Wednesday, 14 October 2015

ALF #33: "A Friend In Need"

("You're the most beautiful woman in most rooms.")


So this is nice. With Alpha Flight seemingly having lost some of its spark with the transfer between Byrne and Mantlo (however aggravating the former was) it's good to see an unquestionable improvement in at least one area. This, by the admittedly abysmal standards of the time in general and this title in particular, is quite a nice one from a feminist perspective. Not great, mind you, but with some ideas to genuinely approve of.

Partly the feminism marks given out here stem from the issue's focus. With Heather clearly the main character on this occasion and some time spent checking in on Snowbird and, pleasingly, the seemingly forgotten Marrina. Neither are in good shape - Marrina is still partially devolved and on the run, and Snowbird is suffering from an unknown malady - but it's still nice to see them.

In general, though, this is an issue about Heather Hudson. In particular, it's about the conflict between who Heather is, and who other people want her to be; how they see her versus how she sees herself.

Heather, of course, has always been a character defined in large part by reference to men. She was James Hudson's secretary, and then his wife. She's the secret object of Puck's adoration. And as we learn in this issue, Logan always had a thing for her as well. The three most important men in Heather's life all saw her as the woman for them. On paper, that might sound flattering, but in reality is has led to problems; first Puck and then initially Logan both refuse to help her become a superhero because they're more comfortable with her in the role as superhero's girlfriend. By admitting this Logan comes out of this looking better than Puck - who has apparently told all of Alpha Flight except Heather, which is a punk move - but the problem still remains; Heather can't get what she wants because the men in her life who love her (overtly or otherwise) don't want to see their image of her change. It's all too appropriate that the X-Men's reaction upon seeing Heather approach is to view her as a threat and attack her. Yes, that's an entirely understandable reaction of mutants facing an unannounced super-powered intruder diving towards them at dusk (one of the few times the "superheroes fight due to mistaken identity" riff doesn't feel forced), but it's also an underlining of the central point here, which is that even among strangers, Heather's own status and nature is thoroughly subsumed by the views others have of her.

In interrogating that, Mantlo is pulling double duty, because in having a female character insist on her right to control who she is on her own terms the story strikes not just against the sexism in stories of the time, but begins the process of answering the criticisms of the title's own past. Byrne never had any problem with writing Heather like a lame sidekick to her superhero husband, just as he had no problem writing Aurora as simply a deranged woman for first her brother then Sasquatch to worry about. Here we learn that this approach is no longer sufficient. Heather may have let James and Puck and Logan define who she was - hell, the dialogue here suggests Heather did the exact same thing to herself - but she's made her choice regarding who she wants to be, and she will let no-one stop her from reaching that goal. Tragically and utterly obvious though such ideas should be, and simplistic though their treatment is here, that's some proper feminism right there.  Even when the issue starts to waver by taking us on an extended Wolverine flashback (about how he first found out about his adamantium claws, a strange tale to be telling here rather than in Uncanny..., perhaps) it's saved by having Heather yell at Logan for his so-called love for her having turned into the desire to protect her, whether she asks for it - whether she needs it - or not. It's a reminder that whilst the desire to protect someone you love is a perfectly reasonable impulse, you can easily take it to the point where you're putting someone in a glass case, and that, like erecting pedestals for women, is no less of a sexist attitude for being well-meaning. It's particularly refreshing that the man Heather is upbraiding is Logan, already at this point probably the most popular X-Man since "Second Genesis" debuted - no-one else has been in two minis with their name in the title. It was already starting to occur to Marvel that they had a cash-cow on their hands, so an on-panel feminist critique of him, however milquetoast, is somewhat impressive.

There's even more here, though, because for Puck and Logan at least (along with the sadly departed Mac) the point at issue is their deep attraction for Heather. This reminds me all too well of my younger days, when the girls and young women deemed most attractive were surrounded by swarms of boys and young men. The one's who were scurrilous arseholes were one thing, but the bigger problem - if only by volume - were the men who were convinced that they were being nice, and thoughtful, and kind, and helpful, when really they were treating the object of their desire as just that - an object. I confess shamefacedly that in my teenage years I was one of those boys convinced that women only went for arseholes [1], but my own treatment of women wasn't any better, because it was still utterly wrapped up in what I wanted and what I thought I deserved. And that can end up being even worse for those you claim to care so deeply about, because when you make friends with someone and then pull the rug away from them with ultimatums of "love" you cost them much more than an underage drunk kissing the wrong girl at some profoundly depressing house party. 

Adults, of course, are not supposed to behave or think this way. But there's a lot of ways we're not supposed to behave and things we're not supposed to think that stubbornly refuse to leave us. So, rather unfortunately, it's not as though either Puck or Logan are behaving in a totally unbelievable way. And besides, this is a book aimed at teenage boys. Having adults behave as badly as they tend to and showing why that behaviour is bullshit is a damn good use of the title's time, at least on occasion.

Given all this it's then rather a shame that this issue also features the first appearance of Lady Deathstrike, a female character once again defined - at least in her early appearances - entirely in terms of her father and her hatred of Wolverine.  Since none of that is mentioned here, though, I don't want to complain about this too much; on its own terms, this issue has a great deal to recommend it.

[1] I do still wonder if there is some small truth to this in teenage circles, not because straight sixteen year old girls are attracted to horrible sixteen year old boys, but because the teenage boys they're attracted to have learned - consciously or otherwise - that they don't actually have to be nice to be popular. To the extent there is any truth here, there is no doubt in my mind that it works just as powerfully in the opposite direction, my taste in women was by and large appalling when I was sixteen. Because what I was interested in was how pretty they were.

(Of course, an even simpler explanation is that teenagers, by and large, are all arseholes for much of the time. Finding excuses to dislike someone dating the person you wish was with you is not a particularly difficult job when no-one involved is old enough to vote.)


This story takes place immediately following the previous issue, with Heather still on the flight she began in ALF #32. This causes problems, since the current Alpha Flight timeline we've been using is still so far behind the parent title that Magneto is still eight issues away from his trial. Obviously, with Mags leading the team in this issue that's not going to work, and we can't move this issue alone forwards because it ties in so well to the last one. Fortunately ALF #32 gave no indication of when it was set, so I can move both this and the last issue forwards to contemporary issues of UXM. In particular, we'll set them both the day after the Beyonder returns to his own reality.

Colossus mentions that it's been months since the original Guardian died. By my estimation it's been a little over a year in fact, but that's close enough, especially since Piotr could be forgiven for not having rigorously kept track of what Alpha Flight has been up to.


Tuesday 17th April, 1985.



Contemporary Events

Luke Mitchell (Lincoln Campbell in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I long ago lost track of) is born.

Standout Line

"I sense strange troubled thoughts...!"
"You're describin' half the human race, sweetheart!" - Rachel and Rogue

This issue even passes the Bechdel Test! You know, very briefly...

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