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Alpha Flight: the surprising story of Marvel Comics’ little-known Canadian superheroes

How an obscure 1980s comic series gave us the first gay superhero, the first superhero with dwarfism, and much more besides.

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Everywhere you look, superheroes are big business. Only this week, Marvel Studios, the film production wing of Marvel Comics, released trailers for two new blockbuster comic book movies.

Anticipation is high for Captain Marvel (the first Marvel superhero movie featuring a female lead) and the next Avengers movie, the trailer for which dropped to enormous hype Friday morning. But while The Avengers are the flagship characters of the Marvel Universe, I’d like to take you now on a tour through a more obscure corner of the superhero world.

The first Canadian superheroes were known as Alpha Flight – and their creator, John Byrne, spun some surprisingly progressive and groundbreaking tales for the early 80s.

What do I mean by “progressive”? Alpha Flight gave us a number of societal watermarks. The first-ever gay superhero. The first-ever superhero with dwarfism – who may well have been the inspiration for Tyrion Lannister. It also gave us one of the first instances of an episodic adventure series in any medium abruptly killing off a lead character for shock value.

During his later run on Superman for DC Comics, Byrne also gave us the first lesbian character in superhero comics, during a time when LGBTQ themes were almost never discussed (and if so, not with any subtlety) in the mainstream pop culture world. Byrne was (and still is, for many) a superstar of the form – though he is also known for making a number of questionable and controversial public statements.

Anyway, here is the story of Alpha Flight!

Note: on some screens, best enjoyment of this comic strip might require zooming in your browser window.

This piece was coloured by SirGryphon, an artist, writer, colorist, and designer based in Seattle. He owns a comics shop, Anyone Comics, with Dimitrios Fragiskatos in Brooklyn, NY. Find him on twitter & instagram at @sirgryphon and his store's site:

Tony Wolf is a comics creator and actor in NYC. He has written & drawn comics for The New York Times and been featured in New York Magazine’s Vulture. He tweets @tonywolfness and his Instagram is here.