Monday, February 9, 2015

Captain America and the Falcon: Partners In Harlem

Seventeen issues after his introduction in the pages of Captain America in the fall of 1969, the Falcon would receive cover billing in the mag, joining Cap as the third partner of his career:

But did this this team fulfill the promise of its historic first issue?

To get some perspective on this new team, let's return to the prior issue, where Cap floats the idea of a partnership with Falc, though a crisis rears its head before he can actually pop the question:

Cap and Falc make a fine team against M.O.D.O.K. and "Bulldozer"--but writer Stan Lee's closing scene that cements the new partnership seems more presumptive than something based on mutual agreement.

We'll have to assume that Falc raised no objection, because the opening scenes of the next issue make it clear that this new partnership is in full swing:

It's an interesting direction that Lee has moved Cap in, and the first sign of a writer putting Cap more in touch with helping Americans on a more personal level as opposed to doing so through S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers. The '60s and '70s saw Harlem transition through a period of turmoil in regard to social issues, housing, and education, continuing for over two decades until the end of the '80s--a state of unrest tailor-made for Sam Wilson, social worker, and a blank canvas for charting a new course for Captain America, who had been floundering for some sort of direction in his comic that didn't involve a villain or terrorist organization. Writer Steve Englehart would later strike a balance in the partnership, where the Falcon would continue to operate in and focus on Harlem, while Cap pivoted more toward super-villain encounters which would often end up dealing in Falc. It was a rare day when it would be the other way around.

But this first issue gave an intriguing glimpse of Cap finally being removed from his dependence on SHIELD or an Avengers meeting for purpose, and it provided a break from watching Cap waiting for trouble to find him. Cap and Falc are on the hunt for a man named "Stone-Face," a local crime lord who makes his living running a number of rackets but who also corrupts the neighborhood youth into taking illicit assignments. Sam's nephew, Jody, is one of Stone-Face's numbers runners (good lord, are we in the 1930s?) who is completely taken in by the lifestyle of a crime lord and sees Stone-Face as his ticket toward attaining similar status for himself one day:

It's an odd segue from this point, as Jody's next stop takes him to Sam's office, for no particular reason. Given the contempt he holds his uncle in, there's no discernible reason for this scene to take place, other than to establish Sam's knowledge of Jody's ties to Stone-Face, as well as his desire to pull Jody off of the path he's on before it's too late.

As for how this sub-plot would involve Cap, Jody literally bumps into him as he angrily leaves Sam's office--and the resulting conversation between Sam and Steve leaves us wondering if they should leave detective work to the detectives:

Cap's at least on the right track as far as the notion of Jody leading them to Stone-Face.  But if these two had been paying attention to their own splash page--where they'd successfully trailed hirelings of Stone-Face without their knowledge--they'd realize they could simply keep tabs on Jody until he eventually led them directly to the man they're hunting. Or maybe even have Redwing do the tracking.

Meanwhile, it doesn't take long before Jody is picked up by the police after collecting from a store owner. But the arrest had a witness, who unexpectedly shows up at Jody's hearing:

Several things have weighed with the judge in Jody's favor, not the least of which is a good word put in by Cap. As a result, the judge shows leniency; but Jody interprets the break as evidence of the reach of Stone-Face. Jody naturally thinks he's home-free with a man like Stone-Face looking out for him--but he's misread the situation entirely, and, unknown to him, has become a liability to the one he looks up to:

The scene which later greets Sam and Steve then brings this story to a head, confirming Sam's worst fears for his nephew, while perhaps also serving as one heck of a wake-up call for Jody:

There's not necessarily any reason to attribute Sam and Steve being on the scene to witness the aftermath of this incident to coincidence, since Sam could have simply been on his way to visit his sister--though it would be difficult otherwise for Cap and the Falcon to bring this fight back to Stone-Face, eh? For the sake of the story, Lee pins it down to "an unpredictable fate," which works as well as anything. Suffice to say that Cap and Falc get their wish and locate the man they've been after--because his men are short-sighted enough to head directly back to his hideout. Worse, they have the nerve to sound surprised at being tailed:

In the story's epilogue, Lee perhaps piles on its moral too heavily by spreading it around to all parties involved:  first to Jody, "scared straight" by his mother's near-death experience and turned off to the mob lifestyle completely; and then to Cap and Falc, comparing notes on their first joint case and using the experience as both affirmation and dedication:

A lot of this wording seems meant to set the course for Cap's new direction--though it doesn't take long before threats like Hydra, the Red Skull, the Grey Gargoyle, and (of all people) the Mole Man all tug at Cap's attention and coax him back to dealing with costumed threats rather than social causes, a pull that was perhaps inevitable given Cap's established history as an Avenger. Consider also how successful the Falcon was under Englehart at building his reputation by handling Harlem-based affairs on his own. As intriguing as it sounds for Cap to have been a part of that, would it have worked out long-term? There was a time during the well-written issues featuring the Skull--a story which dealt in many aspects of Harlem life and social barriers--when answering "yes" wouldn't have sounded far-fetched. In that last panel, at least, it looked like we could count on Cap and Falc to stick it out.

Captain America #134

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Artie Simek


david_b said...

One of my FAV'S..!!!! LOVE Sam in his original outfit. Great story.

WISH Legends would do a decent rendition one day. I started doing a Famous Covers one a few decades ago, but I never finished.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there a couple of issues when Steve Rogers became a cop ?

Comicsfan said...

david, Falc's original costume was pretty well designed, I agree--though I also liked its replacement. It seemed to bring out more of the falcon motif for me.

Colin, Steve indeed tried a stint as a policeman. It's a period in his career that I'd like to get around to posting about one day.

dbutler16 said...

I'm reading through many of those Steve-as-a-cop issues, so it would be great if you posted about it. Especially before my memories of it fade from my addled middle-aged brain!