Saturday, September 07, 2019

Alpha Flight: True North review

If you were Canadian and a geek in the late 70s and early 80s odds are you were buying Alpha Flight. A team of Canadian heroes basically assembled to give the X-Men a solid fight, they proved to be so popular that co-creator John Byrne launched a series featuring the characters.

A lot of people now may not know the team, or only be passingly familiar, but back in their day Alpha Flight was one of the best selling monthly comics. A chunk of that had to do with how popular Byrne was. During the 1980s there were few comic book artists bigger than he was. So when he left Alpha Flight after 28 issues, the series began a slow decline. Some big name artists worked on the series, like Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and Jim Lee (pretty much everything), but there's little after Byrne that is considered classic. Those issues have never been reprinted and aren't even available on Comixology or Marvel Unlimited. 

The series was cancelled after 130 issues, which is a decent run. Since then there have been attempts to bring the series back, but most didn't last long and were of....variable quality.

There hasn't been an Alpha Flight series in over seven years. But given that Marvel reboots everything eventually, and that many of the characters have played supporting roles in recent years in books like Captain Marvel and the Immortal Hulk, there's a feeling in the air that the team is due for a comeback. Plus there's this intriguing rumour about a Hulk/Wolverine movie featuring Alpha Flight.

But what most people wanted was, well, a good Alpha series.

So a few months ago Marvel announced a one-shot - Alpha Flight: True North. Featuring three 10-page stories told by all-Canadian creative teams. This was accompanied by the thinly veiled suggestion that if it sold well, a new Alpha Flight series might result.

So how is the one-shot? Well, I'm going to do a rare comic review on the book.

1. Mired in the Past
W. Jim Zub
A. Max Dunbar
C. Jim Charalampidis

This marks the third story in the last two years or so that Jim Zub has set in Nunavut. Two in Champions were in Pangnirtung (he co-wrote one with Nyla Inuksuk) with this one in Kugaaruk. At this point we should just consider him an honourary Nunavummiut.

In this case, two members of Alpha Flight go the Kugaaruk after an old evil, with a tie to Snowbird's past, reemerges from the thawing permafrost.

It's a solid little action story with Talisman and Snowbird having to fight a monster. It might not sound like much, but in the space of 10-pages Zub manages to tie off a very old loose end from Alpha Flight, set-up some potential storylines in the future if the series gets picked up (what else might be thawing out in the North because of climate change?) and script a solid fight scene with an emotional payoff.

Of course, he's ably helped by Max Dunbar. I first ran into his art on Champions, although he draws a lot of D&D related comics. It shows, because Dunbar draws some pretty spectacular monsters. Not the "I will have nightmares about this for days" (see Ben Templesmith and Bill Sienkiewicz), but more of a "those are some pretty cool looking monsters."

My only nitpick is that Talisman was introduced as one of the most powerful mystics in the Marvel universe, and yet she always seems to get in over her head. Can't address everything in 10 pages, but it would be nice if it was taken care of in the future. Although kudos for using her new, less skin-revealing costume which is just spectacular.

Future Alpha Flight Creative Team Rating: 8.5/10

2. Monsters
W. Jed MacKay
A. Djibril Morrisette-Phan
C. Ian Herring

After defeating an off-page villain called The Beast in PEI, Aurora and Northstar work on their tan, while Puck and Marrina take a walk on the beach, with Puck telling an old story of his last time on the island and it's surprising connection to Marrina.

Oh, this one was a delight. I thought it was going to be a straightforward flashback Puck story, but the twist of how it connects to Marrina and her reaction made it a joy. Just in case you think you can't do a metric ton of character development in 10 pages this story proves otherwise. MacKay take full advantage of the fact that Puck has always been a natural storyteller. Plus he nicely reins in the "angry alien" character tic that was going on with Marrina the last time we saw her. She's no longer the naive girl we were introduced to years ago, or the victim she's been way too often. Instead she's a little playful, much more thoughtful and adult. It's a staggeringly welcome change.

The last page makes you wish MacKay had another 6 issues to play with. And seriously, someone now needs to write a story with Puck meeting Elsa Bloodstone.

Morrisette-Phan's artwork is perhaps a little less polished than what you saw with Dunbar, but then again he has a harder job. Dunbar got to draw heroes fighting monsters. Morrisette-Phan has to draw two characters walking on a beach talking, with occasional bits of flashback to monster fighting. It's more moody and atmospheric, but it's a story of monsters, regret and forgiveness. The art and colouring is subdued, but I think it works.

Btw, bonus points for Marrina referring to herself as a "Canadian, Newfoundlander and an Alphan." This is why you need Canadians on the book. That's a point of subtlety that I'm not sure most non-Canadian writers would get.

Future Alpha Creative Team Rating: 9.5/10

3. Illegal Guardians
W. Ed Brisson
A. Scott Hepburn
C. Jim Charalampidis

Heather Hudson (Vindicator) is on the run after the events of the last Alpha Flight series. After a mercenary team attacks her and her daughter, she has to decide whether or not to accept the help of her estranged husband, James MacDonald Hudson (Guardian).

I'm not saying Brisson drew the short straw, but Zub gets to do monsters in the Arctic and MacKay gets to have Puck being charming and telling monster stories. Brisson has 10 pages to try and fix the mess the last creative team left Heather Hudson in. Long the heart of the team, the woman who took over leadership of Alpha Flight when her husband was murdered in front of her (he got better. Comics!), she got worked over pretty good in the last series, what with being brainwashed, betraying her country and team, murdering members of her family, kidnapping her daughter, and then going on the run.

Fix that in 10 pages.

Brisson makes a go of it. After a bit of a clunky start (which turns out was supposed to be deliberately a little clunky), you get some nice scenes of Heather and James trying to at least be friends again for the sake of their daughter. And then you get a deeply creepy twist and cliffhanger at the end. Seriously, the more I think about it, the more I think women readers are going to be genuinely horrified by it. You now really have to hope for a new Alpha series, because it needs to be addressed and there also needs to be, you would hope, some pretty serious consequences for Mac and his actions.

As well, I'm kind of meh on Hepburn's art. The one action sequences felt more like something I would have seen in a 90s Marvel book. Kind of clunky. Heather's costume appears by magic, which is weird. And I really don't enjoy how he draws faces, particularly Heather's, which gets bizarrely angular at one point. It's ok, but not great.

Future Alpha Creative Team Rating: 6.5/10

So do I think you should track it down? Absolutely. Not just because I want more Alpha Flight comics, but this is a solid one-shot. It's friendly for new readers, taps into parts of Alpha lore that most long-time fans are going to enjoy and has mostly solid art. It also lays some pretty solid groundwork for a future Alpha Flight series. Which, hopefully, won't be too far away.

Last Five
1. Everything is wrong - Interpol
2. Nova Heart - Spoons
3. Are you ten years ago - Tegan and Sara
4. Bullet in the brain - The Black Keys
5. Talkin' about revolution - Tracy Chapman

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Con aquistions

For the second time in in two years I'm just back from the Emerald City Comic Con. I had so much fun in 2017 that I immediately began making plans to go back. There are a lot of perks to that con....Seattle is a great city, it's a four-day con so it's worth the work to get to it, a break from Nunavut in March is always it's just a great con. It's big, but not insane like New York has become. And they work hard on their artist alley to make it diverse. So it's not just white guys selling art. There's lots of women, POC, GLBTQ and artists just getting started so this kind of con is a big break for them.

Some may go to ECCC for the cosplay, or the gaming section, the show floor and the endless supply of Funko toys (so, so much Funko at this show. Dear god....), but I live for a good artist alley. I don't normally post this kind of thing up. It feels like bragging, which I guess it is, but I have all this cool art and can't really show it to anyone. Cathy will certainly nod and make appreciative noises, but she doesn't love this stuff like I do. Which is fine. She has her things as well....

I might have gone a little overboard. But I always do. So here's the artwork I got, along with a bit of information about the artist. If you like the art, I really encourage you to go and track down the artists. They often have all kinds of things you can buy...original art, t-shirts, pins, prints, etc.

After a couple of false starts, my first commission was from Valentine Barker. Absolutely go and check out his site for some of the awesome "....Like a Girl" prints and t-shirts he has for sale. My niece may be getting a few things from him for her birthday. I often hem and haw about what I'm going to ask an artist to draw. It's why I've started carrying a list on my phone. However, Ms. Marvel was a pretty obvious choice for Valentine and he did a spectacular job.

Phillip Nguyen was a spur of the moment commission. I was walking past his table and saw the prints he had there and started chatting with him. He had a particularly nice Batgirl when she was Stephanie Brown and I asked if he could draw her. He turned this about in about two hours. 

One of the funnier interactions I had getting a commission from the con was with Brianna Garcia. I carry a list of characters on my phone that I would like to see get drawn and ask the artist if they have a preference. When Brianna saw Holtzmann from the last Ghostbusters movie (I loved that movie. Fuck fanboys who hated it because it had women as the leads) on the list she got super excited and really, really, really wanted to draw her. Always have a list, just for this reason.

Jim Zub is the co-creator of the Inuk super hero Snowguard and it was absolutely a priority for me to get a sketch of her when I was in Seattle. Jim mostly writes these days, but as you can see, he's still a damn good artist. He was deeply reluctant to draw her for me. As he flipped through my sketchbook he was horrified I wanted his art in my book because he didn't think he was good enough. Which is ridiculous because it's a fantastic sketch and I'm thrilled I got it.

Just in case you ever doubt your skills, realize that some of the very best in the business still don't think they're good enough. I also can't say enough nice things about Jim. Had a great chat with him about how important Snowguard is and to keep fighting for appearances for her. He also signed a ton of comics for me, which was kind of him.

Michael Cho is one of the hottest and best artists in the business. He was the first table I went to at the con. By the time I got to it there was already three people in front of me. He draws everything well, but since he was only doing headshots I wanted something unique. Batwoman was, I think you'll agree, a pretty good choice.

Steve Lieber is one of those artists that everyone in the comic industry admires not just because he's good, but because he's also pretty smart about the industry and what it takes to put together a good comic. He's drawn just about everyone at some point. I first remember discovering him reading the excellent Whiteout which he drew and Greg Rucka wrote (ignore the awful movie). Recently he was drawing the pretty damn funny The Fix. He also drew Hawkworld many moons ago, so I asked for this Hawkgirl. I think he drew this in an hour. 

Artists are freaky, man.

Terry Dodson is one of my absolute favourite artists. Two years ago at ECCC in Seattle he drew a beautiful Princess Leia. This time I hit him up for a Bombshell Batgirl (DC's Bombshells are a significant weakness of mine. I love the costume design). If you look closely you can see a page torn out of the book (this was a new book I was starting). He started drawing, hated it, tore the page out and started over. 

"It was technically fine, but there was no fun in it. So it had to go." I'm pretty damn happy with results.

Lynne Yoshii is one of those artists I really didn't know too much about until I walked past her table, did a double take and asked if she was taking on any commissions. It was late Saturday, so I was pretty lucky she was. She scrolled down my list and settled on Bombshell Harley Quinn. This was the sketch that made me decide I was finished at ECCC. I picked this up Sunday morning, decided it wasn't going to be topped and stopped asking artists for commissions. Because I'm evil, when I go to the next con and an artist is flipping through my sketchbook, this is the last piece I want them to see before they start drawing. Because artists are competitive. Go ahead. Top this.

I tried very hard to focus on sketches at ECCC simply because I have no wall space left. However, my will power is for shit. I also bought several other pages of art. Now I have to find homes for them.

Some of you may recall the Bruce Willis movie Red that came out in 2010. It was originally based on a comic by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. The movie and comic have very little to do with one another. I believe Ellis once said the movie would have been 20 minutes long if based only on the comic. I love the movie, but it's its own thing. The comic is one of those things that looks effortless and slight until you dig into it and see everything that's going on. Hamner is a large part of the reason why it's great.

I actually bought this before the con and picked it up there. Hamner was apparently cleaning up and found a bunch of pages from the series. Which is hilarious. I took this page out at another table when putting something away and other artists wanted to look at it and were in awe I managed to get a page. It is a masterclass in graphic story telling.

I am, I admit, slightly obsessed with Snowguard. I desperately wanted a page of original art with her in it. The problem is that most of the artists that have drawn her so far work digitally. This was especially frustrating when Marcus To did the recent Champions annual that focussed on her. Fortunately Max Dunbar did a recent story arc where the team visited Weirdworld and became fantasy character versions of themselves. This was an easy page to pick. Snowguard, Ms. Marvel, Brawn, Wasp and Man-Things. All good stuff.

Aside from being a great artist, Max is one of the nicest, most chill guys you'll meet.

This page was a bit of an ooops. I was waiting to get Aaron Lopestri to sign a copy of the Wonder Woman/Conan book he did with Gail Simone, but he talking to someone. So I started flipping through his portfolio. sigh....Not a splashy action page, but a nice quiet character moment between Conan and Wonder Woman. I also got Simone to sign it and she spent a few moments appreciating the page and singing Aaron's praises. Justifiably.

One of the cool things ECCC does each year is put together an art book called "Monsters and Dames" with all proceeds going towards a children's hospital in Seattle. It's a good cause and there's normally huge demand to get into the book even though artists aren't paid for it. One thing many people, including myself, then do is walk around Artist Alley and get the book signed by everyone. It's fun, you get to chat to the artists and sometimes pick up something from someone whose table you might have ordinarily walked past. But everyone understands you can't buy something from every table. There are 80 pieces of art in the book.

This page, by Ryan Fisher, was one of the ones in the book. I hit his table early Saturday morning and while he was signing the book I noticed he had the original piece of art on the table. I'm always going to have a weakness for cute magicians in fishnets, but this was a cool piece and he had priced, in my opinion, a bit too low. I'm surprised it was still there on Saturday, but I'm glad it was.

Charity comic art auctions are always dangerous for me. Fun, but there's almost 100% certainty I will accidentally buy something. This Captain Marvel by Chrystal Fae was it. It was the second piece auctioned off and Captain Marvel had just opened. I liked it but thought the bidding would keep going after I raised my paddle. Nope. It's a very lovely ooops, though.

This last one I actually did gun for. I got outbid on a few pieces (always set a price in your head and stick to it, no matter how much it hurts to let it go), but this one by Chris Uminga came in less than I was ready to go, so that was nice surprise. I like Uminga's style and own a Wonder Woman figure based of his art. Also, I'm always a sucker for Ben Grimm/The Thing.

So there we go. A lot of art, but it's all lovely to look at and I got some good stories to go along with it. It's another reason I like going to cons. I buy from the artist, talk to them, get a good story or help out a good cause.

Last Five
1. Politik - Coldplay
2. Time of your life - Green Day
3. Candy - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
4. Sweet fire of love - Robbie Robertson*
5. Guest room - The National