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.

Alpha Flight 72 pg 4

Alpha Flight 72 cover small

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.

Alpha Flight 73 pg 7

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.

Alpha Flight 78 pg 12

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.

Alpha Flight 83 pg 17

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.

Alpha Flight 86 pg 21

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.

Happy Batman Day and Caturday!

Today is Batman Day, celebrating all things relating to the Dark Knight of Gotham City, one of DC Comics’ most iconic comic book characters.  Today is also Saturday, or rather Caturday, the weekly celebration of all things cat-related.

Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, published in 1939.  Catwoman, real name Selina Kyle, made her debut just a year later in the pages of Batman #1.  Both characters were created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane.

For nearly eight decades the grim vigilante Batman and the sexy thief Catwoman have had an adversarial relationship with heavy romantic undertones.  There was a mutual attraction from the start, one often undermined by the fact that Bruce and Selina have typically been on opposite side of the law.

Since this year Batman Day falls on Caturday, I am taking a quick look at the history between Batman and his longtime frenemy Catwoman.

Batman 65 cover

Creator credits in the Golden Age of comic books were unfortunately often sparse, but the GCD credits the cover artwork to Batman #65 (June-July 1951) to Win Mortimer, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Charles Paris.  Whoever drew it, it’s a nice cover.  Both it, and the story inside by Finger, Kane, Schwartz & Paris, demonstrate that right from the start Batman never knew if each time he met Catwoman she would turn out to be an enemy, an ally, or something in-between.

Detective Comics 211 pg 1

“The Jungle Cat-Queen!” is an exciting tale written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by Dick Sprang & Charles Paris, and appeared in Detective Comics #211 (Sept 1954).  Catwoman plays a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game” with Batman and Robin on a jungle island.  Sprang is considered the quintessential Batman artist of the 1950s.  I first read this one in the excellent collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

(Pay no attention to the contratually obligated Bob Kane byline.  Kane had nothing to do with this comic, or any other Batman story published after the early 1950s.  Unfortunately he loved to take credit for other people’s work.  At least nowadays we have a much better idea of who did what.)

Batman 197 pg 18

Batman #197 (Dec 1967) written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Frank Springer & Sid Greene sees Catwoman determined to marry Batman… whether he wants to or not!  Yeah, this one certainly won’t win any awards for progressive depictions of woman!  This was pretty typical of DC’s Silver Age superhero comics, the target audience for which was pre-teen boys. Oh, well… nice artwork by the underrated Springer & Greene, at least.

For an entertaining, in-depth look at Batman #197 by someone who read it when it first came out I highly recommend heading over to Alan Stewart’s excellent Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.

Batman 256 pg 14

Okay, this is certainly better!  Batman #256 (May-June 1974) by writer Denny O’Neil & artists Irv Novick & Dick Giordano, has Batman and Robin investigating whether or  not Catwoman has committed a murder at the circus.  Selina is innocent, of course, since she’s no killer, but she is planning to “liberate” the tigers from the circus, so she can return the large cats to the natrual world.  While Batman disapproves of Catwoman’s larcenous activities, he nevertheless admires her strong love for animals.

DC Super Stars 17 pg 30

DC Super Stars #17 (Nov-Dec 1977) featured the origin of the Huntress, heroine of Earth 2 and the daughter of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman.  This story, written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton & Bob Layton, opens with the wedding of Bruce & Selina, who at least in this dimension found love & happiness together for two decades, until tragedy eventually struck.  It’s a great story, so go find a copy and read it!

Detective Comics 569 pg 6

Meanwhile, back on Earth 1, Batman and Catwoman were still doing their will-they-or-won’t-they dance.   Mike W. Barr was one of the writers to delve into their rocky relationship, as witnessed in this scene from Detective Comics #569 (Dec 1986) expertly illustrated by Alan Davis & Paul Neary.

Batman 611 pg 21

In the post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, post-whatever other reality-altering mega crossovers DC has thrown our way in the past 30 years, Batman and Catwoman still had that mutual attraction going.  After numerous encounters that saw them working in various permutations of friends and foes, they finally officially became a couple in Batman #611 (Feb 2003) written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee & Scott Williams.

I am generally not a huge fan of Lee’s work.  I find his style too busy and hyper-detailed.  Having said that, this is a beautiful splash page which has become an iconic image.

Batman Catwoman Follow the Money pg 44

Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, or words to that effect.  Batman and Catwoman’s ongoing relationship has hit quite a few speedbumps.  One of the reasons for this is that the two come from very different backgrounds: Bruce is a millionaire, and Selina grew up on the streets of Gotham City’s poorest neighborhoods.  As a result the two have often disagreed over matters of crime, punishment and justice.  This was expertly illustrated in Batman / Catwoman: Follow the Money (Jan 2011) written & illustrated by Howard Chaykin.  It’s an enjoyable story, and I recommend searching out a copy.

I know a lot of people were upset that Bruce & Selina did not actually tie the knot during writer Tom King’s current run on Batman.  But, honestly, as you can see from the above, they already bicker like an old married couple, so at this point it’s really just a formality!

Batman Gotham Adventues 50 cover

I am going to close out with the cover artwork for Batman: Gotham Adventures #50 (July 2002) which features the animated incarnations of Bruce & Selina.  Illustrated by the late, great, much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this image is a beautiful snapshot of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman.

My thoughts on the whole “Before Watchmen” controversy

If you are a comic book fan, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last several months, you’ve undoubtedly heard all about DC Comics’ plans to publish Before Watchmen, a series of prequels to the critically acclaimed best-selling graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  Reaction to this announcement, both among readers and comic book creators, has generally fallen into two camps: it’s either a really brilliant idea, or it’s an absolutely terrible decision.

Some facts that need to be established: back when Moore & Gibbons first created the original Watchmen in 1986, they signed a contract with DC stating that the rights to the series would revert to them one year after it went out of print.  Moore & Gibbons signed this back before trade paperback collections were at all common, and on those rare occasions when a collected edition would be assembled, it might stay in print for a year or two at most.  But the Watchmen TPB proved to be an enormous bestseller, so much so that DC kept reprinting it over and over.  They had a major incentive to keep it in print, because it kept generating sales.  And they undoubtedly saw this as a loophole to hold on to the rights of the series.  Legally that decision was probably in the right, but a great many, Alan Moore among them, felt very strongly that DC was violating the ethical foundation of the agreement.  It was one of several decisions by DC that would lead Moore to vow to never again work for the company.

Watchmen trade paperback, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen trade paperback, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Fast forward to 2012.  The Watchmen trade paperback is still in print, and has sold even more copies in the wake of the film adaptation.  DC has decided to begin exploiting the property with new material produced by different creators.  Now, you may ask “Why?”  The answer is very simple: money.  Despite all the hornet nests that DC knew they would be kicking over with this decision, they realized that Before Watchmen would bring in huge profits.

I think a major reason why DC made this decision is that they realize that they have hit a wall when it comes to generating new intellectual properties.  The main reason for this is that they have burned so many bridges, not just with Moore, but with innumerable creators, going as far back as Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.  DC, like Marvel Comics, has exploited creators for so long that really no one in their right mind wants to give them the next big idea, only to see all of the financial rewards & creative control be torn away from them.  Nowadays, given the opportunity, I think most creators would rather go to Image, Dark Horse, IDW, or one of the other smaller companies, somewhere where they probably won’t make very much money, but at least they will retain ownership of their creations.

In this atmosphere, DC has but one choice: continually strip-mine their existing library of characters.  They’ve rebooted their entire universe yet again with the recent New 52 event.  And now they’ve finally decided to risk revisiting the characters from Watchmen.

Putting aside the ethical issues, from a creative standpoint, I really wonder if this is going to produce any books that are truly memorable or noteworthy.  The original Watchmen was a self-contained story that told you everything you needed to know about the characters.  Returning to the Watchmen universe would be like filming a prequel to a classic film such as Casablanca or Citizen Kane (both of which, coincidentally, are owned by DC’s parent company Warner Bros).  Sure, if you really wanted to, you could do a story about how Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund met and fell in love, and how Ilsa found out her husband Victor Laszlo was still alive.  Likewise, you could write a close-up look at Charles Foster Kane’s early years, his friendship with Jed Leland, and how his various relationships with women over the years fell apart.  But what would be the point?

Does anybody really want to see a Before Casablanca prequel?
Does anybody really want to see a Before Casablanca prequel?

So, by that measure, what do we really need to find out about the early years of Adrian Veidt, the Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, and all the rest of the cast of Watchmen?  As I said, everything vital to understanding the characters, all of the significant developments, are already right there in the original book by Moore & Gibbons.

The term “graphic novel” gets bandied about a lot in the comic book biz.  But, in the case of Watchmen, it is just that: a novel, a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  It does not require anything else, any more than, to run with Alan Moore’s own example, Moby Dick needs a prequel to recount Captain Ahab’s first encounter with the infamous White Whale.

In a number of venues DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee have been promoting the hell out of the Before Watchmen project.  Lee has stated “I guarantee you that every single one of these creators that’s working on these books, think they can outdo — match or outdo — what was done in the original.”  Oh, dear.  That sounds like hubris.  It almost seems like they are setting themselves up to fail.  But, again, I’m sure as long as the books sell like hotcakes, the actual quality is secondary.  More troubling was Lee’s attitude towards Moore’s extreme displeasure over DC’s decisions.  Lee took the company line that Moore “signed an agreement.”  Odd words from one of the founders of Image Comics, which was established in response to creators being exploited by unfair contracts.  Yes, I realize Lee departed from Image years ago and is now in an important executive position at DC, so I’m not especially surprised.  But I cannot help but feel a bit disappointed in his stance.

A number of talented creators are working on Before Watchmen, among them Joe Kubert, Len Wein, Jae Lee, Darwyn Cooke, J.G. Jones, J. Michael Straczynski, Amanda Conner, and Adam Hughes.  I do not want to judge their motives, but I am going to assume that they are being well compensated for their efforts.  I really do not blame them for coming onboard this project.  The life of a freelance comic book creator is a very difficult one.  Often you do not know when or where your next paycheck is going to come from.  So I can understand them taking advantage of this opportunity.

Really, the fault lies with DC.  What I would like to see from them as a company is to offer these creators the same sort of money to develop brand-new characters and series, to give them an additional incentive to work on those original ideas by giving them a financial stake, and then promote these new titles with the same rabid enthusiasm with which they are pushing Before Watchmen.

In the end, Before Watchmen is just a temporary solution to increasing sales.  DC needs to re-examine its whole economic model (and so does Marvel, while I’m at it).  They need to stop thinking in terms of short-term sales spikes, and adopt policies that will not alienate creators like Alan Moore.  Imagine if DC had done right by Moore.  He might have gone on to create innumerable best-selling series for them over the past quarter century.  But they treated him as a disposable commodity, and now he wants absolutely nothing to do with them.

Watchmen tattoo
Watchmen tattoo

Watchmen is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels.  It is an intelligent, thought-provoking work of immense magnitude.  I like it so much, I even have a tattoo of the iconic Watchmen smiley face (yeah, I’m crazy like that).  Moore & Gibbons did absolutely brilliant work when they created Watchmen.  That is why I am so disappointed to see DC looking to exploit the property.  I feel that it devalues the original, and it is an insult to the creators who put so much of themselves into it.

At this point in time, I have zero interest in reading any of the Before Watchmen prequel series.  There is just nothing there for me.  If others choose to buy those books, so be it.  That’s their choice.  But for myself, I am just going to ignore the spin-offs, and stick with the original by Moore & Gibbons.