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.