Giving the Falcon His Due: Part I

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My introduction to the Marvel universe centered on a character that debuted in 1969. Sam Wilson was a Harlem social worker that doubled as the Falcon, an inner city crime fighter who was trained by, and eventually became the partner of, one of Marvel’s flagship characters: Captain America.

Wilson was also the first African American superhero to appear in a major comic book line. Google him and you’ll typically get the label “first African American superhero,” the title “first black superhero” going to T’Challa, king of Wakanda and the alter ego of the Black Panther, who first appeared in 1966. Regardless of titles, the appearance of the Falcon straddles the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age of American comic book history.

No single development signals the arrival of the Bronze-Age, but the magazines that dealt with issues of social relevance from 1970 on usually get top billing. Some comic book historians emphasize the 1970-1971 run of DC’s Green Lantern and Green Arrow, in which writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams engaged issues of poverty, race and drug abuse.

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The O’Neil-Adams Green Lantern is asked about his lack of concern for Earth’s people of color in the April, 1970 issue of Green Lantern-Green Arrow.
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The classic O’Neil-Adams Green Lantern dealt with drug abuse a few months after Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Others point to the 1971 appearance of the drug abuse topic in the pages of Spider-Man, after Stan Lee was approached by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to do a cautionary story. Bucking the comic code, which forbade the mention of drugs, Lee published a multi-part story in which Parker’s friend, Harry Osborn, begins using hallucinogens. The Comic Code Authority refused to sanction the story line, but Lee published them anyway, without the CCA seal of approval.

The 1973 murder of Gwen Stacey at the hands of the Green Goblin is also seen as a watershed event in the dawn of the Bronze Age. Gwen, Peter Parker’s long time girl friend, was the first major character to die in a popular comic title, an event that shocked the comic book world. Lee later regretted the killing of Gwen, endorsing writer Roy Thomas’ concept as Lee was hurrying out of the office to catch a plane. When Lee returned in a calmer state, the deed was already done, and the rest was comic book history.

 

The 1973 murder of Gwen Stacey by the Green Goblin shocked the comic book world.

Now all of these were important events in the publication history of the American comic book, and each individual title, as well as many others, can claim to be the starting point for the Bronze-Age.

But…

OK, here goes…

It always bothered me that the 1969 debut of the Falcon is usually never mentioned as one of the defining moments of the Bronze Age. “First African American superhero” is often delivered in a “meh” fashion, particularly when compared to some of the magazines mentioned above. Maybe its because the Falcon only shared the Captain America and the Falcon magazine title with second billing; maybe its because Sam Wilson didn’t have “superpowers,” although I’ll argue that later; maybe its because T’Challa preceded him in the publication timeline.

Regardless of the reason, I think its time to give the Falcon his due, and make his appearance and the evolution of Captain America and the Falcon’s Harlem-centered story line one of the salient events heralding the arrival of the Bronze Age.

I was introduced to the Falcon when I was 8, by my best friend Aldo. Aldo lived halfway down the 3800 block of Boston Ave on the hill that neighborhood kids used as the termination point for our go-cart races. We only lived five houses apart, and quickly became friends. We typically played pretend superheroes, and inspired by the Batman TV series, we tended to immerse ourselves in that universe. One of us would be Batman, the other the Riddler, Joker, or some other villain.

One day he started talking about Captain America. I had no idea who that was. Captain America, Aldo told me, was another superhero. Cap, as he was called, didn’t know Batman, or Superman, because they were Marvel superheroes. Aldo had once lived in Los Angeles, and he told me there was a Marvel cartoon series that starred Captain America and other heroes: Iron Man, whose name spoke for itself, a big green monster named Hulk, and a guy with a hammer named Thor. They were all super strong and could do things like fly or shoot rays and other things.

I didn’t believe Aldo. I had never seen this Marvel superhero show on television, and San Diego had three T.V. channels. Three! I didn’t count the PBS affiliate. No kid in my neighborhood ever did. Surely, I would have caught that show after school or on Saturday morning on one of the three stations.

I started looking for the show, sometimes desperately. My dad recently had a rotating antenna installed during one of his shore leaves. A brown box sat on top of the TV with a big compass dial. You turned the dial clockwise or counter clockwise and you would hear a whirring sound above the roof as the antenna rotated. Sometimes the picture got better, sometimes worse. You spun the thing around until you got it just right. When I was down the street playing, I could always tell someone was watching TV at the house when I saw that huge antenna slowly rotating in the distance.

The rotating antenna was good for San Diego TV, but what really made it useful was the fact that on certain days, when the atmospherics were just right, you could catch a snowy, crackly glimpse of Los Angeles broadcasts. The best stations were the independents: KTLA Channel 5, KTTV Channel 11, and KCOP Channel 13.  The independents were the best because they had a lot of time to fill and they typically filled it with sports or old cartoons.

And so I searched, every day, every hour, for that elusive show. I looked through the San Diego edition of T.V. Guide, which listed some L.A. stations. Nothing, But sometimes T.V. Guide was wrong, so I spun that antenna round and around and around. I saw a lot of “Hobo Kelly,” KCOP’s female clown, and a lot of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies on KTTV. Chanel 5 had a lot of California Angels baseball, which I liked. The Dodgers were on Channel 11. But there was no Marvel superhero show.

Still skeptical, I confronted Aldo about it. He went into his house and returned with a small stack of comic books. He had a few Iron Mans, and Thors, and Hulks. Most of what he had was Captain AmericaCaptain America and the Falcon. The Falcon. He hadn’t mentioned the Falcon when he talked about the TV show.

The television series Aldo was referring to was show called The Marvel Superheroes, a syndicated show produced through the use of xerography, which gave limited movement to panels photo copied from published magazines. It was, in retrospect, a cheap attempt to cash in on Marvel’s growing popularity. None of the comics chosen for this mid-1960s TV series featured the Falcon.

In spite of the elusiveness of the TV show, Aldo had sold me on Marvel. The stories were full of action. The covers were exciting, usually depicting the moment just before combat between hero and villain. You were immediately drawn in. In the few DC covers I had been exposed to, Superman or Batman were just standing around watching something boring, and there were a lot of word balloons describing that boring thing they were watching.
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Typical DC covers during the period. World’s Finest 156, March 1966, and Superman 221, Nov. 1969. Body-shaming aside, I felt the covers were a far cry from what I saw Marvel producing during the period.

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Marvel’s word balloons were often jagged, the dialogue ending with an exclamation point. They were yelling at each other. Inside, there was a lot of action and the characters were somehow more interesting and more real. The Falcon, amazingly, was black, and there were a lot of black families in my neighborhood. I had never seen an African American character in the cartoons I typically watched. Regardless of why I liked the Marvels I was shown, Aldo and I didn’t play Batman any more. We only played Marvel.

I started talking about Marvel at school. The majority of kids at St. Jude Academy, the busy parochial school up the hill from my house, were Latino or Filipino. A lot of the Latino kids talked about masked wrestlers, and I didn’t know anything about that. Most of those guys I think fought in Mexico, or Los Angeles, and I couldn’t speak Spanish. One kid who would talk to me about comics, and only Marvel comics, was Brian. I don’t remember much about Brian. He wasn’t at St. Jude’s very long. But I can still see his face, and our short friendship had a lasting impact on me. During recess we started talking about the Marvel universe, about Iron Man and Thor and Hulk and Spider-Man. We talked a lot about Captain America and the Falcon. I mostly listened, because I only knew what Aldo had told me. Brian had a small comic collection. I had nothing. I asked if we could do a trade. Brian agreed. I do not remember what I gave Brian, but Brian gave me an issue of Captain America and the Falcon. He wanted to share his excitement, and because of his enthusiasm, I had my first Marvel comic.

Aldo and Brian were not standouts in my very working class, multi-racial, multi-ethnic neighborhood. They were very typical of the kids that inhabited the small bungalows surrounding St. Jude Academy on Boston Ave in the southeastern part of San Diego. Aldo lived with his grandmother and grandfather. He went to public school. I don’t know about Brian’s family, but they earned enough to send him to a Catholic school. Both were, perhaps not coincidentally, Marvel Comics fans. Both were, perhaps not coincidentally, fans of Captain America and the Falcon.

And both Aldo and Brian were African American.

Now I can’t pretend to say with certainty what an African American kid in 1970s California was thinking. I was part white, part Mexican and part Native American. Steve Rogers, Captain America’s alter-ego, had blue eyes and blonde hair, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a superhero who was part white, part Mexican and part Native American. But I knew that Aldo and Brian were excited about the Falcon, and I knew instinctively that they were proud of him because, unlike the other heroes, the Falcon looked like them.

What Brian gave me was Captain America and the Falcon #138, June, 1971. I was 8 years old. What I remember most was the cover. On it, Captain America, standing on a girder high above a city street, was deflecting a punch from Spider-Man with his shield. The Falcon, perched (no pun intended) precariously on another girder, was struggling to get free from one of Spidey’s webs. Redwing, the hero’s trained falcon, was on his shoulder, trying to tear the web off.

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The cover of Captain America #138, June, 1971.

The cover of Captain America and the Falcon #138 is a primary example of why Marvel began to bury DC during the late Silver-early Bronze Age. As I said, DC covers tended to depict stationary heroes commenting on some situation, with word balloons depicting an atmosphere of calm surprise, Marvel covers were all action. There was not a single word balloon on the cover of #138. The illustration depicts a critical moment in the story, with Falcon sidelined and Cap on his own. There is no explanation as to why Spider-Man, a supposed good guy, is battling the pair. Below is a realistic, for the time, depiction of a city street. There’s litter blowing on the sidewalk. The people watching from below and in the windows of their apartments have brown skin, save for the police, who are almost all white, with the exception of a single officer pointing skyward. The cover begs you to buy the comic to find out what was going on. Except for the green steel structure the heroes are standing on, this looked like my neighborhood. To me, this was real, and accessible. I caught Aldo and Brian’s excitement.

Inside, I found all the action took place in Harlem, a place I had seen on T.V. I didn’t know much about it, but I did know it was real. I wondered why Superman and Batman didn’t work in Harlem, or Los Angeles or even Southeast San Diego. Metropolis and Gotham City didn’t exist. The villain of Captain America and the Falcon #138, Stone Face, was black, a local kingpin obsessed with taking over the entire city. Eventually, Cap and the Falcon team up with Spider-Man to defeat Stone Face’s gang and end, supposedly, his plans.

Captain America and the Falcon #138 was written by Stan Lee and penciled by Johnny Romita. Romita, the regular artist assigned to Spider-Man, would eventually become one of my favorites. Although Lee gets credit for the story, its difficult to determine where credit should be divided. Marvel books were produced in the “Marvel Way,” with Lee providing general direction for a story, leaving the artist to determine narrative details in the panel sequence. It was very different from the tightly controlled scripts used by other publishers, with every panel scripted by the writer, from dialogue to the drawing’s angle of view. Lee, a creative and marketing genius, was in many ways responsible for Marvel’s success, but like anything, it was a team effort. The fact that his artists got little credit for their contribution to the narrative beyond the actual art work would cause friction at Marvel in later years. A few of those artists would eventually bolt to DC.

Lee and Romita were both white and one has to ask if a white creative team can properly convey the culture of Harlem in the early 1970s. Today, I am a little taken aback by Stone Face’s donning of African dress when meeting with a representative of the governor’s office.

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Clothed in African attire, Harlem mobster Stone Face faces off against a New York state official in Captain America and the Falcon #138.

Did Lee, at least subconsciously, think that the use of African cultural forms by African American leaders was simply a cynical device to capture neighborhood loyalty? In later issues of Captain America and the Falcon, Marvel depicts an inner city easily duped into violent outrage by a variety of villains. Cap’s view of the volatility of African American neighborhoods eventually causes a split with the Falcon, so there was definitely a sensitivity to the tension inherent in different perspectives. It would be years before Marvel would hire its first African American writer, although William Graham, who helped plot Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, began working at Marvel, officially as an artist, in 1972. We can examine some of these tensions as we move forward.

But in the fall of 1971, I didn’t care about such things. All I knew was that I was hooked. I wanted more Captain America and the Falcon.

I asked my Dad if he knew where I could buy some comic books with my allowance. He did.

That Friday night, he came up to me for the first time and said, “Do you want to go to the Golden Barrel with me?”

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