THE X-MEN PROJECT: CHAPTER 43 – ALPHA FLIGHT

Chapter 43

Canada in the Marvel Universe is one wacky place. Wolverine was a fully deputized government agent. All sorts of Black Ops shenanigans went down, as American forces were allowed to set up secret bases in the Great White North without recourse. If that wasn’t enough, their superhero effort was led by a second rate Reed Richards who tried to make some Maple Leaf oriented Stark Tech. Unfortunately, his technology didn’t work quite hot. But, we’ll get to that later.

For the purpose of brevity, I’m going to focus on the main Alpha Flight team and a few hangers-on. The associates will get coverage later, but towards the end of the series’ run…a lot of lesser members got to join. Unus the Untouchable’s kids, Yukon Jack and Major Mapleleaf stand out as some of the lesser Melvins. Our heroes are Guardian, Vindicator, Aurora, Northstar, Shaman, Sasquatch and Puck. Puck and Vindicator wouldn’t be worked into the series until later, but I consider to be part of the classic line-up. Mainly because Guardian had less than 18 appearances before he blew himself up while working on his faulty suit. That’s a 31 year old spoiler for you!

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John Byrne created most of the team and he spent most of the early years treating them in an awkward manner. I never noticed it while reading the book as a child, but you rarely ever got the full team assembled during Byrne’s run. The first issue introduced us to the Alpha Flight and training Beta Flight team concept. Marrina and Puck came out of the Beta Flight training area, as they were a weird looking fish woman and a dwarf. Canada might think they’re progressive, but they show bias when they chose their superhero starters. It doesn’t matter, as Canada doesn’t have a ton of villains to fight. Somebody’s going to get fed to a Wendigo or a former family friend of the Hudsons.

Alpha Flight first met the X-Men on a stilted platform. Guardian (James MacDonald Hudson) flew to America to recover Wolverine from the X-Men. Guardian believed that Wolverine was an AWOL Canadian Military member who should’ve reported back after the Krakoa mission. Wolverine and the X-Men fight Guardian, but Guardian goes nuts and almost kills Dr. Moira MacTaggert. Guardian heads back to Canada and waits to capture Wolverine in Calgary. His assembled Alpha Flight team is barely a match for the X-Men, as they are a random assortment of individuals with very little training.

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Jean-Paul and Jeanne-Marie Beaubier were the twin mutants known as Northstar and Aurora. Northstar was an Olympic Ski Champion who loved being a professional athlete. Aurora was a mentally ill woman whose origins hint of sexual and physical abuse in her past. To cope with the trauma, Aurora creates her superhero identity as a split personality. This creation doesn’t stop team members from having sex with Aurora, even when she switches back to the Jeanne-Marie personality. People tend to gloss over the sexual crimes committed against Aurora, as it’s not as flashy as the sexual identity issues tied to Northstar.

I was in peak comic reading form when Northstar came out as gay during Lobdell’s run on Alpha Flight. Comic fans went DUH, while the vocal critics lost their minds over a book that the mainstream had never knew existed. This event would repeat 20 years later when Northstar would marry his partner in Astonishing X-Men. In 20 more years, Northstar might adopt a kid or get to donate blood. But, Aurora was physically abused and possibly assaulted at a private school that used religion to force the mutant identity out of her. Got to love that Claremont/Byrne era of Marvel. It’s about as uplifting as a Hugo novel.

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Sasquatch is one of the lesser big brains of the Marvel Universe. Dr. Walter Langowski was a Canadian scientist who experimented with gamma radiation because he thought The Hulk was super cool. Unfortunately, his accident caused the Great Beast of the North to invade his body instead of turning into a green freak. Speaking of green, here’s a fun fact. Langowski was a Green Bay Packers player before becoming a superhero. Look it up, kids. I was shocked to find it in the canon while researching the guy. Sasquatch would later become part of a never-ending body swap storyline that introduced more characters and complicated plot than was needed.

But, it gave Snowbird something to do. Snowbird (Narya) is a demi-goddess who was born when Nelvanna came to Earth and had sex with a park ranger/random hobo. The identity of the father tends to shake a bit, but the name is given as Richard Easton. Nelvanna uses Shaman as the on-site doctor to make sure she gives birth properly and he’s left with Narya to raise. He chooses the Snowbird moniker for her, as she quickly ages over a few scant years. Narya would later become a mountie under an assumed name. She’d meet her future husband and have a child. This would lead to another lengthy plotline that ended with Snowbird dying and taking her human family into the Great Beyond of the Gods with her.

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Shaman and his daughter Talisman fulfilled the mystical requirements of a Marvel team. Shaman is a First Nations guy who wants to blend in with the average Canadians. While his wife was dying, Shaman’s grandfather approached him to become his mystical apprentice. Shaman rejected the offer, but his wife and grandfather died on the same day after the rejection. Shaman was given his grandfather’s skull and trinkets and practically forced into becoming a Shaman while suffering major grief. His daughter was sent to live with Heather McNeil, as we had to have a way to tie the team together in a cohesive effort that made the Prequels seem mature in comparison.

Both Shaman and Talisman would go on to help the team and eventually overcome their father/daughter issues. The difference being that Shaman got a cool pouch that allowed him to reach into The Void. Anything mystical within Shaman’s grasp could be deployed to save the day. This allowed for many Deus ex Machinas during the run of the series, as Talisman was forced into more mystical dramatics. Talisman’s inclusion would begin a long line of members joining the team that ranged from Box to Diamond Lil to Goblyn.

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Puck is a cult favorite that appears on everything Mondo prints to Marvel cartoons. John Byrne never meant him to be anything than a dwarf who was a Nightcrawler level acrobat. Bill Mantlo took over the book after John Byrne left and quickly tacked on a mystical origin. When I think of Canada, I automatically think of magic. Don’t you? Well, Puck was an adventurer in the 1930s who stole the Black Blade in Baghdad. This released a demon who forced Puck into a fight that cut him down in height. The upside was that Puck became effectively immortal from the encounter. Puck would go on to be the heart of the team before getting smacked around the Marvel Now universe.

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So many fans just remember the early years of the team and I envy them for that. The years immediately following Byrne weren’t terrible, just overly complicated and lost focus fast. It’s the issues after #50 going through the end of the series that approach some of the worst sustained publishing that Marvel put out in the era. The Northstar “coming out” issue is amazing in a historical sense, but it was a drop of water in a sea of derp. Given the cheap nature of the back issues, you would probably be able to pick up those 70 issues for about twenty bucks total. Hell, it’s not like Marvel is ever going to put that material into trades.

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I love it when Marvel is willing to go weird, but there has to be a narrative that supports it. Alpha Flight suffered from the fact that it was a team constantly in search of a purpose. Hindsight shows that Byrne must’ve felt the same way, as he never broke character focus during those early issues. When you pull back and try to say here’s a team just to the north of America doing the same thing as the Avengers, the concept falls apart. All of Marvel’s American based teams seem to work on an international scale, so why does Canada need a specific team? Why aren’t they just a group of random heroes covering specific areas as needed?

Israel just has Sabra. China has Collective Man. Japan has Big Hero 6, regardless of what Disney wants to tell you. Then, there’s the smattering of heroes situated in the United Kingdom, Russia and points beyond. What makes Alpha Flight so special outside of being the original friends of Wolverine? The answer is nothing.

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