The Original Alpha Flight #1: A Canadian Perspective

Happy Canada, everyone! I've got the day off!

So... it's all very well to criticize Pak and Van Lente for their portrayal of Canada in the new Alpha Flight series, but hold on!

How did Canadian-raised John Byrne actually DO in HIS depiction of Canada in the original Alpha Flight series?

Set the way-back machine to 1983 and find out...

To his credit does create an "iconic" Canada in the first issue. One of the iconic things about the country is that it's so BIG and that most of it has a low population density. So he has us zoom a 1000 miles here, a 1000 miles there, all across the country to meet up with each of the heroes. Guardian (here still "Vindicator") is in Ottawa, flying out of the Parliament Hill HQ . Marrina is in weather worn Newfoundland, Puck in urban Toronto, and Sasquatch in British Columbia's redwood forests. Shaman is working in a clinic in the Sarcee Reserve just out of Calgary, Alberta, and since Byrne is from this region, no surprise that it looks right. I'm not so sure about Aurora's school for girls in "La Valle, Québec", which, for all its Swiss chalets looks like it's part of Latveria.
Plus, there's the added difficulty of placing La Valle on a map. It's clearly not urban enough to be a spelling corruption of Laval (which is on Montreal island), but there are several La-Valle-de-Something in the province. Hard to really gauge the architecture then. Puck tries to reach the team via Mansfield Airbase, which looks military here, but is just an airport as far as I know.

The bulk of the action (a battle against the Inuit god Tundra) takes place in the Northwest Territories - likely not what has become Nunavut because Byrne describes it as north and west of Calgary. However, according to the CBC, the appearance of Tundra screws with the northern lights up in Resolute Bay which IS in today's Nunavut. Not really a problem, Tundra's disruption could be seen miles away. Certainly, while the ocean isn't far from the location, it doesn't look like it's happening on the arctic islands which are almost all part of Nunavut. Byrne uses the word Esquimaux to refer to the Native people of this land, an accepted if odd spelling of Eskimo, and here, the comic shows its age. The word is now considered both inappropriate and derogatory, as it's akin to the Greek's "barbarian", a word used by Algonquins to mean "eaters of raw meat" or by Montagnais to refer to any outsider. The proper term for Arctic Natives is Inuit or Innu. The fashion in Canada now is to use the proper Native language pronunciation for tribes, rather than their Western spelling corruptions, so the latter is probably more correct, just as my area's "Micmac Indians" are now referred to as Mi'kmaq (pronounced something like "Mìgmaw").

And finally, a little treat for Google Mappers: Mac and Heather's street address! 138 Laurier drive in Ottawa. Let's look it up... Oops! It doesn't exist! There's a Laurier AVENUE (both East and West), but pictures don't look at all like the Hudsons' residential area. Almost making me doubt the existence of Avengers Mansion...

Just a week after the X-Men incident (Alpha's first appearance), Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau disbands Alpha Flight. Maybe the whole "Department H under Parliament" didn't sit well with him, who knows? It's an odd place to start the series, shaking up a status quo that never really existed. We don't really find out why this is happening, but Trudeau seems apologetic and remains on good terms with Mac. We do find out in that panel that Alpha Flight are RCMP auxiliaries and that they'll keep national policing powers. In any case, Trudeau looks like himself, so that's fine. Speaking of Prime Ministers though, look at this!
Gary Cody! I probably haven't cracked these comics open since I read them, wow, almost 30 years ago, so I didn't recognize the leader of the Unity Party as a recurring character! Cody was Alpha's official liaison with the government, here disagreeing with the government's decision to close down Department H. He would eventually get his claws into Alpha and manipulate the team, but would get his comeuppance when the villain Bedlam would effectively lobotomize him. So if you think something supervillainous is in the works re: our new PM, you have good reason to think so.

Byrne has an interesting take on the use of French in the comic. Instead of bracketed "translated from the French" speech bubbles (or French sentences outright), he puts a French word here and there into what you understand to be conversations between all francophones. It's a symbolic way to do it and it mostly works. Except that his French is pretty terrible. On page 9, Aurora calls her students "mon petites" instead of "mes petites", using the masculine singular possessive instead of the feminine plural. Later, the French couple living at 138A Laurier has similar gender problems - the wife is called François, which is a man's name. Françoise is what Byrne meant.

Even when the French is fine, it's still not Canadian French, something that's a lot more obvious here than in the current series. Interjections like Sapristi, Sacre Bleu, and Nom du nom are Frenchism, not things you'd hear from Quebeckers (which the Beaubiers are) or other French Canadians. The little girls all call Aurora "Mam'selle", an attempt at making "Mademoiselle" (Miss) more colloquial, except that French Canadian schoolchildren are more likely to call any female grown-up, especially a teacher, "Madame". It just sounds slightly wrong, as if we're in France.

Byrne's off to a good start regardless (I think I'll continue to do a retro-piece as a companion to my new Alpha reviews), at least achieving an iconic depiction of Canada and like Van Lente and Pak, focusing on the characters more than the geography (except when the geography comes alive and punches superheroes, of course!).


Anonymous said...

Happy Dominion Day, Siskoid! I would enjoy an Alpha Flight reread. As you noted, Byrne's awareness of the scale of the country really comes across. I couldn't help thinking of Batwing, the "Batman of Africa" in this regard. A "Batman of Canada" would be utterly ridiculous; every day he would be by definition thousands of kilometers away from crimes he would be sworn to fight. So what the !#@! is DC thinking with Batwing?

Servo said...

Glad to see you revisiting the old Alpha Flight series - which I still have in my collection. As an American, I have to admit Byrne's take on Canadian superheroes first piqued my interest in "our neighbor to the North." It's the first time I spent reading about the country (in the pre-Internet days) at the library. Even with many of its story messes, I was glad that Marvel stuck with it so long as they did.

De said...

I have to admit never reading Alpha Flight (it's on the list of things to do). I did, however, sort of celebrate Canada Day with my Canadian co-workers (one is from Toronto, the other from Ottawa).

If you ever plan on getting a driver's license, my company administers the driving tests.

Siskoid said...

I'm not planning on it, but I'll keep you in mind.


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