Thursday, March 25, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #13: March 1992

Taking Flight

Alpha Flight #106
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Penciller: Mark Pacella
Inker: Dan Panosian
Colorist: Bob Sharen


Though I'm a cisgender heterosexual male, I’d say I’m pretty far along on the spectrum of embracing the wide array of differences in how people express their sexuality and gender. 

That wasn't always the case though, and it took a sometimes-ugly journey to get here.
Begin that I'm a cisgender heterosexual male, the system wasn’t designed for me to be tolerant and accepting of homosexuality or anything else outside of the heterosexual or gender “norm.” In addition to the gender and sexuality coding that everyone gets, I was raised in a conservative church that condemned what were euphemistically called “alternative lifestyles.” And I absorbed that, along with the casual homophobia that permeated the 1980s TV and movies of my youth.
At the same time, I knew and liked my dad’s friends, a couple named Ron and Tom, though I was naïve enough that it took being on a tour of their house and hearing, “This is our bedroom” for me to finally understand they were gay. In college, I regularly teased my friend Richard about his stereotypically gay mannerisms (the fact that he eventually came out of the closet doesn’t justify that).
Though homophobia has some roots in the idea of being turned off by the idea of sex with someone of the same gender, there’s also a component of insecurity and fear. As a teenager my thinking went something like, ‘If I say I’m not disgusted by the idea of two guys getting it on, someone is going to say I like it myself.” And that was the next layer of homophobia: Desperately wanting to avoid being seen as gay.
So even after I developed enough empathy to realize I wasn’t offended by homosexuality, I pretty much stayed quiet about it. And while staying silent out of fear is quite different from actively committing to hateful words and actions, it’s still not admirable in any way.
I was probably in that silent period when Alpha Flight #106 came out, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it helped me get to the next phase of my journey, away from silent acceptance toward an unafraid embrace.
Why Alpha Flight #106? Well, it’s the issue where Northstar – a former Olympic athlete with superfast reflexes – reveals to the world that he’s gay. It was the first time a mainstream superhero had come out of the closet.

I’m going to resist the urge to delve into the entire history of gay superheroes, but I will say that DC comics were slightly ahead of the curve here. Until 1989, comics that wanted to be approved by the Comics Code Authority – which would be every single mainstream DC and Marvel book - couldn’t not portray homosexual characters, as it was considered “deviancy.” In 1991 a reformed Flash villain, the Pied Piper, had come out. Around the same time Element Lad of the Legion of Super-Heroes learned that his girlfriend was really a man who had shapeshifted into the form of a woman. He decided to remain in the relationship.
Northstar and the rest of Alpha Flight were created in 1979 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne during their run on Uncanny X-Men. The Canadian team graduated to their own series in 1983, with Byrne writing and drawing. There were hints about Northstar’s sexuality sprinkled throughout the series, most notably in issues #8 and #9 when Northstar’s visiting friend Raymonde is strongly implied to be a former lover. 

Later in the series, writer Bill Manto hinted at Northstar having AIDS, but the storyline was never fully developed.
When Marvel finally decided to allow Northstar to come out, it was under somewhat strange circumstances. They essentially produced a “very special issue” that stands apart from the rest of the series.
As the issue begins, Alpha Flight are in the midst of a battle when Northstar discovers an abandoned infant in an alley. He takes her to the hospital and discovers she was born HIV positive, and has developed AIDS. When this hits the news, it enrages a former hero called Major Mapleleaf (who we learn in a tonally-incongruent intro is essentially a Canadian version of Captain America). Mapleleaf attacks the hospital. Turns out – we find as he and Northstar battle – that Mapleleaf’s son died of AIDS, but was treated as though he deserved it because he was gay. This leads Northstar to finally state outright, “I am gay.” As their battle subsides, Northstar embraces Mapleleaf, and realizes he needs to use his position of fame and power to do more, and he comes out publicly.
The story tries to check a lot of boxes, not only building tolerance for homosexuality but dispelling the notion that HIV/AIDS is exclusively a gay problem, and making a case for coming out on your own terms. It also covers a lot of ground emotionally, with the baby eventually succumbing to complications from her AIDS. Besides the the story's jokey beginning, it largely succeeds in what it sets out to do.
And that’s pretty amazing considering the factors stacked against it. Writer Scott Lobdell – a frustrated stand-up comedian who was brand new to the business – had just started writing Alpha Flight one issue earlier. Penciller Mark Pacella was not the regular series artist. Neither creator is gay. And Pacella, who had been working in comics since the late 1980s had made the decision to ape Rob Liefeld’s style, which is not exactly suitable for either emotionality or subtly. Liefeld's style was popular, but imitating it was a doomed proposition: When the thing you're imitating so precariously walks the line between good and bad, an imitation of it has almost no chance. So most of Pacella's panels, including the big moment when Northstar comes out, are downright ugly.

I can’t help but wonder what this issue would have looked like in the hands of a more experienced and nuanced artist, such as John Byrne, Paul Ryan, or George Perez. I’m guessing it would be regarded as a classic.
As it was the issue made a big splash, landing mentions in the likes of Newsweek, CNN, and U.S. News and World Report. Newspapers published articles about how comic shops were dealing with the demand. The issue sold out its first print run and went to a second. Marvel publicist Pam Rutt curiously attempted to downplay  the significance of Northstar’s coming out, saying Marvel was simply doing what it has always done, which is tackle real world concerns within their fantasy world. Somewhat shockingly, there was no huge cry of outrage, but this was before Fox News and social media gave such ready outlets to intolerance and toxicity.
That’s not to say all was peachy. Then Marvel owner Ron Perelman was said to be very upset, and that brought heat to Alpha Flight editor Rob Tokar. To his credit, Tokar defended the decision vociferously to his bosses. But, maybe not surprisingly, the publisher was reluctant to push any further than they’d already gone. There was barely a mention of Northstar’s sexuality for the remainder of the Alpha Flight series (part of this may be that Lobdell was already gone by issue #109, probably due to commitments writing X-Men books), and wouldn’t really until the character’s 2012 marriage to Kyle Jinadu.
But, as cliché as it is to say, Northstar did really open the doors. While representation still has a ways to go in superhero comics, there’s now a long list of openly-gay or bisexual characters at both Marvel and DC: Iceman, Apollo, Midnighter, Batwoman, the Question, Living Lightning, Rictor, Shatterstar, Hulkling, Wiccan, Marvel Boy, etc. And queer creators are more prevalent, too: Sina Grace, Luciano Vecchio, Kieron Gillen, Phil Jiminez, James Tynion IV, etc.
Scott Lobdell kept very busy in the 1990s but wasn’t seen much in the business in the 2000s and 2010s. Instead he worked on film and television. He returned to write several titles for DC starting with 2011’s “New 52,” but racist and misogynistic behavior at a convention, and then subsequent accusations of sexual harassment and grooming of female creators have seemingly ended his pro comics career. It’s probably for the best, as he’s responsible for the single stupidest panel I’ve ever seen (if you're not sure why it's stupid, remember that speech bubbles indicate characters are talking out loud).

Mark Pacella went on to fulfill his destiny of working with the artist whose style he ripped off, drawing Liefeld’s plots on issues 9 through 13 of X-Force. He then followed Liefeld to Image, drawing some issues of Team Youngblood and the miniseries Doom’s IV (1994). From there he mostly left comics to work as a storyboard artist in film and animation, though he did return briefly to Image in 1999 for the three-issue Tooth and Claw miniseries, which he created, wrote, and drew.


Though its creators’ talents (and, in Lobdell’s case, personality) left something to be desired, Alpha Flight #106 nonetheless deserves its place in history. For me personally it was an important step in overcoming years of programming. That’s one of the greatest powers of fiction, to show us something outside of our experience, and help build empathy. For me, at least, Northstar’s actions in this story were the extremely rare case of a character’s heroism on the page having the same effect in the real world.
Works Cited
“Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Super-Heroes.” Beek's Books.
Howe, Sean. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Harper: New York. 2012
Gruenewald, Jon. “New allegations against Scott Lobdell surface after RED HOOD departure announcement.” The Beat. June 30, 2020.
Wilson, Amy. “Out of the Closet.” June 18, 1992. Edmonton Journal.

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