Titanic Teams: John Byrne’s Alpha Flight
Alpha Flight was the second X-Men spinoff title (with The New Mutants being the first) and X-Men co-plot/penciler John Byrne took full control of the series. Byrne’s Alpha Flight was a comic book about characters disguised as a team book. It wasn’t your archetypal team book where heroes would team-up to battle the latest world-threatening menace. Alpha Flight focused on one team member per issue while the main team story ran as a subplot, building to a climax that would bring the team together.
Alpha Flight was originally designed as a super-hero team that could match up against the X-Men. Byrne challenged himself to bring the characters to life beyond a supporting role and shake the title’s billing as an X-Men spin-off. His entire first year on the book, after a full-team battle in issue #1, was spent building characters, dedicating an issue or two each, giving them some room to breathe. He had a plan though and it was building up to issue #12.
With Alpha Flight #12, Byrne completely changed the rules. I remember anxiously waiting for issue #12, reading the in-house ads, guessing at who would be the one to die. I was convinced it was Northstar that would receive the Grim Reaper’s cold touch. With perhaps his boldest move ever, he killed Guardian. It was an unexpected twist. Sure, a team could survive the loss of its leader, but Alpha Flight was nowhere near a cohesive team.
Some readers saw it as a gratuitous death, other saw it as Byrne’s attempt to infuse the comic with a bit of reality. Personally, I never liked it and that in itself is a testament to Byrne’s characterization. I cared about Guardian and certainly didn’t want him to die.
The ending carried with it a haunting sense of tragedy that was still there when I re-read it. Guardian’s character wasn’t as established as say Mr. Fantastic or Captain America, so Byrne probably didn’t have to work hard to convince his editor of what he planned to do. This event also provided Byrne with an opportunity to explore a situation which he could never have done on the Uncanny X-Men or The Fantastic Four.
From his Byrne Robotics FAQ:
“I did that particular story because I felt Mac [Guardian] was the least interesting of all the members of Alpha, but realized that from his death I could generate a whole flock of interesting subplots and arcs. In my constant quest to make the members of Alpha more three dimensional, I was always looking for anything that could be used to generate depth in their personalities. Mac’s death — and their reactions to it — was such a way.”
“There has not been half the fun doing Alpha Flight that there has been doing the Fantastic Four. Number two has been the fact that the general response from the fans and the readers is that I set out to do something different with Alpha Flight and they don’t like it . . . When Alpha Flight was announced the reaction was, ‘Oh, Gawd, another group book.’ And I said ‘Okay, we’ll give you something different. This is not going to be a group book, this is going to be individual issues of their own titles.’ And they didn’t want it. The readers didn’t want it. Because of my particular frame of mind on the book, I couldn’t turn it into what they wanted.”
While Alpha Flight can be seen as B team, it always carried with it A team aspirations. There have been dozens of creators and multiple reboots trying to find that elusive combination and approach that could propel this team into a superstar bracket.