Armagideon Time

Though John Byrne has made a long public transition from comics superstar to embarrassing crank, my fascination with his early 1980s Alpha Flight run remains eternal. There was nothing else like it — in tone or structure — in the realm of mainstream superhero comics before or since.

It was a team book in which the entire roster of the team gathered only a handful of times. The bulk of the stories featured only an individual or pair of Alpha Flight members doing their own thing under the aegis of some slow-burning, overarching plot threads. Its Canadian setting gave it an odd vibe which set it apart from the rest of the Manhattan-centric Marvel Universe. It included a fairly diverse cast, which was as progressive in its time as it was problematic in hindsight. (In that sense, it serves as a sobering reminder how nothing ages as poorly as good intentions tend to do.)

Byrne himself wasn’t particularly fond of the franchise or the characters, yet Alpha Flight is probably the most experimentally entertaining superhero work he’s ever done. Perhaps his lack of enthusiasm played a part, spurring him to muck around with genre conventions as a way to keep things creatively interesting. Having eschewed the standard templates for superheroic team narratives, Byrne pushed Alpha Flight beyond the psycho-sexual sci-fi oddities of the Bronze Age X-Men and into the realm of body horror.

Now, this wasn’t four-color Cronenberg by any stretch, but it was almost unique (alongside Bill Mantlo’s work on ROM around this time) for a mass market mainstream superhero series in the early 1980s. From the grisly assimilation-invasion morphology of the Plodex to Gilded Lily’s alchemical immortality to Pink Pearl’s carnival of grotesques, elements of the subgenre shared space with — and overshadowed — the requisite spandexifed slugfests. Even the overarching meta plot of the run — the return of ancient and horrific Great Beasts of myth — were given disturbingly visceral subtexts to their cosmic horror underpinnings.

It gave the stories a disturbing zing to them, a novel experience that would soon become depressingly commonplace as publishers began chasing the “edgy maturity” chimera in earnest during the second half of the decade.

Still nothing will ever top the moment when I first encountered this in Alpha Flight #19 (February 1985)…

I was a few months short of turning thirteen, sitting in the back of my parents’ car with a fresh haul of new comics from the local flea market. I’d been reading “grown-up” horror fiction since I was in the fourth grade and working my way through the classic gorehound canon via my family’s new VCR. These fictions held no horrors for me. I was a big boy.

And then I saw those panels. I’m not saying I was scared, mind you. It just sort of happened that the issue got buried at bottom depths of my comics collection where I ran no risk of accidentally stumbling across it until trembling curiosity inevitably got the better of me.

Recommended listening: Moev – Beautiful Beast (from Dusk and Desire, 1986)

[audio:151006mbb.mp3]

More chills from 1980s Canada.

2 Responses to “Halloween Countdown: October 6 – Must be mistaken”

  1. Chris Wuchte

    I recently re-read Byrne’s Alpha Flight run. Still loved it. I was amazed at how well I recalled stories I’d read 30 years ago. Several pages in to almost every issue I’d find myself going “Oh, yeah, this is the one where….” There are comics I read last month that I remember with less clarity.

    Some of it’s aged badly, as is to be expected. But it held up surprisingly well.

    And how on earth did my friends and I not pick up on Northstar’s sexuality? He drops hints all the time. There’s even a story in which Northstar pays a visit to his “mentor”, an older man that helped him through a “rough time”. The moment when he’s shocked to learn that man has a daughter should have set alarm bells off.

  2. Happenstance

    I wish Byrne had given more of a shit about the overall result than these moments. I remember well the “windowpane” page from the “Shaman vs. Scrambled Eggs” story–four identical panels, each one top-half-filled with a balloon crammed with expository dialog; Snowbird’s preposterous romance with the wimpiest Mountie imaginable (the development of which manages to take place primarily offscreen, robbing it of any plausibility it might have had); “Snowblind” and the ridiculous rationalization that eventually broke down to “huh huh huh I troll youuuuuuu.” Even beyond these extreme examples, his dashed-off page layouts alone made it clear he didn’t care.

    (…and then, as all of Byrne’s Marvel projects were, AF was handed off to Bill Mantlo, who somehow managed to make things so much worse he ultimately had to pull that “it was alllll a dream” cop-out to erase a huge hunk of it. )

    And yet…Byrne’s run WAS progressive, even more than suggested above; Byrne was forbidden by Jim Shooter to reveal Northstar’s sexual orientation, so Byrne “coded” it into the narration of the first Deadly Ernest story (AF #7, I think). Sometimes one can troll for good causes.

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