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Comic Book Firsts



CAPTAIN AMERICA #117 (cover art: GENE COLAN, pencils; JOE SINNOTT, inks; JOHN ROMITA, “Marvelization”)

Before the late 1960s, blacks in comic books were – if featured at all – stereotypical, token characters (usually used as thugs or for comedy relief). With the debut of T’Challa, the Black Panther (in FANTASTIC FOUR #52, cover-dated July 1966), the comics industry finally began to see beyond the limited scope of how a dwindling section of the American people looked at – not only blacks, but Asians, Latinos and so many more – the minority populace of this great melting pot of a society. Not to say that the change was immediate or without a few shortcomings. For quite a while, black heroes (and villains) were given names like the Black Racer (from Jack Kirby’s NEW GODS and Fourth World titles), Black Goliath (with Hank Pym and Clint Barton both abandoning the moniker and costume, why not just “Goliath?”) and Black Lightning. Marvel’s second major black character, the Falcon, premiered in CAPTAIN AMERICA number 117 in mid-1969.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #117, page 5 (written by STAN LEE, art by GENE COLAN and JOE SINNOTT)

Continuing a story arc that saw Cap fighting his nemesis, the Red Skull, and seemingly defeating him, Steve now finds himself trapped on a remote island in the Skull’s body by a transference (the Skull now occupying the body of Captain America) via the Cosmic Cube with everybody from local constabulary to SHIELD to the Avengers looking for the villain. As the Skull, Cap comes across a group of former Skull henchmen – skilled assassins and brilliant scientists, all – calling themselves the Exiles; as the good Captain finds himself up a tree (literally), he strains to overhear what the group is up to and, the victim of more Cosmic Cube chicanery, is uprooted from his surveillance point right into the pathway of the rogues. With murderous intent, the Exiles use their assassinating prowess on the Skull-shaped Captain America. Stunned and unprepared to fight the group, he is overwhelmed by the weapons of the lethal six before he is saved by a giant bird of prey… a falcon! And, all of that is in the first nine pages!

CAPTAIN AMERICA #117, page 14 (written by STAN LEE, art by GENE COLAN and JOE SINNOTT)

While the Skull is in the body of Captain America, he does some very un-Captain America things like saying that he has no need for a sidekick, something that will lead to traumatic circumstances for Rick Jones in a later issue. Back on the island, Cap suddenly remembers that the Red Skull’s frightful features are, in fact, merely a mask; he removes the ghastly face and ponders if the Exiles had ever seen the Skull’s real face. After applying some clay and remodeling his features (just in case), he comes across Redwing, the falcon, and his trainer. After a brief conversation (including, of course, an origin story for his character), the bird’s Harlem-born trainer (I’m sure you all know that man to be Sam Wilson, but he isn’t named until the next issue) – unknowingly in the presence of the Living Legend of World War II – suggests the pair team up to take down the septet of assassins even as he laments the fact that the island folk are too afraid to join a cause that would lead to their ultimate freedom. Steve tells the falconer that the islanders need a symbol to rally around… a figure in a costume. Our guerilla fighter’s reaction is… decidedly negative: “Me, a costumed clown? Don’t put me on, man!” However, with some light cajoling from the – as yet unknown – heroic figure before him and with the murderous Exiles breathing down their necks, he finally does acquiesce and, in the story’s final panel, the Falcon is born!

CAPTAIN AMERICA #117, page 19 (written by STAN LEE, art by GENE COLAN and JOE SINNOTT)

There is so much to like about this story (and a few cringe-worthy moments, as well), from the beautiful Gene Colan art – with embellishment by Joe Sinnott – to a nearly hyperbolic-free script from Stan Lee to the introduction of one of the most important (yeah, I said it!) new characters in the still-fledgling Marvel Comics stable. Thankfully, much like he did with the T’Challa character a few years earlier, Stan did not go for the stereotypical shuck-and-jive parlance of most black people in comics (and, indeed, in most popular media); nope, Sam Wilson was what one would (and should) expect: an educated, well-spoken member of the working class. This obviously became the norm… eventually, as the old stereotypes faded away. Unfortunately, this new comic book normal was brutally slow in taking place (“Sweet Christmas!,” anyone?), but the seeds planted with first, the Black Panther, and then, the Falcon, has had far-reaching consequences in comic books with creations like DC’s Jon Stewart and so many others. And, it wasn’t just characters: There was suddenly an influx of great artists and writers of color – again, not just black, but Asians and Hispanics, as well – leading to a sort of renaissance in the industry. But… back to the story! The arc ends (sort of) in issue 119, where 11 pages in, Sam finally realizes that his trainer and ally is actually Captain America! The Cosmic Cube subplot marches on, though, as MODOK and AIM become involved in the search for the Red Skull and the Cube.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #117, page 20 (written by STAN LEE, art by GENE COLAN and JOE SINNOTT)

This issue and the entire story arc are reprinted in various Marvel Silver Age collections, both hardcover and trade paperbacks; one of the most recent reprints was a 2022 facsimile edition of the original book. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Sam Wilson finally (and reluctantly) taking up the mantle, the shield and the name of Captain America (and CAPTAIN AMERICA: BRAVE NEW WORLD coming from Marvel Studios in 2025), it’s nice to look back at the humble origin story that brought the Falcon to the Earth-616 comic book universe 55 years ago.