Thursday, 6 March 2014
ALF #24: "Final Conflict"
(Fear of a black-and-white planet.)
Well, this is a strange one.
It's not completely unprecedented in comic history for long-running storylines to suddenly and unexpectedly wrap up. Unexpected re-shuffles, sudden cancellation, an unfortunate parallel to major news stories; there's plenty of reasons to toss off an ending.
None of that applies here, though. Neither the title nor Byrne's tenure is about to end, and we can safely assume that real-life tragedies involving gigantic Canadian demon-beasts were no more common in the mid-'80s than at any other time. So what could have motivated Byrne to such lengths of break-neck pacing to clear his game board?
We'll get to that. But let's not make the same mistake - let's take our time here. The set-up to this story, for those who've forgotten, is that last issue Snowbird murdered Sasquatch after he was taken over by one of the seven Great Beasts she was born to defeat. That was the fourth Beast to show up in Alpha Flight. The first, Tundra was beaten back to its home dimension in the first issue, a second was killed by Snowbird in the notorious "Snowblind" issue, and a third was somehow defeated using time-travel in a way I don't really understand (it's only here I learn that the "we must change nothing in the past" jaunt defeated the Beast in the first place; I must not have been paying attention, by which I mean I was actually taking plot logic at face value).
The remaining three beasts, along with Tundra, remain in their home dimension, which is also where Walter Langkowski's soul ended up after Snowbird gutted him. Alpha's plan is therefore to breach this reality, slay the remaining beasts, and save Walter. This actually goes some way towards lessening how terrible ALF #23 was, actually. If Snowbird had always planned to head into the neighbouring dimension to slaughter her foes, her willingness to murder Walter is at least slightly mitigated by the knowledge she could restore him (having cast a spell on his body to crystallise it therefore preserve it - ice being so hard to get hold of in the Arctic Circle). You've still got the problem that Snowbird's mission is to destroy the Great Beasts and Aurora's is to save her lover's soul, with Talisman and Puck somewhere in the middle, but I guess killing someone and stealing from them are at least somewhat parallel goals.
Before they make their way into uncharted territory, though, the team needs back-up. Talisman summons Shaman to open the doorway for them, but being untutored in the use of her powers, casts her net rather wide, causing Northstar (and ultimately Box) to show up as well. Typically, Jean-Paul has no interest in helping out, so Snowbird decides to dive into his brain and take over. Which is disgraceful, obviously. It would be a terrible thing to do if Snowbird wanted Northstar to do the ironing, but her plan here is to force a man to risk his life in a fight he explicitly wanted no part of . Shaman at least objects to the idea - he only likes controlling people by deliberately leaving out vital information required for informed consent - but it's quickly swept under the rug so the crusade can continue.
(On the other hand, Aurora punching Northstar straight in his sneering face? Totally cool.)
With Heather staying behind to guard Walter's body, the team throw themselves through a variety of bizarre dimensions before they reach their destination. When they get there, it proves to be a strange alien landscape entirely devoid of colour.
I actually really like this as an aesthetic. Like "Snowblind", one could uncharitably suggest this particular choice came down more to laziness and/or deadline issues rather than the desire to do something off the beaten path, but, also like "Snowblind", I don't particularly care. In an age filled with the kind of complicated graphical trickery we all take for granted - us, with our curse words and our bangy-bongy music of nothing - this kind of defiantly low-fi solution appeals to me, especially when Byrne is smart enough to lampshade it by having Puck admit he was expecting "a universe of swirling mists... or maybe a huge floating mouth with a highway leading out of it".
Lying in wait in this monochromatic hellhole are the surviving Great Beasts, including their master Somon. Battle is quickly joined, but with an average of one giant horrific rampaging demon-thing per 1.5 heroes, things do not look good (it's even worse at base camp, where Box arrives just in time to watch Walter's crystalline body begin to crumble; once again we humbly point out the preservative qualities of frozen water).
So it's heroes (and their mind-slaved plus one) ranked up against giant eating-type monsters. Things look bleak.
Fortunately for Alpha Flight, they are not entirely without a plan. Well, that's not entirely true. Shaman's plan is to distract and delay the Great Beasts from their own plans of stomping and smashing for long enough for Snowbird to turn into a white rabbit and then pull herself out of a hat. This she does by exchanging barbs with Solon (the Greatest Great Beast) for a while, and becoming a bear and savaging him. All rather abrupt, really, when you cut out the stilted smack-talk: Solon goes down and the Great Beasts tear each other to pieces without him to control them.
For those keeping score, this battle lasted for about nine pages, which seems like a fairly perfunctory ending for a storyline Byrne has been dipping into for the whole two years the title has been running. Which I'll admit doesn't strike me as a huge problem, but I wonder if that's precisely because I've not been particularly engaged with ALF in general. Maybe if I'd had more invested in Snowbird and her quest to gradually take down the Great Beasts, a brief flurry of static panels followed by a bear attack might leave me feeling short-changed. As it is, I just find it slightly puzzling from an academic standpoint.
But then of course Snowbird's quest is no longer just about killing her ancestral foes. There's a man's soul to be saved. Unfortunately, she's forgotten this entirely, and has to be pulled back by Shaman as she tries to rip Solon to pieces, despite him being the only one who can locate Walter's soul. So not only did she kill Walter, not only did she drag his friends into a battle with gigantic kill-beasts in the name of saving the soul of her victim, not only did she break into a former comrade's head to force him to risk his own life, she's then tries to massacre the only dude that can help her friends fulfil the mission for which they agreed to this insanely risky venture in the first place.
Let us all take a moment to consider how much Snowbird can go fuck herself.
Shaman manages to talk Snowbird-bear down in the end, though, and the captured Solon brings them to the Well of Sorrows, where lie the souls of the original inhabitants of this dimension (long ago wiped out by Solon and his mates), and also that of Walter Langkowski. Solon explains who must recover the soul, and Talisman, Aurora and Northstar descend into the depths.
But it's a trap, obviously. Another part of Solon lies within the well, and he quickly kills the interlopers. Back above, Solon Alpha crows that technically he didn't lie (presumably because he didn't actually say "and there definitely isn't another piece of me in the well waiting to kill you all, if that's what your thinking"). Is there anyone alive stupid enough to think that excuse works? I didn't technically lie? It didn't work out for Mika in Paranormal Activity and it doesn't work here either. Maybe Solon assumed these goody two-shoes heroes would be forced to allow him such brazen trickery, but if so, he's pulling this shit in the wrong book; Snowbird immediately eviscerates him.
Not that that's much good to our three fallen friends. All that can save them now is an emergency soul transfusion. Do we have any spare souls lying around? Ah yes, Dr Langkowski, please float unsteadily forward. The anima of everyone's favourite Beast knock-off was indeed at the well, just not inside it, and having seen his friends fall he gives of himself that they might live. Due to some metaphysical exchange rate that I won't even pretend to understand he's able to resurrect all three of them without passing beyond entirely, but what's left afterwards is some distance away from constituting a full whack. Worse still, when the victorious Alphans return to our reality, they find Walter's body has crumbled to dust. 
This is where the sound of grinding story-gears becomes unbearable. There's no reason whatsoever why Walter needed to sacrifice parts of his life force; the Solon trap was completely gratuitous. There's no reason Walter's body needed to disintegrate; it fulfils no plot purpose. This stuff transparently only happens so that Byrne can set up his Next Big Thing, which is to place what remains of Walter's soul in the "living metal" of Box, to give him a new body.
Let's leave aside the fact that this is ridiculous - this is a superhero comic, after all. What's far more unforgivable about it is how unsatisfying the whole thing is. In two issues Walter has been brutally, callously murdered and returned as a robot because... why? As far as I can tell, because Byrne got bored of him, got bored of Snowbird, and thought the best option all around was to revamp/write them out within as few pages as possible. Snowbird ends this issue quitting the team to head for the house of the man she loves so he can "teach [her] how to be a woman" - I swear to God, that's an exact quote - and poor old Walter gets himself a shitty new existence as the bastard love child of Colossus and Oz's Tin Man. This is what Byrne figured had to be rolled out as quickly as possible? This is why the final battle with the Great Beasts takes up approximately two Byrne-recap's worth of space?
Like I say, I don't really give much of a damn about what happens in this title, and I was still floored at how terrible an update/exit this was for Langkowski/Snowbird, respectively. People who actually cared about these characters must have been reaching for the voodoo dolls.
 Note of course that this is a tricksy woman, once again, screwing over one of the noble males in Alpha Flight (albeit that this description applies less to Northstar than Puck or Sasquatch) . Naturally Jean-Paul is immune to Snowbird's charms, forcing her to use her witchy mind-tricks, but the pattern most certainly still stands.
 Snowbird: killed Walter, dragged his friends into insane danger to try and resurrect him, forced a man to risk an agonising death to help save someone he hates, attempts to blow the entire plan for the sake of a quick kill, and fobs everyone off with a preservation spell that couldn't possibly have done the job it needed to. We reiterate: fuck Snowbird.
This story takes place in approximately real time.
Heather mentions that she lost her husband last year. This is a real problem considering he died in early March. There's very few places where we can extend the storyline, either; Byrne is far too fond of his interlocking storylines for that. Indeed, Heater also mentions it being only three days since she saw "Mac" on the streets, which, combined with the Sasquatch and Snowbird stories, makes things very tricky. Whatever we decide here we're contradicting the text.
Indeed, we'll need to do some work just to deal with Heather's latter comment, which, referring as it does to an event two issues plus one crossover earlier, causes problems all its own. The simplest solution would seem to be to move Heather's sighting to the same day as Snowbird's collapse - since we've already split ALF #22 in two, we may as well do it with ALF #21 as well. The result of this reordering puts things two days after Walter Langkowski's death.
Thursday 10th May 1984.
"I'm sorry, I thought you understood what had transpired."
Snowbird adds passive-aggressive bullshit to her list of crimes as she patronisingly reiterates to Aurora exactly why she murdered her lover. Because she is a terrible person.