Thursday, 29 January 2015


Yesterday, I talked about doing a "reboot" of a comic book property as a campaign framework. Today, I thought I'd present a small example. You may have to forgive me for relying on older comics about the subject group, as I ceased caring about a lot of Marvel books in the mid 1990s and a lot of the characters may have changed quite a bit since then (or died, or been retconned, etc.) and I'm afraid I'm not that interested in the details.

Back in the early 1980s, I was pretty excited to learn that one of the coolest characters in my favourite comic book, UNCANNY X-MEN, was in fact a Canadian. I'm sure you know which one, bub, because he's the best there is at what he does, and what he does is very marketable. I was even more excited to learn that he was connected to a whole group of Canadian super-heroes, ALPHA FLIGHT, even if they were usually jerks when they showed up in the pages of X-MEN.

One side, hosers!

Canadians have a reputation of being polite doofuses, but if I had to characterize My People, I'd say they're more self-conscious and needy. Canadians feel like we're seldom noticed, so when they're mentioned in a comic book, TV show, or movie, hosers everywhere are elbowing each other and nodding approvingly. Someone knows we exist! The tasteless part of this self-obsession is when Canadian newscasters make a point of mentioning that no Canadians were involved with this-and-that disaster in the news, as though that should make it less tragic.

Anyway, back to ALPHA FLIGHT. They started out as a team of baddies for the X-MEN to beat up, and faces to flesh out a little of our man Logan's backstory (which was, at that point, wisely left mysterious). We knew that they were the super-powered operatives of the Canadian Department of National Defense called Department 'H' (for "hero"?). We never learned that much about them, even in the pages of their own comic book (which I enjoyed while former Canuck John Byrne was writing it) except that, despite the fact they seemingly reported directly to the Prime Minister, they were kind of a small-potatoes operation who constantly seemed on the verge of being shut down. This seems about right for the Canadian military, which doesn't have anywhere near the budget of our neighbours to the south, despite the fact they apparently paid for the adamantium implants that made Wolverine the unbreakable tough guy we all love (something that's been since retconned out the wazoo).

Alpha Flight was lead by James Macdonald Hudson, a scientist who built a battlesuit not unlike a sleek version of Iron Man's suit with a Maple Leaf flag theme. By turns, Hudson himself wore the suit as Vindicator (and later, Guardian) or it was worn by his wife Heather. "Mac" and Heather were the heart of the team, as was their old buddy Logan, who was originally groomed to lead the team before leaving to seek his fortunes with Charles Xavier. The other members of the team changed a bit over the years, but usually had Shaman, Snowbird, Sasquatch, and the hypersonic Quebecois twins Northstar and Aurora. There were also other super-powered "flights" that appeared in the background, including Beta Flight and Gamma Flight (who re-christened themselves Omega Flight as bad guys). Together, they fought threats both super-powered and supernatural, although they never had the cachet of the X-Men or the Avengers.

The classic Byrne era team, including Marina and Puck. 
So what kinds of things could we do with a Reboot of Alpha Flight at your gaming table? I think there are a lot of things that could work.

First, it would be easy to imagine an Alpha Flight game that played more like a TV show such as FRINGE or SUPERNATURAL, as several of the main characters have magic or supernatural origin stories, and many of their threats tended toward the mystical or weird. Playing Michael Twoyoungmen (Shaman) as a medical doctor a la Dana Scully who dabbles in magic but considers himself more of a man of science means he has much in common with Walter Langkowski (Sasquatch), whose monstrous alter-ego was created by experimentation with gamma rays, and "Mac", an inventor perhaps trying to be Tony Stark without the budget. Snowbird is a shape-changing RCMP officer who becomes the mortal avatar of a goddess, and Marina (if we include her - she seems like she would work best as a supporting cast member) is a kind of alien fish creature. Aurora and Northstar are mutants. If you were to play down the scope of Vindicator's "armor" to a series of high-tech gadgets (perhaps the suit takes shape in bits and pieces over the course of the story arc) and make Snowbird less superhero-y and more strange and terrifying, it's easy to imagine this becoming a Weird Adventure series where they travel the country battling strange creatures and exploring weird scientific anomalies. Add a little X-FILES style espionage to Department 'H' (and the other Flights) and you've got a pretty tasty Beaver Tail of a series.
Beaver Tails are a Canadian treat that is Not Good For You. Also known as Elephant Ears.
The above could also be played for more comedy, with an emphasis on Department 'H' being a low-budget operation constantly on the edge of being defunded. You'd have to pretty much strip out everything that seemed too dignified and play the characters as broad comic types drawing on the less credible parts of their backstory. James MacDonald Hudson becomes more of a failed Tony Stark whose inventions don't always work so well, leading a team of misfits who operate out of the DND basements somewhere, trying not to attract attention. Unfortunately this is probably the format that would best embrace Puck, a character who never seemed especially useful on a super-team except as a comic foil - kind of like someone mashed up Nightcrawler's acrobatics with Wolverine's body hair problem. The final product might be a situation comedy like THE I.T. CROWD, or something more serious like Charles Stross's Laundry novels -- mostly serious, with a good deal of bureaucratic comedy thrown in. (It also reminds me of an old Canadian TV show called ADDERLY, about a low-budget Canadian spy agency and their definitely-not-Bond secret agent. I assume no one outside of Canada has any idea what I'm talking about.)

If you were to imagine a scaled-up version of ALPHA FLIGHT, it would be very easy to simply apply the subject matter to the framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Department 'H' could look a lot like a branch of SHIELD north of the border, with high tech HQs and more spectacular "special effects budgets" in terms of the storytelling. In a game like this, the various "Flights" might be several teams working under the same leadership to protect our very large country, allowing you to tell stories of very large threats indeed -- a Chitauri invasion story that happened all over the country at the same time might be an exciting storyline to imagine. This team would be more heroic, of course, with little moments of drama sprinkled in between breathless action set-pieces. Omega Flight could indeed be traitors inside the organization, splitting off in the same way that HYDRA emerged from the MCU version of SHIELD.

Although I think most of the Alpha Flight stories I can imagine are contemporary, you might also get some mileage out of running a series set during the Cold War. In this set-up, Alpha's connections to the military are emphasized, and they're a top-secret unit dedicated to protecting North America from Soviet incursions. This might require you to scale down your tech a little bit, but it would give you a ready-made framework for villains in some Soviet spy types (Crimson Dynamo?), and AF was never that great in terms of a rogues' gallery. Again, you'd be emphasizing the high tech / espionage angles here, and playing down costumes and large scale battles for something smaller and grittier. The implications of Wolverine leaving Department 'H' -- either for the American espionage program, who Canada have often cooperated with, or perhaps(!) for the Soviets -- could be interesting fodder for story. Depending on what way you played it, Logan could either be a Felix Leiter type buddy with his claws deep in an allied organization, or a dangerous enemy who's maybe had enough for working for the government that used him for medical experiments.

What other Alpha Flight stories could we tell?


  1. Alpha Flight: Agents of the Canadian SHIELD!

    You could also do a tense political drama, with a right-wing politician pushing for Alpha Flight to be propaganda agents for his oil & gas corporate buddies while either Alpha or Gamma Flight is also being used as a black ops team abroad. Cartoon mounties and assassins who aren't allowed to speak to the press without a Ministry rep present.

  2. I like that idea a lot! And there is some precedent for that, with the big baddie in the first year of AF's (Byrne) series being Jerry Jaxon, an executive for Roxxon Oil! It wouldn't take a lot of imagination to change Roxxon into a multinational with its claws in the Alberta tar sands, and thus with an ear in the PMO.

    Alpha Flight in Stephen Harper's Canada. *brr*