POW~! Presents The 7 Greatest Moments In Comics #6: The Death of Guardian (He Got Better)
There was a time when the best writer/artist in all of comics was John Byrne. Byrne and Chris Claremont made Uncanny X-Men Marvel’s hot book in the late 70s and early 80s. Byrne made The Fantastic Four the funnest comic book on the stands again simply by making it a giant love letter to the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby FF. John Byrne made us give a shit about Alpha Flight.
Yes, that team of Canadian Superheroes that can’t even make it past a full year on the stands in the new millennium was once one of the hottest comics of the 80s. John Byrne was the reason why. He took a throwaway concept from a two appearance stint in Uncanny X-Men and made it into one of the most entertaining comics for almost 3 years. He did this by spending the first year of the title telling individual stories of the team members of Alpha Flight. That’s right he gave you, the reader, solo stories for the first 10 issues in what was billed as a team comic book.
At least, that is how it seemed. The fact was Byrne was stringing the reader along for much of the first year of Alpha Flight’s run. He made you care about most of the characters. He was building to something that everyfan knew was going to go down in the twelfth issue of the series. Somehow, by issue 8 everyone who was reading Alpha Flight knew that someone on the team was going to die. Most fans had the annoying Marinna pegged for death because… well because no one really liked or cared about Marinna. All I knew was that if they killed Guardian, Puck, Shaman, Sasquatch or Snowbird I was going to be pissed. That right there is 5/8ths of Alpha Flight. That means I was pretty much A-OK with them killing Northstar, Aurora or Marinna.
Issue 12 hit the stands and grabbed it right away. I got sucked into the fight between Alpha Flight and their evil doppelganger group Omega Flight. The formation of Omega Flight had been a subplot brewing since issue 5, it was all part of a scheme by Jerome Jaxson to get revenge on Guardian for getting him fired from Department H. See Department H was the branch of the Canadian Government that dealt with superpowered individuals and was responsible for the formation of Alpha Flight. Jaxson blamed Guardian for costing him his job simply because Alpha Flight decided to go freelance and not be government operatives anymore.
So Jaxson assembled a crew of Department H castoffs and formed Omega Flight to essentially KILL Alpha Flight simply because he lost his cushy government job. The Omega Flight/Alpha Flight throwdown lasted the whole issue. But the moment everyone reading the book was waiting for was building. Page after page it was one big fight. Finally Guardian squared off with Box, a robot Guardian thought was controlled by his good friend Madison Jeffries. Imagine his surprise when Box revealed that it wasn’t Jeffries controlling Box but Jaxson.
Locked in an desperate fight, Guardian yanked on Box’s power supply which led to a big explosion. Box was totaled, Jaxson was fried and Guardian found himself in mortal danger as the power supply to his own power suit was about to go blammo. John Byrne did a marvelous job for a whole page of showing Guardian combing through his damaged suit/costume to get to the power supply in his costume which is still clinging to his body. Finally he gets to it with just a second to spare but then the unfortunate happens.
Guardian’s wife Heather, who had been kidnapped by Jaxson a few issues earlier, stumbles into other room, having escaped her own captivity. Guardian is totally caught off guard by this development and he then… well… see for yourself…
I was twelve when Alpha Flight #12 and it blew my mind. I mean Guardian died, right there on the last page. There was no denying it, he fucking blew up. I was pretty pissed off by that last page. I was so pissed off that I stopped buying Alpha Flight altogether. I still would read it but never again would I pay for it. Good thing too, because John Byrne decided that he had to fuck with the fans again by bringing Guardian back only to bait and switch the readers again by revealing it wasn’t really Guardian but Jaxson’s evil female robot rebuilt to look like Guardian. Man I love the fact I can write that last sentence and have it make some sort of sense because I’m talking about a comic book. I have to give John Byrne credit, when he wanted to fuck with his reader base he did it in a major way. Hell there is part of me that thinks Grant Morrison read Byrne’s Alpha Flight and that gave him the idea for the bait and switch with the Xorn/Magneto story in New X-Men 20 almost years later. That is one of the things about John Byrne as a writer that I loved, he could give you, as a reader, hop and then quickly dash that hope against the rocks of betrayal. I hated that John Byrne killed Guardian. Of course I didn’t hate him enough to stop reading the other books he was writing and drawing at the time, he just got me to stop buying one very specific book.
Eventually Guardian did come back for real. Byrne eventually left Alpha Flight and that book never quite regained its fan favorite appeal that it had in its first year. Hell since then Alpha Flight has been stated and been cancelled so many times that I’ve lost count. I’m pretty sure every member of Alpha Flight has died at least once and half the team has been brought back to life at least twice. The difference between Alpha Flight now and Alpha Flight when John Byrne wrote and drew it is this, as reader I was emotionally invested in Alpha Flight and its cast of somewhat goofy and slightly racist superheroes (What? You’re telling me Shaman ISN’T a giant Native American stereotype?). Now, every time Marvel dusts off Alpha Flight my reaction is “Really? Again?”. It is a “been there, done that” mentality and every writer that has tackled Alpha Flight since Byrne has to try and measure up to Byrne’s run on the book and that is a pretty high standard to live up to. It is the equivalent of trying to top the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. Sure a writer can tell an EPIC FF story but can his entire run on FF math the imagination and quality of Lee/Kirby’s run on the title? Can it at least be as fun as Byrne’s or Walter Simonson’s?
I mean people have been trying to match Chris Claremont’s X-Men run for the last 20 years and all it got us for the most part were some pretty shitty X-Men stories, though X-Men for the last few years has finally had that stink of a quality comic book about it again for a few years now. This is the curse of any writer taking up the reins of a once mighty franchise. They aren’t taking up something new, no matter what they think they are doing. They are taking up a mantle of every writer that has written those characters before they got their mitts on them. In the case of Alpha Flight it is matching him at the peak of his prowess and that my friends is a mighty task. To anyone trying to measure to Byrne’s Alpha Flight run all I can say is… Good luck!