December 13, 2009

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Thinning the Herd: Alpha Flight of the Early Nineties

In today's edition of Thinning the Herd, we visit the tail end of one of the most puzzling of Marvel's super-teams, Alpha Flight.

Originally conceived as a group of heroes who had trouble keeping it together, whether it be staying alive or trying not to kill each other (I think Louise Simonson's Spider-Man probably best summed it up--and I am going from memory here--when he questioned their ability to do anything as a group with a quip about their dysfunctional ways), Alpha Flight as an idea always seemed to be better than Alpha Flight as a team.

John Byrne had some fun really messing with the characters, none of whom were important enough to merit staying unchanged, and Bill Mantlo, who wrote oh so many Bruce Banner moments in Hulk, had a pretty good idea of how to keep the World's Worst Heroes (a sort of Anti-Avengers to the Defenders' Un-Avengers) going on angst that was interesting. Alpha Flight was melodrama, but you kinda wanted them to win, even if you knew they couldn't.

By the time this title came limping into the 100 mark, it was the place that had "The Gay Hero" and not much else. The team wasn't any better at what it did, and what it did was no longer interesting, as the same arguments "should we be heroes?", "why can't we do better than this?", "why do our members keep self-destructing?" played out over and over again in different cover versions, almost always with the same players.

I have a vague interest in Puck and a few of the others, so I grabbed some of the early nineties Alpha Flight for a quarter each, which was $1.50 cheaper than people were paying at the time they came out.

I know I felt like I overpaid, so I can only imagine what a 1992 person said after reading them. Then again, these are full of so many 1990s cliches, maybe they liked it. I don't think my 1990s self would have, as I never got into the Image thing. This is an example of comics just not written for me, and therefore...thinning the herd.

Proof that Marvel and DC are always going at it, this cover tries to grab people from DC's annual crossover by showing how much really fake blood Pat Broderick can put on the cover and still get by the Comics Code.

Broderick doesn't do a bad job with the artwork here and elsewhere. It's very much the style of the time if you like or liked that sort of thing, Broderick will do the job.

The writing, however, is just not there. Simon Furman tries to show this as a team falling apart, but we've been there, done that so many times, it just doesn't work anymore. While Puck and Heather angst, the minor league franchise gets in trouble against a D-list villain (the *son* of Spider-Man villain the Jackal) and near-death results. Meanwhile, another team member is doing Wolverine Lite, and someone with a gun and pouches wants to kill him.

These idea continue through the rest of the issues. I don't have a complete run, but I was able to follow the plotlines well enough. Wild Child, the Logan-like character, keeps trying to find his humanity and avoid a lawsuit from the X-Men (okay not really on that second part.) The minor-league heroes keep doing things wrong. Puck gets really upset because his team wants to stop criminals and and not just let them run rampant in the name of saving property values.

This last part is notable only because of Mark Millar's "Civil War"--several of the concepts he brings to the table are actually present here. And they don't work any better (worse, actually, because writer Furman has no A-list heroes to play with), as I still maintain that the day you start worrying about real-life impact on your universe, you open up a can of worms too big to make the payoff worth it.

We also have some crossover action with the Infinity Crusade (never read it, so I wasn't able to get what's going on) and an awful lot of monsters. By the time we get to the end of these comics, it's all just gotten really bad. Take a look at the villain on this cover:

It's no wonder that people have trouble taking comics seriously sometimes. I mean, this looks like someone combined the Thing with the Human Torch and Dormammu and then looked for the most evil-sounding name that hadn't been used yet.

The plot involves Shaman tricking various members, ex-members, and hangers-on of Alpha Flight (now that's a real group, let me tell you) into helping him because he didn't really care if they got killed in the process, apparently.

That might be a bit harsh, but that was the impression I got. Shaman, by the way, has apparently acted like this more than once and is doing it shortly after Sasquatch was shown to have been withholding crucial info from his teammates and before that Northstar was shown to be uncaring towards his--well, you get the idea.

Also, please note that Spawn did not guest star, that's a Marvel character who borrows his outfit when he's not using it on the cover.

I will say this for these issues, however. They sure know how to give Tor Johnson a cover:


Overall, this part of the series just shows that sometimes it's better to just let a concept end (this one did 4 issues later) rather than keep trying to flog it to death. Sometimes we are sad to see series go early, but I think that's better than doing what Marvel did a lot of in the 1990s--keep revamping characters, keep making things "edgier" (armored-up Daredevil anyone?), and keep saying the same thing over and over again.

Alpha Flights 114-126, give or take a few, I'm afraid you're a victim of thinning the herd.

[Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database for the covers.]