It's easy to overlook now, given that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about to debut on Disney+, but there was a time when the Falcon was buried deep on Marvel Comics' B-list. Sure, he had a long run as Captain America's partner and a brief stint with the Avengers, but as the 1980s began, Sam Wilson was far from being a marquee player. However, there was one budding writer back then who believed in him.
When he was an eager young member of the Marvel Bullpen, Christopher Priest had a great idea for a solo story featuring Sam Wilson. The Falcon had only had a single spotlight story up to this point (1981 or so), in Marvel Premiere #49. Priest, known at that time as Jim Owsley, had already made history by becoming the first African American editor in mainstream comics. But he wasn't interested in making history. He wanted to write. So he took his pitch about putting Falcon out on his own — battling supervillains, slumlords, and systemic racism at the same time — to Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. He loved it.
And it went nowhere.
The story Priest was certain would be a breakout moment for the Avenger who talked to birds was kicked around the office for almost two years, unable to find its way to print. It wasn't until 1983 that the four-issue miniseries The Falcon debuted. Anyone who read the first issue of that limited series knows this story because the last page, labeled "Crib Notes," contained Priest's very entertaining explanation of how long it took him to get his Falcon adventure into print. I bring this up because when I reminded Priest about his "editor's note," he had no earthly idea what I was talking about.
"When I get off [the phone] with you," he tells me, laughing, during our Zoom interview, "I'm going to go digging through my files and find that copy of Falcon #1 and see what the hell I wrote. Because I don't remember writing that!"
It's understandable he doesn't remember something he wrote nearly 40 years ago. The guy has written hundreds of comics in that time and established himself as one of the most daring and prolific writers in the business. From his epic Marvel Knights run that redefined the Black Panther (the subject of an in-depth Behind The Panel video feature) to his most recent successes on Deathstroke's DC Rebirth series and Vampirella, Priest has amassed an absurdly diverse list of credits.
Back in 1983, however, he was just looking for an opportunity. Lucky for him, Jim Shooter was up for it. "What was going on in those days was that Jim was training writers. He was training me," Priest recalls. "There were a number of us who were coming along and in those days, and Shooter could acquire inventory [stories] that he would later burn or hide under his couch or whatever he was doing with it."
In those days, Shooter would give up-and-coming writers a chance to prove themselves with filler assignments, stories that would be filed away and used in case the dreaded deadline of doom approached and an editor needed an emergency fill-in. Priest's idea showcased the duality of Sam Wilson: social worker by day, superhero by night. Both jobs have problems with seemingly impossible solutions.
At one point, a reformed street gang that feels the Falcon betrayed them (he didn't; he was fighting off a Sentinel) goes on a rampage and even kidnaps the President of the United States. Electro gets involved, and the Falcon has to save the day. He does, of course, but the story delivers pointed social commentary that was uncommon in mainstream superhero comics of the early '80s. In particular, it took aim at policies of the day that further curtailed people living at or below the poverty line. (Then-President Ronald Reagan isn't officially identified by his full name, but the likeness drawn by artist Mark Bright in issue #4 and a reference to him as "Ron" makes it clear that it is him.)
It's very likely The Falcon was the first comic Marvel ever published that was largely created by an African American creative team. Priest and Bright teamed up for the final three issues of the series after Paul Smith was unable to complete the project due to his commitment to Uncanny X-Men. The duo of Priest and Bright (who would become a celebrated creative team on many projects, including Quantum and Woody) created an unabashedly Black story. The titular hero was Black, as were many key characters. The setting was Harlem, and the dialogue rang truer than most any other comic book from that era that had Black characters. Priest admits he was so clueless about racial division in those days, he didn't even realize he had broken the color barrier in Marvel's editorial ranks.
"I was like, the least woke person you could have imagined back in the '80s. I was raised by a very progressive parent who taught me not to see race and not to see color," he says. "I went to school in a white neighborhood and I really didn't understand much about the culture of division among the races. So I paid no attention to my being the first anything. I was just happy to be at Marvel."
Priest notes that in those days, when Marvel would try to do stories about the "Black experience," they would usually do it clumsily, albeit with the best of intentions. As an example, he brings up a moment in the eighth issue of 1985's The Vision and the Scarlet Witch limited series. In that issue, Luke Cage drops by Wanda and Viz's house in the Jersey suburbs, and Cage makes a reference to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which had recently been passed into law.
"He says a line, something to the effect of, 'We got us our own holiday now,'" Priest remembers. "Which just was incredibly embarrassing. It was a great intention to do that and I certainly applaud Marvel for wanting to do that, but it was like, you got a Black editor right down the hall. It's 10 feet. Come ask me."
I've been fortunate to talk with Priest several times over the years, and not one time has the conversation not taken at least two or three fascinating detours from the topic at hand. During this interview, as he discussed what it was like being the only Black staffer in the Marvel offices, he suddenly recalls one encounter that flabbergasts him to this day.
"There was a compulsion among writers, particularly white writers, that every time they approached a Black character it was a compulsion for them to have the character talk jive," Priest says. "I was actually criticized by an assistant editor, who I won't name here, at Marvel who come up to me in the hallway and told me, 'You write the worst Black dialogue.' This is the kind of stuff that just makes you scratch your head and wonder, 'What the hell was he thinking?'"
Priest goes on to discuss how code-switching, the practice of switching between two or more languages in conversation, was something he felt was important to his career progress.
"I had a friend named John Parker. And I was talking to John on the phone and John and I were in a band," he recalls. "John lived in a housing project in Jamaica, New York. So I'm talking to John on the phone and because I'm talking to John, I started talking to John in our vernacular. So all of a sudden it's all just like, 'yeah, man, yo, what's up? OK. All right. Yeah. I'll check you later.' And I get off the phone and I turn around and there's Marvel staffers, and they're all looking at me and I go, 'What?' And one says, 'We never heard you talk like that.' And I go, 'Well, I wouldn't talk to you like that.'"
As he explains, code-switching was something he felt was essential to making progress as a comics professional at a time when minority staffers at Marvel and DC were rare. "The way I saw it is, if you wanted to make a decent living, if you wanted to have a long career, you needed to learn how to adapt," he says. "You needed to be able to employ that sort of code-switching."
Sam Wilson was a character who was no stranger to being thrown in the middle of awkward racial situations. He was forced on to the Avengers at one point as a government-mandated equal opportunity selection. For his story, Priest's research led him to believe Wilson would be someone for whom code-switching was a valuable skill.
"When I was [writing] Falcon, Sam Wilson at that time was a New York City social worker. So I went and looked up what you have to do to become a New York City social worker," he says. "The first thing is, you have to have a master's in social work. It's impossible for you to earn that degree and not know how to spell or speak English. You cannot float your way through college talking jive. On the other hand, I did have Sam code-switch when he was talking to the young gang members on the street. Those are the kinds of things that I felt were important."
Another notable aspect of Priest's story was he established the Falcon as a mutant. It had been hinted at in the past, notably by Professor Xavier in Captain America and the Falcon #174. But the miniseries confirmed it when the second issue found Sam being chased by a re-assembled Sentinel. Priest, a self-professed "super fan" of Neal Adams, says he always found the Sentinels a creepy villain and wanted to use it in his story. "It was my understanding that somebody had written that Sam had a symbiotic connection to Redwing," he says. "All I did was up the ante and call him a mutant. Maybe I was the first one to put it in those terms, but the symbiosis, the connection between the two, was already there."
The entire "Sam Wilson is a mutant" angle was never really developed in later Falcon stories and was eventually retconned out in a 2001 Avengers annual with the explanation that the Sentinel had simply... malfunctioned.
One thing that did change was Sam Wilson's place in the hierarchy of the Marvel Universe. It would take decades, but the 21st century saw the Falcon take flight as a big-time player. He's become a key figure in the Avengers and even replaced Steve Rogers as Captain America for a time. There have been no shortage of Sam Wilson stories in the past decade, which pleases Priest.
"I'm glad to hear that they found better and more creative ways to use the character [in recent years]," he says. "It's a great character. But it's a surprise to me because I had no idea what Falcon's been up to in terms of continuity. Once upon a time, Marvel and DC would put you on a suppliers list and you would get copies of all their books so you could stay current on what's going on, or at least if not all their books, at least the mainline titles. Nobody can afford to do that anymore. I don't mind buying my own books, but I don't get enough work from Marvel to make it worth my while to stay invested in their ecosystem — or the DC ecosystem for that matter."
While he may not be up to speed on Sam Wilson's current comic book adventures, he is up to date on the MCU. In fact, he became friends with Marvel executive producer Nate Moore during the making of Black Panther, which made sense since Priest's Panther books heavily inspired the film. The writer used their open lines of communication to share his frustration at the time over the limited screen time of Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle, the only two black Avengers. "I told him, you've got these two great actors and you're doing nothing with them," he says. "I just really took them to task about it. Thankfully, Nate is a great sport."
Will Priest be watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier when it debuts on March 19?
"I plan to watch it eventually," he says. "I've seen the trailers. It looks amazing. The only thing I don't like are the Falcon's wings. But the reason I'm hesitant about [watching it] is, I really think the streaming thing has gotten out of hand. And I'm just kind of... I'm kind of on strike now. I've just canceled everything."
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