Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Awful Flight

I haven’t usually been in the habit of doing comic book reviews in this blog (or any kind of reviews, but what the heck: Go see Hellboy!), but this one sticks out like a sore thumb.  I don’t know when the last time was that I read a comic book this bad from a major publisher (you know, from someone who should know better).

This was published by Marvel Comics in March, 2004.  A second issue should be on the stands now, but you can probably still find this one.  Although why you would want to is beyond me…

You know, any comic which carries the cover title “You Gotta Be Kiddin’ Me” probably answers its own sales question right there.  Why should I bother?

A little history: The superhero team Alpha Flight premiered some 25 years ago in an issue of X-Men.  They were funded by the Canadian government (featuring such Great White North-themed characters as Guardian [then called Vindicator], Aurora and Northstar, Shaman, Sasquatch, and Snowbird), and they had been sent to recover one of their former members, Wolverine.  A few years later, they got their own book, adding members like Puck, Marrina, the Purple Girl (daughter of the Purple Man, natch), Manikin, a new Guardian (wife of the original), and Diamond Lil.  They had their ups and downs, had connections to the Avengers and the X-Men, and saw some notable storylines, including Northstar contracting AIDS (later revamped into him being half-Asgardian and “allergic” to Earth; that’s right, he wasn’t a fairy, he was a faerie), Sasquatch and Snowbird being killed and brought back to life as one being (so that the originally male Walter Langowski became the female “Wanda”), and the eventual outing of Northstar (see, he really was a fairy!), a story which got so much press that it sent Marvel Comics back into the closet for a decade until they decided to out one of their cowboy characters, Rawhide Kid.

This issue picks up a few years later, with Sasquatch — back to being orange and “Walter”, a story I undoubtedly missed and am probably happy I did — trying to form a new Alpha Flight.  No reason for this is given (AOOGAH!  AOOGAH!); I can’t tell from the story here if it’s to satisfy the government or just because he misses getting beat on regularly.  So to do this, he goes and recruits the members of the old team who are still around, right?  Not that I know who they might be.  Northstar is occupied in some X-Men title, and some of the others are dead, but I’m sure a couple are still around, right?  If not Alpha Flight, maybe the second or third-string groups, Beta Flight and Gammas Flight?  Maybe even the villains, Omega Flight, since a reformed villain always makes a good team member?  Nope, not a former Alphan to be seen.  (AOOGAH!  AOOGAH!)

Let’s pause to look at the first pages of this issue.  We start with a pinup rather than any of the story.  (This should be a warning.)  Then we go to the team in the middle of a battle with some robots, each giving a little quip (not that quipping and in media res stories are unusual for comics), with the page littered with day-glo colored maple leafs and title logos.  And dialogue captions commenting that this isn’t the best place to start the story.  The next page shifts in location and back in time, and the caption says “But as usual, we‘re getting too far ahead of ourselves.”  Probably, this is meant to be funny (but it ain’t).  Really, though, there’s a truism with comics: any time the characters complain that the story is bad, you know you’re in trouble.  When the omniscient narrator makes that complaint, you’re really in deep.

Back to the story.  Instead of recruiting his old buddies, Walter “recruits” (blackmails, actually) Nemesis, a character who appeared a couple times in old Alpha Flight issues; her schtick is that she can’t be killed, can’t remove her mask (something about demonic possession), and she has a sword that can cut through anything.  (Sounds like a Wolverine team-up waiting to happen.)  He also pulls in Major Mapleleaf (cheesy name alert!), the son of the original one who starred in the issue where Northstar came out; I vaguely remember something about MM’s son in that issue, maybe that he was gay, but there’s zippo reference back to that story here (even though it’s the same writer), so who can tell?  It’s also not clear he is anything more than a guy who does public appearances at middle schools on behalf of the Mounties, a là “Officer Ron of the Highway Patrol.”

And he pulls in three new characters.  There’s a tattooed girl who is the owner and super-strong bouncer of a bar in Montréal.  (We know it’s Montréal because we’re told so, not because the artist included any scene-setting landmarks or because the girl or any bar patrons speak French; Zut alors, not even comic book pidgin-French, mon cher!)  Super-strong tattooed female bar bouncer?  Oh, you mean like Grace from DC Comics’ The Outsiders?  Original, original.  (She’ll be co-opting the name of former Alpha Flight-member Puck.  Apparently it has been lost that he used that name because he was small and he tumbled in circles; she is/does neither.)  [Update: it ended up that she was the daughter of the original Puck, but that wasn't mentioned here.  Here, the name came out of the blue.]  Walter also pulls in an 96-year old geezer on his death bed; the guy only has “latent” super powers until Water-as-Sasquatch tries to kill him by scaring him to death.  (Attempted murder.  That’s a good way to build team spirit.)  And a native shaman (but that’s not the codename he’ll use, and of course his real name is “unpronounceable”) from a never-before-known Arctic civilization (not even when Alpha Flight was fighting the Great Beasts up there?) who wears just fur boots and a loincloth (brrr!) and will adopt the name… wait for it… Yukon Jack.  (Naming a Native American, er, Native Canadian after alcohol.  Now that’s politically correct!)  Oh, and lest we forget, he speaks in “thees” and “thous”, but he gets them wrong!  (Sample dialogue: “I have given thou request its proper merit…”.  “Thou” is the second-person archaic form of “you”; what writer Lobdell needed here was a version of “your”, which would be “thy” or “thine”.  Hasn’t he ever read at least an issue of Thor?  [Now, this was in a dream sequence, but it’s still shoddy writing.])

I should revise what I said above: Sasquatch does not recruit them.  Every one of the characters refuses his offer.  (He makes cliché offers to each, like “help the world that will hate and fear you.”  Remember what I said about not knowing why the team is being reformed?)  Obviously, he will get them together by the end of the first six-issue arc — sorry, not going to wade through this for that long! — but based on the end of this issue, he still plans to do it by manipulation rather than honesty.  Will none of these characters have anything else going on in their lives to hold their interests, able to just jump away to new lives as government-directed superheroes?  Like say, communing with nature, or being a role model to kids, or running a business they own, or dying?  (You know, the stuff they were shown to be doing earlier?)  Apparently not.

In the end, the ultimate test of a book like this is: Why this book, why now?  There is no answer to this question coming from this book.  The most likely answer is simply that Marvel needed to bring the team back together in order to keep hold of the trademark; that’s why even the most stupid characters show up again once a decade or so.  But a big question comes with why Sasquatch is the anchor of this book.  You see, Marvel also publishes Exiles, featuring a group of characters from alternate universes hopping from world to world, trying to “fix” the timeline.  (What If…? for the new millennium.)  One of the characters there is Sasquatch — a white sasquatch who transforms into a black woman named Heather McDonald-Hudson, who as a white woman in the main Marvel universe, was the second Guardian.  Confused?  Think you’ll be any less confused by two Sasquatches running around with different colors, names, and genders?

So let’s see: duplicate characters, politically incorrect character names, clichéd and inscrutable reasons for creating the team, horrendous dialogue.  Oh, I forgot to tell you that some of the characters don’t even get names (codename or real names) this issue.  And that the art is of the new “popular” Amerimanga art school, with big feet and ultra-gelled hair, but mediocre anatomy and little detail in the art.  Oh, and an unengaging story which gives you no reason to come back for #2 (unless you like watching train wrecks).  I’ll be surprised if this makes it to issue #6 to conclude the first story arc; it should die at #4.  (No, at #2!  Do I hear a plea for the Exiles to “fix” the timeline by stopping it before #1?)

But really, don’t take my word for it.  Go pick this up at the shop.  Page through it.  And then put it back on the stands.  Quick.  To paraphrase what friend told me to do with the excrement that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, “Wait for it to end up in the quarter bin, and then don’t buy it.”

Updated on July 12, 2004

Updated on January 12, 2011
The series got a second 6-issue arc, and then got cancelled.  A 5-issue Omega Flight series showed in 2007, most US heroes transplanted to Canada (which rather loses the point)  Recent Chaos War-event appearances imply yet another run may be in the offing for 2011.

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