1970: Sam Wilson Becomes Captain America Sooner Than You Think

A racially-sensitive trip to Harlem ends up still being sorta racist.

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Sam Wilson in the red white and blue. Looks good.
No, he’s not talking about condescending comics written by white men … but we will be!

This issue presents the fifth appearance of Sam Wilson. The first four all came in a longer story that introduced him and turned him into the Falcon, so this is his first real non-origin adventure. It’s a speedy thrill ride and a racially-complicated visit to Harlem. It’s Captain America shutting up and punching bad guys and then being a little patronizing. It’s Sam Wilson’s first shot at putting on the Captain America uniform, way way earlier than you thought he did. It’s another Cap flashback with tricky racial implications. All this and Redwing, too!

Captain America #126

Date: June 10, 1970
Read on MU

Creative Team:
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Gene Colan

Story:

“The Fate of … the Falcon!”

Cap heads up to Harlem to check up on Sam Wilson. Sam was introduced in a blockbuster story running from Cap #117 to #120, and this is his first appearance since then. It’s destined to be a tense one, because the radio report Cap overhears says the police are about to arrest the Falcon!

Sexy noir car on a sexy noir street
Gene Colan street scenes are the comic art equivalent of “wocka chicka wocka chicka.”

This sends Wing-Head racing across the rooftops to find his friend. Redwing helps him zero in on the right block, and Cap dodges the police by heading around to the rear entrance.

Falcon is glad to see his buddy. He’s wounded in the shoulder and wanted for murder. One of the thugs in the Diamond Head gang has died, and his associates are trying to frame Sam for the death. Falcon characterizes the gang as black supremacists; “a black version of the klan” are his exact words.

While he’s expositing to Cap (and us readers), something interesting is going down: Steve is throwing on some civilian duds while Sam pulls on the Captain America uniform! The plan is to send an unrecognizable Steve out the front door as a hostage being released and then for Sam to slip away in Cap’s guise.

There it is, Sam putting on the uniform for the first timeSo several million cool points and history points: Did you know Sam Wilson first wore the uniform 47 years ago? Admittedly, it would be less convoluted to let Sam wear the civilian clothes and have Cap escort him out. But still! Sam Wilson dressed as Captain America in 1970!

Fanboy moment over. Moving on, we get to see a clutch of Diamond Heads watching the action unfold on TV with their boss, also named Diamond Head. He has a fancy mask that looks like guess what. He’s happy to have the Falcon on the lam, and now he encourages his underlings to tighten their grip on Harlem so that not even the Maggia could push them off their turf.

To show how they go about their business, two Diamond Heads rough up a white pawn shop owner because he doesn’t pay protection money. They don’t care that he rents his space from a black owner; he takes it as proof that they’re not interested in their own people. The gangsters bust up enough stuff to convince him to flee Harlem.

Up at Sam’s apartment, Steve has a hunch. He asks Sam for a list of all the businesses that have opened up in the neighborhood recently. The Falcon says it’s a short list, and Cap zeroes in on the biggest of them, a brand-new warehouse. Figuring it’ll be a likely target, he goes to scope it out. He also tells the wounded, wanted Falcon to sit tight.

Headed to the warehouse, Cap spots Rocky the Lynx, a known Maggia boss, lurking close by. He also spots suspicious-looking guards around the warehouse itself and pegs them as Diamond Heads thanks to their distinctive sunglasses. Two confusing points here: First, Mr. Colan lets us down a little and fails to illustrate this sunglasses clue legibly. Second, these guards are white. Coloring error or intentional choice? Let’s discuss it later.

Cap does what Cap does: Dives in shield-first and starts walloping baddies. The guards are easily disposed of, but the warehouse is just packed with multi-racial Diamond Heads who are heavily armed and egged on by their boss. Cap is quickly pinned down.

Falcon arrives to save the day! He takes the gangsters in the rear and eases the pressure on Cap. Black and white hoods a-plenty get knocked out, and Cap hears the prime Diamond Head confess to framing Sam. (Whoah, was Steve doubting this?) Then he pulls a Scooby-Doo and tears off Diamond Head’s mask, revealing Rocky the Lynx. This whole Diamond Head scheme was a Maggia ploy to sow chaos in Harlem and make the area ripe for a Maggia takeover.

Falcon is cleared of suspicion, the gangsters are rounded up, and Captain America takes off leaving Sam to do his hero thing in Harlem. Sam gives us a sappy closing line about calling Steve a brother regardless of the color of his skin.

Discuss!

Hoo boy! So there’s a nifty little historical tidbit to gush over, accompanied by a huge mountain of racial baggage. I will attempt to unpack a little bit of it, but please bear in mind I am so white I get sunburned watching Lawrence of Arabia. Maybe I better warm up by discussing the creative basics.

Writing-wise, I think Mr. Lee did an excellent job of plotting a solid single-issue story. It’s neither cramped nor over-stretched, and the pacing is great. The first act, covering Cap racing into Harlem and then hearing the Falcon explain his troubles, is especially thrilling.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of dialogue, Mr. Lee gives the Diamond Heads an undeniably snappy boast: “”Cold as diamonds … as sharp as diamonds … and as hard as diamonds!” He also exercises a little restraint with the Jive Turkey slang. Men are cats and money is bread, but there aren’t too many howlers. Of course, there’s also the Falcon’s sappy closing line: “Your skin may be a different color … but there’s no man alive I’m prouder to call … brother!

On the art side, as much as I love Gene Colan (and I do love Gentleman Gene!), I don’t think he was exactly burning the midnight oil on this issue. There are some of his classic acrobatics in that awesome first act, and also some of the uniquely detailed crowd scenes that Mr. Colan does better than anybody. He busts out a lot of distinctive faces that make people-watching a positive pleasure.Falcon is wanted and the people are worried

Things get more confused towards the end of the book, and the final fight is underwhelming. Backgrounds throughout the book are highly detailed, especially in that first act. Making New York look like a gritty Film Noir-type city is another Colan specialty.

So at first glance, this looks like a shiny little laurel to stick in the Bullpen’s social awareness crown, right? Captain America lending a hand as Falcon fights black-on-black crime in Harlem! Sam is making good on his promise to be a hero to his people! He’s not a sidekick or a partner, but a full-blown hero! An equal one to Captain America, but separate! Wuh-oh.

The problem with a separate but equal superhero is the same problem with every other instance of “separate but equal”: Separate is never equal. The Falcon does not get the same respect as Marvel’s white heroes (in 1970) either inside or outside the pages of the comics. He doesn’t get a book of his own, and his adventures only come to our attention when they intersect with whiter heroes. He’s going to be saddled for years with angst about “helping his people” and “not selling out” while his WASPier colleagues just get on with saving the day. Captain America discovered him and trained him up into a hero, and now he’s come back for a six-month check-up on his little buddy. I am exaggerating just a tiny bit to make sure the paternalism comes through loud and clear.

What sort of crimes has the Falcon been fighting? Black-on-black ones, affecting just the community of Harlem. Except they’re not really black-on-black, they’re instigated by a white mastermind. Even when it comes to crime, the Bullpen isn’t comfortable putting a black character in a position of authority and initiative. The closer you look at it, the more problems there are with casting black criminal characters as the puppets of a white leader. Yes, you avoid implying that black men are prone to criminality. Instead, you end up implying that black people are easily-led dupes. Wuh-oh again.

Worse yet, by showing black criminals as the unknowing lackeys of white leaders, you paint any adversarial black group as villainous. In the Marvel universe of 1970, African Americans (and many other disadvantaged groups) are repeatedly portrayed as dangerous when they’re duped into making trouble by outsiders. This same “Harlem-based black power group turns out to be a villain’s catspaw” story will get re-told in Captain America #143 with the Red Skull himself as the white puppetmaster.

Though assigning the fault for objectionable behavior to white characters lets creators to show off their respect for minorities, it also serves to further marginalize them. The implication is that any trouble caused by the disadvantaged – any challenge to the status quo – is likely to be villainous. That discourages the reader from considering the possibility that minorities might have legitimate grievances. Double secret wuh-oh.

Turning away from racial issues, we’ve also got the question of the white Diamond Heads that pop up at the end of the story. We’ve only really got Sam’s initial word telling us that the Diamond Heads are supposed to be black supremacists. Maybe he was simply wrong? Maybe the black rank-and-file members of the gang fully understood that they were using black power as an excuse to run a classic organized crime scheme? (Cap rejects this possibility on the final page, but would he really know?) Or maybe Mr. Lee recognized some of the racial problems I’ve discussed and tried to toss a handful of mitigating factors in at the end of his story?

Rocky the Lynx has gotten his evil scheme muddled up.
Sneaky plan or textbook case of self-sabotage?

The Scooby-Doo ending revealing “it was a white guy calling the shots all along” is problematic for several reasons. It opens up racial cans of worms, of course. It’s also kind of generally lame. How does starting a new gang make it easier for an existing gang to take over? All that Rocky/Diamond Head says is that the Maggia wanted to “cause trouble” so that it would be easier to take over Harlem. Yeah, raising a powerful gang that wants to own Harlem and explicitly telling it to watch out for a Maggia takeover will definitely make it easier for the Maggia to muscle in!

So this is pretty far from a flawless portrayal of race relations. It’s an effort toward inclusion, but also one that exposes less-than-laudable assumptions. The most favorable thing we can say now, looking back with almost 50 years of hindsight, is that it’s fair for its day. I feel like that judgment should always come with a big caveat: “fair for its day” means that we now recognize the unfairness that might have been harder to see in 1970. I hope I’ve done at least some of that recognizing here. I also hope it’s clear that when I say this is a pretty enjoyable comic, it’s not because I’m oblivious to or dismissive of the story’s significant racial problems.

Who Will Love Captain America #126?

Readers who want to get into a deep dissection of Marvel’s stance on race will obviously have a field day with the material provided here. But it’s also a fun comic with a thrilling pace and a welcome visit with the Falcon, who is already a great character, ugly baggage and all. Most of all, this comic will be a pleasant relief to folks chugging straight through Captain America. It comes at the end of a string of one-off stories, most of which are terribly dull and/or fatally flawed. It’s a real relief to see Cap shut up about Sharon Carter and just concentrate on helping out a friend. This issue certainly has flaws of its own, but they don’t derail the story and the ride is anything but dull. I highly recommend taking a look!


Images snipped out of Marvel Unlimited by yours truly.

Author: CMMIV

Reader of comic books. Semi-professional writer.