Friday, March 03, 2006

Blackbirds singing in the dead of night

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the San Francisco Giants' record-busting outfielder Barry Bonds. I don't know what could possibly be more comic — or more artful, in its own La Cage Aux Folles sort of way — than the home run king tricked out as Paula Abdul for a spring training American Idol spoof.

Speaking of American idols, the latest addition to my Common Elements series of art commissions is this striking pinup by the talented Rags Morales, best known for his work on the Identity Crisis and Wonder Woman series, and currently the penciler on Detective Comics, featuring Batman. Here Rags — whose real first name, I'm told, is Ralph; a name that fairly cries out for an alternative handle — pairs Captain America's longtime fighting partner, the Falcon, with the adventuring aviatrix known as Lady Blackhawk.

I can remember vividly in 1971 when the Falcon began sharing billing with Captain America in the Star-Spangled Avenger's comic book. At the time, a superhero of color having his nom de guerre actually incorporated into the logo of a comic was a rare and auspicious event. That the Falcon was being so honored right alongside one of the legendary icons of the Marvel Comics universe made the recognition all the more remarkable. Yes, he was ostensibly Cap's sidekick, but in 1971, we were taking whatever incremental advances we could lay our mitts on.

What I also remember about the Falcon was how unusual it was in that day and age for a black superhero not to actually have to incorporate the word "black" into his fighting name. Back in the day all the black superheroes were Black Something-Or-Other, like the Black Panther, and Black Lightning, and Black Goliath — as though if these character were not so denominated no one would figure out that they were black. I always rather suspected that the main reason the Falcon wasn't the Black Falcon was because Quality Comics, back in the 1940s, already had a character called the Black Condor, and he wasn't even black. Nor was the Black Canary of DC Comics, who was in fact blonde. But whatever the reason Marvel Comics had for making the leap, it meant a lot to many of us as young comics readers to simply have the Falcon be the Falcon, and not have to qualify himself in terms of his skin color.

The real problem with the Falcon at first was the way that comic book creators in that less-enlightened day and age, most of whom were of the Caucasian persuasion, found it convenient to characterize an individual as black. For one thing, every black character in comics in the '70s had to be somewhat outraged about racial matters. The Falcon was no exception to the "angry black guy" rule. White writers also insisted on making every black character speak with a rather bizarre version of street argot that didn't accurately represent the speech of anybody living on the planet, much less urban African-Americans. Again, the Falcon was no exception what I like to call the "Sweet Christmas!" rule, at least at first. The final indignity was the apparent nervousness in the comic book industry of portraying black characters who had genuine superpowers. As originally designed, the Falcon couldn't even fly, much less have any other kind of paranormal abilities. He was just a medallion-wearing black guy who could handle himself in a fistfight. It took a couple of years before Falc actually got a costume with wings that worked, so that he could live up to his name.

One step at a time, though. Little by slowly, the Falcon developed into a rather interesting character. Certain writers imposed some needless and silly backstory on him in later years, but most of this folderol has been ignored by the better scribes, such as Christopher Priest, who have handled the Falcon's adventures since. While the Falcon remains even now in the shadow of the great Captain America, he has matured into an integral part of the Marvel universe. (Albeit without his own comic title, but that's a gripe for another day.) There's something to be said for progress.

The Blackhawks, of which Lady Blackhawk was the lone female member (not to mention a latecomer to the party, having been added to the group nearly two decades after their introduction), were another set of comics heroes whose name included the word "black" even though the none of the members actually were. Originally, the Blackhawks were an international group of World War II fighter pilots, led by a Polish citizen using the code name Blackhawk. Over the course of time, many efforts were made to transform the Blackhawks into superheroes, but those efforts were rarely successful. Today, Lady Blackhawk is pretty much the only member of the Blackhawks one ever sees, though she now usually appears in association with the all-female fighting team Birds of Prey. One look at her costume design will tell you why the lovely lady aviator remains popular.

And that, my little blackbirds, is your Comic Art Friday.


1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Donna offered these pearls of wisdom...

The visual Barry Bonds rendition of Paula Adbul kinda reminds me of Flip Wilson's "Geraldine". That recollection goes back to yesteryear. I fondly remember Flip Wilson's show and I just loved "Geraldine" and her voice! Of course she's in heaven with Flip now, no doubt chatting with the latest arrival Don Knotts!

7:03 AM  

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