Let’s talk about sex baby! Superhero sex!
Well, just for this introduction anyway. You see, when I was a young comics fan I can’t remember there being many sex references, aside the sexy manner than many of the female characters were portrayed. I’m sure they were there, after all Sue Richards gave birth to Franklin so I’m figuring Reed Richards was putting his stretching powers to good use off panel.
But the first time I personally read about superheroes having a sex life was while reading Alpha Flight, where Sasquatch reveals (rather coyly) that he’s had a one night stand with fellow team mate Aurora.
There’s more explict shenanigans in the origin story for Snowbird, where we discover her Goddess mother got pregnant with her by having sex with a human in order to create a child who could be a champion on earth. She has to transform into a beautiful blonde girl to seduce the human as he’s initially horrified at the prospect of getting it on with the ancient old woman.“Give me your seed” she says in an act of high romance.
Tame though it may have been it the references still surprised me as a young reader, but then Alpha Flight always had a different vibe to the other comics I was reading at the time. I discovered the comic first as a backup strip in the UK edition of Secret Wars and it felt a more mature read. The stories may not have been Earth shattering in scope, but for a solid month to month read I found it compelling, possibly due to John Byrne’s excellent artwork and dialogue.
Enjoying Alpha Flight as I did, I was surprised to learn John Byrne was not at all keen to work on the series. The original concept behind Alpha Flight was purely to create a team that could match the X-men’s powers in a story where the Candian government tries to reclaim Wolverine. Sasquatch was created to match Colossus strength, Snowbird to match Storm’s weather powers, Northstar and Aurora speedsters to negate Nightcrawler’s teleportation. Byrne felt that there was little scope or interest beyond that appearance in the X-men, yet probably because of the freedom exhibited from the book being based over the border from the rest of the Marvel Universe, Byrne was able to craft a unique and challenging team of superheroes.
In the first year of the comic Byrne introduced us to each member through a series of solo stories, and added origin tales in the form of backup strips (a rarity in American comics). People always credit the X-men with having a diverse roster, but Alpha Flight I felt outdid them in the outsider stakes.
As well as Snowbird being the product of an inter dimensional one nighter, there’s a widowed First Nation Canadian (Shaman) and his estranged daughter, an amphibious alien/human hybrid (Marrina), a dwarf (Puck) the wheel chair bound Roger Bochs (able to merge with the Robotic Box), hell you can even claim a trans sexual when Sasquatch later becomes a woman.
But it’s the relationship between the twins Northstar and Aurora that really brings home the dysfunctional. Aurora suffers from split personality disorder, caused by years of abuse suffered in a strict convent (her mutant powers surface when she tries to commit suicide). One half of her is the prudish Jeanne-Marie, the other half the vampish, flirty Aurora. Her mental health is not helped by her strained relationship with her brother, which borders on the uncomfortable to say the least. The former terrorist Northstar is highly possessive of his sister, wildly jealous of any man she has a relationship with (look at him glaring at Vindicator in the picture to go with this article). When Alpha Flight appear in an issue of Marvel Team Up with Spiderman, Northstar seems more concerned with winning Aurora’s affections away from her lover Sasquatch as he is battling the villain of the story the Collector.
Despite heavily basing it’s storylines on the themes of prejudiced and intolerance, the X-Men comic was often shy of bringing an overt social commentary to the book, particularly when it came to the obvious potential in having gay characters. Instead it was Alpha Flight (no doubt considered a safe option as it wasn’t a heavy seller) which was able to make it’s mark in comics history by making Northstar the first openly gay superhero.
Well, eventually anyway.
Byrne sowed the seeds for his homosexuality in little hints early on, yet Marvel wouldn’t allow Northstar to actually come out of the closet until issue 106 of the series and it would rarely be bought up again during the titles first run. Apparently there was even an idea to make Northstar an AIDS victim, but Marvel never dared go that far. However the seeds to the story are there, when Pestilence senses in Northstar “a slow disease spreading like a cancer through your cells” that’s what he’s referring to.
John Byrne in interviews has stated he was never keen on Alpha Flight but I found it a much underrated book and there is much to enjoy. It could have easily slipped into a simple Canadian Avengers type book, but Alpha Flight succeeds in having it’s own identity through the groups relationships often fractured, particularly with the triangle of Sasquatch, Northstar and Aurora. Alpha Flight’s unsanctioned status as a team is also refreshingly down to earth, group meetings being held in the Hudson’s home.
Early on the group’s leader Vindicator is killed off (Byrne found him the least interesting character) and this changes the tone of the book for sometime, especially for his wife Heather. We follow her grief and watch her rebuild herself as she becomes the non powered leader of the group. It’s an interesting choice that works, as even with their powers the flight members have so many issues and hangups it falls to someone down to earth and level headed like Heather to bring a stable influence to the team.
John Byrne’s 30 issue run with the series is an enjoyable read, with some decent exclusive to them villains such as the Master, Alien race the Plodox and a rival team Omega Flight. When the book was passed to Bill Mantalo changes were instant, the team gain official status with the Canadian government, along with their own high tech headquarters and Heather adopts the Vindicator costume thus becoming super powered. Some of the down to Earth vibe I found so appealing was starting to slip. Even Puck’s dwarfism suddenly is the result of having a demon trapped in his body.
The book remained enjoyable for me, it still retained it’s weirdness and some truly off the wall storylines (the mystical story surrounding the birth of Snowbird’s child has some truly Gothically creepy moments). But one by one the original members drifted away and were replaced, until by issue 50 we had the new Alpha Flight line-up and now bordering on standard super hero fare I took my own leave as a reader (and looking at some of the work afterwards I think it was a wise decision).
Alpha Flight’s first series was cancelled after 130 issues, since then there have been reboots and restarts with little success. It’s clear that it’s the sort of team that no one really knows what to do with. Even though for readers at the time it retain a deserved cult following.
The reason I still like Alpha Flight today is due to it being a true team book. From their introduction Alpha Flight seem to fit naturally together, they complimented each other in personalities and powers. So many times Marvel packages together cult favourites, with little thought for an intriguing team concept and sends them off on missions against Hydra and A.I.M. Fun as they may be I find such books lack in any emotional investment, any line-up of team members could accomplish the same story.
The stories in Alpha Flight, the villains they face, the scenarios they find themselves in, are written specifically to that team. Almost every story is built around at least one Alpha Flight member, either it being through their past or their personal lives. The result is less a team on a mission book but a superhero soap opera.
The original team of Alpha Flight go together just like the FF, first two line-ups of X-men and the best incarnations of the Avengers.
Normally at this point I’ll urge people to go out and give this series a try (and if you’re still reading through my waffling then chances are you’re at least interested). But today I’m going to urge you to do something different.
Rather than buy the collected graphic novels, go to your local comic shop or comic con and search the back issues boxes for the actual original comics. Issues of Alpha flight come really cheap. I managed to bag the first 12 issues for about a pound each in a bargain box at a comic fair, all in really good condition. Even the first issue (which broke the record for highest selling comic on it’s release) cost less than a cup of coffee.
Graphic novels are convenient and cost effective, but nothing beats the feel of holding an actual comic printed back at the time, full of seedy advertisements from back in the day (yep, those are sea monkeys and X-ray specs kiddies).
And oh yeah, music sounds way better on Vinyl.
Till next time.