Mar 20, 2016

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 390: Alpha Flight v.1 #11, June 1984

Before I get back to reading through the BIONICLE comics, I thought I'd delve into the unread portions of my collection again, and pick up Alpha Flight where we left off over a hundred days ago. I'm still not a fan, let me just be clear about that, though it is nice to see Canadian superheroes written with the same aesthetic as their more famous American counterparts. One of the things we wrestle with as Canadians is figuring out our national identity - we tend to define ourselves not by what we are, but by what we are not, and very often that hinges on not being American. I think this comes not so much from an impetus to decry our southerly neighbours, but to clearly delineate ourselves in the face of being only one of three very large countries that occupy this continent. Mexico has a much longer and richer history and culture, America has (and please understand this as a compliment) a much louder one - where does that leave Canada?

As I noted in my last post on this series, things are getting weirdly American in the treatment of the superheroes on Alpha Flight, and I'm not entirely certain where such a thing is going. But I'm going to give John Byrne a little more credit than I usually do, and make some suppositions about this series. It's interesting to me that the series has, at this point, divided it's narratives in a number of ways. The more obvious division is the use of the back-up origin stories, which is certainly not an unusual device in superhero comics. But Byrne has also divided the team in contemporary time, and is telling stories about individual members - sort of an odd choice to make within the first 12 issues of a series. The book is titled Alpha Flight, after all, not Members of Alpha Flight (I'm thinking here of the difference between titles like The Avengers and Solo Avengers). While I think there's definitely some rhetoric going on about the necessity in such heroic circumstances of teamwork, I think we're also seeing a particularly Canadian take on superheroes, very similar to the more contemporary Canadian Corps. We're a country that is, in some ways, very much more regionally diverse than the United States, and part of that diversity comes of the vast disconnects that can take place across the space of a continent (not to say this is not the case in the U.S., but I think Canada, in its founding, strove more for the diversity than for the melting pot). So emblematizing this in a Canadian superteam means having the characters maintain that diversity, rather than, as with the Avengers or the X-Men, gathering them all together in one place and homogenizing them.

Okay, spoiler alert here, though it's for a comic that's 32 years old, so deal with it. The other commentary that's happening here, which is linked to the above, is, I think, quite a bit more political. Guardian notes, as he flies in to rescue his wife at the World Trade Center, that he's put out the call, that the rest of Alpha Flight will soon be on their way, ready to do battle in that battleground of battlegrounds, New York City. But what happens to this team when they're all called together to fight, like a good, ol'-fashioned superteam? Their leader dies. Guardian's death, though I think it may have been retconned a number of times, was one of those occurrences, like the death of Phoenix, or of Rita Farr, that lasted long enough to resonate, to actually cause lasting change in the fictional universe. Heather Hudson's decision to take up the role of Guardian/Vindicator signaled a major shift for the team, and she becomes an important, though still second-tier, female superhero through the 80s. My reading of this tragedy, though almost wholly without support, I admit, is one of recognizing that any attempt by this Canadian team, and more broadly by Canada, to mimic the behaviours of our neighbours will end tragically. Canada may not always know what it is that makes Canada, but we should never make the decision to become someone else.

So, I'm sort of pulled back in now - I'm curious to see if my contentions are borne out, if this comic really does try to think through Canadian identity from the vantage point of the superheroic. We'll talk more tomorrow.

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