I usually don’t blog what-happened-just-now style, but right now it fits. Today (Nov 29) featured the second time in a week, and in my whole life, that a working person who happened to be black addressed me – 50ish, white – as “boss.” Each time jarred me badly, to the point of near outrage. I resisted the urge to respond, Sure, boy. Please never call me that again. I also tasted the quintessentially American sensation of knowing that ordering someone “never call me that again” still posits a white-people-telling-black-person-what-to-say context. Each time I used the same logic I do with cold-call phone solicitors to settle myself down, in that this specific person is not the object of my ire. But the nasty taste of colluding with arrant, intolerable racism lingers.
Never mind what you think is right or what I should be saying the next time this happens (because this may be a thing and thus there will be a next time). I do not care. See if you can share my sensation while I talk about the Falcon … thinking, too, about what he might say, at least as the character that I remember from my childhood.
The Falcon’s main comics role has been as a contributing cast member in Captain America, soon Captain America and the Falcon, as created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan in 1969 and then by Steve Englehart through about 1977. Certain tropes will jar you right off, not least the Lone Ranger and Tonto model … after all, he’s not a bad-ass until Cap trains him, and the outdoors/western motif of the falcon comes to mind, but on the other hand, it’s not like they made him watermelon-y or overly-funny either, which not a few comics creators of the day certainly would have done. There was always a little more that going on with the character, as when he became a social worker in Harlem (not that we saw him do much) and in paying at least lip service to the notion that he and Cap were occasional partners rather than a boss-and-boy duo. The model is very clearly Bill Cosby in the transition from I, Spy to The Cosby Show, the quintessence of “we can get along” and “all this radical talk isn’t helping.”
There’s a reason the Falcon constantly slips back-and-forth between politically-powerful and curiously-insufficient, almost as a matter of which way you cock your head as you’re looking, but I find that more context is necessary, so, history time.
It occurs to me that few people know my thinking about the American black experience(s). As with anything about my birth nation, the best context is found in Colin Woodard’s American Nations, which posits eleven distinct nations, the technical word, not synonymous with “country” or “state,” in North America. Each nation has its own political tradition, its own economic concerns, its own ethnic hierarchy, and its own complex of religions. The technical U.S. borders, with other named countries or the named states, are of no practical identity or interest in the slightest; and such terms as The North and The South are especially deceptive. I often link to this map but this time, here it is:
Woodard is most explicit: the corresponding populations do not think “America” is one big diverse place. They think they are America and that everyone else is really like them, or very confused, or some strange alien interloper. The nations operate as self-interested and very unified entities who treat, for example, state budgets as resources to battle for. (This is not to say that finer-grained analysis only yields atomic versions of the nations. A city, for example, is full of interesting enclaves and details which reflect the nations which have contributed to it, and the local history thereof.)
Here’s how I think it relates to black people (not quoting Woodard here, this is me). Following the Civil War, substantial numbers of former slaves and their children moved out of Greater Appalachia, Tidewater, and most especially the Deep South. In the early 20th century, a much more numerous migration followed, usually dated from 1914 through 1960, resulting in new and highly-populated communities, such as Oakland, Harlem, and south Chicago, obviously, but there are hundreds of smaller examples too. Plenty of modern rhetoric has appeared concerning why these arrivals didn’t assimilate locally, after all now that they were no longer in the “bad place” but in “good” ones.
I’ll tell you why: in nations terms, they were numerous, immediately identifiable foreigners with no assets, unfamiliar with & to the local power structure, not fitted-into the local ethnic or religious structure, un-included in the limited general-education that “everyone” was supposed to know, already characterized by marginalizing stereotypes (part of what “everyone knew”), speaking an unfamiliar patois, and offering the last thing any local power structure wants to see, cheap labor with a lot of potential to become less cheap fast. There’s word for this: refugees. The black migration was received everywhere not as fellow citizens who have happened to move from internal point A to internal point B, but as a refugee crisis very much of foreign origin. And those communities I just mentioned, and the hundreds like them – became refugee camps. Not analogy or hyperbole. I mean the dictionary definition. Before it was reframed into the Hollywood, co-opted rap term the ‘hood, the term was ghetto.
These locations have remained refugee camps to this day, due not to internal dynamics or whatever blaming-narratives you want to dredge up, but instead to external treatment: under-education, real estate and business licensing control, and aggressive/occupying policing, which is not the same as law enforcement. Think about that for a while.
Now that we have disposed of the mandatory centrist-liberal-conservative mating cries, for which I urge you to do some decent reading and observation … Remembering the officially deleted Dr. King, for instance.
Civil rights activism imploded into the co-opted Black National Caucus, the revisionist fairy-stories about King and Malcolm X, and the Patty Hearst trial. The “war on drugs” transformed policing of the ghettos into military-style occupation security forces. Prison reform was scuttled in its infancy, preserving the chattel slavery which is explicitly legal in our constitution – including the amendment which allegedly ended it. Black celebrities and paragons of “success in the system” remain largely show ponies whose chief attribute is complete disavowal of the camps. Media and academics natter about “post-racial” and bright-eyed millenials think we would all be nice if we, you know, just stopped being mean.
Y’know, I think I just came to a decision. Do not. Call me. “Boss.”
All of these effects had just entered their first active phase by the middle 1970s, which brings us to struggling with the Falcon from 1971 to 1977, a period spanning Watergate (1972-1974), the Decent Interval and withdrawal from Vietnam (1972-1975), the release of Muhammad Ali from jail and the ensuing championship bouts, the prison events I described in Man of steel, the Bicentennial and its impact on popular media, and more. (I plan to write later about the Secret Empire story and the Nomad sequence, in regard to Watergate and the first public investigation of the CIA.) Who is the Falcon during this time, and what does he mean?
First, the good. Even looking these stories over now, he and Cap come off as genuine friends and partners. Englehart’s Cap wasn’t a paragon of patriotic virtue whose every word dripped “be like this guy,” but very much a man out of time thinking constantly not only about what America had become, but about what it had been before that he had not seen at the time. He struggled enough with how to relate to Sam to make them both interesting, and Sam contributed enough independent content in his dialogue and thought balloons, to keep off the worst of the Tonto problem.
The wings helped a lot, including the Panther being written as a real engineer-scientist for once. It’s still tricky because the context was Cap getting ramped up with super-strength, such that getting the wings kind of preserved their already-unequal status hierarchy rather than narrowed the gap, but I cannot complain a bit about either the new costume design or the wings as powers. More than once he and Redwing outclassed a zap-pow type villain through working him spatially. The whole visual dynamic of the partnership took on a better, more exciting identity, as the Falcon wasn’t just leapin’ around after Cap any more.
Here’s a thought: whether the comics medium determines that “a flying guy” is impressive, and exactly how. The Vulture, totally – pure lethality and menace, just because he can fly. The Angel, totally not, hey there he is, flyin’ again, doing nothing. The Falcon may not have rated as high on this spectrum as I might like, but he wasn’t a slouch either.
I did like that action figure … I can’t remember if it was released just before or just after the Lt. Uhura one, but I had them both. Thinking about that jogged enough neurons that I went on to discover that the rather cool black G.I. Joe that I remember was released in 1970, and that the first black G.I. Joe was all the way back in 1965.
Now for the squicky and the tricky. First, there is way too much of this sort of thing in the Falcon’s thought balloons: “Who’m I kidding – Cap’s still the champ!” Contrast it with a series of backup stories featuring the Falcon’s own adventures, beautifully drawn … and yet still featuring panels where he whips out a twisted wire to open a car trunk, very much in the “what? every black person does this” way, or complains about running out of clotheslines to swing on …
More substantially, there’s the whole biz of Falcon as moderate centrist caught among his white flag-dressed mentor, the criminal Morgan right outta Shaft, and hot lady radical Leila, whose initials are Angela Davis. She’s played as mouthy and the tiniest bit trashy, but she’s flatly right about a lot of things. She gives him good advice more than once and never lets him down, and to the title’s credit, their relationship only gets better and stronger, no stupid hassles at all, in sharp contrast to the incredible mess of Cap and Peggy and Sharon.
Consider this carefully. Somehow, Sam is supposed to be in the right in terms of sticking with Cap as a partner – even while acknowledging that it cannot be an equal partnership, regardless of either man’s intentions. This actually doesn’t follow too well; Leila makes a lot more sense with little need to mope about it, especially since she admires Sam and is willing to bend a bit politically relative to this guy as a real person. Then there’s Cap, calling it “my life” when he’s talking about Sam’s decisions. Infrastructure matters too: consider that if the title of the book were The Falcon, the case for reducing his time spent with Cap on Cap’s problems would be substantially stronger.
I do not see much merit in the Falcon’s position re: ethnic politics and its fictional context: his most intense moral moments come in berating ghetto black guys for being bigots, and this of course prompts them to swear to kill him, ’cause you know, those guys and their hot tempers and guns and knives (the relevant page). I do see merit in showing this tension – it’s something a white writer and white readers could stand to reflect upon. I know that as a kid, I certainly did.
I cannot remember any interaction between Sam Wilson and Luke Cage during my first dedicated period of reading comics, say 1972 through 1978. That might have been something to see.
Finally, almost impossible to conceive as coming from the same writer, the horrifying. We shall move right past the Afro-werewolf moment in #164 and to the final year of Englehart’s work on the book. This is a pretty complex period: there are lots of interesting black characters including the SHIELD agent Gabe and more story with Leila, and an interesting sequence when Cap/Nomad struggles with his own prejudices and ideals regarding Luke Cage … fine. But then: you have got to be kidding me: Cosmic Cube mind control? Sam was really “Snap” Wilson, a pimped-out thug piece of shit in L.A.? His whole personality and memory were built by the Red Skull? Now, he’s all MCI’d out to the max by the Red Skull and has been all along?! (Said MCI which he does not overcome, for which see Mind Control Incident: misdemeanors and felonies.)
That reads like something some ham-handed idiot would have written at Marvel in 1990 or so, but this was mid-late 70s. This is Steve Englehart, slayer of Richard Nixon, writer of Hero for Hire, what the hell is he doing, writing this mess? I remember reading this all the way back when, and deciding outright that these issues were clearly a gross error and I would simply ignore them forever.
I’d write it off entirely even now except for the triple sting of the Red Skull scoring a perfect hit:
After so many years, I knew you well, Captain America! I knew exactly what kind of man would most appeal to your sniveling liberalism! — An upright, cheerful Negro, with a love for the same ‘brotherhood’ you cherish!
Ouch. Fuckin’ ouch. You may not know that before the Reagan years, “liberal” as an epithet was mainly directed from the (real) Left to the pious but ineffective Center. There is no such thing as the “liberal Left,” it’s a contradiction in terms. Here, the Red Skull, himself a radical representing the authoritarian Right, is using the term absolutely correctly – he is not merely raving the same bigoted noise he usually does (and at this moment, has been doing exactly that toward Gabe for two issues). And he devastates it, with the perfect, albeit the harshest possible reply to the Falcon’s tenure to date – especially to that triptych panel I displayed above.
It’s still a nasty cheat of a story twist, and the whole “Snap” sequence is unutterably disgusting – he could have originally been, say, a principled black militant like Leila and retained dignity as a character, rather than validating the “they’re all crooks and pimps” thing. But the sting to the entire premise of showcasing a black hero as Captain America’s sidekick is real.
Now, I look back in the account given in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and discover this is right before Englehart quit. He’s quoted as saying he finished up his last stack of scripts by writing nonsense and walked outta there. I simply have to believe (otherwise go batshit insane) that this is a fuck-you story, an early example of what I just wrote about in It is unwise to annoy cartoonists. Characteristically for Englehart, it includes genuine content.
The larger context of black characters in newsstand comics is beyond my brain and pay grade. From the same period, in addition to the “Panther’s Rage” sequence I’ve mentioned before but cannot find in reprint anywhere (!), I call attention to Joshua in “Black Brother,” in Savage Tales (the whole story’s at Diversions of the Groovy Kind, check it out!), to the title I bought, Black Goliath (several issues across several titles, then five issues of his own), and Black Lightning (at DC, 11 issues). The latter two were created and written by Tony Isabella, who, like Mantlo and Conway, more than once did try to do better than the fill-in and time-marking material constantly assigned to him.
I wince at the logic of ah yes, we shall feature a black superhero and what shall we call him? “Black” something of course. (I get the idea that if “Black Power Man” hadn’t carried connotations, they’d have done that too.) I always liked the idea of a guy whose powers had a dramatic black quality, i.e., the literal color, with a fun subversion of that convention, but I couldn’t decide which: the white guy who’s annoyed that people expected him to be black because he was “the Black Whatsis” or the black guy who doesn’t want to be called “black” anything, just “the Whatsis,” but everyone keeps saying it.
I hope to have laid the groundwork to understand the tension of the Falcon: the bridge between the refugee camp into the larger culture, which runs the savage and very likely risk of validating the existence of the camp, by implying or outright stating, “See? The good ones can succeed!” Is it possible to be or show that bridge without succumbing to the risk? Is the bridge a liberal illusion? These are good questions that a well-written Falcon can bring – not, maybe, that this has ever really happened, but it could.
I’ll end on two notes, the first being ignorance, which I confess has been mainly deliberate all these years, in order to keep my pre-teen hopey-changey ideals associated with the character untarnished by whatever awfulness would come. I had been badly disgusted with the dumbing-down of social politics in Marvel during the 80s and figured there was no point in even looking. So no, I have no idea what the Falcon has been like or up to what since then.
The second note is gut-level appreciation of male beauty. The Falcon is certainly one of the best-looking characters in comics, both in personal terms and in costume design, and the searching I’ve done for images shows that this, at least, has improved with time. I’m not prone to being impressed by superhero artwork in the major companies after a certain point, but here I admit some outstanding work; it must be fun to draw him. Extending the wings is obvious; that’d be the first thing any artist would do. Getting the speed and aerial mastery in there too, that matters – it’s the Vulture thing all over, he needs to appear from above, to use the space in ways others can’t. Some missteps show up, like those goggles, the full-head mask … Forget that. Sam’s emotional presence is crucial, his features must be seen. Most of the work seems to know that.
Most important, though, is the exposed skin. This is about defying whatever mandate caused the Panther’s ethnicity to be enclosed in a body-sock, and it’s also striking design – the white, red, and rich brown are a superhero color scheme; he’s not just a guy in a white-and-red costume, and his blackness is literally central to how he looks. I fancy I can even see the artists struggling to maintain this even as the Hollywood focus groups do their best to suppress it with more coverage and distracting jointed metal stuff.
You know, I keep talking about writing barely-tweaked expys, and it strikes me that if I could write a Falcon-Cage story, and a Falcon-Angel story, making all three characters incredibly awesome and really discovering the ethnic and heroic drama in there … that’d be something.
Next: Yay Emp!
Posted on December 6, 2015, in Heroics, Politics dammit and tagged American Nations, Angela Davis, Bill Cosby, Black Brother, Black Goliath, Black Lightning, Black Panther, Captain America, Falcon, Gene Colan, Great Migration, I Spy, Leila Taylor, Luke Cage, Martin Luther King, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Michelle Alexander, Mind Control Incident (MCI), Red Skull, Sal Buscema, Steve Englehart, The Cosby Show, The New Jim Crow. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.