What originally got me interested in Alpha Flight was the fact that (a) it was a Canadian superhero group (in fact, the only Canadian superhero group in the Marvel Universe), and (b) it was the only series I knew of then to have an openly gay main character. Being gay myself, I was naturally curious to see how a superpowered queer would be treated. I got into the series only a few months before it folded in early 1994 and, over the next couple of years, collected most back issues, the two annuals, and a couple of team-ups with the X-Men. It was a large investment of time and effort, which makes it even harder to admit that, in the end, Alpha Flight was a disappointment.
The story begins in X-Men #121 (May 1979), when the X-Men travelled to Canada and tussled with Canada’s Official Super-Hero Group, Alpha Flight. These six Canadians had been invented solely to give the X-Men someone to fight but apparently struck a chord with the public and so, four years later, they received their own ongoing monthly series.
All things considered, the series was off to a promising start. John Byrne—the writer and artist for the first 28 issues—did a pretty good job of creating personalities and histories for characters that were nothing more than powers, code names and nifty costumes. He introduced us to the distant and mysterious Snowbird, shapeshifting daughter of northern gods; Sasquatch (Walter Langkowski), a scientist who could transform into a monster; Shaman (Michael Twoyoungmen), a Native man who studied to be a medical doctor and rediscovered the magic of his ancestors late in life; the mutant twin speedsters Northstar and Aurora (Jean-Paul and Jeanne-Marie Beaubier), her with dual conflicting personalities, him a sarcastic and obnoxious loner; finally, Vindicator (James Hudson), founder and leader of Alpha Flight, wearing a special suit that allowed him to fly and project beams of energy. To this original core of six were added two in issue #1: Puck (Eugene Judd), a midget with excellent fighting skills and a Mysterious Past, and Marrina, an amphibian humanoid with a Mysterious Origin.
The stories weren’t exactly inspired, or even terribly original. Some of the characters were annoying knockoffs: for example, Sasquatch was a gamma-powered shifter like the Hulk, and in fact his origin story has him reproducing Dr. Banner’s experiments with gamma energy. Also, Puck was in my opinion too reminiscent of Wolverine, with the short stature, hairy body, Mysterious Past and unrequited love for a redhead (in this case it was Heather Hudson, Vindicator’s wife and later widow). The dialogue tended to be painfully artificial and expository, as you’d expect from mainstream superhero comics of that era, and the plots contained the usual tired shenanigans of “shocking” twists and retcons… but on the whole I thought they were mostly serviceable, and entertaining enough.
It seems that Northstar had been written as a gay character right from the start, and that his abrasiveness was just a way to hide his feelings and keep others at a distance. But that clue, and others in his personal history, were only there if you knew what you were looking for. In issue #41 (December ’86), there came a huge, not-at-all subtle hint about Northstar’s gayness. More hints followed, about one per issue. “Aha!” I thought. “They”re going to make him come out for sure!” Imagine my surprise when, in issue #50 (September ’87), Northstar’s nature was retconned as being part Elf, and he, Aurora and Puck were suddenly yanked out of the story. If I had to guess, I’d say that the execs at Marvel got a little nervous about this costumed faggot and wanted him gone. Plus, Elf, get it? It’s like, fairy. Yeah, my sides are still splitting.
Northstar stayed gone for two and a half years, returning in issue #81, his gayness forgotten for the moment. It was in issue #106 (March ’92) that he officially came out of the closet. I used to think I’d have a hard time finding that issue since it had to be a valuable collector’s item, but it turns out Alpha Flight was never that popular. I think I eventually got my hands on it for about $10 (Canadian!). “So” you might be thinking, “this is great! It’s a major step forward for gays and lesbians, right? An openly gay superhero is bound to open people’s eyes, make them rethink their positions, right?” Sure, but…
Let’s not beat around the bush: Northstar’s coming out was a joke. Yes, I thought it was done pretty well (a bit preachy, maybe, and it had to happen in the middle of a big fight scene, but there you go). Yes, it caused a reaction. Yes, gay readers loved it. But then Northstar went right back into the closet as fast as he’d come. The words “gay” or “homosexual” weren’t even mentioned once throughout the series’ remaining run. Northstar’s coming out was vaguely mentioned a couple of times, but never using those words: it was just his “revelation.”
If I had to pick a moment, I’d say that’s when Alpha Flight jumped the shark. In retrospect the creative team—never stellar to begin with—had been running on autopilot for a while now, and the last two years of the series’ life were filled with dull, pointless and/or derivative storylines, padded with mindless action scenes or focussing on new and completely uninteresting minor characters.
The 4-part Northstar miniseries, beginning immediately after Alpha Flight‘s last issue, only added insult to injury. I thought now they’d address his gayness. No such luck. It was just a mindless action-oriented plot, with the coming-out obliquely mentioned only once. We did see a former love interest of Northstar’s, but guess what? She was a woman!
Northstar’s brief coming out wasn’t Alpha Flight‘s only opportunity for really interesting and potentially groundbreaking stories, but the writers and management lacked either the balls or the imagination to do more than scratch the surface. There was Sasquatch, who at one point (through a very strange sequence of events) was temporarily transformed into a woman. There was the ongoing issue of Aurora’s multiple personalities, which merged and split and changed at the writers’ whims. There was Kara Kilgrave, an adolescent mutant with purple skin and the power to control minds introduced in issue #41: she left Alpha Flight for a short time to try to have a normal life, but failed miserably. The writers had a golden opportunity to explore what it means to be an outcast and freak.
One thing that doesn’t so much disappoint as piss me right off is the mangled Canadiana. Readers were reminded in almost every issue that John Byrne is an expatriate Canuck… but so what? The stories—even the exposition on Canadian landmarks and history—still all felt written from an outsider’s (ie: U.S.) perspective. I don’t know what a Canadian perspective or sensibility would look like in a superhero comic (or maybe I do?) but I’m sure Alpha Flight didn’t have it. This was not a comic written by us or for us. The geography and history could have been taken out of any high school textbook, what French there was was usually very bad or not real Québecois, and there were even several instances of the writers and artists disrespecting our national heritage with their sloppy work. Look, I’m no flag-waving nationalist, and I realize they didn’t want to make too much of an effort since most of the audience didn’t read French and probably couldn’t find Canada on a map, all tucked away down there. Really, I’m not asking for much: Maybe get the national motto right. Or at least learn to draw the flag correctly. Jesus.
I’m still missing a couple of issues, but have lost interest in searching for them. Neither am I interested in collecting the latest volumes (Alpha Flight was restarted twice; first in 1997, lasting about 30 issues, then in 2004). I hear Northstar temporarily rejoined the Flight in their second incarnation, has been with the X-Men for the last couple of years, and is a lot more out. Well, good for him, but I won’t be following his adventures anymore. If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t even have started. Alpha Flight never reached much beyond “okay,” and many other comic books have done a better job of portraying queer characters without wimping out.