Monday, 22 April 2013

ALF #12: "...And One Shall Surely Die"

(...And Some Shall Maybe Care?)


I'm sure there can't be many people in this world for whom the phrase "double-sized John Byrne issue" ranks near the top of things they most want to hear.  It certainly put a dampener on my day (though since I'm writing this on the 18th, it's not like my day wasn't going to be damp in any case).  Let's try to approach ALF #12 with something approximating an open mind, however.  With plenty of room to play with - not just a double issue, but a story that doesn't need to leave space for an Alpha Flight Origins back-up strip - can Byrne pull something impressive out of the bag?

Well... no.  He can trot out his usual assemblage of tricks and perform them at greater length, is what he can do, and what he does.  This thirty-eight page comic begins with two pages of Heather Hudson having last issue's plot explained to her by the villainous Courtney (which could be done in all of one speech bubble), and then four pages of flashback to explain why Jerry Jaxon wants revenge on Guardian.  Four pages!  Dedicated to a character who's been in about six panels of the comic's run to date; two of which involved him being such a dick about James Hudson's objections to him appropriating Hudson's designs to make a new weapon that Hudson turned thief just to shut Jaxon down.

So what's Jaxon's motive for revenge?  If you guessed that it's the fact Hudson turned thief just to shut Jaxon down, congratulations! You just graduated from John Byrne's Academy of Comic Book Motivations.  Much of this flashback explains in great detail how Roxxon shafted Jaxon (where do they get these names?) following Hudson's act of sabotage.  They fired him, his wife (the boss's daughter) left him with their children, Roxxon made sure he could never work again, and he eventually tried to kill himself, only to be left without the use of his legs. 

That sure sounds like he should have a grudge against Roxxon to me.  Fired because an underling resorted to criminal lengths to screw you over?  It's almost like working for an international corporation of tar-hearted pricklizards might come with inherent risks!

(Actually, I'm not being entirely fair.  I do think Jaxon's beef should be with Roxxon, but I can understand his fury at Hudson as well.  Everything Jaxon did at Roxxon was entirely above board, if not particularly moral, and as a result of playing by his employer's rules he's been rendered unemployable, whereas the guy who turned criminal to undermine an entirely above-board business transaction is now hailed as the superhero who represents all of Canada, whilst wearing the helmet Jaxon's patronage helped him assemble.  I can't pretend I don't see why that would sting a mite).

There is absolutely no reason this needed to take six pages.  One page would have sufficed, and still leave time for the scene where Heather tears Courtney's face off.  This would have had the additional advantage of making it look like Heather did some unsolicited epidermal re-arrangement out of anger, rather than just extreme boredom.  Be honest now.  Who among us hasn't occasionally felt the need during one of Byrne's flashbacks to rip off our own faces and smear the bloody pulp across the page?

Eight pages of set-up (it takes two pages for Heather to get around to the face-tearing stage of enforced captivity) give way to six more pages detailing Alpha Flight's rendezvous in the wake of Guardian's emergency signal (sent last issue).  Shaman and Snowbird stand around discussing the unpleasant mystic vibrations that are washing around - Shaman is scared that someone... shall surely die - and Sasquatch tries to persuade Aurora that emergency signals are there to be responded to immediately, not after an hour's swim and some light fucking.

I can't decide if Aurora insisting they needn't worry about saving James until after she gets laid is another point of this book's treatment of women (which is already deeply in the red on that score), or a reasonable reminded of Aurora's mental landscape just not being able to encompass the concept of urgency.  Mind you, the idea of a woman's personality being made up of the uptight, buttoned-down side and the utterly self-centred carnal side isn't one we should be encouraging.  "Hey guys, you know how women are all sluts or frigid?  Well this chick's both!"

On the other hand, I do like Walter's flight-suit, which he's built so he doesn't instantly burst into flames from the air resistance when Aurora hits supersonic speeds with him on her back.

While we're discussing issues of progressive lapses, we also get two pages of Puck as he waits in Toronto for a lift to the action (this eventually proves to be a very ill-tempered Northstar, who's not looking forward to meeting up with his sister again).  Again, this scene is too long (though the idea that he's set up a pick-up system to make sure he isn't left behind again like in ALF #1 made me smile), but that's not the problem here.  The problem is that Puck is described as "distorted by the cruelties of dwarfism".  I'm not sure of my ground here, I'll admit, but this strikes me as incredibly ableist.  It's not that there are no conditions associated with dwarfism that humanity as a whole wouldn't be better off without.  But Byrne is confusing possible specifics with the generality.  Drepanocytosis is not the cruelty of being black.  Period pains are not the cruelty of womanhood, no matter how bad they get.  If you want to include characters from outside the able-bodied majority, that's fine in theory.  But don't pass comment on their physicality, hmmkay?

Anyway, Northstar carries Puck away, and we head over to check up on one other member of Alpha Flight, Marrina. Despite her having left the team to spend some time with Namor of Atlantis, we knew the partially-aquatic alien would be showing up this issue because she was shown at the end of ALF #11.  Indeed, I thought she was a prime candidate for being bumped off this issue.  Turns out I was wrong, though, because not only does she not die, she doesn't even fight, not being in the room when her alarm goes off.  And at this point, I'm pretty much just thinking Byrne is trolling me.  Fourteen pages into the issue and characters are showing up just to not be relevant?  So that Namor can kiss them whilst the narration tells us Marrina is "the most tantalizing child-woman he has ever known?"

Tantalizing child-woman. There are days even I am lost for words.

Once everyone bar Marrina has assembled, it's time for Alpha Flight to head into battle.  But not just yet!  There's still a full regular comic's worth of space; it wouldn't do to get stuck in too soon.  First, there's multiple pages worth of intra-team slap-dancing to get through.

Not that this is entirely unreasonable.  Putting Northstar and Aurora on the same hilltop is just asking for trouble at this point, and once Aurora asks Walter to back her up, a peaceful resolution seems less likely than ever.  Aurora is simply too hot-blooded, Walter too devoted to her, and Northstar an all-round egomaniacal arsehole.  Heated words and super-powered threatening are obviously par for the course.

Even so, I'm pretty sure things could have been resolved fairly quickly, even after Walter becomes Sasquatch, had Puck not decided the smartest way to alleviate tensions would be to dropkick Sasquatch in the face.

Sasquatch loses control completely, uprooting a nearby tree to use as a club.  There follows several thought bubbles from Shaman about how he's been afraid for a while that Sasquatch was undergoing "subtle changes" as his "bestial nature is coming to the fore", but I'm not buying any of that.  He's clearly furious because his friend dropkicked him in the face. A better reason to get up and go clubbing (the painful kind, not the... well, the other kind is pretty painful too) I have not heard.

Indeed, I don't like the whole idea of Sasquatch being unable to control himself.  It's desperately cliche, it lessens the character's utility as he collapses into spirals of second-guessing and self-doubt, and whilst it might under other circumstances made Walter Langkowski seem a little less like a poor clone of Henry McCoy, regular readers of John Byrne and/or myself already know that Byrne thinks Hank struggles to avoid unleashing his inner beast as well, making the parallels even more obvious, based on false premises though they may be.

So, internecine punching-times. Shaman uses his mystic powers to tie Sasquatch up in vines, stopping the fight almost immediately.  Or at least, it would have, if Northstar didn't use Sasquatch's helpless, immobile state as an excuse to start repeatedly punching him in the head (this, at least, is entirely consistent characterisation).  Snowbird then attacks Northstar to try and shut him down, and Shaman is forced to immobilise both of them as well until they calm down.  Meanwhile, Aurora speaks softly to Sasquatch until the boot-prints of his friend fade from his furry face.  Eventually everyone is sufficiently under control that Shaman can teleport them all to New York.  Our final score: six pages, bollocks-all resolved.

It's difficult to tell how long Guardian has been fighting Omega Flight single-handed.  It took Sasquatch an hour to get to the rendezvous and at least several minutes to calm down after Puck kicked him, so presumably it's been at least a little while, depending on when Guardian sent the signal (it can't have been too long before the punch-up started).  Ordinarily this would be irritating - if Guardian has survived for so long on his own, there can't be too much of a threat.

Except Byrne explicitly mentions this.  Jaxon, fool that he is, has assembled a team of capes who have no way to fight someone who can fly.  That's just hilarious.  Omega Flight has been reduced to shaking their fists at Guardian, hovering by the ceiling, whilst Flashback summons future self after future self to drop on Guardian's head, only for them to be summarily punched out.  It doesn't entirely make sense (why doesn't Box throw Wild Child or Diamond Lil at Hudson?  Why doesn't Hudson aim for Smart Alec with his force bolts rather than the indestructible Lil?), but it made me laugh pretty hard, so mission accomplished on that score, at least.

Once Guardian's reinforcements arrive, it's time for a proper super-battle, and as usual, I'm not going to be providing a literal blow-by-blow account.  I will though note two ideas I really like.  The first is the idea of Diamond Lil using her own indestructible hair as a garrote upon the dying Snowbird (taking the latter out of Canada apparently causes her to age and wither, and apparently if she bleeds terrible things happen, which doubtless we'll come back to).  I seem to remember this idea cropping up somewhere else (Superman?) but since I can't be sure I'll credit Byrne with it for now.

The second nice touch is Smart Alec stealing Shaman's magic bag, applying a full spectrum of sensory sweeps to analyse the contents as he peeks within, and then just having his mind instantly erased by whatever's lurking in there. Creepy.

Whilst this throwdown is unfolding, Heather has her own problems.  Now that the cat's out of the bag - by which I mean the false face is off the robot - Ms Courtney is now busy revealing her true mechanical form.  It turns out she was programmed to assist Mr Jaxon, but interestingly, he doesn't know what she really is.  Courtney seems to be playing the angles here - or at least, she's been built by someone who is (almost certainly Roxxon, given where she and Jaxon met).  Underlining the point, she wanders out of the room, apparently leaving Heather free to go.  Whether this means she has a limit to how much she will obey Jaxon (who's ordered Heather suffers along with her husband), or whether this is part of a trap, Heather can't be sure.  This will become important very soon.

Back at the fracas, Box finally works out how to attack Guardian; wait until he's distracted giving orders to his team, and then jump him, forcing him into a hidden shaft and beating the crap out of him once they hit bottom.  Box reveals he's actually under the control of Jaxon, who's tied up Roger Bochs (a bit unkindly, since the man is quadriplegic)  and is controlling Box remotely from elsewhere in the building.

Despite being horribly mauled, James keeps it together for long enough to tear out the wires from his own power pack and jam under Boxon's mecha-chin, causing the robot to detonate (and fry Jaxon with the resulting feedback).  That's what you get when you try to kill a man with a machine he helped design, I guess.

Except that Guardian isn't out of the woods yet.  Between Boxon's punching and its close-range detonation, the Guardian suit has taken a terrible pounding, and its power-pack is liable to detonate in ten seconds or so.  

As calmly as possible, Guardian opens the pack to access, strips away the connections, slides it out of the suit, and then...

And then something terrible happens, in more than one sense.  Heather somehow manages to arrive at that exact moment through the only exit, distracting James and denying him anywhere to throw the pack.  It explodes a heartbeat later, utterly disintegrating him.

Now this is horrible.  Properly tragic.  It's not quite an earned tragedy, because it relies far too much on the convenience of Heather just happening to be in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time.  It's possible this was the Courtney robot's intention all along, to fulfill her orders to make Heather suffer by making her responsible for the death of her husband, but even if that's true we simply swap an utterly unbelievable coincidence for an utterly unbelievable degree of manipulation.  I don't care how well Courtney's creators slapped together her AI, there's no way to have predicted this scenario.

So there's some structural problems to this, even if the final result is still has much of the force Byrne must have been going for.  The larger problem is in regards to the book's more general gender politics.  I've mentioned before the problems here, which in brief come down to every female member of the Alpha Flight team being unreliable at best (Snowbird demonstrates this in this very issue), and actively untrustworthy at worst (Marrina, and to some extent Aurora), and all have been described at various times by various male characters as being problematic or unsettling.

For all that she was pretty much introduced arse-first in the great Van Helsing tradition, Heather has more or less escaped this problem (not being an actual Flight member herself).  But now she's had her first exposure to filed operations - unwilling as it was - and that experience concludes with the death of her husband through her own actions.

I'm certainly not unsympathetic to the idea that I'm reading too much into this.  But after a while the assembled evidence of a crack team of male superheroes forever being fucked over by their unreliable female counterparts just starts to get wearying.  Puck broke up a drugs ring (after his female nurse turned out to be unreliable, naturally) despite having the two halves of his body stapled together.  Sasquatch took on a supervillain who'd taken out the entire Fantastic Four, and he did that even with a broken arm.

Heather wandered around a building at random until her husband exploded.

Based on what I know of Alpha Flight history and from upcoming cover art, I'm assuming Heather will now join the team, and perhaps she can bring a bit of gender balance to a book that absolutely desperately needs it.  I hope so.  Reading books I don't enjoy for this blog can be struggle enough without finding their politics objectionable as well.

Please, 1984 Byrne.  Let this crap die with Guardian, okay?


This story begins either during or just after the conclusion to ALF #11, and continues over the course of several minutes.

Snowbird mentions that this is the anniversary of the death of Shaman's wife, but since we have no idea what date that happened, this doesn't effect the timeline.

Walter mentions that the fight against the Ravager was the previous year, which fits with what we've got.


Friday 2nd March, 1984.



Contemporary Events

The Iran-Iraq war continues with the failure of the latest Iranian offensive.  Donald Rumsfeld  will visit Baghdad three weeks later to visit his good friend Saddam Hussein.

Standout Line

Nothing's going to beat that "child-woman" line, is it?  To think I used to find Namor's fixation on MILFs concerning...

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