My Misspent Youth — The Falcon by Jim Owsley, Paul Smith, and Mark Bright

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When the first issue of The Falcon was released in 1983, the Marvel Comics promotional machine made a mighty promise that the limited series was going to outdo some of the grim-and-gritty groundbreakers then shaking up other media:

Forget “Hill Street Blues.” Forget “St. Elsewhere.” Forget “Fort Apache, the Bronx.” It’s tough. It’s contemporary. It pulls no punches. It’s Sam Wilson, A.K.A. the Falcon. It’s real. Word.

Written by Jim Owsley, The Falcon took the Black superhero best known for a long stretch as Captain America’s sidekick, even sharing cover billing on the patriotic hero’s title, and put him in Harlem, supplementing his day job as a social worker with superheroics meant to keep the peace among citizens worn down by systems of oppression. The Falcon can soar across the sky, but the series is primarily invested in keeping him on the ground, offering stern, sympathetic counsel to residents, primarily young men, as they decry the dead ends before them.

The story was originally conceived and created for Marvel Fanfare, the glossy, direct sales–only periodical that was intended to offer a slightly artier version of traditional superhero sagas. Then the publisher came upon a new gleaming feature for their colorful business model: the limited series. Following the success of early entries Contest of Champions and Wolverine, Marvel was suddenly invested in cranking out as many of these close-ended series as possible. Maybe in part because of the parallels that would be drawn to other critically acclaimed entertainments outside the realm of comic books, Owsley’s Falcon story was promoted from one-off to four issue event. His original artist collaborator, Paul Smith, wasn’t available to pencil the rest of the story because he picked up the prime gig of Uncanny X-Men. Mark Bright was brought in to fill out the run.

Owsley gives the Falcon some challenges more familiar to superheroes, including a tussle with longtime Spider-Man nemesis, Electro, but he’s mainly invested in crafting a tale of urban drama. It’s a proto–New Jack City where a couple of the characters are bedecked in colorful spandex. There’s special attention paid to educating impressionable readers on the rough-edged slang tossed around.

A story like this needs to escalate, and Owsley meets that challenge with wild invention. As the Falcon is preoccupied with a bad guy who shoots electricity out of his fingertips, one of the local gangs orchestrates the kidnapping of the President of the United States. They take him to one of the decrepit buildings on the block and proceed to school the Leader of the Free World on challenges of growing up Black and poor in American society.

Startled and enlightened, Ronald Reagan returns to the White House and advocates for programs of urban renewal and racial justice. It’s downright impressive that a comic book centered on a man who uses mechanical wings to soar and swoop is at its least plausible when Reagan expresses empathy for those who’ve been left behind by policies of greed and crass opportunism.

The Falcon is a fascinating experiment, an obvious attempt by Marvel to recapture some of their bygone groove of releasing challenging, socially relevant comic series. It doesn’t quite work, though it shows promise. Many years later, Owsley would fulfill that promise in a major way. After taking the name Christopher Priest, he wrote a run of Black Panther that was instrumental in reshaping the character. The film Black Panther might not exist, and likely isn’t a billion-dollar earner, without his influence.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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