After his success as co-writer and star artist on the Uncanny X-Men, the sky was the limit for Canadian cartoonist John Byrne. While the mutant monthly was a hot before his arrival, the comic really took off after the art team of Byrne and Austin refaced the series forever. With a dynamic art style and non-stop action and drama, the X-Men went from a little series that could to a contender for top super hero series of its time.
So where do you go from there?
Thankfully, Byrne created his own super hero team called Alpha Flight. A cross between the Avengers and the X-Men and something else entirely, Alpha Flight was something that Marvel Comics readers had never seen before. Introduced in Uncanny X-Men #120, the Canadian super team originally was intended to have Wolverine as its leader before he went rogue. With straight-laced James Hudson wearing the cybernetically-enhanced uniform of Guardian, Alpha Flight squared off with the X-Men to reclaim their leader. The result was immediate as readers were attracted to the colorfully garbed agent who seemed more at home at the Distinguished Competition than the House of Ideas. It was this veneer of standard super hero that remained part of the appeal of Byrne’s Alpha Flight. The creator had a gift for giving his readers just what they wanted, whether they knew it or not. In the case of Alpha Flight, Byrne delivered a super hero squad full of surprising character.
A government-formed team of mystics and experts on everything from cybernetics to gymnastics, Alpha Flight was a unique experiment in the mighty Marvel style. The series may have started with action and adventure, but soon became embroiled in some of the most gripping suspense and disturbingly modern action that readers of ‘the big two’ had seen since Wolverine gutted a guard in the Hellfire Club adventure.
The big twist was the unexpected addition of danger as we learned all of the character’s dark secrets and limitations. Namorita had a kind of animalistic blood-lust. Sasquatch may seem like an intelligent version of the Hulk but turned out to be on the verge of madness each time he changed into the monstrous orange beast. And the alluring Aurora fought between three distinct warring personalities on a daily basis. Each character had his or her own character complication that made the seemingly straight-forward team of heroes into a group of people living on the edge of danger whether they were fighting a villain or not.
The drama was raised a notch as the first year of the hit title drew to a close. To whet the appetite of the readership, a clever ad was released.
The cataclysmic issue 12 was a turning point for the series as team leader James Hudson was brutally murdered in battle. The title continues to gain momentum even after Byrne left the title when artist Mike Mignola arrived. The series had gained a loyal following who stick by the heroes through their many trials and tribulations as Alpha Flight steadily rose to the state of super team equal to headliners like the Avengers.
In time, sales lagged and the title was canceled, but not for long. Two attempts at a revival failed to capture the readers’ attention and title disappeared into relative obscurity until New Avengers #16 where the entire team was wiped out in a two-panel spread.
Can’t win ‘em all.
While some modern readers may scoff at the idea of a Canadian super team, at the time Alpha Flight out-X-ed the X-Men, was more dynamic than the Avengers and more daring than the Defenders. It was a series that offered readers something brand new that was well before its time, a sophisticated and intelligent super hero book lead by a star creator allowed to follow his own direction, free from editorial interference.
More recently, the resident strongman Sasquatch was released as an action figure by ToyBiz with Guardian on the way in action figure form.
There are even plans for a special box set of the entire team, so you can’t say there isn’t some interest in the characters. If you’ve never read the series, Marvel has recently collected the first 16 key Byrne issues in trade paperback editions.
I guarantee that you’ll never see its like again.