Quebec Studies

The Representation of Québec in Marvel Comics’ Alpha Flight

Quebec Studies (2005), 40, (1), 65–78.

Abstract

65 The Representation of Québec in Marvel Comics' Alpha Flight Neal Baker Earlham College 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 dessinée d'Angoulême, the international stature of Astérix and Tintin, and the coverage of comic books in French publications like Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur} This article attempts to add to the research about comic books by examining the representation of Québec in the Marvel Comics series, Alpha Flight (1983-94), by means of its two Qué­ bécois 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, Québec was thereby textually encoded as mutant, gay, terrorist, and men­ tally and physically ill. Complex superhero figures like Northstar and Aurora were far re­ moved 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 Québec during the period between two référendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. Within this context, the representational stakes surrounding Alpha Flight's Québécois characters in the North Ameri­ can 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 Québécois 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 Québec chal­ lenged its constitutional status within Canada. 2 The representation of Québec in Alpha Flight was created by an anglo­ phone Canadian expatriate from Calgary, and the series was shaped by con­ ventions 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 undistin­ guished 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 Québec Studies, Volume 40, Fall 2005/Winter 2006

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Baker, Neal