When last we saw Captain America, back in May, the Living Legend of World War II was in a very tight spot. His greatest foe, the Red Skull, had used the awesome power of the Cosmic Cube to switch bodies with him, and then, after forcing him into conflicts with police officers, his buddies in the Avengers, and even his girlfriend Sharon Carter, had banished him to the remote Isle of the Exiles.
That all went down in Captain America #116. Unfortunately, my eleven-year-old self didn’t manage to score a copy of the next issue when it was released in June, 1969, so I missed out on the historic first appearance of Sam Wilson, the Falcon, in #117. Thankfully, I had better luck the following month; and so, in July, 1969, these three things happened: the United States of America had its 193rd birthday; I had my twelfth; and we both got to bear witness as mainstream comic books’ first African-American superhero went into action for the very first time.* That may have not been quite as historic an event as the Falcon’s actual debut, but it was still pretty special.
As I was immediately informed by the issue’s splash page, “The Falcon Fights On!” was by the same creative team who’d produced the last two issues — Stan Lee (scripter), Gene Colan (penciller), and Joe Sinnott (inker). Lee’s caption also let me know that, whatever else might have gone down in #117, our hero was still trapped on the Exiles’ island:
On first glancing at this page, I probably assumed that the face of Captain America hovering in the sky was a symbolic representation of the Sentinel of Liberty himself. Page 2 quickly disabused me of that notion, however:
Yeah, what if Cap took off that dang Red Skull mask? Having read issue #116, I was painfully aware that the beleaguered hero could likely have saved himself quite a bit of trouble with the Avengers, et al, if he’d just ditched the mask first thing.
Having worked out how Cap has managed to evade the Exiles thus far, the Skull decides he still doesn’t have any reason to worry, since there’s no possible way his arch-enemy can get off the island. He therefor decides to let events play themselves out, at least for now:
My twelve-year-old self was still pretty mystified as to who the Exiles were — as well as to why, if they were bad guys, they hated the Red Skull so much. Fans who’d been reading Captain America regularly since issue #102 or thereabouts, however, would be aware that they were old allies of the Skull from the World War II era. Why did they have a mad on for him now? As related in issue #115 (another issue I hadn’t read, unfortunately), it was actually the Exiles who’d recently retrieved the Cosmic Cube, which the Skull had thought lost at the bottom of the sea, and returned it to him. But he’d then betrayed them, refusing to share the Cube’s power, and marooning them back on their Isle.
We readers watch as one of the Exiles, General Ching, fires his pistol at the falcon, but misses; and then we follow the bird’s flight as it wings back to its master:
I’m sure that my younger self immediately surmised that the master of the hunting bird, Redwing, must be the same guy as the costumed black man dubbed “the Falcon” on the comic’s cover; and I hope I was bright enough to also guess that the black-haired white man dressed in green was Captain America — still stuck in the Skull’s body, but by now at least having finally had the sense to take off the villain’s mask.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Sam Wilson’s utterance of his own name in the third panel of page 5 was, in fact, the first time his given name had appeared. In the previous issue, he’d turned up “on panel” without benefit of introduction, as it were, and by the end of the issue, writer Stan Lee still hadn’t provided him with any appellation beyond the superhero codename “the Falcon”, granted him in the last panel of the last page, which was also the first in-story appearance of his costume.
Speaking of the costume — that little metal falcon necklace doesn’t seem like the most practical accessory to wear going into hand-to-hand combat, but hey, what do I know?
Besides noting that he’s from “the swingin’ slums of Harlem, U.S.A.“, which is presumably where he fought “all those street gangs back home”, Lee doesn’t offer us readers many details about Sam’s background. As I’d eventually learn, however, issue #117 hadn’t told readers very much, either, though our new hero-in-training did allow that he’d always had an affinity for birds, and had in fact owned “the biggest pigeon coop on any rooftop in Harlem” before getting into falcons. Sam had acquired Redwing relatively recently, while vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, and some time after that had answered an ad in the newspaper from someone looking to hire a hunting falcon for use on their island. It turned out to be the Exiles, of course — according to Sam’s account, they were “bored… looking for kicks!” (Yeah, sure, sounds perfectly reasonable.) Soon after arriving, however, Sam realized that he’d made a huge mistake, and bugged out to take refuge with the native islanders in their village. By the time Cap met him, Sam was already planning to organize the villagers against the Exiles, who’d been oppressing them for some indeterminate period. Naturally, Cap — without revealing his true identity to his new friend — convinced him that if he really wanted to inspire people to rise up, he should become a costumed superhero — and he, nameless wanderer that he was, was just the man to train Sam for the job.
OK, so now we know all about Sam Wilson** — or, at least, all that Lee and company are inclined to share for the time being. So, while Sam and Cap continue with their “grueling” training session, let’s look in on some of the other players in our four-color drama, beginning with the Red Skull. What nefarious deeds must this depraved villain, now possessed of one of the most powerful weapons in the universe, now be committing , or at least contemplating?
Well, even “A”-list Marvel supervillains have to sleep some time, I guess.
Upon answering his hotel room phone, the Skull is informed by the front desk that the lodging’s lobby is rapidly becoming thronged with rabid fans, whom the staff probably won’t be able to hold off much longer. How does “Cap” respond?
Why, he uses the power of the Cube to help him slip past the crowds, and then makes sure they all see him blowing them off. The fiend!
I said this before in my CA #116 post, but I just can’t let this scene go by without making the point again: these are some pretty damn unimaginative, ineffectual, and downright petty uses to which the Skull keeps putting the nigh-infinite power of the Cosmic Cube. Shouldn’t he be getting on with remaking the world in the image of National Socialism by now, or something?
And now, the scene shifts to a prominent member of Cap’s regular supporting cast — though it sure looks like he’s fast on his way to becoming an ex-member…
As I also noted in that issue #116 post, the Skull’s deceiving Rick Jones into thinking that Cap had rejected him as a partner was perhaps the single most disturbing thing to me as a young reader about the whole “body-swapping” business. Marvel had invested so much time and effort establishing the Cap-Rick partnership in the trilogy of issues beginning with #110 that I could hardly conceive of it ending so abruptly. And it really bothered me that Cap himself didn’t even know it was happening, and that it now appeared Rick would be out of the book before his mentor ever had a chance to set things right. (In retrospect, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Stan Lee — credited with scripting that Jim Steranko-plotted-and-drawn trilogy of issues — was never 100% sold on the idea of Rick permanently becoming Cap’s “new Bucky” — in spite of the fact that he, with Jack Kirby, had originally introduced the idea, all the way back in 1964’s Avengers #4.***)
On the other hand, as someone who was also following Captain Marvel at the time, I was very curious to know how Rick Jones was going to be worked into that book; but that’s a post for another day, of course.
We have one more stop to make before returning to the Isle of the Exiles — the headquarters of the criminal scientific organization known as Advanced Idea Mechanics, or A.I.M.. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t encountered the beekeper-hat-wearing, chensuit-garbed minions of A.I.M. before this story. Thus, I wasn’t aware (until this moment, anyway) that the organization had created the Cosmic Cube in the first place — or that having since lost the device, they were determined to destroy it:
A.I.M.’s “Phase Three” would have to wait until the following issue, however, as it was now time to get back to our heroes — and, as the first caption below promises, “some action“:
“My disguise!” Um, what disguise is that, now?
Since I’d missed CA #117, I’d also missed the scene in that issue in which Cap finally realizes that his Red Skull head is just a mask (d’oh!) and takes it off — then, not knowing for certain whether any of the Exiles had ever seen the Skull’s true face, uses clay as “a perfect base” to fashion a false face for himself. (Considering that this “makeshift” disguise stays intact through hours of intense physical combat training with Sam Wilson, I’d say that’s some pretty special clay.)
Not having read that scene, I was confused about why Cap was wearing another face over the Skull’s, and also probably a little disappointed — up until that last page, I’d assumed I was seeing what the Red Skull actually looked like under his, er, red skull. I wasn’t yet aware that at this point in time, Marvel’s storytellers were going to some pains to hide the villain’s true visage from readers — not because he was supposed to be incredibly ugly, a la Doctor Doom, but because… um, well, it’s actually a little hard to explain. But, as it happened, within just a few weeks — by which time I had bought and read Avengers Annual #3 — I would have a much better understanding of why Marvel wanted to keep the Skull officially “faceless”. And, perhaps, if you read my Avengers Annual #3 post a few weeks from now, you will. too (nudge nudge, wink wink).
But, getting back to our fight scene — Cap manages to deck “Iron-Hand” Hauptmann before the latter can muss up his makeup, but is then assailed by the scarf-swirling Italian, Baldini. The Falcon barrels into Baldini, knocking him off his feet; but that still leaves two Exiles unaccounted for:
The next two pages feature some especially clever layouts from Gene Colan, as we begin with what first appears to be a “normal” shot of the Falcon fighting the whip-wielding Gruning; then, as the fight moves on to the “murder chair”-bound Cadavus, the “camera” pulls back, receding a little further with each panel, until we realize we’re watching the battle through the medium of the Cosmic Cube, held in Cap-Skull’s gloved hand:
With the Exiles routed (presumably for good, since neither they nor the villagers will be seen again in the storyline), the board is cleared for the final match between Captain America — joined by his new ally, the Falcon, and the Red Skull — who still has the world-shattering power of the Cosmic Cube in his possession, even if he doesn’t really seem to know what to do with it.
A final showdown which my twelve-year-old self was unfortunately unable to enjoy in August, 1969, as I missed yet another issue of Captain America when it came out. But that’s no reason to leave you hanging, faithful reader of this blog, never to know how the story turned out. (OK, so you could probably go Google up a synopsis online somewhere, but why go to all that trouble, right?) So, here’s your lowdown on how our heroes ultimately won the day.
“Now Falls the Skull!”, the fifth and final chapter of the Cosmic Cube storyline, was by the same creative team of Lee, Colan, and Sinnott who’d produced the previous three.**** The story begins with the Red Skull deciding that his posing as Captain America has outlived its purpose, and using the Cube to transform himself back to his original form. (Interestingly, this action doesn’t immediately restore the real Cap to his own body, which suggests that the whole “body-swap” business was less about transference, and more about straight-up metamorphosis, all along. Not that it made any practical difference in the long run, of course.)
Once he’s back in his original bod, the Skull transports himself out of the Manhattan hotel where he’s been crashing and heads to the more congenial environment of his castle in Germany:
Upon arrival, he uses the Cube to whisk Cap and the Falcon to the same location (allowing Colan to indulge in some of his most phantasmagorical visuals outside of Doctor Strange):
As an afterthought, the Skull summons Redwing as well, only to immediately stick him in a birdcage. (The man’s a fiend, I tell you.)
Announcing that he’s tired of seeing his enemy in his present guise, the Skull proceeds to reverse Cap’s transformation as well:
Cap talks a great game, as usual, but the odds really are overwhelmingly against our heroes — as the Skull demonstrates by whipping up a whirlpool to engulf Cap, Faalc, and even poor, caged Redwing:
But, lest we forget, A.I.M. is still out there — and the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing who leads them is ready to launch “Phase Three” of the group’s plan to deprive the Red Skull of their greatest creation, the Cosmic Cube.
The Skull’s whirlpool eventually subsides, depositing the nigh-exhausted Captain America and the Falcon in what appears to be a desert — and as they quickly discover, the Skull is there, too:
Redwing?! Wow, I was afraid he’d drowned in that freaky whirlpool! Whatta bird!
Whew! That was a close one, right? And probably not one the good guys could have won without a little help from some pretty bad guys, via what we might call a deus ex modok. But , hey, that’s how it goes in the superheroing game, sometimes.
As readers would see in the opening pages of the following issue, #120, Sam Wilson returned to New York City with Captain America, who wished him well in his new career as the Falcon before going his own way. After that, the first African-American superhero wouldn’t show up again until CA #126, when he returned to join Cap in battle against the Diamond Head gang. Falc turned up next in #133, and at conclusion of that issue, Cap and the Falcon formally became partners. The new status quo became more official with the following issue, as the Falcon’s name was added to the title’s logo, where it would remain for the next 89 issues.
Even after leaving his co-starring role in Captain America, however, Sam Wilson continued to have a major, recurring role in the series, while also appearing in Avengers and elsewhere. He didn’t get to be the first black superhero to star in his very own solo title — that distinction went instead to Luke Cage, Hero for Hire — but he has nevertheless headlined his own series on several occasions, including in the role of Captain America, himself. Considering all that, plus a successful movie career (soon to be extended to streaming television, it appears), and I think that it’s fair to say that Mr. Wilson has done all right for himself in the half-century he’s been around.
I don’t know whether or not Captain America #118 was the first Marvel comic book I bought and read in the month of July, 1969, but it’s the first one published in that month that I’m blogging about in July, 2019; and so I’m going to conclude this post with a look at the “Stan’s Soapbox” column that ran on the “Marvel Bullpen Bulletins” page of every comic the publisher released this month, fifty years ago:
I’ve read several different accounts of why and how Marvel arrived at the decision to discontinue continued stories; the most credible, for my money, is that Stan Lee received this policy shift as a directive from the top, i.e., from Marvel’s founder and longtime publisher, Martin Goodman. Goodman doesn’t appear to have read Marvel’s output on a regular basis, even after the company’s fortunes began rapidly rising in the mid-1960s; and while acknowledging the effectiveness of Lee’s attempts to appeal to older readers, the publisher still fretted about losing the younger audience. As he would tell the New York Times in 1971:
I think when Stan developed the Marvel superheroes he did a very good job, and got a lot of college kids reading us. They make up a segment of our readership, but when you play it to them you lose the very young kids who just can’t follow the whole damn thing. We try to keep a balance. Because I read some stories sometimes and I can’t even understand them. I really can’t!*****
In 1969, a couple of years before making these comments, Goodman may have been even more concerned about losing “the very young kids”, as sales had taken a slight dip from 1968. As Roy Thomas (an associate editor as well as writer for Marvel at the time) recalled in an interview for Alter Ego #50 (July, 2005), Goodman was talking about “cutting expenses”, which Lee took to mean firing people. That didn’t actually come to pass, thankfully; and if Lee making drastic policy changes, such as moving away from multi-part stories, helped any Marvel staffers or freelancers hang onto their jobs, I think it was justified.
That’s what I think in 2019, anyway. In 1969, on the other hand, I reacted to the announcement with dismay. As far as I was concerned, continued storylines were a huge piece of what set Marvel apart from its main rival, DC. I couldn’t imagine my favorite Marvel multi-parters — the riff on TV’s The Prisoner that had run through four issues of Fantastic Four, or the ten-issue “Stone Tablet Saga” that was wrapping up in Amazing Spider-Man that very month, to name just two — working as one or even two-issue stories. To my mind, Marvel wouldn’t be Marvel if they cut out the huge, complex, sprawling storylines.
This reaction may seem dubious, or at least deeply ironic, to seasoned followers of this blog, who’ve likely read on numerous occasions about my failure to score this or that installment of a continued Marvel storyline; indeed, this very post is yet another of those occasions. But it’s true. The fact that I often missed episodes of a serial didn’t lead me to wish that serial storytelling would go away. I think I probably just accepted this state of affairs as being the way things were, and figured that if I missed a story’s conclusion (or middle, or beginning) every once in a while, it wasn’t too high a price to pay for the pleasures of long-form storytelling. And by this time, I was beginning to pick up back issues here and there, so I wouldn’t necessarily have to assume that if I missed a comic book when it first went on sale, I’d never be able to acquire it and finish the story.
And the change did make a difference. Between July, 1969, and July, 1970, I came as close as I ever would to dropping comic books. In fact, I did drop them, if only briefly — because when I take a look at a list of all the comic books that went on sale in April, 1970, I don’t see a single one that I bought new off the stands.
I’m not prepared to say that Marvel’s “no continued stories” policy (which lasted less than a year and a half, and was never enforced 100%) was the only factor that led me to become disaffected with comics during this time — for one thing, it didn’t have any bearing on DC’s comics, which I was also still buying, if not in the same quantity as Marvel’s — but I think it must have been the most important one.
Needless to say, this is a subject the blog will be returning to more than once in the months to come.
*The first black superhero in mainstream comic books was, of course, the Black Panther, who was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and made his debut in Fantastic Four #52 (July, 1966); but, as I’m sure everyone reading this already knows, the Panther hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The idea for Marvel to follow up the Panther with a black American hero appears to have originated with artist Gene Colan, who wrote in his 2008 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Captain America, Vol. 4: “I approached Stan, as I remember, with the idea of introducing an African-American hero and he took to it right away.” Indeed, Lee’s enthusiasm would be evidenced by his public heralding of the Falcon’s advent some months before it actually hit the stands, at a February speaking engagement at Duke University.
**Longtime Marvel Comics readers will likely be as aware as I am that Sam Wilson’s backstory was subjected to a massive retcon some six years later, courtesy of writer Steve Englehart, in Captain America #186. That issue revealed that Sam had actually been a small-time criminal, “Snap” Wilson, who’d had his personality and memories overwritten by the Skull (using the Cosmic Cube) and then been plopped down on the Exiles’ island, all as part of the Skull’s grand scheme.
I’m hoping to still be writing this blog when that story reaches its own 50th anniversary (in 2025), so I’m deferring any in-depth discussion of it, and its ramifications over the succeeding decades, until that time. Just for the record, however — as of this writing, the official, canonical word from Marvel (per the Falcon character profile at Marvel.com) is that “Snap” Wilson was himself a fiction, created by the Skull “in an effort to create confusion and doubt in Sam”. In my view, that makes the whole business a moot point as far as the Falcon’s “original” origin story is concerned, at least for now. (That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stickin’ to it.)
***On the other hand, the “Bronze-Age-Battles” blog makes a strong case for the possibility that Rick’s exit from the role of Cap’s partner — and his eventual (if belated) replacement in that role by the Falcon — may have been influenced by criticism leveled at Marvel regarding the lack of ethnic diversity among its heroes.
****John and Sal Buscema had been the illustrators for the initial installment in Captain America #115.
*****Saul Braun, “Shazam! Here Comes Captain Relevant”, The New York Times, May 2, 1971, p. SM32.