Monday, April 25, 2016

Power To The People!

Of the collection of the Marvel 25¢ large-format books that very briefly hit the comics shelves in late 1971, one of the stand-outs turned out to be issue #143 of Captain America and the Falcon--not so much because of the story's climax or the revelation of the behind-the-scenes mystery villain, but for the issue at the heart of the story, as well as the characterization of and interaction between two of its central characters. The easy assumption to make is that those two people are Cap and the Falcon; instead, the pair who will likely hold the reader's interest to a greater degree are Sam Wilson, the Falcon's civilian identity, and Leila Taylor, a woman with a militant bent who resides in Harlem during the time when racial tensions were escalating and pitting the neighborhood's activists against law enforcement and white establishment.

It's an ambitious story set in motion by Stan Lee but expanded on and taken to its conclusion by Gary Friedrich, set in the backdrop of a neighborhood whose residents had become bitter and angry at living conditions and the poor prospects of improving their economic standing. It's easy to see where Sam might fit into this story--a social worker based in Harlem who does his best to steer its residents toward available jobs and educational opportunities--while Cap, who's recently struck up a partnership with the Falcon, begins to further acclimate to the neighborhood when he's asked by the police commissioner to assume an undercover role as a police officer in order to investigate a string of mysterious disappearances in the area. That case is solved when he and the Falcon go after the Grey Gargoyle--but by then, two meetings have taken place in prior stories that will leave impressions on each of these men and carry them through the events of this issue's climax.

For Cap, he meets the Reverend Garcia, a charitable man who runs a local boys' club and who Cap, in his role as Officer Steve Rogers, finds common ground with following an altercation with some riled-up locals. Garcia has a great deal of faith in those who believe themselves to be beyond help, and is often willing to go the extra mile to help them find the confidence they need to pull themselves up, a perspective which naturally reaches Cap on a fundamental level. As for Sam, he receives a visit at his office from Leila, a woman who's dead set on getting him to change his point of view on his approach to the problems facing Harlem's residents. Leila's thrown in with the "People's Militia," a group of locals who have adopted a more militant stance to confront and lash out against those they believe are taking advantage of them--at least, that's what it would probably look like on paper. In the story we'll see that the so-called Militia is focused mostly on venting their anger, and at times their targets are picked without reason or forethought--though both of those things are clearly being applied by their masked figurehead known as "the Man," who appears to have a purpose beyond siding with Leila and her group for "the cause."

For now, Lee lays the groundwork for the conflict to come, both through Cap's work on the streets as a rookie cop and by having Leila make the rounds to presumably form ties with those who could benefit the militia. Leila is a striking figure as rendered by artist John Romita, who does outstanding work on this issue--yet her personality and assertiveness are equally impressive as she takes Sam's measure. Sam is obviously drawn to her--and while she may feel the same, she doesn't give an inch of ground in letting Sam know where her priorities lie.

When Friedrich takes over as the book's writer, Leila also goes straight to the source of a perceived cover-up (would you expect her to settle for less?) and confronts the police commissioner as he visits Garcia, who's recuperating after his treatment by the Gargoyle. Yet Garcia believes just as fervently in his own approach, so discordant with Leila's uncompromising methods--and while she'll turn a deaf ear to his words, Garcia will at least make sure that she hears them.

As this story finally reaches its conclusion in issue #143, things have reached a fever pitch, and the Militia is ready to back up its threats with action--thanks to "the Man," who has stoked the fires of their discontent and turned it into sheer rage. Will we indeed see "power to the people"? Or does the true power to this situation lie elsewhere?

Before the rally that will light the match which may very well lead to Harlem erupting in flames, Leila approaches Sam one more time in order to bring him into the fold. It's apparent that these two want to move beyond a casual stage in their not-quite-relationship, but it's also clear that their political differences remain, with Sam trying to ease his way into finding common ground for both of them. With Leila not willing to cut him much slack, he has his work cut out for him--but you'd have to be blind not to notice that each of these people wants to keep the door open for the other.

And while we ponder whether Leila and Sam have held their own rally off-panel, let's fast-forward to the actual gathering, where we finally hear from the Man. The story's one flaw is that we never really know the circumstances of how Leila and the Militia's de facto leader, Rafe Michel, and/or anyone else in the movement, have agreed to let the Man and his men (that almost sounds repetitious) chart this course and convince them that it will bring results. As often as the neighborhood's residents have been taken advantage of by slum lords and deceptive officials, you'd think they'd be wary of someone handing them a bill of goods like this--after all, these men could be anyone in these uniforms and masks. No doubt the residents are being told what they want to hear--but is that all it takes to convince them to become a mob? What exactly happens when the slums burn to the ground? How and when do things actually turn around for these people once the ashes have settled? Where are the hard questions--particularly from Leila, who comes across as anything but gullible?

Regardless, however it was accomplished, these masked men have done their work well--because in spite of Sam's best efforts, look how quickly and easily the Man works this group into a near-mindless frenzy.

If we're to believe our eyes and ears, the People's Militia have adopted a scorched Earth policy:  attack and burn everything, and leave nothing standing. Unfortunately, that will include Garcia's boys' club, as well as Garcia himself, which doesn't really add up. How is a Harlem boys' club a threat? How is it a symbol of white establishment? And is Garcia guilty by association, since he has ties to city officials?

But making Garcia a target only serves to bring Captain America into the picture; and through that involvement, we finally learn what the Man is truly after.

There must have been easier ways to lure Cap into a trap than for "the Man" to set up so elaborate a deception and take the time to manipulate so many people. At this point in the story, the Man's revelation feels too contrived to suit what's going on around this character.  What's happening with the mob, and with Sam and Cap in their struggles, as well as Leila's involvement and her loyalties seems far more interesting than what appears to be a petty agenda of the Man to ensnare Cap.

As for Sam, Leila's intervention has saved his life--and, beaten and bruised, he's unceremoniously dumped back at his building, where he tips off Cap about the threat to Garcia. But Leila also arrives to see to him, only to have their differences finally explode.

With Sam still able to act as the Falcon, he suits up and heads for Garcia's club--and his timing couldn't be better. With Cap's suspicions, both men are able to call a temporary truce on hostilities, which is no small task considering the unbridled anger that's engulfed the Militia--and with a grace period of only an hour, they head off to investigate what may hopefully turn out to be the answer.

Back at the warehouse, the confrontation with the Man finally arrives--and with a terrible, terrible chapter title that can only suggest that Friedrich was suffering from lack of sleep in trying to meet the deadline of this issue, the true power behind the people is revealed.

Unfortunately, Cap and Falc are sufficiently stymied by the Skull's various technological traps that he's able to elude capture and escape. (So much for having Cap where he wanted him. His planning seems as poorly thought out for himself as it should have appeared to the People's Militia.) The Militia is understandably not too happy about being played like they were, and they agree to stand down; but to the story's credit, the simmering anger concerning the issues involved remains.  For what it's worth, the incident at least served to open something of a dialogue with not only the city, but also between Sam and Leila.

This final scene might leave us with the mistaken impression that Leila has done an about-face here--but by no means has she changed either her take-no-prisoners approach to Harlem's problems or her intention to coax Sam into seeing things more her way, both qualities which make her an interesting character to watch. And we'll indeed do just that, in a follow-up post.

Captain America and the Falcon #143

Script: Gary Friedrich
Pencils and Inks: John Romita
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

I've always'd liked the Falcon, maybe because my introduction to Captain America in the mid-Seventies was when Cap and the Falcon shared the comic as a team.
The social commentary could get a little clumsy and heavy-handed at times, but the heart of the comic was in the right place, and putting the Falcon in there was one of the smartest things Marvel did in the Seventies, in my opinion. It made it a more interesting comic.
I'm glad to see 'ol Falc have a rebirth, of sorts, in the films, because I never felt like Marvel did as much with the character as they might have, weird, conflicting backstories notwithstanding.
Beautiful Romita art here!
Have you reviewed the issues where Falcon and Cap went after Spider-man yet, C.F.? I paid a pretty penny for those back issues quite a few years ago, but they were worth it!

Comicsfan said...

Looks like you already checked out that review of the Spidey story, M.P., but I'm happy to provide the link to it. It was quite a fun story to post.

I agree that the Falcon brought a lot to Captain America, and probably at a time when the book needed something more to sustain it than Cap, who worked well in the Avengers but was having a hard time of it in his own mag. Falc got some excellent exposure and attention in C.A., from several different writers and artists; yet he didn't seem suited to The Avengers, blending too much into the background even with Cap at his side. He seems to function better when he has opportunities to take the lead, which Cap seems astute enough to recognize.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, C.F.!
I guess I did see that here before.
You know what they say, memory is the first thing to go, and then the knees. And my hip's been bugging me lately, too.

david_b said...

An outright favorite of mine.., CA&F was THE COMIC for me back in the '70s. bar none, only ASM and Avengers coming close.

The Englehart/Buscema team-up lifted Cap into the stratosphere for sales apparently.., it was a sad day when Robbins came on.

Anywho.., this was a great story/great art. Despite the dated urban tension stuff, it still works well due to the budding relationships and triangles forming, especially for Sam Wilson.

The only clunker indeed was the Skull ending..

Like.., really..? THAT was your plan.., Skull..? Sheesh.

But I will tell you, with both this and that 'Fifth Sleeper' issue coming up shortly.., not regarded as classic Skull issues, but funny-fun-fun stories never the less. :)

dbutler16 said...

David B, I completely agree with you about it being a sad day when Robbins came on. Those are difficult issues to read, especially after reading the Buscema issues.

I like the Falcan and am glad that he got co-billing with Cap for a good run, but I didn't care for the writing in this issue. I think the Friedrich made the African Americans a bit too mindlessly militant. I also found it tough to swallow that they'd so blindly follow somebody wearing a mask, whom they've never seen, who of course turns out to be the Red Skrull. . It sure makes them look stupid. Some pretty hackneyed dialogue by Cap as well as some stereotypical 70s urban dialogue. Solid art, fur sure, but the writing could have used some work, IMHO.