Saturday, 28 June 2014
ALF #28: "Cross-Over"
("I had hoped for a more inspiring epitaph.")
At last, the final John Byrne-penned issue of Alpha Flight. I feel like I should do something different to mark the event, like last time, but really I can't do much more than wave small flags slowly and with great exhaustion. No winners, only survivors.
Perhaps part of this is the low-key conclusion to Byrne's run here. I don't mean "low-key" in the sense of being slow and contemplative, I mean it in the sense that it's almost impossible to tell the book is about to change writers at all. Absent Byrne's goodbye note at the end of the issue, I'm quite sure I'd never have suspected this was his final story. Not that this was uncommon for the times. We spend so much time these days discussing whether or not a writer has had time to tell their story and develop their themes before the inevitable reshuffle/relaunch/cancellation that it's interesting to look back at an era where that was pretty much unheard of in superhero comics. Byrne had a few long-running concerns he would return to from time to time, but basically there's never been a point in this run where he'd need more than an issue or two to step off and hand over.
The only real hint that Byrne might have found himself with too little time to do what he wanted is the rather perfunctory way the Omega Flight storyline finishes off here. They're fleeing from the mall before it can be eaten by Shaman's medicine bag, but run into Madison Jeffries, who builds an impromptu Transformer to beat up various Omega Flight members - and kill one of Flashback's future selves, which forces the villain to confront the fact he's now certain to die at some random point in the future like every other person ever - and then literally turn Courtney inside-out. This all happens very quickly and early in the issue, and feels too random even to really work as deus ex machina (perhaps ironically given Jeffries's skill set). But as Marge Simpson once said, it's an ending, let's leave it at that.
(There's also a weird moment here where Madison tells Diamond Lil that he's convinced she and Wildchild at the very least have been under some kind of mental suggestion/control by Courtney, as murderous vendettas really aren't their style. Which, OK, I always think this kind of reveal is pretty weak - just a way of excusing bad characterisation or plotting - but since Byrne invented these characters and we never saw them in action pre-Omega Flight, there's no real foul here. What's strange here though is that Jeffries immediately follows this revelation by leaving the two of them to be arrested, announcing he'll see his ex when she gets out in six years or so. So she might actually be innocent but he's not going to bother checking? Not cool. And I say that with more than one ex-girlfriend I wouldn't shed any tears over hearing they'd been sent to the chokie.)
Of course, a writer's final issue on a book can be remarkable for reasons other than a grand finale or a thematic wrap-up. One option would just to be make sure you go out bringing your A-game. In truth, there isn't really that much evidence of that here, but I'll certainly grant that this is one of Byrne's stronger efforts. The rescue of Talisman after Shaman failed to save her personally (despite promising he could) finally provokes Elizabeth to take her father to task for how much of a "Daddy knows best" douchebag he's been ever since she showed up back in his life. For all that it's taken far too long to get to, it's really nice to see Talisman point out just how huge a dick move it was on her father's part to let her put on her tiara without bothering to explain it could never be removed. It's perhaps a little less justifiable to be so angry over Shaman's broken promise to save her from the bag, given a) if she hadn't gone in three of their friends would have died, b) it's not his fault she wouldn't risk her life for those people without a guarantee of her safety, and c) complaining that Shaman acted badly after she leapt into the void is implicitly arguing that he should have let Snowbird be murdered rather than try to save them both. All of that just means that Shaman isn't clearly 100% in the wrong, though. That's not the same thing as Elizabeth not having the right to feel the way she does, despite Heather's doubtless well-intentioned attempt to come to Shaman's defence.
Calling out Shaman on his patriarchal attitude is probably one of the best character moments Byrne has generated so far in terms of gender politics, and it's particularly appreciated considering how down we've been on him on the topic since the very first issue. This is strengthened by Heather getting angry in the closing pages when she learns Bochs and Langkowski have been searching for a new biological body for the latter to steal and wear as a meat suit, and that none of the people who knew of the plan thought it was worth sharing with her, despite her role as leader. Which goddamn, that's a good point. I admit I've never actually had anything approaching an employee, but you'd better believe that if I did have, I'd want them to check with me over whether the company's dress code included stolen biped bodies. It's taken forever for Byrne to deliver on having a woman as leader in the book, but he at least manages something here, just before he bows out.
So it's a top quartile Byrne book, insofar as its slightly sexually progressive (letting your ex get arrested for a crime you're not sure she's guilty of aside) rather than noticeably retrograde, and because there's no ball dropping either in plot or characterisation (and Byrne's latest Transformers rip-off looks actually quite cool and sinister). There was no cringe-inducing commentary on mental health issues. His run doesn't finish off focussing on a completely different team to the one he's ostensibly writing about. Faint praise this all might be - especially for a man with so oddly strong a legacy - but praise it remains. I am not sorry I had to pay for this book.
Indeed, the only real problem I have with the issue is that Byrne's own cover gives away the page 22 cliff-hanger, as the "almost mindless" creature Bochs has hooked proves to be the Hulk, banished to another dimension by Dr Strange (I think). Thanks to the cover, the cliff-hanger is not only spoiled, but awkward questions are immediately generated regarding how anyone could watch the Hulk and conclude he was almost mindless. I realise this is a bum note generated simply through the need to justify Sasquatch's plan to steal himself a new body, but the end result still comes off as contemptuous of anyone not capable of declining verbs; if anyone out in the real world tried to suggest someone at the Hulk's level of intellectual development should be essentially considered as a courtesy car for anyone rich enough to pay scientists for a mind-swap they'd be pelted with monkey wrenches, and deservedly so.
A minor and qualified success, then, and a damn sight better than Byrne's batting average on the title. Maybe the most damning thing about all this is the thought that this is his A-game after all. But someone else will have to have the final word on that. I've finished with Byrne until at least the '90s, and at the end of this run I'm not sure I even find him interesting enough to beat up anymore. It's not the last word he'll want, nor one that reflects his unquestionable influence on the world of Marvel comics, but I'm afraid it's the best I can do. "Sometimes, he wasn't insufferable."
Let's move on.
This story takes place over the course of a few hours.
Sunday 24th June 1984.
Nothing at all. 24/06/1984 continues to be the date interest forgot.
"What happens to me, an' Child, an' Flashie?"
"Looks like Flashback's gonna be busy goin' crackers f'r a bit, Lil."