Alpha Flight: Not Just Canadian Cannon Fodder.

12 09 2014
"Alpha Flight" #24

“Alpha Flight” #24

August 1985. It was, undoubtedly, a sweltering and humid afternoon in the suburbs of western New York state. A routine walk to the local convenience market would set into motion the next thirty-four years of… well, we’ll call it a hobby because the word “obsession” has such negative connotations.

Perhaps, the most common question posed to a lifelong reader of comic books is “What was your first comic book that you ever bought?”. Most fans can tell you, with the most detailed of details, every circumstance surrounding that initial purchase.

My comic book roots can be traced back to that summer day in 1985. While perusing the wire rack in that tiny market, my eyes fell upon issue #24 of Alpha Flight. Being as young as I was, I obviously had no idea who these intriguing superheroes were or what their history was up to this point. However, the big draw for me, at that moment, was the fabulous blonde woman in the swirling cloak and white tiara… a.k.a. the Inuit demi-goddess, Snowbird.

Growing up so close to the border of New York state/Ontario and having CBC as a staple television channel in our household, it was incredibly easy to relate to the Canadian setting for most of Alpha Flight‘s adventures in that initial 130-issue (plus two annuals) run. Team members would come and go and the battles against eccentric super villains (see: Dreamqueen, Gilded Lily, and Pink Pearl) were plentiful.

Issue #106 should particularly resonate with queer readers as the first official confirmation of a LGBT superhero existing in mainstream comic books. The mutant speedster, Northstar, would eventually go on to marry his partner, Kyle Jinadu, in the pages of Marjorie Liu’s Astonishing X-Men #51.

Years passed that would see several failed attempts to revive the series. Most of the cast and supporting characters were thrown into “limbo” where they would remain until they were required as punching bags or in order to add a gratuitous body count to a particular story arc. Behold, the all-new, all-different Alpha Flight… Canadian cannon fodder!

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Northstar impaled by Marvel’s resident meathead, Wolverine.

Northstar was the first notable casualty of this new status-quo for Alpha Flight. 2003 would see Wolverine brainwashed by HYDRA and, being even less mentally competent than at other times, impaled Northstar while aiming for Kitty Pryde (side note: around the same time, Marvel also killed off the character in the universes inhabited by characters of the UltimateAge of Apocalypse, and X-Men: The End realities). After being resurrected by the Hand, Northstar and his sister, Aurora, were used by the Children of the Vault to attack the X-Men.

Alpha Flight is slaughtered by Michael Pointer following the events of "M-Day".

Alpha Flight is slaughtered by Michael Pointer following the events of “M-Day”.

On the heels of Brian Michael Bendis’ 2005 House of M event, Alpha Flight played the role of “sacrificial lamb” in order to increase shock value in New Avengers #16. Alaskan postal worker, Michael Pointer (after becoming a living vessel for all displaced mutant energies following the “decimation”), went on a rampage throughout the North American continent, wiping out active Alpha Flight members, Vindicator, Guardian, Shaman, Puck, Major Mapleleaf, and Zuzha Yu.

Namor is forced to dispatch his mutated wife, Marrina.

Namor is forced to dispatch his wife, Marrina.

When Marvel branded their titles with the Dark Reign moniker from 2008-2009, former Flight member, Marrina Smallwood, met her official demise (the character was apparently killed back in 1989 after her alien DNA reacted to her pregnancy by morphing her into a leviathan). Once again resembling a grotesque sea monster, the wife of Namor was sent by Norman Osborne to attack Utopia in an attempt to exact revenge against the Atlantean king. With assistance from the X-Men, the creature is defeated, killed, and then hurled through the windows of Osborne’s office at Avengers Tower.

Diamond Lil dies at the hands of Lois London during the "Necrosha" event.

Diamond Lil dies at the hands of Lois London during the “Necrosha” event.

2009’s Necrosha, penned by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, revealed that longtime member of the Flight program, Diamond Lil, was one of the residents of the mutant sanctuary, Utopia. A handful of panels after this “introduction”, she was frivolously murdered by Dazzler’s sister, Lois London. The story of her arrival on the island haven and subsequent reconciliation with her estranged husband, Madison Jeffries, wasn’t chronicled until her funeral story within the pages of the anthology miniseries, Nation X, in February 2010.

Despite occasional jokes at their expense from editors and creators during convention panels, Alpha Flight seemed to briefly gain some traction in regards to respect during the 2010-2011 Chaos War crossover. Along with Marrina, three of the members killed by Michael Pointer (Vindicator, Guardian, and Shaman) were all resurrected to join their surviving teammates in battle against the Great Beasts. This would lead to the announcement of a new ongoing series spinning out of the upcoming Fear Itself storyline.

The excitement for fans of the series was short-lived. Almost immediately after the relaunched series began, Marvel solicitations revealed that the new ongoing title had been bumped down to nothing more than another limited series. The team would have a mere eight issues to shine before being tossed back into obscurity.

Had it not been for Northstar’s aforementioned wedding and the occasional appearances by the character in various X-books (along with co-Flight member, Madison Jeffries), there would have been very little exposure of the team until very recently.

Talisman impaled by a Wendigo cursed Wolverine.

Talisman is impaled by a Wendigo cursed Wolverine.

Following the initial arc of Amazing X-Men, Kyle and Yost (previously responsible for offing Lillian Crawley in Necrosha), took over the title in 2014 with a story titled, World War Wendigo. The (still ongoing) story centers on an outbreak of the Wendigo curse across Canadian soil with Alpha Flight and the X-Men working in tandem to subdue it. Within the first two issues of the run, Vindicator is savagely mauled by Canadian residents who’ve been infected by the curse and Talisman is brutally impaled by Logan after he succumbs to the plague.

It’s not explicitly apparent as to why Alpha Flight became the superhero team to bear such a huge target for both brutality on-panel and snide comments from creators whenever the inevitable “Relaunch?” question is asked at a convention or in an interview. Their quests and adventures are no-more outrageous and no-less fantastic than the Avengers or the Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps, if Marvel gave these Canadian powerhouses the respect and editorial push they deserve, readers would follow suit and Alpha Flight would fly high once again.

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X-Men: Now A Little Less Astonishing.

14 08 2013

1376426459The most-talked-about superhero wedding of the decade. Sibling rivalry at its worst. A heartbreaking tale of an alien artist. A world shrouded in ice and on the brink of an apocalypse. These were a few of the memorable moments that Marjorie Liu has shared with us during her all-too-brief tenure on Astonishing X-Men.

What made this book so special in a myriad of comics on the shelf featuring Marvel’s band of mutants?

If comic book readers have learned anything over the past few years, it is that there will never be a shortage of mediocre stories featuring brawls between A-List superhero teams or Wolverine SNIKTing everyone and everything in every title (because, let’s face it, he really IS in every title). Once in a while, though, we are treated to a rare gem that doesn’t rely on a “This changes the Marvel universe forever!” gimmick. If you haven’t been following Marjorie Liu’s run on the Astonishing title, then you’ve left that rare gem buried in the sand.

I have always been a proponent of stories that rely heavily on character development. A story is only as strong as the characters presented in the pages. Looking at her previous work with Marvel (NYX:No Way Home and the X-23 solo series), it should not have come as a surprise to readers that Ms. Liu was going to waste no time in digging through the fluff and getting down to the emotional core of her ragtag band of X-Men.

Whether it be societal prejudices (Northstar and Kyle), familial ties and the trauma of abandonment (Karma and Susan Hatchi), a flirtatious friendship and budding romance (Gambit and Cecelia Reyes), a search for oneself (Warbird), or even the reflection on failed past relationships (Iceman), Astonishing has dealt with an entire airport of baggage that life throws out on a daily basis. An extra dimension was given to these characters which showed readers that they aren’t just swinging fists used to clobber eachother in a battle royale for the fate of the world. They become relatable and empathetic.BRfd6deCQAAIQib

This is not to say that Liu’s run on Astonishing did not have its fair share of knock-em-down, drag-em-out moments. We witnessed Bobby Drake bring about a modern day glacial age that made the Blizzard of ’77 look like a few passing flurries. It doesn’t get more action packed than that. Liu is just constantly aware that if these characters are put in mortal danger, the reader needs to first care about them. That hearkens back to the importance of developing a character and giving the audience a reason to concern themselves with the well-being of said character.  

After the series concludes with issue #68, I will truly miss having Astonishing X-Men as part of my monthly pull list. Marjorie Liu’s knowledge of continuity and passion for the characters coupled with stunning art from the likes of Mike Perkins, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and Phil Noto all made for something very special that I will undoubtedly revisit time and time again.