Sunday, January 11, 2009

Flight of Fancy

Today, we delve into ancient history. Come, dear reader, to yesteryear, the bygone era of Michael Jackson's original nose (or something close to it), Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's love in, and something with which we're all becoming reaqcuainted today, the economic recession of deep proportions. Join us in a time when invasions of third world countries meant rescuing American medical students and a quick exit. A time when Afghan religious fundamentalists were our buddies and not trying to blow us up.

That's right, fine folks, we're heading for 1983. U2 released the great album, War. I got my driver's license. Heavy metal was in its ascendency. But, most importantly, the Limited Series was in its infancy. In fact, the first one I recall was 1982's Wolverine, which I'll talk about another time. Instead, we'll talk about what was most likely the second, or close to it, The Falcon.

Some time side kick of Captain America, some time enemy of Captain America, and full time social icon/crusader. This four issue series was set entirely in Harlem. It introduced the long running second bannana character known as Sgt Tork. Mostly, it was unique in my experience since then because it's the only series I've seen that had no single story line running through it. Whereas 1982's Wolverince had been all about his possible marriage to Mariko Yashida and her family's Yakuza ties, The Falcon was three separate stories that had nothing to do with one another.

The Falcon also did not have one artist for the entire four issues. Really, the first issue of The Falcon is best viewed as a one shot. Marvel should have just gone with that. Jim Owsley was the writer for all four issues and had been shopping the idea for a couple of years. Originally it was going to be a single story in Marvel Fanfare, but that never materialized. By the time it was green lighted for a 4 issue series the artist on the original story, Paul Smith, was off on other projects. Mark Bright took over and drew the other three issues.

The first issue is much better than the other three, which is another reason Marvel should have just left it at a one shot. It's nothing Earth shattering, but the story of Sam Wilson (The Falcon) trying to help a local kid with potential but who's hanging with the wrong crowd is well executed. Owsley doesn't just gloss over the social pathologies. He looks into the kid's disrupted home life, his drinking, his limited expectations in his surroundings, and the limited job and educational opportunities for the kid. He doesn't try to sell any quick solution to the kid's problems and just puts him, in the end, on a path that can lead him to better things. That's largely within the Sam Wilson, social worker, part of the story. At the same time The Falcon is fighting a costumed guy who's trying to destroy a new high rise that's going up and is supposed to provide more housing opportunities. Turns out it's the builder who's the costumed destroyer, calling himself Nemesis, and it's all part of an insurance fraud scheme. Sam Wilson and The Falcon are not known to be the same person in this story.

Even though Owsley wrote the other three issues, they're not nearly as good. And the art's much worse. (Just look at the differences between the cover art on the first issue and the last issue and you'll get the picture.)
The second issue is another stand alone story. Although The Falcon was supposed to have been created, in a sense, by the Red Skull using a Cosmic Cube, including his telepathy with birds, it's been mentioned somewhere around this time that Professor Xavier of the X-Men thinks The Falcon might be a mutant. This off hand bit leads to The Falcon's presence triggering the re-emergence of a Sentinel that had been left in a garbage dump after being blasted to pieces by Cyclops some time ago. This isolated Sentinel takes The Falcon prisoner, preventing The Falcon from getting some parade permits for a gang called The Legion that's going to "show its colors", even though it's no longer a criminal enterprise. This is the only part of the story that connects to the remaining two issues. The Falcon defeats the sentinel and meets a rich white girl named Rachel (who he's dating by the end of the series) while The Legion ends up with one of its members shot dead by a cop because they don't have a parade permit.

This last was just nonsense. Rookie or no, a cop's not going to shoot a guy because he doesn't have a parade permit. The whole thing's amped up with a none too credible attitude on the lead uniformed cop who thinks The Legion are all thugs, even if they have been clean of late. Part of the nonsensical aspect is that Sgt Tork, a plain clothes cop, is present for this confrontation but does nothing to rein in the uniforms he outranks, even though he's portrayed as disagreeing with what they're saying. Even more ridiculous, when the cops and The Legion start an all out riot after the one gang member is shot dead, Tork just sits on a ledge and watches. Tork, by this point, is more or less a bozo, whereas in the first issue he was a good but unconventional cop. By the end of the last issue, he's a complete bozo, an exemplar of the worthlessness of the happy bachelor.

One point of interest, too, is that The Falcon and Sam Wilson are known to be the same person by the second issue. In the regular continuity at that time Sam Wilson had been put on trial for crimes he committed before he was The Falcon and was known as Snap Wilson. During that trial his identity as The Falcon was revealed. I suppose this couldn't have been worked into the first issue, which was written before that trial, because of the loss of Paul Smith on the project, but really, all that was needed was the elimination of a thought balloon where the developer/Nemesis puzzles over why Sam Wilson can bend a metal bar. Without that thought balloon, it would have been clear that The Falcon's identity was known (but then that would have been a problem with the developer trying to buy Sam Wilson as an ally for his high rise project, I suppose).

The last two issues are just outright silly. For some reason The Legion weren't all shot dead or arrested in their fight with the police in the previous issue. No, instead, they're the uber gang of Harlem. So much so that they can empty the streets when Reagan's limousine is coming through on a fact finding mission, overcome the Secret Service (who seem to be non-existent in the story), and kidnap Reagan.

Oh, yeah. Equally stupid, Electro is hiding out in Harlem. That's right, a white guy with Nazi sympathies is hiding out in Harlem. Surely he'll blend right in! Why, the fact that he's a paranoid who thinks The Falcon is tracking him just because The Falcon shows up for other incidents, in his home neighborhood of Harlem, would in no way give Electro away, either. No, a paranoid, Nazi white guy will go as unnoticed as a Christmas tree at a mosque in Islamabad.

As a result of this brilliant plotting we end up with two issues of The Falcon fighting Electro while looking for Reagan, who's being held in obvious properties frequented by The Legion. But that's not the worst of it. Once Reagan is freed (with the help of Captain America), he sits down for a heart to heart with The Legion's leader, who previously had a gun to Reagan's head and was threatening to kill him. Reagan is so taken by the hard luck stories of the people of Harlem that he becomes a social and monetary liberal and doles out new funding. That's right. In this story, the most fantastical element isn't that a guy can fly with some flimsy wings invented by a technologically superior African kingdom or that a guy can control electricity as a weapon with nothing more than his body. No, the most incredulous element of the story is that the president who brought us the mythological welfare queen is suddenly doing a 180 and going out of his way to create new social programs for the poor.

These last two issues are the polar opposite of the first issue, which looked at the social problems of Harlem in a reasoned and realistic manner and recognized that there was no quick fix. I suppose the first issue was a problem for Marvel because it didn't have anyone but The Falcon in it that anyone would recognize. The remaining three had a Sentinel, Electro, Captain America and Ronald Reagan. Who knew Reagan would be the most fictionalized of the four?

This series is worth the keeping just for a quick lesson in how one writer can hit a high and a low so quickly. Plus, the first issue is good enough that I'll hold on to the more dreadful remaining issues.

The burning question I have, though, has nothing to do with the series. Why does a guy who, when he gets powers from the Cosmic Cube, decide to call himself The Falcon? Among the powers he got were strength and an ability to communicate with birds. He did not get the ability to fly. That came from technology later on. So, why The Falcon? Wouldn't a flightless bird have been more appropriate? Even Dr Doolittle would have fit better. I suppose it might have helped if I'd ever read the original appearances in Captain America.


  1. Calling him the Dodo would not have worked as well.

    Actually I beleive he had a falcon as a pet before he called himself the Falcon.

    Fun review!

  2. Some time side kick of Captain America, some time enemy of Captain America, and full time social icon/crusader. This four issue series was set entirely in Harlem. It introduced the long running second bannana character known as Sgt Tork. Mostly, it was unique in my experience since then because it's the only series I've seen that had no single story line running through it.

  3. Probably any extinct animal wouldn't have worked well as a name, but definitely the dodo. That would make a good parody, though.

    I don't know what to say to Laura's comment, since it's just a quote of what I wrote.