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Alpha Flight... Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews

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cover by ByrneAlpha Flight Classic (vol. 1) 2007 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Written and illustrated by John Byrne.
Colours: Andy Yanchus. Letters: various. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Reprinting: Alpha Flight (1st series) #1-8 (1983-1984)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: a few times over the years

Published by Marvel Comics

Alpha Flight, the American comic about a Canadian super team, has always been a bit like the way a lot of Americans think of Canada -- they sort of like it, but they aren't entirely sure what to make of it.

The team's creation was an evolution involving happenstance and necessity. It began when writer Len Wein wrote a Hulk story with the Hulk in Canada and decided to face him off against a Canadian super hero, and so created Wolverine. Then, when Wein was helping to revamp the floundering X-Men comic, and it was decided to give the "new" team a more international flare, he recruited Wolverine as one of the team. Then, to give background to Wolverine, a later X-Men comic had him square off against a fellow Canadian super hero, Vindicator, and, still later, to have the whole X-Men fight a Canadian team -- and Alpha Flight was born.

And a legend began. Despite only having the occasional guest appearances, Alpha Flight developed a bit of fandom, so, eventually, they got their own series -- multiple series, actually. The first run ran a healthy ten years, then the team (with major cast changes) was tried for a couple of less successful runs (including a critically poorly reviewed humourous take on the team). The team now exists, mainly only as an echo, in the current Omega Flight -- a kind of offensive concept in which the new "Canadian" team is actually comprised mainly of American heroes come to Canada to deal with a burgeoning super villain problem that Canadians are, apparently, unable to deal with.

But getting back to the original series. Despite running for a decade, even a lot of fans seem to regard it as a mixed bag, creatively speaking, most citing the earliest issues by John Byrne as the series at its best. Byrne, a British-born, Canadian-raised, American comic giant, co-created the team during his tenure on the X-Men (actually, he is usually credited as the sole creator -- yet those X-Men issues were written by Chris Claremont). But even Byrne, apparently, had mixed feelings about the team -- I believe I read that he hadn't really been interested in doing the monthly series, but was kind roped into it by the Marvel brass. And, ironically, though Byrne was the only person with a Canadian background to ever work on this "Canadian" team -- I believe he subsequently moved to the States and has occasionally made derogatory comments about Canada in editorials and letters pages (a Next Men letter column comes to mind).

Anyway, maybe because of the Omega Flight series, Marvel has now collected the first eight issues of the original series as Alpha Flight Classic (presumably with other volumes down the line if sales warrant -- though why Marvel didn't just go for one of its massive "Essential" collections, I dunno). And it starts out pretty good. I say that as someone who has become rather ambivalent about Byrne over the years. I loved his detailed, meticulous art on the X-Men and such as a kid, but when Byrne became a writer-artist, I was never as fond of his writing, in general, and found that the more hats he wore (writer-artist-inker) and the more projects he took on (at the same time he was doing Alpha Flight, he was also doing Fantastic Four and a few other comics), he just seemed to be spreading himself too thin, his art getting rougher and sloppier, his once detailed backgrounds more and more Spartan, etc.

Still, the opening double-sized issue is pretty good, as the team (which had recently disbanded in an X-Men comic) reunites and takes on a giant monster. This is followed by a three-part tale that is also fairly strong, with the team in the desolate Arctic and taking on their first original super foe -- the (blandly named) Master. Though here we see Byrne's unfortunate trendency to throw in guest stars willynilly, as both the Sub-Mariner and the Invisible Woman crop up in the final issue (Alpha Flight's second solo adventure and already they're being shoved aside for guest stars!) and Byrne's art begins to get a bit less polished. Still, the plotting is reasonably interesting, and the development of the characters and their interaction promising. And the art is still more good than bad.

What Byrne starts to do, though, is an unusual, but problematic idea. As Alpha Flight was a team basically existing in its own universe (well, its own geographic area), Byrne starts to play with the idea of it being less a team, than a group of individuals, as the next few issues tend to focus on the characters in various solo adventures -- but his plotting isn't really that interesting, and the characters often work less well in isolation from each other. Still, the next few issues give us a solo Puck story (recovering in hospital, he uncovers criminal activity), a solo Snowbird tale, and a two-parter forcusing on siblings Northstar and Aurora. And also some "gimmick" ideas that can be more annoying than entertaining, such as the Snowbird tale in which much of it takes place during a blizzard so Byrne, cheekily, presents much of it in blank white panels, with only word balloons and sound effects -- a gimmick I might've objected to less if it was incorporated into the story, such as having Snowbird be as blind as the reader, so that the trick can seem intended to let us experience it from her perspective -- but she and the villain can see fine, Byrne just doesn't bother to draw anything (told ya he seemed as though maybe he was being overworked with too many comics).

Along the way, Byrne also fills in some of the origins of his cast with short back up tales.

It's interesting reading some of this in light of later revelations. Northstar would eventually be outted as one of comicdoms first gay heroes. I once saw an interview with Byrne where he claimed, though he intended Northstar to be gay all along, he objected to it becoming open, preferring it more as cryptic hints (a kind of oddly reactionary attitude -- Byrne proudly admits to creating a gay character, but feels the character should've stayed in the closet?) Anyway, in the Northstar/Aurora tale, they encounter an old friend of Northstar -- a friend whose past relationship to Northstar is rather ill-defined, who dresses somewhat effeminately, and who Northstar is shocked to learn has a daughter -- though why he should be shocked is not stated. In other words, read in light of later revelations, you can infer that Byrne really was laying hints of a homosexual background for Northstar.

Ultimately, though I have mixed feelimgs about these issues, I guess I'd actually have to say this is an okay run, with the opening two stories pretty good. Of course, this doesn't form a story arc, per se, with a few sub-plots introduced and left dangling. And I still think a massive Essential Alpha Flight collection would've made more sense, as Marvel could've then collected the entirety of the Byrne run between a single cover.

This is a review of the stories as they were published in the original comics.

Cover price: $ __ CDN./ $24.99 USA.

cover by ByrneAlpha Flight Classic, vol. 2 2011 (SC TPB) 296 pages

Written by John Byrne, with Chris Claremont. Pencils by John Byrne. Inks by John Byrne, Keith Wiacek, Keith Williams, Terry Austin.
Colours: Andy Yanchus. Letters: Rick Parker, others. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Reprinting: Alpha Flight (1st series) #9-19, Uncanny X-Men #109

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some issues more)

Published by Marvel Comics

I'm Canadian, and I love the idea of Canadian comic book super heroes. Yet Alpha Flight remained a comic I wanted to like more than I actually did.

Part of that maybe relates to my whole evolving reaction to Byrne's work (a guy generally regarded as a true giant of the biz, particularly in the 1980s-1990s). As much as I liked Byrne's art from just before this period, as an older person my enthusiasm has dampened a bit. I'm conscious of a certain flatness to his figures, a certain sameness to faces and expressions. Not major flaws, but enough that a guy I would've once named one of the greatest artists ever -- doesn't quite hold that same position.

And by the time of Alpha Flight, with Byrne acting as writer-penciller-inker on multiple concurrent titles, those flaws seemed more pronounced -- even his signature backgrounds were now often Spartan or blank. My suspicion is he was just rushing to meet deadlines. The scenes are certainly clearly told, but there are also just a lot of talking head scenes of characters sitting in profile, and other things where the composition didn't really spark. Toward the end of this collection clearly even Byrne recognized the problem -- he brings in other inkers to help finish his work, and the art regains some polish.

While as a writer, his stuff often never quite sang for me (despite this being a minority opinion among fans). Partly, I assume, as an artist-turned-writer he was still feeling his way. But his comics can be densely written -- whole stacks of dialogue filling up half the panels. He hasn't quite learned that sometimes a well phrased couple of sentences can replace a whole paragraph. When you flip back through some issues -- surprisingly little has occurred.

Of course sometimes he'd do the opposite -- indulge in long, wordless scenes. Issue #13 is a good example of the two extremes: a wordless dream sequence that comprises half the issue, then the other half is dense passages of text as the characters sit around talking. I also found Byrne's dialogue can be a bit stiff.

I emphasize this was Byrne starting out as a writer-artist -- I think he found a better balance in later years.

As an interesting contrast, this collection also reprints Uncanny X-Men #109 -- written by Chris Claremont. Not only is Byrne's art (aided by inker Terry Austin) more effective but Claremont's script is a little tighter. Which is ironic given Claremont is, himself, a rather verbose writer (perhaps that's where Byrne learned it!)

One final aside is to consider the "Canadianness" of the series. Byrne was British-born but had lived in Canada before eventually moving to the U.S. And he exploits different aspects of the country and throws in occasional trivia (such as a story involving Calgary's centenary). Admittedly, Byrne's Canada is awfully white (or white and Native Indian). And I couldn't decide if the characters' tendency to say "bloody" as an emphatic was simply as a substitute for saltier language (like @#$#$@!), or because Byrne was trying to emphasize a Canadian lingo -- but most Canadians don't actually say "bloody."

Which brings us to the comics themselves.

In a way, maybe Byrne was too ambitious -- not always making the obvious choices.

It's less a "team" book and more like an anthology at times, focusing on different characters (or groupings of the characters) in different stories -- the full team only uniting occasionally. The stories even took place in different cities. It's a neat idea: but I'm not sure if the individual characters (at least as Byrne was writing them) were strong enough to carry whole stories by themselves. It's significant that arguably the best stories -- in both collections -- feature the whole team (more in a moment).

This shuffling who's the focus also led to a sense of sub-plots being developed erratically. So in the previous collection we briefly meet a colleague of Snowbird in her "civilian" guise who has a crush on her. He reappears here to declare his love -- but we see so little of him it's not like he has a personality. While back in the first collection Byrne introduced team member Marrina -- only to write her out almost immediately. In this collection she returns for another story arc -- that once more ends leaving her out of the immediate picture.

I read somewhere (whether true I don't know) that Byrne hadn't really been that interested in doing the Alpha Flight comic and it certainly can seem as if Byrne is hoping inspiration will kick in if he just keeps soldiering ahead.

If Byrne was struggling to get enthused about the team, it might explain why a major focus seems to be on Judd -- a.k.a. Puck -- a character not part of the original team, but whom Byrne created for the series -- a character meant to be Alpha's equivalent of Wolverine (albeit, more even tempered). The connection between the two is made explicit when Wolverine drops by and the two join a Mutual Admiration Society.

The other "new character" focus is when he elevates Heather Hudson, erstwhile wife of the team leader, Guardian, to being the team leader -- despite having no real logical explanation for it. (The characters suggest she was the heart and soul of the team but, really, she wasn't). It's a quirky choice, creatively (particularly as she has no powers -- later writers would have her don a super suit). But I never found her engaging. It might also have been Byrne's attempt to rectify a gender imbalance (he also introduces another female team member towards the end of this collection, Shaman's daughter, Talisman).

But maybe the problem with Byrne's penchant for protracted talking head scenes is the characters themselves just weren't really sparking. Or perhaps more to the point: characters are best developed and explored when they have something to react to. There's little effort to actually create a surrounding environment of supporting characters, friends, jobs, etc.

This collection kicks off with a two-parter of Sasquatch in the north in a story deliberately meant to have echoes of movies like "The Thing," involving a monster attacking a research station. It starts out interesting and effective, but quickly just becomes a lot of action (and reflects a tendency for Byrne to get a bit grisly and nasty in what is, after all, a super hero adventure).

This is followed by another two-parter, which climaxes in the double-sized 12th issue. It's the collection's highlight. Byrne's art is its strongest (particularly in the double-sized issue) and features the whole team going up against a rival super team (the conflict building in cutaway sub-plots since the first collection). Perhaps demonstrating my point that the characters work best as a group. It's exciting and colourful -- though ends awkwardly.

I'd also argue it maybe shows that, for whatever reason, team leader Guardian worked as the groups' heart (issue #11 is, essentially, a solo Guardian story).

Except issue #12 kills him off! Give Byrne marks for doing the unexpected -- but I suspect that's why, at the time, it proved my last Alpha Flight comic for a while. Not because I was emotionally devastated. Merely that with the constant shifting in character focus, Guardian was the one character that generally held my attention.

Byrne kills off Guardian -- then constantly harps on him (maybe he was hoping to milk it for the same emotional resonance as the Dark Phoenix Saga in which characters continued to mourn Jean for many issues). Issue #17 is even largely comprised of a reprint of Guardian's first appearance (in X-Men #109, which this TPB also includes in its entirety at the end of the collection) -- though that may have equally been Byrne's way of meeting a deadline!

The other stories in this collection perhaps reflect Byrne's interest in horror (as had the Sasquatch tale) -- which the brightly coloured costumes and Byrne's open, bright art, maybe didn't fully suit. There's a three-parter involving a lake monster in Lake Ontario (part horror -- including a rather cavalier murder of a baby! -- and part super hero, with the Sub-Mariner guest starring, and a returning Alpha Flight foe) and a two-parter involving evil spirits and the characters having to go back in time a Century to find out the cause of it all. It starts out intriguing (precisely because it's more a ghost story, involving a family with a mysterious past) but the second half is pretty simple and never really builds on that potential (though Byrne, who I think was from Alberta, has fun rooting the story in Calgary's history).

But the stories are more memorable for the initial concept (Arctic research base, lake monster, gothic family secrets) rather than the ultimate execution. Though I realize Alpha Flight continued to play with horror/supernatural themes throughout its run in a way that, say, The Avengers and The X-Men don't so much (maybe thanks to characters like Shaman and Talisman the team seemed to have deeper roots in that milieu).

This collection doesn't end on a cliff hanger (nor begin that way) making for a certainly decent collection of tales. Though it's clearly developing threads and ideas that will pay-off in the next and final collection of these Byrne issues.

But as I say: despite being keen for the idea of a Canadian super hero team, I find myself struggling to maintain enthusiasm throughout this collection -- despite high points like #11-12.

Cover price: $ __ USA.

cover by ByrneAlpha Flight Classic, vol. 3 2011 (SC TPB) 260 pages

Written by John Byrne, with Bill Mantlo. Pencils by John Byrne, with Mike Mignola. Inks by Bob Wiacek, Keith Williams, John Byrne, Gerry Talaoc.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Alpha Flight #20-29, The Incredible Hulk #313

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

This is the third of three TPBs labelled Alpha Flight Classic which collected the first 29 issues of the original Alpha Flight series (plus one or two ancillary comics) that comprised the entirety of John Byrne's run on the series -- Byrne who had co-created the team in the X-Men comic and initiated their self-titled adventures. As mentioned in my previous two reviews, I have mixed feelings toward both Byrne and Alpha Flight.

In some ways, this final TPB strikes me as among the strongest -- but that may just because, as it is the final of three, I can look back on the whole as a "story arc," the weakness of individual adventures muted a little if one sees them as simply chapters in a whole. Granted, even the on-going threads are, themselves, not especially well done or necessarily hold up to much scrutiny. Also I think Byrne's art may be among his best on the series here -- having added inkers, or maybe otherwise finding a better way of dividing his time. The detailed backgrounds on the double-sized 24th issue are particularly evocative of the "old" Byrne.

All along in my earlier reviews I had suggested the more memorable issues tended to involve a majority of the characters. And here, there is much more emphasis put on the group -- though there are still more narrowly focused adventures.

The collection kicks off with a two-parter in which Sasquatch and Aurora visit an old family home of Sasquatch's that turns out to be less deserted than it appeared. It continues a theme Byrne had been exploring in previous issues of a using more horror-type plots in this "super hero" series. There's also an Aurora/Northstar tale involving mysterious goings on at a circus. In both cases the stories are okay, though undeveloped (and Byrne prone to using "previously on" sequences that can be almost as long as the original issues -- almost as a way of padding).

Throughout Byrne seems to be using half-developed plots -- as though the stories are just window dressing, while his real focus is on the characters and the on-going soap opera (not uncommon in comics) yet that stuff too can feel a bit loosely developed, or like Byrne isn't entirely sure what he wants to do with it. There's a revelation that Northstar used to be associated with Quebec terrorists -- leading to the team convening a meeting on the matter. But it never actually goes anywhere. Perhaps it was more just a reflection of Byrne's desire to really root the comic in a sense of Canadiana almost moreso than an American comic would be rooted in American life. Throughout the series there is plenty of jumping around to different parts of the country -- including a pitched battle at the West Edmonton Mall!

More dramatic sub-plots that do lead somewhere involve Sasquatch's increasing berserker rages (first chronicled in the earlier Classic volumes) and the seeming return of Guardian, the team's erstwhile team leader who was killed off in the previous collection. The Sasquatch thread leads to the team having to fight their own, then a journey to an otherworldly realm (in the double-sized 24th issue) in an attempt to retrieve Sasquatch's wayward soul -- as well as climaxing the "Great Beasts" theme that had been threaded throughout the series (off and on since issue #1!) involving otherworld demonic creatures. While the Guardian plot then leads into another showdown with their opposite number team, Omega Flight. And maybe the use of such on-going/recurring foes helps add to a sense of a series that has established its own mythos.

With more focus on the team as a group, interacting and playing off of each other -- and allowing for more cutting back and forth in a given story -- there's a greater energy and, well, fun to some of these issues. Although the fundamental plotting can still feel a bit lax. Guardian's explanation for how he survived and returned is so bizarre, outrageous, and over-the-top the only surprise is that the characters accept it unquestioningly! (Perhaps Byrne intended it as a spoof of comic book retcons).

This then leads into a kind of creative swapping of hats, as it crosses over with an Incredible Hulk issue. After these issues, Byrne jumped over to working on the Hulk, while erstwhile Hulk scribe Bill Mantlo took over Alpha Flight. The final issue here is by Mantlo (and penciller Mike Mignola -- hardly reflecting his later style -- and inker Gerry Talaoc) -- so it kind of breaks the "complete John Byrne" theme, but allows the collection to feel like it's come to suitable end. Unfortunately, the final issue itself is a rather forgettable "tussle with the Hulk" story.

Throughout the run Byrne was constantly playing around with the characters, introducing some, dropping others (or killing them off!), only to have them come back, or leave again -- often with a certain lack of consistency as if, as I noted in my previous review, maybe he was just hoping something would inspire him. And to be fair, there was an interesting attempt to have a team comprised of more than just your usual iconic super-men and women, the team coming to include a fat, legless, paraplegic, and another guy drawn to look rather homely -- in addition to its existing little person and split personality!

Like with the previous Classic volumes, this stands enough on its own (on going threads accepted) that it can be picked up as a sample of the team (it doesn't begin, or end, in mid-story). And with more time given to the team as a whole, it can be fun. But given long time fans often cite the Byrne issues as the series' peak, there's a feeling Alpha Flight as a series was a property whose potential was rarely fulfilled, even in these "classic" issues.

Cover price: $ __ USA.

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