Monday, March 5, 2012

Marvel Firsts: The Not-So-High Flying Falcon!

Captain America #117 (September 1969)
"The Coming of... the Falcon!"
Stan Lee-Gene Colan/Joe Sinnott

Doug: Today's the second installment in our "Firsts" series of posts, where we are reviewing 1st-appearance issues from some of Marvel Comics' Bronze Age stalwarts. Last week we checked out the Beast; after a month spent critiquing "Batman: Year One" (come back next Monday), we'll get after this again with the Cat and the Black Widow.

Doug: Captain America has certainly had a hall-of-fame-worthy cadre of artists over its history. From Kirby to Romita, Steranko to Colan, and on through Sal Buscema and John Byrne, the men who have drawn the Sentinel of Liberty have put their passion into his adventures. But I have to ask here -- was Gene Colan a good fit on the Cap magazine? I like Gene the Dean just fine on Iron Man and Daredevil, and his Tomb of Dracula is definitive. But I never warmed to his Batman, and I really don't overall care for his work on Captain America. For me, Colan's style seems ill-fit for some books. Don't misread me -- there is absolutely nothing wrong with the lay-outs, camera angles, or figurework in this issue. I just don't think of Colan when I think of my top CA artists.

Karen: I've stated before that I've never cared much for Colan's super-hero work, and Cap is probably my least favorite of those. Loved him on Tomb of Dracula and Dr. Strange, and he was not bad on Sub-Mariner either. But his style doesn't work for me with Cap. He seems best suited for books with a mystery or fantasy element.

Doug: Regrettably for you the reader, we pick this one up in the middle of a big Red Skull story, and doubly-regrettably we're going to leave you the same way. But in the middle -- today's post is all about the introduction of one Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon! The Red Skull is tormenting Captain America in a most peculiar way. This issue falls in the midst of the cosmic cube story where the Skull and Cap switch bodies! At the end of the previous issue, the Skull (again, in Cap's body) had sent Cap to a Caribbean island, the home of the Exiles. Who might they be, you ask? They are the greatest enemies of the Red Skull, sworn to kill him. Seems only natural that if the Skull is dropped right among them, that will spell doom for... Captain America! Are you following this?

Karen: Sort of a typical late-era Stan Lee plot.

Doug: "Cap" observes the exiles on some sort of a patrol. They're a mishmash of fascists and megalomaniacs, all apparently quite deadly. Cap's perched in a tree, when it suddenly gives way and he falls just in front of the scary parade. Now here's what I don't get, so I'm hoping this can be clarified for me. Doesn't the Red Skull have some version of the Super-Soldier Serum in his body? Runs in my mind that he does, just don't know if it was at this time. Because here's my deal -- Cap is able to do "Cap stuff", but his mind is in the Skull's body. How's that work? And how about the Red Skull (in Cap's body... sheesh) doing the typical super-villain deed of underestimating his enemy and walking away from his direct monitoring of the battle? Shades of Batman, 1966.

Karen: I'm not really sure about that, Doug. It seems to me the Skull was trained to be a killer but never had a Super-Soldier treatment. Although I do seem to recall a later retcon that said he did. We'll have to rely on our faithful BABsters to set the record straight! I will say that the Exiles are incredibly unimpressive. One guy fights with a scarf...I mean, this is the low ebb of Marvel creativity!

Doug: So Cap bests all these not-so-super baddies, but with a catch: there's a falcon that suddenly appears, and each time Cap's about to get whacked, the bird dive bombs the perps and saves the day. It happens twice, to Cap's major advantage. Ultimately he's able to get away from the Exiles. We cut then back to Manhattan, where the Skull has decided to take a stroll on the town, still dressed as our hero. He hails a cab, and moves through the city to one of the elite hotels in New York. He exits the cab and is told to forget about the fare. Entering the hotel, he is surrounded by fans and the media. Feeling full of himself, the Skull poses for pictures and even lies in repose while being interviewed. But when the questions turn toward information the Skull wouldn't know, he abruptly ends the talking. Alone again, the Skull takes out the cosmic cube and decides that before he takes over the world, he should destroy Captain America's reputation. We then see a 2-panel interlude at A.I.M., where MODOK plots deactivation of the cube barring its return to A.I.M.'s possession.

Karen: It's certainly bizarre to see Cap swaggering around. But of course it makes perfect sense for the Skull. I thought this sequence was very well rendered.

Doug: Back to the islands, and this is where things start to head south for me. We spy on a black man, smiling as he handles a falcon. We find out that it was this bird, under his direction, that foiled the bad guys' attempts to harm Cap (again, as the Skull). So what of Cap? We see him "discovering" that the Red Skull actually wears a mask. Removing it, Cap wonders if the Exiles have ever seen the Skull's face. Not knowing for certain, he decides that he needs a different disguise. So he kneels down and begins to knead some clay. That's right. He's going to make a mask. With only clay. And no mirror. And it's going to be flexible, with the texture of human skin. And it's not going to dry, crack, or slide off in the humidity of the Caribbean. Right. I need to just go with this.

Karen: You know, I don't know how many times, between this blog and the old Two Girls, A Guy, And Some Comics blog, that we have had to discuss masks. Stan and his collaborators apparently loved them! Characters in the old Marvels of the 60s were always managing to make masks so lifelike that they fooled everyone. But this takes the cake. Clay. Cap made a mask out of clay. Which just happens to match his fleshtone. And moves with his face. Oh boy.

Doug: No doubt. I needed to pack an extra supply of my suspension-of-disbelief for that one! Cap, in his new face, begins to move when he comes up on our aforementioned falconer. The falconer and Cap quickly put it together that 1) Cap was the guy in need of aid against the Exiles, and 2) the falcon in front of him was the bird that brought said aid. The falconer tells Cap that he is a "big city brother" and relates the tale of how he got from Harlem to Haiti. He had always loved birds, had raised pigeons in NYC, grew an interest in falcons, and then found Redwing on a vacation to Rio de Janeiro. Now, we don't yet know the guy's name, but he had to have some money to afford a vacation to Rio. This is a slow reveal here. Our new friend had also told Cap that he was trying to organize some of the local villagers to rise against the Exiles, but was having a hard time convincing them and was also without resources. Cap encouraged him. Our friend told that he got to the islands by answering an ad from the Exiles (he didn't know they were bad at the time) -- seems they wanted a hunting falcon. OK... When he discovered that things were going bad, he got out and had been harassing the do-badders ever since.

Karen: Yeah, there's some more stuff here that's hard to swallow. The Exiles put out an ad for a falconer...cheez. But I do like the way we get to know the as yet unnamed Sam Wilson. He comes across as a likeable guy with a strong sense of right and wrong. I do like the way Colan draws Sam.

Doug: Do you mean his form or manner? Because I've read accounts, knocks really, on certain artists who struggled with black or Native American features -- everyone just looked Caucasian and the colorist did the work! I'd agree with you if it's form you're talking about -- Colan's T-Challa was always solid in Colan-penciled issues of the Avengers and Daredevil as well.

Karen: I guess I mean that he looks heroic, but clearly is African American -if you saw this in black and white that would still be evident. I think some artists did (and do) struggle to depict blacks, Asians, Hispanics without making them look cartoony or worse, ugly stereotypes.

Doug: Cap told him that what he needed was a gimmick, even a costume to strike fear in the Exiles. Our guy scoffed, but soon we see a local textile worker crafting a green suit, ornamented in orange. As we see the Exiles on the move, we also get a 1/2-page splash introducing the Falcon!

Karen: I know it might not be very popular, but I actually like that garish orange and green suit! It was the first costume I saw the Falcon in so it has nostalgic value for me. I love the details, the little swirls on the glove and even the groovy necklace. And Sam was wearing one glove long before Michael Jackson!

Doug: So here's another set of questions about this story. Since it appears to me that Cap and the Skull have only changed minds, what I'm curious about is their accents. Did Cap, in the Skull's body, speak with a German accent? Because if you say "no", then I need to know why no one noticed in the NYC scene that the Skull in Cap's body was speaking with a German accent. Does that make sense? Also, and anyone who knows how this turns out is welcome to toss out some spoilers, isn't the Skull just going to use the cosmic cube to look in on all of this again and see what's going on?

Karen: That's a good point about accents. Your reasoning makes sense to me. But you're probably putting more thought into it than Stan did! As for the Skull, he's just like a Bond villain, turning his back on his adversary just when he's about to do him in. Why not make sure? But the Skull is finally beaten two issues later, and the scene in this issue with MODOK foreshadows how it will happen.

Doug: Overall, this story was OK. It's somewhat of a minor character introduction, almost as low-key as the last-panel appearance of Wolverine in Incredible Hulk #180. Perhaps a better issue to have profiled would have been Cap #118. This is a wild plot, and Stan's dialogue and Colan's pencils are fitting for it. I am hung up on the whole clay mask bit -- we've long lamented around here characters who get away with wearing latex, etc. masks. But you can't beat the heroism of Steve Rogers, no matter his lot in life. And the Falcon does seem like he will be an interesting character, although we are told very little about him, not even his real name, at this time.


Roygbiv666 said...

From what I can tell from this:

at this point, the Skull did not have any Super-Soldier serum running through his veins. It was only later that the Skull's body died. The Nazi scientist Armin Zola had preserved the mind of Shmidt at death, and transferred it into a clone of Steve Rogers, which, given writers general lack of science knowledge, would be all jacked up on the serum too.

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for the write-up, I've never read this issue.
I generally like the Colan-drawn Cap issues,he's one of the all-time best choreographers of acrobatic fight scenes. Cap #122, is still one of my favorites, it features a great brawl between Cap & Scorpion.

But I'm not digging the way Colan draws the Red Skull here.

I'll always be partial to the Falcon's later costume, mainly because I first discovered Falc through the Mego Superhero line.

david_b said...

Just returned from my weeklong trip to Charleston, finally out of the car and able to type on a laptop today.

I'll never provide enough praise for the addition of Sam Jones into Cap's title, especially under Steve Englehart's tenure. His first appearance here was, as mentioned, embellished with typical hokey silliness of late Silver/early Bronze Stan Lee writing..

A muddy mask..? Dialects..? While voice are basically physical in nature, dialects are obviously learned, so the Skull would have trouble talking in 'American English' without the German slang, but in Steve Roger's voice.

I never warmed too well to Colan drawing Cap, while the fighting sequences are fluid, they still don't seem quite signature-Cap. Even Steranko aped Kirby's blocking a bit to attempt some level of continuity.

As for Falcon's original costume, I too started collecting CA&F around ish 164 (Nightshade..!! Waiting on a column about her..), so I didn't see the green/orange costume until many years later.

(There was a flashback panel in MTU #13, but I thought it was a color error at the time..)

As much as I was used to the white/red costume for so many years, put me in the green/orange preference group. I've seen some good Mego customizers make this outfit variation and it looks pretty awesome. I was going to customize a Famous Covers Falcon with the original suit a few years back, just never got to it.

Fred W. Hill said...

I only have a few issues of Colan's run on Cap, and, yeah, it doesn't quite fit. Maybe it's because in a Cap mag we mostly expect star-spangling bright two-fisted Kirby action rather than the shadowy struggles that Colan could make work even in Iron Man and Daredevil. That first shot of Cap as the Red Skull, btw, actually had Frank Robbins' cartoony look. Also, didn't Stan do several mind-switching tales within a fairly short period? I'm thinking of this, DD & Dr. Doom; Thor & Loki and I'm sure there were a few others, including the Reed & Doom switcheroo from early in the FF's mag.
As for the Falcon, my first glimpse of him was in ish 153, by which time he had long since gone into the red & white outfit. Even if Colan was not quite a great fit for Cap, he was great at drawing realistic and distinct faces, and I agree his depiction of Sam is excellent.
Another btw ... the first story I ever read involving the Cosmic Cube was in Starlin's Captain Marvel/Thanos saga. A bit later I did catch the first ever cube story in the Marvel Double Feature Cap reprints. Pretty amusing to contrast Thanos' use of the cube with the Skull's. Well, the Skull did begin his career as an impoverished bellhop while Thanos murdered his own mother and conquered his home planet.

Rip Jagger said...

Green and Gold! That's always been my favorite look for The Falcon! It really sets him apart from Cap, and makes him his own man. The red and white look later undermined this distinctiveness to my mind.

Rip Off

Matthew Bradley said...

Am coincidentally just reading the MARVEL DOUBLE FEATURE reprints of the original Cosmic Cube saga that Fred mentioned, and Colan's early efforts on Sub-Mariner and Iron Man (in TALES TO ASTONISH and ...OF SUSPENSE, respectively). I agree he was far better suited to those characters, as well as Daredevil, Dracula, and Dr. Strange, than to Cap or, worse yet, his brief stint on AVENGERS.

First knew Falc in the red-and-white duds from the late Englehart era, but enjoy the green-and-orange ones as well, so no strong preference there. I'm with david_b that Stainless Steve probably handled Sam the best.

david_b said...

Thinking about Colan's stint further, I still preferred him to John Romita, Sr. on Cap.

John was beloved on Spiderman, but I always thought he came across too weak drawing CA&F. Sal Buscema's strong lines was a huge improvement, and continued to get better 'til the end.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Just catching on BAB here after a trip to Nashville ...

I understand the ambivalence towards Colan's work here, but I like his run on the title. At this point his art was offbeat, but not as stylized as it would later become and so he drew superheroes pretty well.

My problem with Colan's run on Cap (BTW - It spans Essentials, Vols. 2 and 3) is that the stories weren't that good. The plotholes that Doug and Karen point to are Exhibit A in that regard.

Getting back to the art, it is worth noting that Silver and Bronze Age Cap usually had terrific pencilers: Kirby, Kane, Steranko, Romita, Sal Buscema, and Byrne. That's quite a list. I think part of the reason why Frank Robbins's run on Cap gets so much negative response even today is not just the quality of his work but the fact that readers could so easily compare it with people whose work was much more appropriate to the title.

Dougie said...

A shade off-topic but I love Colan on Avengers-even the terrible stories post-200.

The pacing of the Swordsman issue is cinematic and prefigures Gulacy's work. The double-page spread in the Barney Barton issue is stylish and powerful.

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