James D. Hudnall’s Alpha Flight: A Brief Retrospective

Writer James D. Hudnall passed away on April 9th.  His earliest professional work was Espers for Eclipse Comics in 1986.  Hudnall had numerous comic book credits, but I was most familiar with his nearly two year run on Alpha Flight from early 1989 to late 1990. He wrote issues #63 and #67-86.

Alpha Flight 67 cover smallAlpha Flight is a series that even its creator John Byrne admitted he didn’t really know quite what to do with it.  He has been quite vocal about the fact that he only created the Canadian super-hero team to be able to survive a fight with the X-Men.  Byrne was genuinely surprised when Alpha Flight became popular enough to receive their own series, and he took on the assignment with a certain reluctance.

Byrne wrote & penciled the first 28 issues of Alpha Flight.  He did good work, but by the end he felt he had literally run out on things to do with the characters.  After he left, the series somehow managed to last nearly another decade, experiencing a lot of ups & downs.

Byrne’s successor on Alpha Flight was writer Bill Mantlo, who worked with several artists during his three year stint on the series.  Mantlo’s run started off showing potential, and a number of the issues from his first couple years were enjoyable.  However towards the end things had definitely petered out.  At the time, when Hudnall came on in early 1989, it really was a breath of fresh air.  Although somewhat uneven, I regard Hudnall’s stint on Alpha Flight as one of the better post-Byrne periods. (Of course, as I always like to say, your mileage may vary.)

Hudnall’s first few issues of Alpha Flight had him wrapping up a some dangling subplots from Bill Mantlo’s run, including bringing to a close the team’s conflict with the Dreamqueen.  With that out of the way, with issue #71 Hudnall embarked on a lengthy story arc involving an incredibly powerful, seemingly-unstoppable mystical villain, Llan the Sorcerer.

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According to Hudnall the Sorcerer storyline was initially planned to run all the way to issue #100, with Llan as an overarching behind-the-scenes adversary dispatching such villains as the Master of the World and Zeitgeist against the team to distract them while his ambitious master plan came together.  However, a lukewarm reception and conflicts with editorial resulted in Hudnall being replaced as writer on the book.  This necessitated him giving his story a somewhat quick wrap-up in issue #86, with Doctor Strange being brought in to aid Talisman in defeating Llan.

Hudnall was probably overly ambitious with his plans for Alpha Flight.  I don’t know if the Sorcerer storyline really would have had enough substance to it to continue running for another year in order to make it to issue #100.  However, I cannot fault Hudnall for attempting to at least try to do something spectacular and long-ranging in a book that had recently been lacking in a solid, interesting direction.

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Hudnall explained his plans an interview conducted in the early 2000s by the website AlphaFlight.net:

“I wanted to make the book more in line with Byrne’s vision, which I felt was generally a good one. I liked Byrne’s run except he was kind of unfocused direction-wise. Probably because he was bored. So one of the things I did was try to give Alpha Flight more of a purpose. And try to make them unique in the Marvel Universe, not just by virtue of their nationality. I also wanted to show off Canada, so I did tons of research.”

It had been a number of years since I have read those issues, but from glancing over them again this week I did like how Hudnall worked to develop the character of Talisman.  It had been one of Talisman’s predecessors who had fought Llan the Sorcerer when he had last attacked Earth’s dimension 10,000 years earlier.  It now fell to the current Talisman, who was fairly young & inexperienced, to lead the battle against this incredibly formidable, cunning foe.

I am not certain exactly how successful Hudnall was in his execution of Talisman’s character development.  At times she came across less as focused & determined, and more as bossy & arrogant.  But I do appreciate that Hudnall at least attempted to make her the focus of his overall storyline.  I think Byrne came up with a fantastic design for the character, and it was nice to see her in the spotlight here.

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Another highlight of Hudnall’s run was having former Alpha Flight foe Diamond Lil join the team.  Lil had been involved in the events that had led to the death of Alpha’s original leader James Hudson, aka Guardian, which put her at odds with the team’s current leader, the widowed Heather Hudson, aka Vindicator. Complicating matters even further, Lil was the ex-girlfriend of Madison Jeffries, aka Box, who was now engaged to Heather.  It was apparent that there was still an attraction between Lil and Madison, and the resulting love triangle was present throughout the background of the Sorcerer storyline.

I also think having Lil join the cast offered an outsider’s perspective on some of the events.  It was interesting to see her gradual development from a one-time enemy who was regarded with suspicion to a trusted member of the team. Plus, during the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover we got to see go toe-to-toe with longtime Spider-Man villain the Scorpion, which was cool.Alpha Flight 80 pg 14

With the benefit of hindsight, Hudnall was doing on Alpha Flight what is now referred to as “writing for the trades,” i.e. writing a lengthy, complex storyline serialized in a monthly series that would later work as a complete novel when collected together in trade paperbacks.  I think that if I was to go back and read Hudnall’s entire Alpha Flight run in one go, rather than broken up into monthly installments, it would work much better now.

Alpha Flight 78 cover smallFor the majority of Hudnall’s time on Alpha Flight he was paired with penciler John Calimee.  I personally think Calimee was a fairly good, solid artist, albeit one who was not particularly flashy or dynamic. In other words, he got the job done, but perhaps that was not seen as sufficient enough at that point in time, when several red-hot artists were exploding in other Marvel titles.  Most of the issues Calimee penciled were inked by Mike Manley, a very talented artist whose work I have always enjoyed.

Other artists who worked on Alpha Flight during this time were Hugh Haynes, the great Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc and a fairly young up-and-coming Mark Bagley.  The incredibly talented James Sherman turned in one of his all-too-rare rare comic book jobs, providing full artwork for Alpha Flight #73.  That issue flashed back to the conflict between the original Talisman and the Sorcerer in prehistoric times.

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John Byrne himself unexpectedly returned to the series to draw a couple of covers.  Jim Lee, who did some of his earliest work on Alpha Flight, also contributed to a few covers during Hudnall’s run.

Regrettably, except for Haynes, there did not exist a good rapport between the writer and the various artists.  Subsequently Hudnall would express his opinion that Calimee in particular had been unable to effectively execute the visuals contained in the plots.  Hudnall also experienced a number of disagreements with his editors.  Whether all of this was due to Hudnall wanting to remain faithful to his ambitious vision, or an indication that he was a difficult person to collaborate with, is up to the individual to decide.Alpha Flight 81 cover small

Whatever the difficulties between Hudnall and his colleagues, as I said before, at the end of the day I personally do think that his run on Alpha Flight was pretty good.  Possibly it is my teenage nostalgia talking, but all these years later it remains memorable for me.

As for the artwork by Calimee & Manley, looking at it in 2019 with a fresh perspective, I find that I still like it. Calimee is, as I said, a solid artist who knows how to lay out a page and tell a story. Manley’s inking here provided a polished finish to the pencils. One of his artistic influences was the legendary Al Williamson, and that shows in the inking on these issues.

The lettering on all of these issues was by Janice Chiang. I’ve always liked her work. Looking at these issues for the first time in years, I can immediately identify that it’s her lettering. She’s one of the best letterers in the biz.

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In addition to Alpha Flight, Hudnall worked on Strikeforce: Morituri and the graphic novel The Agent for Marvel.  Over at DC Comics he wrote the very dark graphic novel Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography.  In the 1990s Hudnall worked on Malibu Comics’ well-regarded Ultraverse imprint, writing the series Hardcase and The Solution.  With artist Andrew Paquette he created Harsh Realm, a six issue miniseries published by Harris Comics that was later loosely adapted into a short-lived TV series.

About a decade ago Hudnall began writing for the ultra-conservative website Breitbart, and espousing views I found very disagreeable.  Nevertheless, despite how I felt about his politics, I was sorry to hear that in the last few years he was experiencing serious health problems.  It’s unfortunate that he died at a relatively young age, a day before his 62nd birthday.  He leaves behind a small but interesting and imaginative body of work.

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! 35 years later

“I wanted to do a book that would annoy, piss off, and educate… and it did.” – Howard Chaykin

To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday week, I am taking a look back at the first 14 issues of Howard Chaykin’s comic book series, the dystopian political satire American Flagg!  Written & drawn by Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Lynn Varley & Leslie Zahler, American Flagg! was published by First Comics.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the debut American Flagg! (according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics the first issue went on sale June 20, 1983).  This is one of those series that went totally under my radar for many years because, to be completely honest, I just was not mature or sophisticated enough to appreciate it back in my teenage Marvel Zombie days. Having become a fan of Chaykin through his later work, I subsequently discovered American Flagg! via back issues, and immediately fell in love with it.

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American Flagg! is both very political and very patriotic, proudly wearing its love for America, albeit in a manner that was very different from most expressions of flag-waving to be found during the Reagan years.  As editor Mike Gold explains in the first issue…

“Chaykin’s probably the most patriotic person I know. Not in the usual ‘Love It or Leave It’ nonsense that serves to divide instead of unite – and is therefore not patriotic. Howard’s patriotism comes from pride – and from great hope for America.”

Of course, as he’s acknowledged over the years, Chaykin was not only interested in politics, and he also utilized American Flagg! to delve deeply into the worlds of violence, guns, fashion, and sex… lots and lots of sex.

The first issue of American Flagg! opens in October 2031 AD.  It has been three and a half decades since 1996, “the Year of the Domino, when everything went to hell.”  The United States and the Soviet Union experienced simultaneous violent collapses, and the planet was stricken by a series of calamitous economic, social and ecological crises.

The American government relocated to the planet Mars (“temporarily of course”) and, merging with private industry, reorganized as Plex USA.  Ostensibly formed to help put the country back on its feet, the so-called Tricentennial Recovery Committee is actually intended to milk the planet dry of its remaining money & resources, so that the Plex can permanently establish an independent nation / corporation on Mars.

Across the globe a number of Malls have been constructed, hives of government & commerce, their twin goals to maintain order and keep the population pacified with entertainment that is suffused with explicit sex and graphic violence.  The population of the former United States has splintered into numerous tribal factions, with different ethnic, religious, and political paramilitary “clubs” fighting it out.  The Plex actively encourages these “clubs,” providing them with weapons, and recording their battles to air on Firefight All Night, “the highest rated vidshow on three planets,” one that makes the Plex “a fortune in ad revenues.”

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Into this morass of corruption and violence, of omnipresent mass media and runaway capitalism, all feeding an unending cycle of urban warfare, steps Reuben Flagg.  Born on Marsplex to left-leaning bohemian parents, Reuben was raised to have a love for the ideals of the American Dream.  For several of years Reuben starred in the Plex’s top-rated exploitive TV cop show Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger.  Unfortunately for Reuben, even though the show got renewed, he was fired, replaced by a computer generated image.  The out-of-work Flagg is drafted and shipped to Earth, where he is assigned to be the new deputy ranger at the Chicago Plexmall.

This is the first time Reuben experiences the dire situation of life on Earth.  Chicago and the rest of the New Midwest are plagued by “70% unemployment, constant intergang warfare, and malaise on an epic scale.”  The idealistic Flagg is appalled, even more so when the various jockeying factions of the region each attempt to inveigle him in their corrupt activities.

As Reuben explains to Mandy Kreiger at the end of the third issue…

“I grew up on Mars with a passionate, reckless love for this country… a devotion fed as much by history as by my parents’ homesickness… Wasn’t till I got here that I discovered the spacious skies were soot black, and the fruited plains were rotted through and through.

“But the damage is deeper than physical disrepair – much deeper. The American Spirit – the honest, openhanded driving force of solidarity – has been castrated. Betrayed by the banks… big business… by slimy fat cats who use patriotism like a tart uses cheap perfume… betrayed by the Plex.

“Someone’s got to stop the decline… Or try.”

Of course, reading this scene in 2018, it is also possible to perceive this as an example of a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied man riding into town and telling everyone they had better listen to him because only he knows how to save the day.  Your mileage may vary.

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In the past Chaykin has said words to the effect that while he is not a nice person, he is a good person.  That is definitely how one could also describe his creation Reuben Flagg, as well.  Reuben has all manner of glaring flaws.  He is arrogant, impatient, short-tempered, sarcastic, a womanizer, and more than a bit self-righteous.  On the other hand, he is also governed by a clear set of morals, he is honest, he hates injustice, and he has a clear aversion to killing.  Reuben may not be nice, but he is basically good.

Chaykin draws this line between Reuben and many other members of the cast, who are nice, but not necessarily good.  C.K. Blitz, the mayor of Chicago, is certainly a nice guy.  He is very friendly and polite, and knows how to make friends.  He needs to be, to stay in office and do his job effectively.  But, like most politicians, he is motivated primarily by self-interest, wheeling & dealing in order to acquire more power, prestige, and wealth.  Blitz isn’t a bad person per se, but he’s always looking for the next angle that he can play for his personal gain.

John Scheiskopf and Ester de la Castro are even more striking examples.  Both of them can definitely be very nice.  Either of them will be your best friend ever… right up until the point when they no longer have a use for you, at which point they will literally knife you in the back.  Beneath their polite manners and warm smiles, both Scheiskopf and de la Castro are incredibly selfish, power-hungry, immoral individuals who will casually commit mass murder in the furtherance of their goals.

Chaykin is clearly pointing out the danger of superficiality, of falling for outward appearances, both in politics and business.  The slick, charming outward veneer often masks all number of sins and selfishness.  In contrast, an individual like Flagg may be obviously flawed, but in his case what you see is what you get, and he doesn’t hide who he is, good and bad.

Reuben is also Jewish.  Chaykin establishes this in an almost-offhand manner, and it is only referred to in passing from time to time.  It certainly is not a defining characteristic; Flagg is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish. Nevertheless, I believe that this made him one of the first ever Jewish characters to headline his own ongoing comic book series.

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Chaykin quickly sets up a large ensemble of supporting characters and adversaries within the first several issues of the series.  Among these is the lovely Amanda “Mandy” Kreiger, the headstrong daughter of Reuben’s boss, the ever-obnoxious Chief Ranger Hilton Kreiger.  Mandy is a whiz with electronics, as well as Reuben’s main romantic interest… although certainly not his only one.

Among the other ladies in Reuben’s life is Gretchen Holstrum, the middle-aged “hostess” of the local Love Canal franchise.  Gretchen immediately finds herself drawn to the young, handsome Reuben, much to Mandy’s disgust, exacerbating the already-existing tension between the two women.

As the story advances, we learn a great deal about both Mandy and Gretchen’s histories.  It is to Chaykin’s credit that he develops Gretchen into a genuinely tragic, sympathetic character, yet at the same time still gives Mandy legitimate reasons to dislike her.  In other words, you can see both women’s points of view, and recognize that it’s a difficult situation, with complex emotions at play on both sides.

Another wonderful member of the supporting cast is Raul the talking cat.  Yes, that’s right, a talking cat.  Raul is both a source of comic relief and a close confidante to Reuben.  At various times Raul plays the piano, drinks himself silly, and operates heavily-armed attack helicopters.  He’s definitely a favorite of mine.

Raul is such a very cat-like cat that I figured that Chaykin must have had at least one cat in real life.  This was confirmed by Chaykin’s friend and occasional collaborator Don Cameron, who explained:

“Fun fact: Raul was based on a cat Howard had named Cochise who used to “mumble” all the time.”

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It’s interesting to look at the place American Flagg! holds in Chaykin’s career.  In the prior decade Chaykin had produced a body of artwork of variable quality, ranging from good to lackluster.  Chaykin himself is dismissive of much of the material he drew during that decade, regarding it as sub-par.

In early 1980, after a disagreement with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, Chaykin left the field of comic books entirely, and for the next three years painted cover artwork for paperback novels.  When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg!, Chaykin’s work had clearly taken a seismic leap forward.  The quality of Chaykin’s art for this series is astonishing. Chaykin himself refers to American Flagg! as “the first thing I did that was any good.”

One of the most frequently-cited examples of Chaykin’s work on American Flagg! is page 17 of the first issue.  Chaykin’s brilliant layouts work with Ken Bruzenak’s superb lettering to create a stunning narrative sequence that lays out the back-story of the series.

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Due to unforgiving deadlines and a crushing workload, Chaykin was unfortunately unable to draw the two epilogues to his first story arc.  Issue #13 is penciled by James Sherman, and #14 by Pat Broderick, with both inked by Rick Burchett.  All three artists do their best to emulate the tone, the storytelling modes utilized by Chaykin, but it isn’t quite the same.  It certainly serves as a very example of just how much of an impact the artist has on the look, the flow, the tone of the finished work in comic books.

American Flagg! was a very prescient work.  Chaykin looked at the United States in the early 1980s and clearly perceived exactly where the country would be going over the next three and a half decades.  The pervasive presence of mass media and its influence on the electoral process, the manipulation of government by private industry, the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts and the factionalization of American society, the degradation of the environment… all of this is present.

Chaykin also foresaw the dangers posed by a heavily-armed paranoid conspiracy-peddling white supremacist alt-right movement based out of the American heartland, or as they call themselves here, the American Survivalist Labor Committee.  In issue #9, the A.S.L.C. stage a grandiose political rally which they broadcast to the region via the Fasfax Chicago network, and their charismatic leader boldly declares…

“We’re here to stop this country’s slide into oblivion… a crisis precipitated by the most malevolent criminal cartel known to man… the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy.”

There is even a subplot in the second half of the initial year-long story arc involving plans by the Soviet Union to manipulate the outcome of a Presidential election.  In 1983 that might have left readers going “What a crazy idea!” but in 2018 has most of us responding “Um, yeah, I can totally believe it.”

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Chaykin’s work on this series was also groundbreaking and influential.  It’s probable that a number of up-and-coming creators who read American Flagg! in the early 1980s were influenced by it, and soon after utilized the tropes and techniques in their work for DC and Marvel.  It’s unfortunate that all these years later American Flagg! is still under-recognized, whereas The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two books that could be regarded as its immediate successors, have both received widespread acclaim and multiple printings.

If you haven’t read American Flagg! before, I certainly recommend it.  In 2009 the first 14 issues were collected into two trade paperbacks by Image Comics which are still readily available.  It is one of the best examples I can think of that demonstrates the vast, often untapped, potential of the comic book medium.