Looking back at Alpha Flight

Alpha_Flight_cast_picture_(John_Byrne_era)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.

Dazza.

Looking back at The Captain

5197UScC2NLSometimes comics don’t stand the test of time and don’t live up to how you remember then. But occasionally you come across a storyline and you have a brand new appreciation of how great it was. That’s how I feel about the Captain America run between issues 332 and 350 in the late 80’s, which can be dubbed as The Captain Saga.

I should say that Marvel at this time epitomized my personal taste of a what I want from a superhero comic. I like my stories tangible, more grounded than the heavy Science and magic type of stories. Give me a good slug fest to settle an issue over the mumbo jumbo of astral plain mcguffins any day. But I digress.

The Captain America comic was in a strong place coming into this story. It featured a strong roster of villains such as the Flag Smasher (his anti Nationalism speeches gave at least an interesting motivation to battling Cap) and my personal favorites the Serpent Society (I loved the concept of Villains treating their evil doing as a business). Added to this was the personal upheaval in his life splitting up with his girlfriend and facing guilt over being forced to take a life of a terrorist. And all the while there was a simmering feud with a charismatic rival to his role as America’s number one symbol in the form of the Super Patriot.

I could do an entire article on the rivalry between these star spangled heroes, but I can sum it up in one exchange before their first battle. After Patriot attacks Cap from behind, Cap taunts him with “Sneak Attacks? Not very American!”
“What about the bombing of Libya?” Patriot responds. Ouch.
And if that isn’t enough to make Cap seem out of touch with modern America the catalyst for the Captain Saga is when the American government claims the rights to the Captain America uniform and Shield. Armed also with the contract he signed when volunteering for the super soldier program and a huge tax bill the bureaucratic government demands he works for them as their operative. Rogers refuses to be used in this way (when thinking what being a government operative would mean, Steve imagines an armed Captain America shooting soldiers in Nicaragua, a social critique that has more resonance today) and hands over his uniform and Shield.

From here the Captain America comic becomes two separate stories. One is Steve Rogers, adjusting to a superhero career not being Captain America, forming a group with former sidekicks Falcon, Nomad and D-Man and fighting villains in his new persona as The Captain. And believe me I still remember my jaw dropping at the moment that awesome costume was unveiled.
Meanwhile the Super Patriot John Walker is appointed as the new Captain America (when Sam Wilson is suggested for the role we’re told that America isn’t ready for a black Captain America). With a public relations style strategy Walker is sent on government sanctioned missions, such as combating the morality extremists the Watchdogs. There is even a new Bucky, who is quickly repackaged as Battlestar when it was pointed out to Marvel that in some places the name Bucky was used as a slur against black people.

I can’t emphasize enough how great the storytelling is throughout this run. Not a single issue is wasted in following the journey of both heroes and great parallels develop. The Captain tries to continue to serve his country in battling villains and becomes embroiled in an entertaining serpent society civil war. This essentially vigilantism on his part ultimately brings him into conflict with the authorities, but it’s clear he’s successful in pursuing his vows to protect and serve despite his rogue status. Even without the Shield he doesn’t lose the kinship he feels with his country.
By comparison Walker struggles to live up to the Captain America image. Hampered by being a government lackey anyway, it’s hard to feel that Walker’s ego and self interest are what drives him in his role. Initially he can’t even control the Shield properly, and this leads to a great scene where the Taskmaster is bought in to train him. In the field things get worse. From the start there are hints of Walker’s dark side, prone to rages, he batters the Powerman to death in an effectively displayed scene with the use of cutting between closeups of his blooded fists and raging eyes, a mist of red falling over the panels. It’s when Walker’s parents are kidnapped by the Watchdogs that he truly goes over the edge. After they are gunned down in a botched rescue attempt, Walker slaughters the Dog Soldiers in truly brutal fashion (one solider is despatched with a pitchfolk).

Kieron Dwyer’s artwork deserves a mention here. While some may find it outdated by today’s styles, Dwyer crafts some great storytelling moments through his panels, using closeups and subtle use of shadows to great effect. His work is particularly strong in his fight scenes, where the action flows from panel to panel so smoothly it’s like watching the battles live. This is at it’s most evident when Walker goes for revenge against his former partners for leaking his secret identity which lead in turn to the death of his parents. In the resulting battle each blow landed breaks bone, draws blood, spits teeth emphasizing the brutality of the fight. The final page of the issue where a stonefaced Walker leaves the two tied upside down next to a burning oil tank is a stunning piece of atmosphere, especially the panel where the tank explodes and the slightest of smiles appears on his face.

The story of the two captains is enriched by a strong supporting cast. Battlestar brings the conscience to the Walker story, mistrustful of their handling by the government, especially after a mission to bring in an unregistered mutant. Nomad acting all dickish towards D-man who in turn is racked by a crisis of confidence after repeated defeats. And then there is the awesomely slutty Diamondback, working with Roger’s team when her Serpent society come under attack. She’s a scene stealer while taking her first steps into being my favorite Cap sidekick. Hell she’s one of my favorite characters ever.

What I love about this run is that for 18 months this storyline was allowed to run it’s course with no interruptions. Unlike today where the flow and development of a series has to accommodate the latest company wide crossover, when the events of Fall of the Mutants or Armour Wars come around it’s the crossover that ties into the ongoing story of the Captain, not the other way around.
And what an 18 months it was. Patiently plotted, building flawlessly until it’s not until the final issue in the arc that we finally get the confrontation between the two Captains and it does not disappoint. Added to an epic and thrilling fight there is the big reveal of who has been manipulating events behind the scene, it’s hardly a surprise but the whole saga is tied up so well it’s a rewarding payoff.
When Steve Rogers finally takes back his role as Captain America it feels natural, not like a quick reset back from a gimmick change in identity switch that didn’t work out. The story has been told, both heroes journeys have reached their destination, Rogers reward of the Shield feels well earned .

I’m not going to claim that this is the greatest comic story of all time. It is very much of it’s time, some may be put off by the artwork and it’s not as sophisticated as the considered classics of the genre. However I really do think you will struggle to find a saga that is this well structured and builds so well from start to finish in such a logical manner. Every issue moves the story on, there is no filler, every story or fight has a purpose on some level, whether it be the continuing success of Roger’s citizenry or the mounting failure and deterioration of Walker. The theme of Government vs citizenry is never far from the surface.

But make up your own mind. Buy this baby, enjoy the fun and ready yourself for the horror that is Tony Stark’s perm! It was the 80’s kids, it was the 80’s.

Comic Conversations Episode 50

Image and video hosting by TinyPicfettman, luro, and marvell2k return to talk all things comics for the week of February 18, 2015. Including but not limited to May’s Solicitations for Marvel Comics

Lighting Round Reviews of: Magneto 15, All-New Captain America 4, Starlord 9, and Rocket Raccoon 8.

Our Regular Weekly Reviews of: Miles Morales The Ultimate Spider-Man 10, Secret Identities 1, Avengers World 17, Multiversity Mastermen 1, Lazarus 15, Deadly Class 11, Uncanny X-Men 31, Ivar the Timewalker 2, Silver Surfer 9, Loki Agent of Asgard 11, Ms.Marvel 12, Silk 1, Moon Knight 12, and The Valiant 3.

Our picks for book of the weeks and we preview next week’s light round books: Batman,Invaders, All-New X-Men, Fantastic Four, Secret Avengers, Spider-Man and the X-Men, and Uncanny Avengers.

As well as our regular books of: Quantum and Woody Must Die, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Darth Vader, Inhuman, Men of Wrath, New Avengers, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man 2099, Superior Iron Man, Thor Annual, and Suiciders. All this and as always, so much more on a bran new edition of Comic Conversations, IT’S AWESOME.

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Comic Conversations Episode 49

fettman, luro, and marvell2k return to talk all things comics for the week of February 11, 2015, including but not limited to, Comic Book News of Spider-Man joining the Marvel Movies.

fettman’s lighting round review of All-New X-Men 36.

As well as our regular weekly reviews of: Spider-Man 14, Walking Dead 137, Darth Vader 1, Guardians of the Galaxy 24, Guardians 3000 5, Thor 5, X-Men 24, Astro City 20, Divinity 1, Empty 1, Rai 7, Ghost Rider 11, and War Stories 5.

Our picks for book of the week and we preview next week’s books: Our Lighting Round books of: Thrilling Adventure Hour, Secret Identities, All-New Captain America, Magneto, and Nova.

And our regular reviews of: Multiversity, Deadly Class, Lazarus, Avengers World, Starlord, Loki, Ultimate Spider-Man, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, Rocket Raccoon, Silk, Silver Surfer, Uncanny X-Men, The Valiant, Ivar Time Walker

also a REMINDER, READ DAZZA’S ARTICLE OF THE MUTANT MASSACRE!!!

http://www.comicconversations.com/looking-back-at-the-mutant-massacre-2/

sorry, Dazza. We forgot, we’ll put it over on the show next week

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Looking back at The Mutant Massacre

download (1)I’ll be honest. Modern day Marvel comics has passed me by. Oh I’ve tried, I’ve tried to look past the constant reboots, renumbering and the lost art of having a team roster that means something. Occasionally I’ve even found a comic I like the premise of and have started enjoying it, only for the flow of the series to detour in order to fit a few issues into the latest mega crossover.

So it’s to the past that I often go for my comic fix. Collected editions of classic story lines take me back to my school days when I used to daily skim my lunch money to buy my comics. Fate lent a hand in my youth here, because unless you lived near one of the few comic shops in the UK at that time you could go a lifetime never seeing a marvel comic for sale. I was lucky enough that there was a corner shop near my school that bizarrely had a wide selection of American Marvel comics. Looking back this probably screwed me for life, distracting me from other rites of passage like taking drugs, underage sex and grand theft larceny.

It’s risky revisiting stuff you loved growing up. It can be a thunderous disappointment finding those stories you read time and time again were actually a bit cheesy and the artwork dates quite badly. And the less said about the depiction of race and gender in some comics the better.

Then you buy the collected edition of something like the Mutant Massacre, and find some things not only aged admirably but deliver an edge you never expected.

Allow your uncle Dazza to put a little context in here. 1986 was the year that Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are credited with bringing comics to an adult audience while mainstream Marvel under the comics code authority churned out superhero kiddie comics. Well us kids of the 80’s must have been made of hardy stock, because these kiddie comics have some seriously intense and dark stuff going on. And violent! Not explicit gore style violent, but when I read the Massacre today and think back to how Wolverine came into this having being tortured, sliced up (and in turn sliced up a woman) and burnt alive, I wonder if these were really for kids.

The story is well known,.A new murderous threat in the form of the Marauders has invaded the tunnels of the mutant community the Morlocks with the intention of killing everyone they come across in scenes that would do vertigo comics proud. I honestly don’t think a team of villains have ever been introduced so dramatically as this crew of murderers. One page in and they are slaughtering a family of Morlocks including what appears to be a young child with a barrage of machine gun fire, explosions, knives and spikes and harpoons. The infanticide doesn’t end there, later Scalphunter callously guns down the elderly Annalee as she desperately tries to shield a group of Morlock children. Two of the kids also die and Scaplhunter brags that he was responsible for the murder of another group of Morlock children that wandered onto the surface in a previous issue.

Trust me the Marauders are amongst the most vicious creations in regular comics. These aren’t the regular Marvel villains and more likely would blow a wounded heroes brains out if given the chance than take heroes captive and taunt them with their evil intentions. Half way through X-Men 211 you’re really rooting for Wolverine and Co to come take these guys apart.

And when the X-men do arrive amongst the harrowing corpse ridden scenes, they do so in some of the most savage fight scenes you’ll see in mainstream Marvel. It’s with great satisfaction that you see some measure of payback as scrambler gets the shit kicked out of him by Storm and Callisto, the caption reading “Callisto breaks ribs, As Storm did his jaw, Scrambler spits teeth, coughs blood.” When Colossus kills Riptide with his bare hands the moment is shocking but justifiable.

The thrust of the Massacre itself takes place over only two issues (one X-men and one X-factor). More time is handed to the aftermath as the mansion is turned in a sanctuary for the wounded and dying, while in scenes reminiscent of the Godfather during the gang wars the X-men go on a war footing, expecting a Marauder attack at any moment. And indeed when reading this you feel like war has broken out.

There are many great moments that never left my memory. Storm ordering Wolverine to capture a Marauder for interrogation and chillingly this once peaceful soul telling him “one prisoner is sufficient, the rest are yours”. Angel pinned to a wall by harpoons through his ruined wings (did I mention this story was violent) despairing when he realises that his dying message to Jean has been passed on to mute Artie and therefore won’t get to her.
Speaking of little Artie, this And of course there is the first hints of a past history between Wolverine and Sabretooth and boy do these two tear into each other with suitable Savagery.

So in this collected edition you get the full X-men and X-Factor stories, including the calm before the storm introduction where from the shadows the Marauders stalk and kill a stray Morlock girl. You also get the tie ins of the other heroes who get involved, Daredevil, Thor (referencing his Thor the Thunderfrog days) and Powerpack. Wait, Powerpack? The kids? Yes, there is a crossover with Powerpack which does stick out a little, especially when the Pack throwdown with the Marauders with a hint of comedy style fighting. But even here the brutal atmosphere isn’t avoided. It’s distressing seeing these youngsters crying at the sight of dead bodies in the killing fields. And if you look closely you’ll notice Scalphunter nonchalantly shooting a young girl square in the face as she begs for her life. I honestly missed it on first reading. (Did I mention this story is violent?)

This storyline is an important milestone in what I consider one of the creative peaks in the history of X-men. Chris Claremont poured oil on his already volatile mutant hysteria backdrop on his outcast X-men and ignited it, shattering the X-men line-up in the process as three mainstays would be out of action for the next two years and Angel would be changed forever. A new lineup of X-men would slowly emerge to continue the war with the Marauders (a much underrated lineup by the way) and the tone of the comic would be extremely darker for some time, especially around the characters of Storm and Wolverine.

The Marauders would be the top villains for the X-men for the next few years and rare was an issue when their lingering threat wasn’t mentioned. Sadly along came a gimmick where there were endless clone resurrections available whenever a Marauder was killed, kind of took them down a notch for me in treating them seriously. Then their leader Mister Sinister came out of the shadows and the more we learnt about him the less formidable his force seemed to be, seriously did even he have a clue what his overall aims were? I really prefered them when they were presented as mutant hunters.
In any case this era was everything why X-men were the cult favourites of comics at this time, an edgier alternative to the lighter heroics of the Avengers side of the Marvel Universe. If you have not read the entire Chris Claremont run on the X-men you need to do so, I’m convinced you won’t be disappointed..
That said when Secret Wars is over none of this will probably have ever happened anyway due to some science mumbo jumbo I have no idea how to even begin to understand. You bloody kids today.

Dazza

Comic Conversations Episode 48

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fettman, luro, and marvell2k are back to talk all things comics for the week February 4th, 2015. Including but not limited to: Comic Books News of DC releasing a bunch of new titles, post Convergence.

fettman’s lighting round review of East of West 17.

Our Regular Weekly Reviews of: Punisher 15, Nameless 1, Imperium 1, Black Vortex 1, Ms. Marvel 1, Squirrel Girl 2, Saga 25, Miracle Man 15, Ant-Man 2, Star Wars 2, Angela 3, Hulk 11, and Avengers 41.

Our picks for Book of the Week and lastly we preview next week’s books: Walking Dead, Spider-Man, Darth Vader, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians 3000, Thor, X-Men, Spider-Woman, Astro City, Valiant, Divinity, Empty, Rai, War Stories, Ghost Rider, and All-New X-Men.

A link to Charles Soule Law Practice, trust me it makes sense if you listen to the show…http://www.soulelaw.net/profiles.html

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Comic Conversations Episode 47

Image and video hosting by TinyPic fettman, luro, and marvell2k are back, trust us, we’re back. To talk all things comics for the week of January 28, 2015. Including but not limited to: December’s Comic Book Numbers, A potentially new X-Men TV Show, and the Fantastic Four Trailer. As well as news concerning our show on Itunes.

Our Lighting Round Reviews of: Invaders 14, Batman 38, Casanova Acedia 1,and The Dying and the Dead 1.

Our Regular Weekly Reviews of: Multiversity Guidebook 1, Secret Avengers 12, Inhuman 11, New Avengers 29, Spider-Man 2099 8, Spider-Man and the X-Men 2, Thor 4, Uncanny Avengers 1, Uncanny X-Men 30, and Quantum and Woody Must Die 1.

Our Picks for Book of the Week as well as previewing next week’s books: East of West, Avengers, Squirrel Girl, Saga, Angela, Ant-Man, Black Vortex, Hulk, Miracle Man, Ms. Marvel, Star Wars, Imperium, and Nameless. All this and so much more on a new episode of Comic Conversations~! IT’S AWESOME.

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