Can’t stop, won’t stop reading Alpha Flight

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I recently wrote up a list of helpful comics for those considering a move to Canada (for absolutely no reason whatsoever) for Book Riot. As my blog is a safe space, I can admit here that I basically reverse-engineered the entire list because I desperately needed to talk about my new favorite superhero team: Alpha Flight.

81ru-zbq4jlEven in a time when a bit overwhelmed at work, desperate to understand what’s going on with my country, trying to read as many spy books as humanly possible, and am now officially about five months behind on all the series on my pull list, I’ve been using my spare time to read, think about, or fancast Alpha Flight. For those unfamiliar, Alpha Flight is basically Canada’s answer to the Avengers (and personally, I think it’s very rude that the Avengers, a bunch of American heroes based in the U.S., claimed the title “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”). Their leader is James MacDonald Hudson, better known as Guardian, who joins the ranks of men like Captain America and Captain Britain by wearing his country’s flag proudly as a form-fitting spandex uniform. The rest of the team is made up of a distinctive cast of characters from across Canada.

Alpha Flight began as a sanctioned government group, the highest rank a superhuman could reach after first working their way through Gamma and then Beta Flight. With the full support of their government, these super Canadians would then be dispatched to deal with all manner of northern mayhem, from standard supervillains to ancient gods of the tundra (and, occasionally, a famous ex-Alpha Flight member with a metal skeleton and sharp claws to match his prickly personality). Of course, when the team was eventually officially disbanded, they continued their work underground. Because if there’s one thing Canadians are great at, it’s standing on guard.

The X-Men will always be my first and favorite superhero team, but Alpha Flight is giving them a run for their money. I started reading the classic trades on a whim, almost as a joke. I bought volume 2 of the run on the last day of Boston Comic Con last year. Before that, my only connection to Alpha Flight was one episode of X-Men: The Animated Series in which Wolverine went back to Canada and fought them, for some reason? (It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the episode.)

screenshot-2017-01-26-22-28-35But what I found in these pages is a surprisingly diverse cast, an admirable touch of realism, and always entertaining storylines, all of it better than I could have ever hoped. I was initially very impressed by the diversity of the book’s case. Though Alpha Flight is led by a white dude (what wasn’t back then and isn’t to this day?), the team roster (variable as it may be) includes three four women (Heather O’Neil Hudson, Guardian’s wife; Jeanne-Marie Beaubier/Aurora, a Quebeçoise with dissociative identity disorder; Snowbird, who is actually a demi-god and sometimes masquerades as an RCMP officer; and Marrina, a humanoid alien), as well as a Little Person (Eugene Judd, known as Puck) who has apparently lived nearly as long as Wolverine has. This team also includes Northstar — Jean-Paul Beaubier — who is now, of course, an openly gay hero (and one of the major characters Marvel holds up as a symbol of progress). He wasn’t out at the time, but it’s very clear that the creators intended for Jean-Paul to be gay all along.

But the book does miss the mark most of the time when it comes to two categories: race and mental health. There are two people of color on the team — Dr. Michael Twoyoungmen, a.k.a. Shaman, a First Nations doctor who turned his back on his heritage to follow a “white man” profession and then had to embrace it again to take on his stereotypical persona, and his daughter Elizabeth, a.k.a. Talisman — and yes, they’re the only two people of color in the book and, yes, they’re related. Aurora’s struggle with her alternate personality is also not always handled well, often overplayed to up the drama rather than being used to actually explore the real experience of mental health in the 1980s.

I think it’s important to be critical of the things you love, to acknowledge the flaws in even your favorite media and hold the creators accountable. Of course, this run of Alpha Flight began in 1983 and ended in 1992, so there’s no one to whom I can really express my dissatisfaction anymore. But I applaud the book for its imagination and heart, while also keeping my eyes wide open to the fact that it is far from infallible.

Overall, I love that the characters have complex relationships with each other, as friends and lovers and characters in each other’s backstories. I sincerely like each of the characters and care deeply about them (and their relationships), and though not every plot is handled with the necessary tact or gravity, I think Alpha Flight succeeds far more than it fails.

(I would also very much like this team to be made into a movie, preferably actually set in the late 70s/early 80s and with a more modern sensibility when it comes to the issues I’ve outlined above.)

Read any good comics lately? A fan of Canada in general? Discuss in the comments!


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