Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Alpha Flight #1: "Tundra!"

(Our friends in the north.)


Oh, damn it all; another John Byrne comic!  Double-sized, as well!  I'm getting round to this now because I'd thought it had a cover date of October, but clearly not.  Clearly my mind is playing tricks on me, hoping to stave off the inevitable.

All that said, there's every possibility 1983 Byrne has more going for him than 21st Century Byrne.  That's certainly true of, say, Chris Claremont.  So let's see what's going on oop North, shall we, and let's all try to get through the whole book, rather than trying to drown ourselves in Saskatchewan snow.

The story itself picks up a fortnight after Wolverine and Nightcrawler joined forces with some of Alpha Flight to battle Wendigo, back in UXM #139 - 140, comics which came out at the tail end of 1980 (just before last Halloween in terms of our timeline).  In that story, Alpha Flight found itself defunded by the Canadian government, and we kick off her watching James MacDonald "Mac" Hudson trying to process his unemployment.

And not just his.  There's the rest of Alpha Flight - Aurora, Northstar, Snowbird, Shaman and Sasquatch - to worry about, along with the lesser-known Beta Flight (Puck and, er, Fish Lady, Iron Gorilla and Two Guys Who Remind Of Those Dudes From "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"), and the new recruits in Gamma Flight (a tall woman, and some guys), as well.  At least James can sponge off his wife until he finds someone to pay him for punching villains in the unmentionables.

Meanwhile, out in the noiseless infinity of the Northern Territory, there camps a dilapidated shell of a man.  His file is filled with unreadable symbols, his head with immiscible thoughts.  Around his head is a circlet of ancient metal. Around his tent is a drawing, scraped into the snow and mud with his own feet, of something; an approaching figure, gigantic and terrifying.  Hundreds of miles away, a well-dressed skull awakens, and informs its grandson that there are things afoot.

Time now for a trip into Quebec, where Jeanne-Marie Beaubier has taken a teaching position at a convent school, having not been able to drop superheroining (as we shall now call it) fast enough.  Today the pupils are irrepressibly excited; Mademoiselle Beaubier's gorgeous brother is coming to visit.  It's pretty funny to watch a half-dozen schoolgirls fawning over a man who will ultimately reveal himself to be gay - it's very easy to see this is Byrne having some fun with this, since as I understand it the decision to make Northstar homosexual had already been made (though Marvel would refuse to allow explicit confirmation until almost a decade later).  Then again, I'm not sure the surge of hormones driving these girls would have any interest in what Jean-Paul does or doesn't want.

Once Northstar can drag himself away from his adoring fans, and discuss the recent break-up of Alpha Flight, things get somewhat more... uncomfortable.  We have very little backstory regarding Jeanne-Marie at this point (her initial appearances in UXM #120 - 121 only reveal that she has little taste for violence), but it's clear something is profoundly wrong, and that she regrets ever becoming Aurora in the first place.  Without knowing the specifics (well, I do, of course, but for the purposes of considering the issue in context, let's pretend I don't), it's difficult to dig too deeply about what's going on, but in brief; I don't think watching a powerful man grabbing a woman and physically forcing her around the room in a rage gets any better when you know they're brother and sister.  Nor does it get any better when Byrne tells us secretly, Jeanne-Marie knows her angry, physical brother is actually in the right.  Or when she faints because it all gets too much for her.  This is not a good way to introduce the first female character in the book.

The second is introduced with an arse shot, because of course she is (I found several scans of this page online, but none of them included the actual panel, which is interesting, and not how I'd always assumed the internet worked).  This is Heather Hudson, Vindicator's wife, who responds to her superheroic husbands complaints about a shitty day by offering a cup of tea and a back-rub.  It would be easy to criticise this as well, but I've offered my girlfriend the same cure when she comes in cursing her boss (who admittedly isn't the Prime Minister of Canada, but I don't think that matters here), so as long as James is prepared to return the favour, we're all OK.

Domestic bliss will have to wait, though; a former colleague phones to warn Vindicator about something weird going over at Resolute Bay.  James flies off to investigate, refusing to call for back-up since Alpha Flight no longer officially exists. Pissed off that her husband is so willing to charge into the unknown alone, Heather enters James' hidden study and sends messages to the rest of Alpha Flight - along with a couple of Beta Flight heroes -  asking them to tag along with Vindicator as he heads for northern Nanavut. 

Our first Beta-Flighter is Eugene Judd, a man with a taste for dive bars and cartwheels, and one of the few heroes in the Marvel Universe who'd both have to look up at Wolverine, and be totally happy to punch him in the face.  The second is the cheesily named Marrina, a green-skinned black-eyed fish-woman-type-thing living on the Newfoundland coast. We're also re-introduced to Walter Langkowski, AKA Sasquatch (think Beast, right down to the dialogue, only orange and capable of turning back) and Anne McKenzie, the Snowbird, who's first to come across the giant figure carved from the snow and soil by the madman we met earlier.

What happens next is gloriously freaky.  The madman is now just a smoking, ruined corpse, sinking into the earth, but he's still moving.  Except now, when he moves, the ground moves with him. Tundra, destroyer of life and abductor of Snowbird's mother, has returned.  Much as I like to give Byrne a good kicking, this is an excellent sequence, ending in a truly exceptional page:

There is simply no way that everyone isn't in massive trouble, right now.

Meanwhile, it's assemblin' time for the mothballed squad.  Marrina gets by a weather ship despite it having sonar so powerful it can pick up a human-sized shape, determine its consistency, and follow it out of the water (to quote the Major, "I didn't know the Canadians were as clever as that, my God!").  Jeanne-Marie has snapped back into being Aurora, which has Northstar concerned despite him having basically assaulted his sister looking for exactly that result.  Also Puck looks for a plane to get him out to Resolute, but fails. Hard to see why he was languishing in Beta Flight, huh?

Nor is there time to wait for him to cartwheel his way onto a flight at Pearson. We're twenty minutes out from Tundra getting sufficient handle on the situation to wipe out, well, everything. Snowbird raises her objection to the idea, and gets a faceful of mosquitoes for her trouble (shudder).  Shaman and Vindicator show up, but the former can't find anything to hang his magic on, and Vindicator can't blast the enemy because it's too deeply connected to the land, and destroying Tundra means curtains for Canada. Clearly there's an environmental message being peddled here: "The tundra!  Just because it's shit doesn't mean we can do without it!".  That's also the best possible remaining approach for the Romney campaign, by the way.

Once satisfied that its attackers aren't worth squishing, Tundra stomps off, growing still larger as he hoovers up the surrounding area. It looks like the fix is definitely in.  Sasquatch arrives, leaping from a nearby helicopter to tear chunks from the enemy, but Tundra punches him into the next province.  Northstar and Aurora fly in and try to tear Tundra to pieces with the sheer speed of their circling, but erosion, as Maid Marian once said, takes quite a long time. The idea of using nature to beat Tundra (as oppose to electro-magnetic blasts, which apparently don't count as sufficiently free-range) appeals to Shaman, who starts pulling together squalls to buffet their gigantic opponent, but there's only so much water in the air.

Until Marrina arrives. Vindicator grabs her from her water spout, allowing Shaman to turn it into another storm, whilst Aurora and Northstar generate sufficient illumination to disorient the beast.  Snowbird watches, and probably feels quite sorry for herself (though at least we know she's alive, unlike Sasquatch, and isn't waiting on the ground for a free runway, as we assume is the fate that's befallen Eugene Judd).

Twelve hours later, and the team have gathered at James and Heather's apartment (much to Heather's annoyance, since Jeanne-Marie keeps staring at James and Heather's role as doting but jealous wife already seems set in stone), including an apparently unhurt Langkowski, and the decision is made both to remain a team even without government funding, and to add Marinna to the mix. Just in time before the end of the comic, a knock at the door announces the arrival of Puck, who demands to be allowed to join Alpha Flight, presumably so next time he can bum a lift.

And that is how the gang got together.

OK, I admit it.  That was perfectly decent.  Some lovely art, the occasional nice idea, and poor old Puck got me smiling.  Maybe it really is more that Byrne just couldn't adapt to modern comics, rather than his earlier work being flawed in any major way.  That said, I'm still not sure I trust him to handle subplots about a gay man and his mentally imbalanced sister.  Indeed, whilst this isn't an accusation I'd personally make, if anyone wanted to argue that there's something problematic about the idea of pushing the idea of a pair of twins being very similar, and then making one homosexual and the other mentally ill, I'd certainly see the point.

I guess we'll just have to see what comes next.


The narration puts this story as being in late spring or early summer. This directly contradicts UXM #140, the issue to which this is nominally a continuation, so nice work there. Actually, UXM #140 wasn't too solid in terms of its seasons, but in any event, since UXM #141 explicitly takes place in the final week of October, the idea that UXM #140 was set at the start of June is ridiculous.

The story itself takes place over a single day.


Wednesday 10th of November, 1982.



Contemporary Events

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev passes away, possibly due to vodka or medal poisoning.

Standout Line

"Now he knows it comes only at times of great peril. Peril beyond the white man's science..."

Course, maybe the reason Byrne couldn't adapt to modern comics is casual racist bullshit like this.  It is not and never has been the white man's science, and I think we can trust Dr Michael Twoyoungmen to be smart enough to know that, hmm?


  1. so michael twoyoungmen is smart enough to be a doctor and field tactician but apparently byrne can't think of him as intelligent

    1. but why didn't an editor stop him from making such a racist slight