Monday, December 2, 2019

Remembering The North

Way back when I was in high school, I was going through the first issue of the Marvel Universe Handbook Book of the Dead series and one character immediately caught my attention. His name was Guardian and I thought that his simple red and white costume based on the Canadian flag looked pretty cool. So I proceeded to read his entry and that is how I recall being officially introduced to Canada’s premiere superhero team Alpha Flight.

As a comic book reader, I have always been attracted to the less popular secondary superheroes and super teams. I always preferred the New Mutants over the X-Men or the West Coast Avengers over the classic team. I don’t know why but I just liked going against the flow I guess. Who doesn’t like “discovering” something that not many people are into and calling it your own? And this is why Alpha Flight, a relatively obscure team in its own right appealed to me so much I guess.

Anyway, let’s start from the very beginning. Alpha Flight was the creation writer & artist John Bryne who is well known in the comics industry for his work on the X-Men, Fantastic Four and the Avengers. In fact Alpha Flight made their official debut in the pages of the X-Men. They were created by Byrne to help flesh out the backstory of my “favorite” Canadian mutant Wolverine.

As the story goes, before joining the X-Men, Wolverine was “connected” with the Canadian government branch Department H which was tasked with handling super powered individuals. Department H itself was a rather sketchy operation as it was suspected that they were tied into his traumatic Weapon X/adamantium laced bones origin.

Anyway he was being groomed to lead the team of Canadian superheroes that Department H was assembling dubbed Alpha Flight. In the end though, he made the wiser business decision to cross the border and join up with the X-Men instead. Of course, Department H was not happy about this and sent Alpha Flight Stateside to “bring back their boy”.

Although, they were initially introduced as adversaries, Wolverine and the Flight eventually ironed things out and became allies. They then went back to Canada to have their own crazy adventures up North and proved popular enough to get their own series which lasted over 100 issues.

The original team consisted of the following members, their leader, Mac Hudson who operated under the codename Guardian, the mystic doctor Shaman, Michael Twoyoungmen, the demigod shapeshifter Snowbird, speed and light generating twin siblings Northstar and Aurora and the great orange beast Sasquatch. Later on they were joined by a few more members, the aquatic alien Marina, the giant robot Box, Shaman’s daughter Talisman and the small but rugged acrobat Puck. This lineup is basically what is considered by many fans as the classic Alpha Flight lineup.

After John Bryne decided to leave the series, the writing chores were taken up by another notable comic book writer Bill Mantlo who is best known for his part in creating popular Marvel characters Rocket Racoon and Cloak & Dagger. And it was during the Mantlo run that I actually started reading the comic. And it is his version of the team that I really came to love.

Once he took over the writing reigns, Mantlo started systematically removing Byrne’s core members and replaced them with his own character creations. While I understand that for a lot of the original Alpha fans this would be rather controversial and unappealing, I had no strong attachments to many of the original characters so I was perfectly fine with seeing them go in many interesting and oftentimes convoluted storylines.

After a number of issues under his belt, the Alpha Flight team had been completely transformed. First of all, Mac Hudson had already been dead for some time having been killed off during the Byrne run. Since his death, his young inexperienced wife took over the leader role and eventually donned a modified version of her dead husband’s battle suit. She went by the codename Vindicator.

While this leadership change happened in the Byrne run, Mantlo took it and ran with it. Under his writing, Heather Hudson grew from a timid housewife into a fierce warrior and effective leader. Nowadays people like to harp about how there aren’t that many strong women characters in comics, well then they haven’t met Heather Hudson. Her story and character growth is one of the highlights of the Mantlo run in my opinion. And best of all it all made sense, it was a very organic, natural and believable.

She wasn’t like some agenda driven Captain Marvel* character that was just shoved down our throats and that we were made to all of a sudden believe was one of the most important and powerful characters in the Marvel universe.

Aaaaaand now that I’ve got that off my chest….

Aside from Vindicator, Mantlo brought back Sasquatch to the team but with a major twist, that took me two blog entries to to cover.

And he elevated a supporting character in the Bryrne era into a main character, the metal manipulating mutant Madison Jeffries, who took over the Box mantle from his now deceased best friend Roger Bochs (which is another story worth another blog post on).

And that was it.

Mantlo’s team basically consisted of 3 main members. Of course, Mantlo brought in a bunch of cool supporting characters as well who formed the trainee team Beta Flight.

The most notable member was Kara Killgrave, the daughter of the Purple Man, who is nowadays best known though the masterfully portrayal by actor David Tennant in the Netflix series Jessica Jones. Like her father she also possessed the ability to control people on command.

There was also Manikin, who could produce three versions of himself from different time periods. A digestive primordial protoplasm ooze named Proto, and caveman named...Apeman(duh) from the past and a teleporting intellectual from the future named Highbrow.

And finally, little Laura Dean who could open dimensional portals, and her savage feral twin Goblyn.

So as you can see, I started reading Alpha Flight at an interesting transition point wherein Mantlo was slowly molding the team more to his liking. Still the way he did it was in my opinion well done. He didn’t just create some catastrophic event that just wiped out the original team for shock value (unlike Bendis and his whole Collective fiasco).

I think he handled the old team members’ exits with a lot of respect (although I’m sure a lot would disagree with me), so much so that while I didn’t really read the original Bryrne run from start to finish, I grew to love his characters just as much as Mantlo’s.

Anyway, this post has gone a little bit longer than I anticipated and I haven’t even gotten to the toys yet. So this story will definitely be continued….

*ironically, in later years, the name “Alpha Flight” would be used for a space program  serving Earth's first line of defense against extraterrestrial threats led by Captain Marvel and also featuring some classic members of the original Alpha Flight...