Then vs. Now: Marvel's The Falcon #1

Contributed by
Oct 13, 2017

As the first African American superhero from Marvel or DC Comics, The Falcon often doesn't get the recognition he deserves. If there was ever a valid argument for why he shouldn't be Captain America, it was that the Falcon already was too historic of a legacy for Sam Wilson to leave behind. He's a character that carries the weight of history with him, which is why he makes the perfect subject for the latest edition of Then vs. Now.

This week saw the release of The Falcon #1 as part of Marvel's Legacy initiative, and it's the character's first ongoing series as The Falcon, though he did have a solo miniseries of his own in 1983, fourteen years after the character's first appearance. It's long past time that the Falcon got his due in a book of his own, so it's worth looking back and seeing how this new story stacks up to his very first solo outing.

How has 34 years changed Sam Wilson? How did the writers and artists' approaches to the task of a first issue of The Falcon compare? Read on to find out! And of course, beware of spoilers for The Falcon #1! Both of them.

THE FALCON (1983) #1

Written by Jim Owsley, with art by Paul Smith and inks by Vince Colletta.

"It's a hot New York night," reads the opening caption of the issue. "It was hot yesterday and it will be hot tomorrow." Right away, the reader is told not just the atmosphere, but the status quo and the enemy of the Falcon: oppression.

In the opening scene, the Falcon swoops into action to save a young woman from being assaulted by a group of young thugs in an alleyway. Except to the Falcon, they aren't just thugs, they're people, one of which he knows the name of: Miguel Martinez.

Sam tries to reason with Miguel, who breaks down in front of the Avenger (estranged Avenger at this particular point in time) and drunkenly monologues about how he has no choice because he will never have enough money to get out of the ghetto. While that's where most heroes would turn the criminal over to the police and call it a night, the Falcon sees an opportunity for change. He returns the girl to her father, who he asks to show mercy on Miguel, and a few days later, together they manage to convince the judge to keep him out of prison.

Falcon knows that Miguel committed a serious — and attempted a heinous — crime, but he's determined not to let Miguel become a statistic. As they leave the courthouse together, Sam encourages him to stop drinking, but is cut short when he is forced to stop a high-tech armored hero calling himself Nemesis from destroying a nearby construction site. Miguel returns to work at the grocery store, but is promptly fired by his boss, who had heard of his criminal activities. This drives the hopeless teenager right back to the bottle, and soon he's drunkenly stumbling through the construction site where the battle had taken place earlier, and catches a glimpse of Nemesis putting on his armor in the landlord's office.

He's taken hostage by Nemesis, strapped with dynamite, and tied to the building, which the Falcon saves him from, and then finally grabs Nemesis as he attempts to get away by hijacking the subway. The villain turns out to be the slumlord who owned the building who was burning it down for the insurance. At the end of it all, Sam is asked by his uncomfortably trigger-happy police buddy who the winner was in all pf this, now that the projects that were being built are halted after the villain was exposed. Falcon simply pointed down on the street to Miguel, who was alive and re-employed at the grocery store.

Falcon understood that there was no way he could solve every problem, any more than he could change that New York heat. He couldn't solve poverty or the housing crisis, but he could save the life that was right in front of him — Miguel's life — and that was enough. As long as he made a difference in that one kid's life, it was all worth it.

This issue is written by Jim Owsley, better known to comic book readers today as Christopher Priest, who had already made history as Marvel's — and mainstream comics' — first African American editor, and with this issue was making his writing debut. It's an impressive first outing, with a surprising moral complexity and maturity that sees the titular hero understanding the importance of his position in his community, and also being pragmatic about the type of lasting change he can inspire.

How political superhero comics can get is a hot-button issue right now with some fans (the correct answer is as political as the creators want), but if you want a prime example of how classic superhero comics did it right, you could do a lot worse than this book. This issue tackles several topical issues, but all of them are confronted as a natural consequence of the character's actions. The book gets political in the way that Sam Wilson would get political. And it doesn't profess to have all the answers. Instead it simply tells the reader that the right thing to do is doing whatever you can.

It's a completely self-contained first issue, not requiring any outside knowledge at all, and the artwork from Paul Smith is crisp and expressive, and particularly shines during the dynamically-composed action scenes. There are a couple little moments that didn't age well, and the ending is a bit rushed, but overall, this first Falcon #1 is an entertaining and thought-provoking superhero comic.

THE FALCON (2017) #1

Written by Rodney Barnes, with art by Joshua Cassara and colors by Rachelle Rosenberg. Cover art by Jesus Saiz.

On the other wing, we have the 2017 version of The Falcon #1. This comic comes courtesy of the award-winning writer of The Boondocks, Rodney Barnes, and Secret Empire artist Joshua Cassara, and they craft a book that definitely feels like a spiritual successor to the original Falcon series, but which finds the character in a wildly different place.

Most immediately, you'll notice a difference in costume, with a more intense black-and-red look designed by Alex Ross that's inspired by his classic look, but is definitely much more intimidating, which makes sense given the character's mindset. The costume looks amazing when drawn by Cassara, who gives it, and the whole book, just enough gritty realism to make it feel like a more street-level superhero story.

This series trades New York for Chicago, where Falcon and Redwing are intervening in an escalating gang conflict, much to the irritation of the local government. Sam also has a new sidekick, Patriot, who he keeps putting off training with, choosing instead to focus on the mission. Naturally this just means that Patriot joins him in Chicago against his wishes, and so Falcon puts his new protégé to the test. He sends Patriot off to arrange a peace talk with one of the warring gangs, while he goes to see the other.

Falcon is met with resistance, and has to fight his way into the meeting, but the leader hears him out after hurling insults at him implying he's a race traitor and asking how they could trust someone was so easily fooled by Hydra. Finally Sam asks the leader if he's sick of the violence, to which he simply says "no." But his foot soldiers, who had been observing the conversation, disagreed. They ask their leader to give Falcon a chance to broker peace, and outvote their leader. Meanwhile, Patriot confronts the other gang, and though he has to overcome a language barrier, he eventually gets them to listen as well.

The night before the peace talks, Sam walks with Patriot and answers his questions about what it is that Sam is trying to accomplish. He tells him that he can't allow people to become cynical in the wake of Steve Rogers' betrayal in Secret Empire, and that he must atone for his role in building up the "infallible" myth of Captain America.

"I believe… that a society where freedom and justice are the foundation of its principles can not only exist, it can thrive," he tells Shaun. "Steve Rogers made me question that. Where once there was absolute certainty, now, there's doubt." But Patriot assures him that he isn't alone, and that he does good and inspires people, and that Patriot himself is proof of that. Falcon seems to have his doubts alleviated somewhat, and Patriot cheers Sam up by bringing him to a concert.

The following day, the two gangs meet in a park, and the leaders meet on stage with Falcon, surrounded by cameras. One extends his hand in peace, and the other draws a gun and kills him, to quickly for Falcon to intervene. Chaos breaks out in the park as the rival gangs clash, and the killer slips away down an alley to report to his true master, Blackheart, the demonic son of Nightmare.

This story plays with many of the same ideas as its predecessor, with the Falcon confronting injustice on a more grassroots level, but the mindset which he does it in is vastly different. 2017 Sam Wilson has baggage. He's had many years of being an Avenger and hero of his own, and then years of being Captain America on top of that, and then saw every symbol that he'd fought for desecrated. He's fighting not to renew the people of Chicago's faith in humanity, but rather to restore his own. It's in that way that Sam's actions come off in this issue as more than a little bit arrogant. He thought he could fly down into a city that wasn't even his own and strong-arm something good into happening, and caused an even greater tragedy than before.

This Falcon is dealing with the same complexities as he was in 1983, but he's weary. He isn't as idealistic as he once was. The Falcon of 2017 has forgotten the lessons that he learned back in that first issue. He's trying to confront injustice now by using his strength, rather than through compassion like with Miguel. Patriot even occupies a similar narrative place as Miguel, but Shaun finds himself having to remind Sam that the Falcon is the reason the Patriot exists. This is a Falcon who still inspires people, but who no longer knows what inspires him.

THE VERDICT

There's a lot to love about both of these issues. If you have a few spare dollars and want to read about one the greatest African American icons in comics, then these are both well-worth a purchase. But as a singular reading experience, 1983's The Falcon #1 has to take the win over the modern-day version.

The original issue is a complete story all in itself, and tackles some complex and dark issues not just with realism and tenacity, but also optimism. This week's issue is topical as well, and doesn't shy away from the social context that it exists in, but the current Sam Wilson is a much more damaged and weary character. This is hopefully only the beginning of his restoration, and by the time this new story is over, we'll see Sam back to the more inspired character he once was, but as it stands, he's a hard guy to relate to, especially not having read a word of anything Secret Empire.

These issues are fascinating to read side by side because of just how similar they are in content, while also presenting very different visions of heroism that uniquely reflect the world in which the individual issues were produced. Whether you agree with me about which issue was better or not, I think we can all agree that even 48 years after his creation, the Falcon remains a vibrant and relevant part of both the Marvel Universe and of pop culture. I look forward to continuing to watch him soar.