By Kenneth Laster
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Content warning: this essay contains discussion of a storyline featuring sexual assault.
After years of having second billing to Captain America, Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) finally broke free in his own self-titled four issue limited series penned by Christopher Priest, then Jim Owsley, in 1983. Joining Priest on The Falcon #1 was Paul Smith, who was hot off his Uncanny X-Men run. Marvel mainstay Vince Colletta inked Smith, the issue was colored by Christie Scheele, lettered by Rick Parker and edited by Larry Hama.
Falcon #1 isn’t just notable for being the solo debut of the Falcon, but also the professional writing debut of Priest, who was at the time an assistant editor. The limited series came together by happenstance with the entire first issue being put together under to be put in Marvel Fanfare, but sat unprinted until “limited series” became an in-vogue concept years later – and thus The Falcon, a four issue limited series. Falcon #1 becomes a retroactively fascinating artefact, not just in the circumstantial way this prominent Black character ends up with his own series, but in the way that this issue is the starting point for Christopher Priest’s long career and influence as one of a handful of established Black creatives in comics who is still working today.
Priest would go on to write for Power Man and Iron Fist, Green Lantern, have a hand in the creation of Milestone Media, have an iconic run on Black Panther, and most recently had an incredibly memorable Deathstroke run during DC Rebirth. Priest is one of the most prolific and mainstream Black writers still with us today. At the same time Priest’s work and persona are known to push the envelope and delve into more problematic subject matter. All of these elements make it all the more interesting to observe The Falcon #1 as the predecessor to Priest’s long legacy within the medium as well as its role in Sam Wilson’s history.
The driving plot of The Falcon #1 is very much Scooby Doo meets superheroes, in terms of mystery. A new slumlord comes into the neighborhood building new housing projects with cheap material, coincidentally a costumed villain, named “Nemesis” shows up and attempts to wreck these projects. Falcon and Nemesis go back and forth throughout the issue in beautifully rendered superpowered fisticuffs, thanks to Smith, Colletta, and Sheene, until it is finally revealed that Nemesis and the slum lord were one and the same in a botched insurance scheme. Taken on its own the superhero plot of this issue is extremely cut and dry.
What makes The Falcon stand out isn’t the plot, then, but the setting and characters around it. Priest’s script makes it clear that this is the “ghetto”. Full of low income Black and brown people struggling. In the hindsight of 2020, the melodrama of this struggle feels tired and even more so with the character of Miguel, who is a whole can of worms we’ll get to in a minute. The other two major characters of this story are Sam Wilson and Sgt. Tork.
Tork is a slightly smaller (but equally as spoiled) can of worms in that he’s a rogue white cop with a heart of gold. The first panel he appears has him think to himself how sneaking up on a Black teen isn’t a good look, but justifies it by how the kid is just as likely to blow him away without a second thought. Immediately after that, Sam Wilson calls him out on the illegal shotgun he carries; to which he remarks that he spits on the sidewalk and that’s illegal too. At one point he also just fires a gun in the open to get an impatient crowd’s attention. Tork is really just a wild character to read in this year of all years. There’s an attempt to justify Tork as being a part of the low income community he policies, but the rogue action cop trope, which was just hitting its stride in the early 80s, really has soured today.
Sam Wilson is a strange character in this book in that he represents an archetype that feels so foreign as a concept today. He’s just a superhero. There aren’t any frills, quips, or even internal struggle. The Falcon is a more or less, serious figure who is just a hero. I see the merit to this and how it fits in context. There aren’t a ton of Black heroes at this time that are really allowed to be the archetypical “superhero”. Black Panther is a hero and a king, Power Man is a blaxploitation riff gone wild so it feels somewhat novel to have The Falcon be the stoic more traditional superhero in Black skin. It’s definitely fascinating looking at the character as he appears here and to think towards him taking on the mantle of Captain America, another character who can be read as fitting into the archetypical superhero mold, and even in a more meta way thinking of how much charisma Anthony Mackie brings to the character in his more mainstream role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
However, in depicting him as the stoic sentinel of the ghetto, Priest does him a disservice in making him a difficult character to build empathy towards. There’s honestly not a lot of reason to care about Sam Wilson within this issue. Unfortunately the brunt of pathos of this comic goes to Miguel.
The issue begins with Falcon stopping an attempted sexual assault. While sexual assault should not be thrown into stories frivolously, a lot of writers throw this in as a type of “save the cat” moment to demonstrate their hero’s dedication to do what’s right, and unfortunately it doesn’t have any narrative purpose beyond making the hero look like a hero. Priest attempts to subvert this… in maybe the worst way possible. Sam stops the assault but the perpetrator, Miguel, gives a monologue about the struggles of the ghetto and Falcon takes pity – going so far as to actually go to the father of Lucia, the girl Miguel almost sexually assaulted, and tell him “Miguel isn’t really a bad kid”. He pleads with the father (not the victim) to be lenient. Sam goes on to defend Miguel in court and Miguel becomes the emotional center of this comic as the “youthful potential” at the core of living in the turbulent “ghetto”.
You can almost see what Priest is attempting to do with Miguel. The kid who would be a faceless goon in any other superhero comic is actually a troubled youth who’s a victim of circumstance and his environment – an interesting concept, and the type of complicated social consciousness that Priest likes to explore in his work. However, using an attempted sexual assault as Miguel’s crime is a damn terrible idea. There are so many gross excuses that have been used for so long to excuse men doing horrible things such as alcohol; only being a kid; and so on are used to get the people around Miguel and us, the reader, to empathize with him.
This is all at the same time that Lucia barely has a voice at all in this issue. She relents to Falcon’s suggestion to drop the charges, and we get no sense of anything she’s going through. To have a superhero save her and tell her (and her father) that her attempted rapist isn’t a bad kid is honestly disgusting. She is functionally just “Miguel’s near mistake” in this comic and it’s really unpleasant having Miguel framed as the emotional core of this book.
The “risky” and ultimately misogynist move to focus on Miguel as a misguided kid and erase Lucia isn’t at all out of line with Priest’s persona and body of work. Priest’s work feels at home in the morally grey, and exploring characters that aren’t cut and dry, which is evident in his successful Black Panther and Deathstroke runs. While this can provide some interesting stories, there’s a sense that Priest’s love of the grey creates a self image of being just “too smart” for things that are a bit more cut and dry.
There’s a particularly controversial recent Newsarama interview where Priest goes on about the “guilty until proven innocent” culture we live in regarding sexual misconduct.
“I’ll confess, I’m terrified of women because I’m a Joe Biden. I was taught to pay a lady a compliment and open doors and I want to be friendly and accessible but I’m absolutely terrified of having my good intentions taken in a bizarrely paranoid light.
It is comical to me that I am far too often seen as creepy by women – especially black women – because they have been conditioned by their personal experience and their media consumption to misinterpret a simple “Hello.” These days I cannot pay a woman a compliment without a legal preamble and assurances that, no, I am not hitting on you and even then I get the skunk eye of suspicion.”
It’s such a bizarre admission of not understanding why there is a cultural movement to believe women, but after reading Falcon #1, one that just makes so much sense. It’s impossible not to recognize the continuity from the author of a comic that spends so much time telling us that an attempted rapist is really in fact just a victim of society (please don’t ask about Lucia) and this man who can’t understand why women don’t feel heard when they speak up about their experiences with harassment.
It’s difficult being so hard on Priest and this comic, since there are so few Black people who have broken into mainstream comics… let alone who have stayed on to have an influential voice in the industry. But at the same time, to ignore that comics’ horrible problems with harassment and misogyny, not even just relegated to the last few years, is horribly irresponsible. Priest was only 22 when this issue saw publication: ironically the same age I am now. To accomplish that so early and to make a name in comics as a Black man is impressive on its own, but to not grow and learn to understand the severity of the harassment women endure and to dismiss them – Black women in particular – as paranoid is evidence that having Black voices in comics is not the same as cultivating new ones.
There’s an incredibly frustrating instinct to want to defend an old, problematic author on the basis that he shares the same race as you, but as the old saying goes, “not all skinfolk are kinfolk”. Priest objectively has made a mark on comics, but it’s not wrong to realize that he’s an middle aged man, like many other creators from his day. And, just as there have been 37 years of newer white creatives to pass the torch on to, there are just as many Black creatives to do the same to today.
Written by Jim Owsley
Pencilled by Paul Smith
Inked by Vince Colletta
Coloured by Christie Scheele
Lettered by Rick Parker
Published in 1983
Kenneth Laster is a cartoonist and critic who has written for sites including Multiversity, ComicsXF, and Comic Book Herald. You can find Ken’s comics available (for free!) here, and follow Ken on Twitter here!
Vinnie Colletta gives Paul Smith’s pencils a delicate touch that really lifts the art.