Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Falcon: Keeping Captain America real in the 1970s

As a kid, I always thought Captain America was kind of a nut.  I never had any desire to pick up his comic, until I saw Captain America #137 in early 1971.  Why did I want to buy this issue?  Because it had Spider-Man on the cover!

Captain America 137, First time I encountered the Falcon

But it was not only my introduction to Captain America, it was my first experience reading about his African-American partner, the Falcon.  This was a jarring experience for me.  You see, up until that point, I had read about sidekicks like Robin.  Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson lived in a mansion during their off time.

Captain America 137, partners quarrel

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson (the Falcon) lived in crummy apartments in Brooklyn and Harlem.  They rode around on a motorcycle instead of a Batmobile and had to hide it in an alleyway.  But even with all these handicaps, they were still able to battle the Red Skull!

Captain America 137, Falcon encounters Spider-Man

Cap and the Falcon had a great partnership, yet their relationship was tested over and over again by the issue of race relations.  The Falcon felt greatly overshadowed by Captain America’s towering presence and constantly strove to prove himself.  In the Spider-Man two-part story, he tracks down Peter Parker to the apartment that shares with Harry Osborne.  Thinking that Osborne is Spider-Man, the Falcon kidnaps him, only to have Peter show up and totally kick his ass.  That was one problem with the early adventures of the Falcon: he needed more powers or abilities!

Captain America 143, Sam Wilson and Leila

Sam Wilson was a Social Worker when he wasn’t saving the world.  Stan Lee and Gary Friedrich complicated Sam’s life by making a certain segment of Harlem view him as a sellout to the white establishment.  One of these was Leila, a member of the revolutionary Black Militia group in Captain America #143.  She calls Sam an “Uncle Tom” and does this several times over her story arc.

Captain America 143, Sam puts the moves on Layla

John Romita illustrated several issues of Captain America during this period.  And before he drew superheroes, Romita was very good at illustrating romance comics.  This story essentially becomes about the romance between Sam and Leila.  They are total opposites, yet they are incredibly attracted to each other.  Romita really draws this aspect of the story with great emotion.  It’s a bit of a soap opera, sure, but you get the sense that Sam and Leila are really hot for each other.  Dig it?

Captain America 143, Sam Wilson and Leila kiss

Captain America #143 was a super-sized 25 cent comic, and the story involved the Black Militia whipping up Harlem into a violent frenzy.  In the last chapter we learn the leader of the Black Militia is really the Red Skull. A cop out or not?  At the end of the story, after the Skull is defeated, the violence is abated but the issues in Harlem are still alive. Sam and Leila finally admit that they can’t keep their hands off each other.  Cap mourns the loss of another partner—kind of hokey, but wait until next issue!

Captain America 144, the Falcon's new costume

Captain America #144 proclaimed that this was the issue where “Cap and the Falcon Split Up!”  What’s important about this one is the Falcon’s brand-new red and white costume on the cover!  Goodbye to that drab old green and brown number, this one made him look more fierce and Falcon-like.  This was a big step in improving the Falcon’s profile.  Still, there was something missing.  Sam was still getting around the city by swinging on that tiny wire or driving a motorcycle!  Hmm, what to do, how to fix this?

Captain America 170, the Falcon's new wings

Finally, Steve Englehart figured out the answer in Captain America #169-171.  Let’s just call the Black Panther and ask him to give Sam a little extra oomph in the costumed powers department!  That made sense to me.  Marvel heroes should help each other out!  Sam and Leila were flown to Wakanda where the Panther modified the Falcon’s costume with “super-strong glider wings, jet powered from their tips by wafer-thin integrated circuits feeding off a sunlight charged power pack!”  Whatever!  HE CAN FLY NOW!

Captain America 171, Black Panther gives the gift of flight

It took four years (from 1969 until this issue in 1973) for Marvel to realize that a character named the Falcon should be able to fly.  When I saw this great John Romita cover, featuring Cap, the Falcon, and the Black Panther, all in one issue, I simply could not wait.  I was really into the Black Panther’s solo adventures in Jungle Action.  There were some very interesting discussions between the Panther and Leila, although Leila isn’t very happy when the Falcon takes off to show Cap his new toy.

Captain America v5 25, Falcon remembers after Steve's death

The Falcon hasn’t had a whole lotta love since this highpoint in the 1970s.  He was in the Avengers for five seconds and he had a mini-series written by Jim Owsley (aka Christopher Priest) in the 1980s.  I’ve really loved seeing the Falcon in the modern Captain America series by Ed Brubaker.  This little sequence in Captain America #25 (vol 5) evokes the memories of the Falcon’s tenure with Steve Rogers.

While Spider-Man initially drew me into Captain America’s world, I think it was the Falcon who kept me coming back month after month.

And this where I am going to get on my bully pulpit and say this is why Marvel was always better than DC Comics.

Marvel took a series called Captain America and turned it sideways by setting in a semi-realistic New York City and giving him an African American partner.  This series portrayed a partnership where the characters argued, encountered racism, poverty, politics, and romance.  Marvel didn’t play it safe with Captain America and they probably should have, but in doing so they allowed a series of stories to be created that I’ll never forget.  Nuff said.

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