Friday, 5 September 2014

ALF #29: "Cut Bait And Run!"

(Fishing for compliments.)


It's time for a changing of the guards at Alpha Flight, though that cliché hardly does the situation justice.  John Byrne wasn't just the first guy kicking it in the security hut; he was the original king. Sure, it wasn't exactly an untroubled reign, but it was certainly a popular one. So what do we get from the heir to the kingdom?

Fresh voices and fingers are nothing new for comic series, obviously. What's interesting is the evolution of the approach taken with them. Back in the '60s, they were underplayed, at least in the X-Books; everything was "STAN LEE PRESENTS!" irrespective of what he actually had to do with a book, and in-continuity changes tended to be rather small-bore, at least just after kick-off. As time went on, it seems like new arrivals became more feted, but that's a dubious conclusion to draw since of course from 1975 through almost all of 1985, the only X-Book to see a change in writer was Dazzler. That makes it hard to tell whether incoming talent was being celebrated due to changes in the fundamentals, or just because trying to revive interest in a flagging book necessarily requires a different approach to that of not rocking the boat when a successful talent decides they've had enough.

Either way, we moved from trying to keep changes on the down-low both in and out of the fictional universe to boldly announcing new talent and new directions. ALF #29, however, takes it a step further in a way we haven't seen before: the simultaneous replacement of writer and artist (I couldn't pull a Mike Mignola page out of a stack of Byrne's output, but Mantlo is far too verbose to pass for Byrne even if he had a better handle on the characters' voices than he does) is used as a springboard to have the characters themselves debate whether it's worth carrying on, or whether their best days are behind them. That's a great idea, and hard as I've been on Bill Mantlo in the past, I give him full credit for introducing it to the X-Books.

So, some background. ALF #28 and #29 form the first and last third of a three-issue story, with Incredible Hulk #313 slotted in between. ALF #28 dealt with Walter Langkowski's soul being sent into another dimension by Roger Bochs so Walt could snag himself a new body, only for the returning figure to prove to be the Hulk. I've decided not to do a post on the Hulk book - Langkowski only shows up at the very end, so the connection to the X-Universe is pretty tenuous, and it would cause chronology problems as well - so to summarise it, Walt realises Bruce Banner's mind is still trapped inside the Hulk's body, and so chooses to let himself fade into nothingness rather then evict his old roommate, despite Banner actually being desperate for Langkowski to take up residence so he doesn't have to suffer any more.

Which is all kinds of depressing and powerful, but we're not looking at that today. We're looking at what happens when Hulk gets home and doesn't think much of Vancouver. Smashing, inevitably, ensues.

This immediately sets up Hulk here as a force of entropy. Ostensibly, he's trashing Boch's lab and the surrounding Vancouver real estate because he wants to return to his desert home, or failing that level the city until it looks as close to a desert as possible.  In practice, though, he's reducing complicated structures to their constituent elements.  This is important here. If all Mantlo wanted was to have Alpha Flight overcome a villain and thus demonstrate their continued relevance, than any misanthrope with a pulse and criminal tendencies could have done the job. The Hulk has the added advantage of representing thoughtless, omnidirectional chaos, the gradual (or not so gradual) grinding down which threatens to break everything apart, sooner or later. In that sense, the team are not fighting a supervillain (well, super-antihero) so much as they are fact of life.

Which connects, of course, with the state Byrne has left Alpha Flight in. Heather is still panicking about whether she has any business leading a superhero team when the closest thing she has to a power is above-average typing chops (the closest this issue comes to ringing my gender politics alarm bell, which comes as a great relief, as I'm sure you can understand). Aurora is distraught over the loss of her partner Sasquatch, and Northstar is finally ready to admit being crushed on her behalf. Shaman has lost his self-belief and with it his powers, on account of having needed himself a bit of deus ex in dealing with his own bizarre machina so as to rescue his formerly estranged - and re-estranged like you wouldn't believe - daughter. Oh, and the first thing Hulk does when he arrives is to smash a gigantic hole in Boch's robot chest, which doesn't go down too well at all. Not because it kills him - being bonded to the machine saves him from death in some way - but because he immediately panics that the wound will prove fatal eventually.

To recap, then. A force of (roughly speaking) nature arrives, and proceeds to tear everything down. And even though the facts on the ground demonstrate that the team is now more or less functionally equivalent to the team that was, everyone panics and assumes it's time to launch their towel on whatever trajectory will stop the pummelling quickest. As a metaphor for a popular book undergoing a seismic change in creative team, I'd say that's pretty damn apt.  Clever, even.

But there is a problem here. Mantlo does a solid job of selling us on the existential crisis dragging the team down, but there's no real move anywhere to explain why this worrying is unnecessary. The most pat way to do this would be to have the team defeat the Hulk. To his credit, Mantlo doesn't settle for that, having Alpha maybe help a bit in directing Hulk outside of Canada a wee bit quicker. But if that isn't going to be the reason to keep the team going, there needs to be something else. All we get here is the newly-reintroduced Snowbird giving everyone a lecture on how Alpha Flight was important therefore still is, before Gary Cody arrives to announce Alpha Flight can have funding again.

Which, if we're going to treat the rest of the issue as a metaphor for the people behind the book casting around for a reason to continue - and I want to do that, because otherwise this is just about a big green guy punching things out of homesickness - then what are we to take from the conclusion? ALF should keep going because it used to be great and also there's money in it?  Pass.

I realise all that seems like it falls somewhere between damning with faint praise and completely unleavened damning. But I don't want to sell this issue short. We're still early enough into the history of the X-Books that metaphors of any kind are desperately thin on the ground.  I will take this one, and be glad, especially since even the most confused and self-defeating metaphor constitutes an improvement on the sexist bilge this title has dealt in until now.

Unless it's a confused and self-defeating sexist metaphor, obviously. On this occasion, it isn't.  There is most certainly still time for one to slouch into view.


This issue follows on directly from ALF #28, and takes place over the course of several minutes.

Sunday 24th June 1984.



Contemporary Events

There was nothing on this day last time I checked, so it'd be rather strange if that had changed.

Standout Line

"I have a hole where my heart should be."

Box gets poetic. As well as, you know, horribly damaged.

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