This week Casey Roberson completes his court-mandated review of the ALF comic series. If you haven’t read the first part yet, do so here, otherwise his suicide at the end of this part won’t make as much sense.
Hello again! I left you on kind of a depressing note last time, with the idea that not even a comic writer could weave a touching story about an alien on Earth at Christmastime, at least as long as that alien was ALF. But don’t despair…or, as comics ALF would say “don’t despair tire” or “don’t despair ribs” or something equally shitty!
ALF the comic kept going for another two years, because there were plenty of interesting stories left to tell, such as…
Issue 27 – “Blow Your Own Horn of Plenty”
ALF and Brian play trumpets.
Issue 30 – “Kung Food for Thought”
It’s inevitable that the comic book would repeat stories from the show–as well as itself–multiple times over its run. There’s only so many stock stories about families, and only so many relatable ones, even if you are dealing with an alien. The fact that it didn’t happen more often is impressive–especially when you consider that ALF the comic had just the one writer, and each issue had two or three stories. Though we can point at times to very similar starting points (“Swimsuit Issue” and “Food for Thought” both were based on Willie fearing that people outside the family might discover that Lynn has a vagina), they’re never the same story.
I imagine that Phil would disagree about how impressive this is, given that many episodes of ALF arguably had no story, but I’d counter with this: Michael Gallagher, if he shared this opinion about the show, didn’t allow himself to share in its lazy attitude toward storytelling and worldbuilding. The nature of a long-running comic–and perhaps the nature of its source material–forced Gallagher to create a bigger world. And if I may make a guess, perhaps readers are more demanding than watchers? Maybe a comic in the 80s was held to higher standards because it could be experienced, dwelled upon, and then re-read? Perhaps there was greater accountability because they still had letters pages?
In re-reading Phil’s review for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” from season 2, I’m struck by how it not only is an episode that’s supposed to be about Brian dealing with a bully at school, but then isn’t about Brian; it’s also supposed to be an episode about ALF helping Brian that then isn’t about ALF. ALF, by necessity, has to advise Brian not to fight, because otherwise you’d have to hire a small person who can fight–and pull it off in a way that’s funny. As it was, ALF was reduced to pretending to chop a board and, if that review’s screenshots are any indication, disappearing until later in the episode, when he literally just phones in the plot resolution. Here, we get a much better story.
Brian comes home, not only with dirt rubbed on his face, but with torn clothes and a black eye, the victim of out-and-out bullying by someone who called him “Tan-nerd”. ALF, incensed that someone else in the world made a dumb joke, instantly sets out to teach Brian the ancient Melmacian art of Kung Food. Kung Food involves throwing food at someone. That’s it.
Whereas sitcom ALF does one Karate chop, comics ALF can actually use his legs to kick if the word balloons don’t take up too much space at the top of the panel. Whereas sitcom ALF just mentions in passing that his whole world blew up, and then moves on, comics ALF has a rich planetary history of overeating he can draw on. (I don’t know if this aspect was played up on the cartoon show, but here it’s always on full-blast. Many stories feature ALF belching up bones, apple cores, etc.) We get a montage of ALF training Brian in the garage and then–in the rarest of ALF sights–Kate demands that ALF clean the garage. When ALF flippantly dismisses the task as “women’s work”, Kate lectures him on chauvinism; the lecture happens off-panel, but still.
The story ends in a way that makes me wish this had been an actual episode of the show. The principal of Brian’s school calls Kate to tell her about Brian taking on the school bully. He thanks her “off the record” because he agreed that the bully needed to be taken down a peg. Can you imagine, with the right actor for the principal, and better writers, how well this could have been the final third of a sitcom episode? The principal, trying his best to convey his thanks to Kate while they both try to conceal, respectively, their thanks and pride from Brian? How Anne Schedeen would have totally crushed a scene where she’s trying her damnedest to not let ALF’s wasteful, messy behavior be encouraged because it–for once–solved a problem?
Anyway, this story ends with Willie asking to be trained in Kung Food, I guess because just being heartless at work is no longer enough for him.
Issue 32 – “Go Figure”
ALF plays with an action figure called “Melmacho Man”.
Issue 33 – “Home Vide-uh-oh!”
Willie and Brian are regular watchers of “Home Video USA,” and just look at the host. I’ll wait.
Okay, I think we can probably all agree now that fill-in pencil artist “Haller” probably hadn’t been watching TV for years, or at least not programs from the US, if he thinks that’s what television hosts looked like when he drew this in 1990. Or maybe he swore off it after he watched one episode of ALF to get photo reference material. (No idea where Manak was for this story; Haller doesn’t have as good of a sense of composition or scale; like, ALF’s head is the same size as his torso in one panel.)
ALF is hooked by the promise of the $5,000 first prize, so he sends in a video of him chasing Lucky with one of those covered platters that I’m pretty sure have never existed in real life. The video becomes a finalist, meaning that ALF must make an actual appearance on television to claim the prize, if he wins. The solution? Dress Brian in an ALF suit. Let me repeat that:
DRESS BRIAN IN AN ALF SUIT
It’s like one of those riddles that makes you feel like an idiot when you finally hear the answer. Sure, maybe it would have been too good an idea for the show, because it would have solved too many problems. But, come on, the idea should at least have arisen once, f’chrissakes. Kate sews an ALF suit, Brian goes on television, and then some other video wins. I can understand this. After all, you can’t have the Tanners suddenly having $5,000. Their whole lifestyle would change, they’d move to Beverly Hills, Willie could get crack the easy way…
(One last thought on this one: it really bugs me that the flamboyant host of “Home Video USA” doesn’t get a name here, so I hereby dub him Georgie Washington.)
Let’s pause from the stories for a moment to talk about outliving your source material. ALF the TV show ended in March 1990–about the time that issue 31 of the comic would have been published. Now, in any medium, there are going to be numerous steps on the path from idea to execution to distribution, and each takes time. TV shows have deadlines, and so do comics.
For television, the main work is getting everybody in the same place at the same time and turning the camera on (which is the entirety of how ALF was made), but for comics, the writer was constantly handing off full stories to the penciller, who then had to hand them off to the inker, and then the colorist, letterer, and finally whoever put all these elements together, and then the printer, and then through distribution channels. Plus, unlike ALF the TV show, there were quality control checks along the way (though you will see the occasional panel where someone’s hand is white, or where Willie’s upper lip is red because someone thought it was a tongue).
At any rate, it took time, and I have no idea how long! But at some point, word got to Marvel that ALF was cancelled. Given the lead time shows need to have episodes in the can for a season premiere in September, and even though ALF scripts typically were written on Post-It notes that read “Eggs, Milk, ALF insults Kate, Lunch Meat,” July 1990 would have been the absolute latest to start making season 5 of ALF.
But whenever Marvel learned that TV ALF was dead, questions had to be asked and decisions made. How many orders from comic shops? How many active subscriptions? How much fan mail? Even if sales remained high because most kids wouldn’t have known until September 1990 that ALF wasn’t coming back, I still think it highly indicative of the quality of the comic that it not only outlasted the sitcom…it had a longer run overall by seven months.
The cover of issue 40 (Jan. 1991) has ALF preparing to eat a cooked peacock, trademark NBC feathers at all. It’s the only reference to the cancellation as far as the covers go; I’d actually have to read all these stories to see if I could any better pinpoint when Gallagher knew the show was cancelled. But there are two noteworthy things I want to highlight about the final year or so of the comic’s run.
To begin with, the Melmac stories got further and further “out there,” less grounded in the reality it (I assume) shared with the cartoon. More X-Melmen stories; a Melmacian Dr. Who; Melmacian comic strips (including parodies of B.C., Hagar the Horrible, Dennis the Menace, and Mutt & Jeff); Melmacian Star Trek; “Judge Bredd.” There’s even a Melmac story in the middle of one issue that’s drawn in a very simplified R. Crumb style; the story takes place “underground” (lol).
Even the main stories had less and less to do with the real world, at a great remove from experiences that a family like the Tanners might have:
– ALF sprays the neighborhood with “fear cans,” making everyone on the block afraid their houses won’t pass a “surprise inspection”
– ALF meets some sentient trees
– ALF creates a clone of himself made of rocks that also has the mind of Francisco Pizarro
– ALF gets electrocuted and becomes a floating television screen
– ALF has a Swedish accent
Michael Gallagher certainly wasn’t writing for 8-year-olds anymore. He probably wasn’t writing for the show’s fans, because that world wasn’t reflected anymore. He may very well not have been writing for anyone but himself and whoever he had to get script approval from.
But the bottom of the barrel had been reached. 50 is such a round number to end on that I have to wonder if Gallagher was such a good (fast? cheap?) writer that they let him say how long he needed to wrap things up. I certainly don’t think Fusco was paying attention to the comic by then, if he ever had. Gallagher was given the chance to end the comic with a storyline spanning four whole issues (five, if you count issue 42, which laid the groundwork for the final sequence).
So, at long last, here is the end of melmonthly ALF and, in a way, the end of ALF as a continuous franchise. If I were feeling generous, I’d refer to all of ALF’s subsequent appearances in the public eye as “sporadic”. But here’s ALF rapping about how he plans to use the medium of rap to cash in on how his whole planet was destroyed:
…so I’m not feeling generous right this minute. Let’s face it, pretty much every iteration of ALF has been abortive. The sitcom about an alien living with an average American family of the 80s ended up being barely about either. Project: ALF (1996) I can’t speak to, other than an even longer time period elapsed between it and ALF’s Hit Talk Show (2004). And then there’s been basically jack shit in the twelve years since.
ALF the comic series was about what I’d expect from–and roughly what I remember about–kids’ comics in the 80s. Kids probably didn’t care about the Tanners; they could exist in broad strokes of character upon which readers could project their own families. They were there for ALF cracking wise and eating cats. Simply by not being a live-action show (and, I’m guessing, costing Marvel less than it spent on The Fantastic Four), the comic had numerous possibilities before it. ALF being more active, ALF outside the house, ALF being a superhero, a mascot, unveiling endless cool gadgets from the depths of his spaceship…did I mention ALF turned into a floating TV that one time?
This feels weird to say, but…squids and all, I think ALF the comic book was the most successful execution of the situation comedy that Fusco had in mind.
The son gets in a fight? Here’s a weird ancient fighting style from the alien’s home planet. The family’s going to take part in a cultural event like buying Christmas presents from the mall? The alien is going to tag along, even if he has to hide in the car. The alien’s technology helps the son win the science fair by too far a margin. The alien loses his memory and now thinks his adoptive family are his captors. The alien should constantly be trying to catch the cat to eat it? Sure, once per issue, no animal trainers needed. They’re normal, he’s zany, worlds collide.
The comic not only achieves what it was trying to do, but it actually manages to add some flair, even if flair is often just a constant barrage of puns. I did honestly laugh a few times at the level of absurdity the comic reached.
I had half-expected the comic to be as bad as the sitcom, but if anything, the comic condemns it further. An alien living with a family is a good sitcom setup, then and now. But the comic gives us some indication of what ALF could have been without an impossible-to-navigate soundstage, without actors who couldn’t act, without a Fusco calling the shots.
Here’s the final sequence of ALF stories, giving you an ending that, if not more satisfying than the sitcom’s, is more complete.
Issue 42 – “Send in the Clones”
The last time we saw Rhonda, she was imaginary. Before that, she had left Earth for New Melmac, her Clone-O-Matic machine extracting DNA from one of ALF’s nose hairs. Now, Rhonda’s ship has crashed in the Tanners’ yard. After a quick explanation that the Ochmoneks are away attending an “Elvis is Alive” seminar (and that’s probably my absolute favorite joke in these comics), ALF approaches the ship–only to find ALF already in it!
Haha, no, actually it’s Skip wearing an ALF mask! Skip relates how Rhonda arrived on New Melmac with hundreds of Gordons in tow, due to the nose hair’s “severe split ends”. The cloned Gordons are said to each have “one specific personality trait or flaw”, and shit, the latter would be a vast improvement. Anyway, the Gordons quickly take over the whole planet, set up a police state, and put Rhonda on public display so all the Gordons can melmasturbate over her.
Gordons Gordons Gordons. ALF busts Rhonda out of jail, and Rhonda’s spaceship-maneuvering talents save them from Gordon’s Orbit Guard. Then New Melmac just explodes completely on its own? Rhonda and ALF return to Earth, and ALF is left behind because Rhonda needs a break from him for awhile. Rhonda says that she’ll return in issue 50.
Issue 47 – “Th-th-that’s ALF, folks!, Part 1: Meteor ‘Bye Products”
ALF finds out that a recently-landed meteor contains “oldhamite,” a mineral needed to fuel his ship. Seven pages later, he gets it from the meteor. I kept this one short so I could point out that everyone, ever, except for me, gets Porky Pig’s line wrong. Porky Pig is always trying to say one thing, but he trips over one word, and then selects a different way to say what he means. At the end of a cartoon, Porky is trying to say “The End”; he’s not stuttering over the word “that.”
This issue is the one that costs 10 times as much as every other issue on eBay, because some people think it looks like ALF is raping a seal on the cover. Whatever the hell he’s doing with the seal (making sure it doesn’t escape? preparing to eat it?) the kids who were still reading this didn’t see it that way. It’s kind of like the old image you might’ve seen in your child development class, where kids just see dolphins, and adults see what you see:
“Part 2: A Tisket, a Task Force”
ALF is freaking out because he knows Rhonda’s coming in a couple of issues so he takes a “time capsule” pill that helps him forget things that bother him for a while. Meanwhile, Mark Bittner of the Alien Task Force is spying on ALF from the Ochmoneks’ house (he showed up in issue 27, but I skipped that story so I could tell you about that one time ALF and Brian played trumpets), and he’s bugged the Tanner house.
The Tanners pack up all of ALF’s belongings in a moving truck and ship him off to Kate Sr.’s house. She brings ALF back the next morning, ALF and Mark Bittner fight, Kate slips Mark Bittner a “time capsule” and he leaves (why did ALF need to leave for the night, then…?). ALF soliloquizes about whether his continued presence will put the Tanners in jeopardy (FINALLY) and then uses Willie’s ham radio to call Rhonda, planning to make…
Issue 49 – “Part 3: A Melmodest Proposal”
The first part of this issue is Skip and Rhonda trapped on, Idunno, Planet Tangram or some mess. Lessee, there’s some circle beings, and some triangle guys, and they’re at war…okay, good, Rhonda achieved global peace in just a few pages, good deal, let’s get back to the story.
Lynn overhears ALF talking on the radio with Skip and Rhonda about marriage and relays the news to the rest of the family. After the requisite number of panels of them pretending to be sad (four), the Tanners throw a big party for ALF and give him some going-away presents. From Kate: a lock of her hair (now that ALF will be out of it! HA!); from Lynn: a giant sweater she knitted; from Brian: a baseball cap; from Willie: a cassette tape of Louis Armstrong’s greatest hits. They did it! They got in a second personality trait for Willie right before the end.
ALF gives the Tanners a stray dog that he found that has the exact same nose he does; the dog instantly starts eating everything in sight and then crapping on the floor, so Brian names it “ALF.”
Issue 50 (Nov. or Dec. 1991) – “Part 4: ALF Wiedersehn”
Rhonda and Skip arrive back on Earth, they and ALF have a quick little orgy in the Tanners’ living room, right where the baby can see, and then everybody gets ready for the wedding.
Meanwhile, Mark Bittner of the ATF convinces a senator to come with him to capture ALF, so the senator can get reelected; plus he calls up a tabloid TV show. Then we finally find out that Michael Gallagher was messing with our perceptions of the accuracy of language, and it is revealed Rhonda is marrying Skip, not ALF. Makes sense. I mean, she lived on a planet full of Gordons for a while. Can you imagine the smell?
Rhonda and Skip get married; Bittner, “Senator”, and the news crew arrive; ALF, Rhonda, and Skip leave in their two ships; Bittner is humiliated; Willie cries tears of joy that maybe, finally, he can pay more than the minimum on his credit card bill.
We then discover out that ALF used his holographic device to disguise himself as the dog (this being the one time I’ve seen the comic break its own continuity, as this device showed up in issue 18’s WOTIF story and by all rights should not exist). Out in space, the newlyweds let ALF’s ship fall back to Earth, and despite however much the Earth would have rotated in the five minutes since they left, guess where it lands.
The rest of the issue is ALF pretending to have a talk show.
I’ll leave you now with my favorite panels from the ALF comics.