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[Retrospective]Alpha Flight Annual #2

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
edited July 2015 in Graphic Violence
Happy Canada Day.

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There's a couple things to get out of the way first with this one. First, this is an Alpha Flight comic. Alpha Flight was the Canadian super hero team(s). It wasn't like the Marvel UK nonsense where the British had their own mini-continuity and whatnot, Alpha Flight was in the regular Marvel universe and interacted with other groups, mostly the X-Men and their various branches, subsidiaries, characters (particularly Wolverine and Northstar), etc., although they also had fun with the Avengers and, for reasons that are too lengthy and bizarre to go into here, Namor the Sub-Mariner.

It was kind of interesting, not least because this was before all the internet memes about Canada had erupted, so the group didn't feature a super-powered hockey player or Terrence & Phillip ripoff or anything like that. Instead, Canada's approach to superheroics was deceptively well-organized compared to America. Mutants and other superhumans were hired by Canada's Department H and organized into a variety of supergroups to handle superhuman threats, disaster relief and the like. And it wasn't like there was a crappy Captain Alberta ripping off other Marvel characters either; Alpha Flight was a group of misfits worthy of a mid-80s Avengers line-up. There were aliens and goddesses, Native Americans and a superstrong midget, a transgendered sasquatch (s/he eventually reverted to their original gender; I don't remember how, but it really isn't important), a shape-shifting guy that could possess machinery, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

And, eventually, they got totally shafted.

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But, this is long before that, when they still had their own monthly comic series! And, indeed, this is one of those rare things called an annual. For readers too young to remember, comics used to be ordered largely by subscription rather than through your brick-and-mortar retail store or through Comixology; this often covered 12 regular issues (for a monthly) plus a bonus issue once a year (hence the term annual). Annuals tended to be thicker and usually were either stand-alone, or part of some big crossover event, or maybe the culminating issue of an ongoing storyline.

The story for this one is a stand-alone that could have been copied straight out of a pulp magazine. The brave leader of Alpha Flight, Heather MacDonald/Vindicator is in Antarctica, hit by lightning, falls through a geyser into an underground adjunct of the Savage Land, where she rips her suit and conks her head, getting temporary amnesia. Undeterred by these minor setbacks, she womans up, goes into full jungle-survival mode against the various dinosaurs, realizes that the local primitive inhabitants are complete assholes, and rescues some local mutants or mutates.

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Avian! A flying pteranodon-like woman!

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Primate! Super-athletics. Like Beast, before he got in touch with his inner furry.

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Crag! A below-budget version of the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing!

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Acting entirely on instinct, MacDonald/Vindicator trains this ragtag group of misfits into a superhero group, Alpha Prime! Which is pretty impressive, since there's no real indication of how much time is passed, just a couple panels of training montage, and McDonald is still communicating with these guys mostly with grunts and hand gestures. I love that. I love the idea that you can take a superhero team leader, drop her in an unknown and dangerous situation, and bereft of all resources except a couple of superhumans her first fucking instinct is to weld them together into a superhero team!

Eventually, Alpha Prime finds out that the enemies of the village - the village where they were being held prisoner for being different, mind - are going to attack. So Vindicator and Alpha Prime roll in like Imperator Furiosa and save the day (okay, they had a little help from the rest of Alpha Flight, who after many days had finally tracked Vindicator down and came to give her a ride home. This, of course, involved a giant mechanical dinosaur. Because this comic is awesome.)

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See that white fur color? That's how you know Sasquatch is currently female.

So, Vindicator left Alpha Prime with the village that now uh...hated and feared them less, I guess. Although with a warning to stick together and not to trust the villagers too much. Which seems to me to be a kind of a dick move, t'be honest. C'mon MacDonald, you could totally use the new recruits up in Canada. Or maybe establish an embassy or something. You're lucky Alpha Prime are proto-Canadians already; if they were just assholes they'd be ruling that village by now.

Okay, so it's a silly comic. I don't care. It fits neatly into its pages, neither too long or two short. The characters - what there are of them - are interesting, even if they are never, ever heard from again. Which is how it used to be. Characters-of-the-week that everyone forgets about - Marvel and DC must have tens of thousands of them, waiting for some writer to go through the archives and dust them off and say "Hey, didn't we need a love interest for Sauron? Check out this chica!"

[/edit] Okay, so I didn't go deep into analysis on this one. Which is okay: not every comic retrospective has to be a thesis paper. But if you want a bit of deeper thought on this one, here goes.

This is the kind of comic you get when you need to produce at a regular rate. It's not a labor of love. The art isn't breathtaking, the writing is very workmanlike. And that is okay. Not everything has to be the product of genius or some auteur comic creator. Comics are descended from pulp magazines, and in their literary and artistic DNA is the simple purpose to entertain people in exchange for money. It may not be noble to churn out potboiler issues like this one, but there's nothing ignoble about it either. We celebrate the great writers and artists of the comics world because they're exceptional - but even they have to eat. Jack Kirby and Will Eisner put out a lot of material, and it isn't all gold - but a great deal of it was of consistently high quality, and some of it was awesome. So there's nothing wrong with an issue like this - it wasn't really part of some larger metaplot, its impact in continuity was near nil, it is effectively forgotten today - but that's okay! While we celebrate the careful planning and callbacks and continuity which have become the hallmark of many comics, it pays to remember that at its root, they're really just the serial adventures of a cast of characters - some of which are very much self-contained - and which may be fun and fine in their own right. A lot of early comics - I'm thinking of E.C.'s lines, and Marvel's early monster and horror features, and even quasi-anthology comics like Journey Into Mystery - were often very much standalone, introducing new characters and stories. It took a while for the character-driven series we think of as "typical" of American comics to really take off; even the pulps took quite some time to come around to the idea of, say, a magazine devoted entirely to Doc Savage or The Spider.

From a creative standpoint, situation-of-the-week episodes like this are your basic building unit of continuity and character development. You put a bunch of ideas out there, and you see what sticks; sometimes you have to go back to those old concepts and explain why such-and-such happened, or retcon it away somehow, and it's a hop, skip, and a jump from there to Cerebus Syndrome. But the thing is - you can, and arguably should, be able to enjoy these little episodes on their own. It's a fun diversion. And it has dinosaurs.

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    WiseManTobesWiseManTobes Registered User regular
    I do miss when Alpha Flight did more than get killed to show how badass a new threat was, ( It's been their last 3 appearances :( )

    Steam! Battlenet:Wisemantobes#1508
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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    Agreed, tired of Alpha Worfing. Transgender bigfeet aside, Alpha Flight was almost remarkably competent by superhero team standards. Not necessarily badass, but competent. Which probably heralded their downfall.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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    NightslyrNightslyr Registered User regular
    Wasn't the white furred giant Snowbird and not Sasquatch?

    Anyway, Alpha Flight seems to fit into a weird category. A lot of people love them, or at least, the idea of a Canadian superhero team, but not enough to sustain sales. So, they get rebooted every 5-10 years, only to be cancelled less than a year later. I could see them working like Section 9 in Ghost in the Shell, where instead of just being northern X-Men/Avengers-lite, they were a crack team of super powered government agents using their unique skills to defuse isolated incidents and unravel conspiracies with a minimal loss of life. But, alas, they'll probably remain Marvel's jobbers.

    All I know is that I have always loved the Vindicator/Guardian costume. It's so simple and looks great.

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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    It gets complicated. Snowbird could turn into a sasquatch, and then Sasquatch died and Snowbird gave up her body (which was, of course, female), and then Sasquatch got his original body back...you're probably right. Still, white sasquatch == female is a good rule of thumb.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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    WiseManTobesWiseManTobes Registered User regular
    It gets complicated. Snowbird could turn into a sasquatch, and then Sasquatch died and Snowbird gave up her body (which was, of course, female), and then Sasquatch got his original body back...you're probably right. Still, white sasquatch == female is a good rule of thumb.

    Unless it's a Wendigo

    Steam! Battlenet:Wisemantobes#1508
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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    Valid point. Except when the Wendigo is green. Ghost, I miss the old Marvel Universe volumes.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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