Monday, May 2, 2016

Pam Grier, Your Dream Role Is Calling You

Previously, we were introduced to the forthright, militant woman named Leila Taylor, who paid a visit to the Falcon's civilian identity, Sam Wilson, and let him know that Harlem needed men who would fight for "the cause" more than it needed social workers. Sam, instantly drawn to Leila, in turn tried to get her to see both sides of the picture; but while the two eventually saw eye to eye in the romance department, their political differences continued to be a wedge between them, with each of them trying to convince the other of the merits of their approach. (Think Hubbell Gardiner and Katie Morosky without the drippy soundtrack, and with more pushing them apart than drawing them together.) Leila remained a character of Captain America and a love interest for the Falcon for well over 100 issues, and handled by a number of writers who adjusted her priorities and her once-volatile temperament as times changed; yet the one character trait that stuck with her, however diminished, was the willingness to speak her mind and confront someone who she felt needed to hear the truth straight-up. In the early days of her development, that person turned out to be Sam himself, and, later, the Falcon.

As a follow-up to that earlier story where Leila made such an unforgettable impression on the book as well as with the reader, let's take a brief look at how she progressed through these formative issues--as she seeks to come to terms with her feelings for the Falcon, vs. her status as a fierce proponent of the rights and needs of Harlem's black residents.

Given the situation that still exists between Leila and Sam, and how we know Leila well enough by now to assume that she isn't going to give ground even with someone she's falling for, we can make a fair guess as to where things stand when we pick things up with her--in the form of a civil, but rigid, ultimatum.

At one point, Leila tags along with Sam as he investigates a string of disappearances involving neighborhood children; and as he works the case, she begins to see how comfortable he is in working within the system. If we were to draw a conclusion on her feelings at this moment, she appears to finally admit to herself that while Sam is the type of man who works for his people, she fears he won't ever be the kind of man who fights for them.

By now, Gerry Conway has taken the writing reins from Gary Friedrich, and effectively puts Leila in a holding pattern while pivoting her from one direction to another. She clearly has lost patience with Sam--but when it's the Falcon who catches her eye, she applies her same stringent standards to him, not knowing that this man has already run this gamut with her.

Leila then takes up with Rafe Michel, the tough, militant-minded man who has an established presence in Harlem and who, for Leila, fits her mindset like a glove. Rafe has already made it clear to the Falcon how low an opinion he holds of him (which Falc responds to in the above scene with a very strong warning); but when the neighborhood forms up on Falc and comes to his aid when he falls prisoner to a fake Captain America who's terrorizing the residents, Rafe's opinion is rejected by the enthusiastic crowd who now seem to have a hero in their midst. And even Leila begins to see the Falcon in a new light.

Whether Leila's infatuation with the Falcon is indicative of something more remains to be seen--but she can't help twisting the knife where Sam is concerned, though again she has no way of knowing that the man she taunts is one and the same with the man she wants to know better.

(It looks like even a sharp girl like Leila can't see past the Falcon's mask and connect the dots to Sam.)

With Leila's about-face on the Falcon, it bears mentioning that Steve Englehart has begun writing the book, and he apparently has decided to expedite matters between Falc and Leila. The situation moves further in that direction when Captain America gains super-strength, leaving the Falcon feeling outclassed and unnecessary in their partnership--and that frustration leads Falc to finally address Leila's interest in him and the "partnership" between Leila and Rafe that's chafed at him. In short: Rafe can consider that partnership dissolved.

Leila is ready to go all in with Falc, following a gang confrontation with the Falcon that's led by Rafe--a brawl where the Falcon skillfully and decisively proves to be the better fighter (and with some timely assistance from Leila). The fight is witnessed by Cap, who has come to hopefully patch things up between them--but it's an absolute deal-breaker for Leila, who sees the Falcon veering off from the course she'd hoped to set him on.

The "meeting of the minds" here between Falc and Leila proves to be a turning point in their relationship. Up until now, Leila saw as incompatible anyone who didn't share her feelings on and commitment to "black power" and the more proactive and assertive stance she felt was necessary to adopt in order for the problems and concerns of the people of Harlem to be taken notice of; yet here she's willing to give Falc some leeway because of her feelings for him, but perhaps mostly because the Falcon hasn't backed down in the face of her arguments but has instead countered with a point of view he just as fervently believes in, a breaking point which Sam Wilson unfortunately never reached.

We see little to anything of "the cause" in Leila's life from this point on, which is regrettable since it's played such a vital part in her character--but Englehart continues to give attention to her personality and makes an effort to keep her from blending into the background. A great deal happens to Captain America at this point on Englehart's watch, and he is one-half of the title masthead; but Leila receives a generous amount of space when she accompanies the Falcon to Wakanda, where the Black Panther assists Falc in enhancing his abilities in order to make his partnership with Cap a more equal one. Leila is delighted at the prospect of experiencing the sights and people of Africa--but in an interesting scene, she seems surprised to find that race or gender is no guarantee of common ground, something that her experience with Sam should have already made clear.

But if Leila is adept at anything, it's initiative--and while Falc and the Panther are working, she relies on her own methods to petition the Panther for some transportation to Nigeria and experience the street life she's come to love. Unfortunately, Leila is also adept at finding trouble--and when she encounters the criminal known as Stone-Face in her outing, she finds herself being made an offer that no sensible woman would hesitate to refuse.

The Falcon joins the Panther in the rescue, using his new wings (in a trial run that almost gets them both killed). But by the time the Falcon returns with Leila to the states, another turning point occurs--this time for Leila herself. Leila and the Falcon remain an item--but even Englehart finds little time to deal her into the book, with Captain America resigning to become the Nomad and the Falcon dealing with his absence from their partnership. Taking on foes like the super-powered Lucifer has him wondering if he can cut it on his own; and it seems that Leila has been shifted to the role of both nurse and support system for the duration.

In time, the Nomad comes to his senses and resumes his role as Captain America--but not before the Red Skull has ruthlessly slain a young man who attempted to be Cap's replacement, and severely roughed up the Falcon in the process. On a positive note, Falc's recuperation under the care of Leila has him finally revealing his identity as Sam Wilson to her--a conversation you would think would provide some interesting character development for both of these people, but ground that Englehart seems to feel is unnecessary to cover.

Which seems as good a place as any to conclude this profile of Leila Taylor, though the character would continue, off and on, in both Captain America and other stories--her experiences having tempered her while still leaving her with the desire to get things done. The last time I remember checking in on her, she was sticking with Sam as he made a run for Congress (though maybe it's Leila who's better equipped to ride herd on the members of that assembly), while later she began expanding her role as a social activist while also working as an investigative journalist. Wherever Leila ends up, it's a safe bet her goals will be met with persistence and, it goes without saying, conviction.


david_b said...

Hmmmm, I liken your inclusion of the Leila panel (before reading your post..), to the more iconic Mary Jane appearance in ASM (the 'Face It Tiger, You Just Hit The Jackpot' panel..).

It would be interesting (from the early Bronze Age standpoint) to contrast/compare the two and how they wove themselves as counterpoints to 'their men' in the title.

All in all, I initially found Englehart's usage of her as the black revolt's mouthpiece intriguing as how it found it's way into Sam's head in his internal struggle between her and Cap.., later she diminished a bit to whininess and selfishness.

I didn't read much of Kirby's tenure on the title (and after..) sufficiently to verify whether she developed past that and back to the heights Englehart developed her as being. I assume not.

Comicsfan said...

david, Kirby's Leila is a vital, strong character--but her focus is entirely on Sam, with no sign of her other priorities or her continued commitment to "the cause" that I can recall. She's even down with Cap and Falc as a team, and enthusiastically at that. Kirby apparently felt her strength as a supporting character for Sam was sufficient for the book.