hand) stand and grimace.  One of them has an angry cat.
  • First off, it’s not a cat, the woman has two dogs.  Secondly, the guy with armored arms and a 90s grimace isn’t black anymore, he’s coloured as white.  These crappy looking villains surround Jean-Paul, and the guy with the knife, Mister Nice, says he gets to cut him up and hurt him.  Jean-Paul breaks his arm, and then kicks the ape guy in the face. He evades and hurts Short-Fuse (the guy who used to be black) and Barb, the cactus amphibian guy.  Arcade, talking to himself, shares that he picked these villains for the level of general crappiness. The ape guy, Link, connects with a hard punch, and Sadista, the woman, sends her dogs to attack.  They end up tripping Short Fuse, who knocks a hole in the wall, giving Jean-Paul a way out of Arcade’s traps. As Link is about to give him a big beating, Guardian arrives and blasts him. She zaps the other villains, and then she and Jean-Paul have a talk about family and friendship.  Short Fuse attacks one last time, and Jean-Paul gives him a super fast beat down. Jean-Paul is wiped after all this, and continues to chat with Heather. We learn it was her that helped in Russia, and Jean-Paul wonders about how the death of the journalist plays into this whole mess. Just then Arcade shows up on a video screen, congratulating Northstar, and sending him to a mansion in Vancouver to retrieve the tape that shows who killed the journalist.  Heather tries to convince him to not go alone, or to get some rest first, but Jean-Paul insists on handling this matter. He asks how Heather was able to track him, and she explains that he’s moving slower so her suit could follow him. He realizes that Tigerstryke’s suit could track him too, and asks her for a favour. As Jean-Paul flies off, Tigerstryke prepares to attack with Weapon PRIME. Heather blasts him, and makes it clear he’d have to fight her before he could follow Jean-Paul.  Tigerstryke doesn’t seem so bad, explaining he’d rather give Jean-Paul the benefit of the doubt, since they helped each other in Russia. Jean-Paul gets too tired to fly, and ends up renting a car and driving half the distance to Vancouver. He finds his way to the mansion Arcade showed him, and inside, he finds his enemy – Carl Kerridge, a man he’s never met or heard of. It turns out Kerridge doesn’t like his kind (it’s not clear if he means mutants, gay men, or maybe Francophones) and that he wants to kill Northstar.  He is pretty strong, and Jean-Paul is pretty tired, so their fight lasts longer than the one with the villains at the start of the issue. Along the way, Kerridge talks like a Proud Boy or an alt-right asshat, and shares that he’s hoping to lead an uprising against his kind. He shows Jean-Paul, who is lying on the floor, the video that Arcade sent. It shows Kerridge paying him, and then one of the mime robots killing the reporter. This enrages Kerridge, who wants to destroy the incriminating VHS tape. This causes Northstar to rally some, but he’s still too tired and sore to fight properly.  Kerridge still doesn’t understand how the bus bombing didn’t cause Northstar more pain. Jean-Paul remembers how he actually tossed the bomb away at the last second, so no one died in the bombing, but the Canadian government staged some carnage to discredit the Separatists (this makes no sense whatsoever, and couldn’t have been pulled off). In fact, it was this incident that caused Jean-Paul to want to be a hero. He regains his sense of purpose after thinking about this, and tries to remember Logan’s teachings from the earliest days of Department H. He is able to knock Kerridge down, and then strikes a nerve cluster that knocks him out.  Securing the tape, he leaves, thinking about how he needs to be closer to his friends, and be someone he can be proud of.  

It’s not so much that this miniseries is bad (it really kind of is) as that it’s ultimately pointless.  Jean-Paul gets taken on a “This Is Your Life” trip down memory lane, complete with bombs and killer circus folk, all to come to the realization that he can do better than he has been, only to go into character limbo for a few years.  This was not used to build the character into something new, as he barely appears in the next two iterations of Alpha Flight, and doesn’t become a member of the X-Men until 2002, eight years later. So why give him this spotlight that none of the other members of Alpha Flight have had before or since?

It’s not to explore his unique status as the first “out” gay Marvel character, as his sexuality is only alluded to in passing, and half of those instances could have been referring to his mutant status.  We spend more time thinking about his brief time spent with separatists in Quebec growing up.

This book is incredibly 90s in its lack of editorial cohesion.  We are left with some interesting questions when all is said and done.  What happened to Jean-Paul’s friend Raul, who we saw get attacked by Weapon PRIME, but never heard of again.  How did Max, his old friend, know where he was flying to when he escaped Weapon PRIME at his Spanish villa? And where was that anyway?  Why did we keep seeing references to Mariel’s friend, but never saw the guy? Were he and Jean-Paul together at some point? What exactly made it necessary for Northstar to go to Russia when the circus he worked with was in Canada?  Was Simon Furman’s plan to always have Jean-Paul’s misery be concocted by a rich man he’s never heard of, or was that a last minute change? How would Kerridge have learned so much about him anyway?

Art-wise, there are a lot of problems with inconsistency.  I don’t want to put the blame on the artist, Dario Carrasco Jr. so much as on the fact that seven inkers worked on these four issues.  They added weird lines to people’s faces in an attempt to evoke Rob Liefeld, and made everyone look like they were in pain in every panel.  The inconsistency of colourists meant that one character shifted from black to white. The reason I don’t blame Carrasco, or don’t put all the blame at his feet is that I legitimately love the covers on this series.  

I don’t even know if I have it in me to discuss the character designs in this book.  Weapon PRIME first showed up in X-Force, the land of bad designs, so we can’t blame the awfulness of Killspree on anyone associated with this book.  Still, he is one ugly, terrible character. As a side note, this is the last that team ever shows up in comics as a team. I’m surprised that no one has ever revisited them.  They’d have been great cameos in something like X-Statix…

The characters that Furman and Carrasco came up for this book, even when they are knowingly parodies of 90s characters, as so bad that I’m at a loss for words.  Needless to say, they were never seen again either.

That this is how Alpha Flight flickered out after eleven years makes me sad.  John Byrne created a truly unique group of characters, and set them up in unique and original ways that should have led to decades more stories, but the 90s had a way of rendering everything toxic and terrible.  Three years later, the title was revived, in the capable hands of Steven T. Seagle, who took it in some new directions. I remember being a big fan of this book, but it didn’t even last two years. We’ll look at it next time.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

It can’t be a surprise that this series has never been collected.  I’m sure it can be found in quarter bins somewhere though.

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