Meet Pink Pearl...such a nice lady!
How long can it take to read a single comic book? This one took me around 35 years.
The memory is so specific it doesn't seem like it can be real: I am on the bus, going back from kindergarten, at the school I only attended for one year. I am in the back of the bus with some of the cool older kids from my neighborhood, and they are looking at a comic book. That comic book is Alpha Flight #22, which has an immense, obese woman in a pink muumuu, stomping on two people. It is a pretty memorable cover. Some parts of the story seem likely: I did learn about comic books from the "cool kids" in my neighborhood, and some of their taste was rather avant-garde for kids living in a small town with no comic book shop. But my memory is so incredibly specific, I can remember the exact streets we were passing as I looked at the cover, and it seems unlikely that a five year old who was just learning to really read and was dealing with an upcoming parental divorce would form such a razor-sharp memory of a single issue of Alpha Flight, even one with such a memorable cover. And those "cool older kids"...how old could they have been, really? In third or fourth grade? Why would they be reading this? Where would you even get this in a small town, without a comic book shop? I have to say, to be skeptical, that I might have stitched together some disparate memories.
In any case, although I remember Alpha Flight #22 from being a small child, I never had a chance to read it. It would take about three dozen years before I would get a chance to do that.
I probably owned a copy sometime in my 20s. I have a memory of that, and of reading it sometime in my 20s. This seems like a reasonable memory to have, since issues of Alpha Flight are usually easy to find at thrift store sand in comic book discount bins. My 20s are kind of a haze, and I remember reading this issue under the influence of disassociatives, and feeling it to be both mythical, sinister, and incomprehensible, like much that I experienced under the influence ofdisassociatives in the 2000s.
So, today, I finally read it again. Thanks to another discount bin at my local comic book store. I had actually found some issues of Alpha Flight for full price, but made a trip to the discount bin and found this jumping out at me for 50 cents! Maybe, after decades of this story alluding me, I could finally read and understand it.
This story was written and drawn by John Byrne, the Canadian artist who created Alpha Flight. It has one major complicated plot that is interrupted by two subplots that are also complicated. In the main plot, the plot that we meet Pink Pearl, Aurora has stumbled into her twin brother Northstar's home. Aurora has multiple personality disorder, and when a romantic interlude with her boyfriend became too intimate, her repressed, antisexual personality took over and flew into her estranged brother's arms. Quite literally, as it involved her being airborne over several Canadian provinces. After a two page interlude where we follow Heather McKenzie and Talisman in Vancouver, British Columbia, we find that notwithstanding his concern for his sister's mental health, he takes her along to meet a friend of his who was a former associate of his in his carnie days. Northstar is a somewhat haughty skiing champion who nevertheless used to move in carnie circles. His friend from those days, Clementine, has hired a new fat woman, who has been making life at the circus difficult. Just as she is explaining this, Pink Pearl shows up and punches her in the face. Together with a single emaciated contortionist, the morbidly obese Pink Pearl manages to quickly subdue two super-heroes. We are then treated to a three page interlude where the paraplegic Box shows his new ability to fuse into his techno-organic armor suit. When we are reintroduced to our main plot. Pink Pearl plans to destroy a summit meeting between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada. Pink Pearl knows that Clementine and Northstar were both former members of a Quebecian separatist movement, and that the explosion will be blamed on them. In true comic book fashion, Pink Pearl stomps around, in her ludicrous pink muumuu, while referring to herself in the third person, and revealing her master plans to her trapped captives. Of course, they escape, and easily defeat her. But now Aurora has discovered that her brother was a former member of a terrorist group!
I am just trying to imagine how a elementary school student, or even a middle school student, could have understood any of this, in 1985. How were bizarre stories of grotesque terrorists and the intersticity of Canadian identity used to sell Oreos and Reese's Pieces?
The core of this story is complex, sophisticated, and even moving. North Star and Aurora, Jean-Paul Beaubier and Jeanne-Marie Beaubier, are twins who depend on each other, but can't trust each other. Their background, alluded to in this issue, and drawn out in other issues of Alpha Flight, is of siblings that depend on each other, and might be the only people who can understand each other. But they also have a secretive, resentful relationship. Jeanne-Marie has developed multiple personality disorder, between her strict, religious "Jeanne-Marie" personality, and her risky and exuberant "Aurora" personality. Jean-Paul is aloof and somewhat abrasive, and in this issue is hiding his past associations with terrorists. Also, in an issue that was never allowed to be discussed openly under Marvel's editorial policies at the time, he was also a homosexual, which is hinted at in this issue. Jean-Paul and Jeanne-Marie are siblings who are each other's last resort, but they can't fully trust each other with the basic truth of who they are. And that is an extremely sophisticated story to understand.
But also: a group of circus performers have a bomb that can only be stopped by two flying super-heroes, and that is just the main plot. We also have a woman catching a glimpse of her dead husband, and a man who can turn himself into a giant robot. Along with Aurora's problems with her brother, her relationship with her boyfriend is tainted by the fact that he is not just turning into a Sasquatch due to gamma ray bombardment, but because his soul is slowly being taken over by a supernatural creature. The plot threads that are running through this issue are ludicrous, and numerous.
So, after three decades from first seeing the garish cover to finally understanding what was inside, I will sum up Alpha Flight #22 as a good example of so many comic books: way more profound, and way more stupid, than I would have thought.