Academic journal article Quebec Studies

The Representation of Quebec in Marvel Comics' Alpha Flight

Academic journal article Quebec Studies

The Representation of Quebec in Marvel Comics' Alpha Flight

Article excerpt

There is a relative paucity of material about comic books within the field of French Studies, despite the francophone media attention devoted to Le Festival international de la bande dessinee d'Angouleme, the international stature of Asterix and Tintin, and the coverage of comic books in French publications like Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur. (1) This article attempts to add to the research about comic books by examining the representation of Quebec in the Marvel Comics series, Alpha Flight (1983-94), by means of its two Quebecois characters. Northstar, a mutant, ex-separatist terrorist gifted with super speed and the ability to fly, gained worldwide press attention in 1992 when he became the first costumed crusader to come out as gay after nearly dying from a mysterious condition suggestive of AIDS. His mutant, flying sister, Aurora, suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Taken together, Quebec was thereby textually encoded as mutant, gay, terrorist, and mentally and physically ill.

Complex superhero figures like Northstar and Aurora were far removed from such simplistic paragons of national pride as Captain America, but like that costumed avatar for the United States, they circulated as similar symbolic resources for Quebec during the period between two referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. Within this context, the representational stakes surrounding Alpha Flight's Quebecois characters in the North American imaginary were--and remain--significant. As Bradford W. Wright underscores at the outset of his key study, Comic Book Nation, "Emerging from the shifting interaction of politics, culture, audience tastes, and the economics of publishing, comic books have helped to frame a worldview and a sense of self for the generations who have grown up with them" (xiii). I will argue that Alpha Flight positioned its Quebecois characters as threats to the Canadian status quo via discursive and visual tropes that connoted radical difference. Northstar and Aurora became disruptive Others who destabilized the idea of national unity at the same time as Quebec challenged its constitutional status within Canada. (2)

The representation of Quebec in Alpha Flight was created by an anglophone Canadian expatriate from Calgary, and the series was shaped by conventions and market pressures driving the United States comic book industry. (3) John Byrne was a graduate of the Alberta College of Art who joined Marvel Comics in 1976 and soon achieved fame by transforming, together with Chris Claremont, The Uncanny X-Men from an undistinguished title into the most popular series on the market. A multinational cast of characters was part of the appeal of the X-Men franchise, as well as its antecedents like Quality Comics' "Blackhawk" team created in 1941 and Marvel Comics' long-running Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos title that began in 1963, but Alpha Flight was the first completely foreign team to appear in their own US superhero publication. (4) While such cultural pluralism might appear to be progressive, economic motivation was a determining factor. Al Landau, the President of Marvel, reportedly urged his creative staff, "if we could come up with a group book that had characters from several different countries--and of course we would target particular countries--we could sell the book abroad" (Daniels 168).

The Alpha Flight team members were meant to emblematize Canada. "I wanted to make them instantly recognizable as Canadians to an American audience without making them just Nelson Eddy in a Mountie uniform," Byrne explained (Jennings 43). At the same time, they illustrated the diversity of the Canadian confederation. The shape-changing Sasquatch hailed from British Columbia, while Puck was a Toronto bouncer exhibiting the stereotypical Canadian linguistic trait, "eh." Aquatic Marrina [sic] was a foundling from--appropriately--Newfoundland, Shaman added indigenous color as a Native American doctor from the Sarcee Reserve in Alberta, and Northstar and Aurora represented Quebec. …

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