Aug 14, 2013

Pop Medicine: Ten Techniques in John Byrne's Alpha Flight

Pop Medicine is a column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Ten Techniques in John Byrne's Alpha Flight
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

John Byrne’s an easy target for criticism these days. He’s also easily written off as “he was great!” without ever saying more. And, Alpha Flight is easy to just make a joke about and then stop. But, John Byrne on Alpha Flight was experimental, creative, intelligent and unique. Some people, later on, were just using the title for a paycheck, but John Byrne used to try things.

1 Panels and Words – During a white out, an entire scene in Alpha Flight is done with only panels and dialogue balloons whose tags indicate where the characters are. It’s in the middle of an issue, and maybe it started – as rumor has it – as a way to avoid penciling the fight, but it makes what would be a simple, passing scene into something worth reading, worth paying attention to. There’s nothing there but John Byrne’s words and pacing, and Byrne was pretty good at the whole pacing game.

2 Visual Indicators of Passing Time – As the first several issues of the comic progressed, there were flashbacks and back-up stories set in the past, as well as leaps forward in time. To help you sort it out, rather than put a clock in the corner of panels or a timestamp with the date, Byrne would illustrate someone’s hair growing out or a slow change in their dress or body. It’s subtler, it works well, and it shows off in the progressions in a nicely unflashy way.

3 Ethnicity Is More Than a Funny Hat – The comic had characters from various ethnicities and subcultures of Canada and Byrne never held back and tried to pretend that everyone’s just an Anglo in funny clothes. In the Twenty-First Century, where Len Wein is proud he wrote Storm (for what? two issues?) as not a black woman but a woman, John Byrne, for any other faults he may have, made the effort to have people’s ethnicity play a role in how the spoke, dressed, thought, without turning anyone into a complete stereotype.

4 People Got Hurt – One thing with the Comics Code that really distressed Dr. Wertham, was that it prohibited showing genuine effects of violence. This has led to contemporary superheroics where unless someone’s getting torn in half in a Geoff Johns comic, they’re probably not even getting a sore jaw from taking the punches. In Alpha Flight, people got hurt, sometimes it was a cramp or a buise, sometimes they got hurt bad. In an early issue, Puck is hospitalized from a fight Johnny Storm probably would have shrugged off, and in a later issue, team leader, Guardian dies. And he dies fast and sadly, while being distracted from defusing his armor by the sudden arrival of his wife. He just looks up and boom he’s flash-fried.

5 Things Change – The status quo in Byrne’s Alpha Flight run was that they were mostly in Canada. That was it. People were dying, leaving, hooking up, taking new jobs, visiting friends, all sorts of things from issue one forward. The leader and ostensibly the protagonist, the generator of the story, Guardian died twelve issues in. His wife, Heather, was actually the thing holding everything together, though, as the characters more or less all knew her first, and she was the one who called them together in that first issue, and suddenly she’s a widow. In flashbacks we saw how much she had changed over the years, too, from quiet and serious to superheroic and cheesecakey. If you missed an issue, you probably missed a major change; that’s just how the book rolled.

6 No Panels, No Backgrounds – When Byrne wants us to feel how alone and isolated characters are, one thing he would do is remove the backgrounds and if he was really hammering it home, he’d take away the panel borders, too, leaving them surrounded by the pure white blank of the page, and not just in a meaningful shot, but for entire scenes.

7 Without Words – We’ve established already that Byne was confident in his pacing skills, and he was just as cool with taking the words away as he was with removing the drawings. Some of the best bits in the comic were wordless scenes, one of which makes me want to hold my breath while reading it for reasons I can’t accurately explain.

8 Surroundings – John Byrne did amazing backgrounds in Alpha Flight, big, intense backgrounds that would hold characters within them. But, when a background would keep the focus off actions in progress, Byrne could take the same structures he’d just shown in detail and simplify or remove them in elegant ways to keep your attention where it should be.

9 Body Language – No two characters walk alike in Alpha Flight, or talk alike, eat alike, even fly alike. Body language changes with their emotions as well, or sanity, and not just to delineate split personalities like Aurora was suffering from, but the little things in life, like being hungry, tired, or grieving a dead husband could change the way someone held their shoulders or approached a table.

10 Body Types – And, no two people in the comic had the same body. That may not seem like much, but most superhero teams have guys differentiated only by their costumes and maybe their hair. Pick up a random Justice League comic and Flash, Batman, and Superman are essentially the same guy with different tights. Byrne really worked to vary it up, and he did well with it, the fat guy wasn’t grotesquely fat, the longhair had sense to braid it or pull it back from his face, The women don’t all have exactly the same body varying only in the length of their hair.

These aren’t game-changing or world-shattering techniques, but they are things still rarely applied, and even more rarely applied with such gusto and density. It’d be nice if, instead of trying to perfect rubberband mouth (no one but Byrne will), those learning from him learned to simply try new things and try them readily and frequently.

You can read John Byrne's Alpha Flight with these books:

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