Last week, the leaders of the three North American nations gathered in Montebello, Quebec to negotiate, prevaricate and masticate some fine food. It wasn’t big news in the United States, judging from the 24-hour news networks, but in these parts, it was a significant event (if only for the security scandal that arose, with undercover officers acting as protesters). As luck would have it, I happened upon a comic book from the late 1970s that featured an American-Canadian summit of a different sort: an X-Men/Alpha Flight free-for-all.
It wasn’t a flea-market find, per se. My local comic shop had a big sale a few days ago, unloading all of the comics in its back-issue bins for a buck. As I usually do when I luck upon such a bargain blowout, I seek out 1970s and ’80s comics. I selected a few interesting items, such as a Marvel Two-in-One Annual, an alcoholism-era Iron Man and a Two-Face spotlight in Batman. As I got toward the end of the line of boxes, I reached the Xs. X-Men comics usually don’t hold a lot of interest for me, but I noticed there were some Chris Claremont/John Byrne issues of X-Men among the back issues.
“Cal, the high-end back issues are exempt from the sale, right?” “Anything in those boxes — one dollar.” I have so few of these classic X-Men comics in my collection; I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. I don’t care about the resale value; I’m not looking for eBay fodder. This was just a great opportunity to absorb some of the most fondly remembered super-hero storytelling of the era.
I travelled back in time to early 1979. My gateway to that era: X-Men #121 (this was a couple of years before the “Uncanny” was officially added to the title in the indicia). Like the 2007 Montebello summit, this X-Men/Alpha Flight tussle took place on Canadian soil as well — in this case, in Calgary, Alberta, at the site of the world-famous Calgary Stampede, a prominent rodeo and exhibition, albeit at a time when the exhibition facility wasn’t in use. The X-Men are on the trail of two kidnapped colleagues: Wolverine, AKA Logan; and Kurt Wagner, better known as the teleporting Nightcrawler.
They were, of course, taken captive by Alpha Flight, a team of superhuman Canadian agents, on a mission to retrieve Logan and force him back into servitude for the Great White North. The script is bookended up an exposition scene and a surprisingly diplomatic, frustrated resolution. The meat of the issue is a Big Fight between the two teams. It’s such a shame we didn’t see such an international showdown among world leaders in Quebec.
The faceoff between Canadian and American super-hero teams actually boasts quite an international flair. Both teams are melting pots. Cyclops is actually the only American among the X-Men; in the lineup are a Russian, an Irishman, a Kenyan and a German. And amid the ranks of Alpha Flight are French Canadian twins and a First Nations member, along with a couple of typical Canadian anglos.
Claremont’s script is heavy on exposition, even when it comes to describing the action that’s unfolding visually before the reader. But one can’t deny the accessibility of the story. This conflict actually began in the issue prior to this one, but even a new reader would have no problem delving into the X-Men’s adventures here. Furthermore, Claremont and Byrne are careful to provide plenty of information about the non-American setting.
Though his X-Men stint came relatively early in Byrne’s career, for many, when they think of his art, they think of his work on this title. There’s a simpler tone to his work here as compared to his more recent efforts, but the lesser degree of detail in how the characters are portrayed actually strike me as being stronger and more effective. Byrne’s pencils and Terry Austin’s inks converge perfectly; the pair’s styles mesh incredibly well. Still, I was distracted by a slightly rough, looser tone in the line art, but I don’t think the artists are to blame. The paper quality is quite low, and it seemed to me that the darker, black lines bled ever so slightly into the flimsy paper. That may not be the case, but that’s what it looks like to me.
Speaking of the artist, he actually turns up in this issue. It should actually come as no surprise. Byrne, listed a co-plotter with Claremont, lived in Canada after his family moved from England when he was a child. He even studied art during his college years in Calgary. His appearance here is no doubt a symbol of his heavier involvement in the crafting of this Canadian super-hero yarn. Tapping into the Montebello summit analogy, one might even say he was something of a Decider when it came to the plot.
Byrne’s eye for design shines here. One could argue that Vindicator’s look is striking. Compare this Canadian hero to his American counterpart, Captain America. Which costume is more memorable? Simpler but stronger? Mind you, the Northstar/Aurora designs have too much in common with Vindicator’s, but Snowbird’s look — with her flowing cape but sharp edge — sums her fierce but gentle character up nicely.
The X-Men don’t fare so well in this conflict. While they save the day when it comes to an out-of-control blizzard, their effort to rescue Wolverine fails, as the feral mutant turns himself over willingly to Alpha Flight. By the end of the issue, oddly enough, the X-Men’s loss is undone, as Wolverine turns up on the team’s plane as it heads south, proudly proclaiming there’s no cage that can hold him. The entire Alpha Flight arc appears to have been for naught. In the end, everything is the same as it was in the beginning.
Just as it was with the recent North American leaders’ summit in Quebec.