Life was never that easy for Sam Thomas Wilson. The son of a minister, Sam grew up in Harlem, New York and developed an affinity for training and caring for birds. As a teenager, Sam began to grow cynical after repeated facing racial prejudice and told his parents that he rejected their faith. To his surprise, they responded by providing him books on other faiths so he could find his own path. Sam was deeply touched by this act but became jaded again when his father was killed the next night while attempting to stop a fight. After his mother was killed by a mugger two years later, Sam turned to a life of crime, taking on the nickname of “Snap.”
Snap Wilson’s life of crime later led him to Exile Island, a place where he met Captain America’s greatest enemy, Hitler’s protege, the Red Skull. The Skull had recently acquired the Cosmic Cube, a device that can make thought reality, and decided to use Wilson as a sleeper agent to take down Captain America. With the Cube, the Skull blocked out Snap’s memories of the past several years, convincing him that his parents were still alive and that he’d become a social worker. No longer jaded by the death of his parents, Sam Wilson reverted to his previous, good-natured personality. The Cosmic Cube also gave him a psychic connection to his pet falcon Redwing.
When Captain America came to Exile Island to fight the Skull, he met Sam Wilson and the two joined forces. Cap took on Sam as his new partner and apprentice, teaching him acrobatics, military strategy, and martial arts. Calling himself “Falcon,” Sam became a hero in his own right, eventually gaining the ability to fly thanks to specialized wings constructed by the Black Panther. Eventually, the Skull attempted to activate his sleeper agent, causing the Falcon to recall his parents’ deaths and his years of crime all at once. But Sam fought the Skull’s orders to kill his mentor, having now seen that he could be a good person despite the tragedies had had suffered and the crimes he had committed.
After spending some time on his own, he resumed his life as a superhero. Sam’s powers have increased over the years, allowing him full telepathy with birds of all kinds. He can ask them for help, direct them in attacks and see through their eyes miles away. Whether he’s working alone, alongside the international agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., as a member of the Avengers, or as a “hero for hire,” the Falcon is always ready and able to protect those who need him and punish those who deserve it.
Well, that brings us up to speed. Now let’s examine the artistic evolution of this high-flying hero. As usual, we are sticking with mainstream Marvel reality rather than parallel universes and the like.
IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN
The Falcon was introduced in Captain America #117 in 1969. Three years earlier, the Black Panther had debuted as the first black superhero of mainstream comic books. But he was a native and king of his own country Wakanda, making the Falcon the first African-American superhero of mainstream comics. The Black Panther’s costume was exactly what you’d except: it was black and had a cat-like mask evoking a panther. So you might expect Sam Wilson’s design would follow suit (no way to avoid that pun sometimes).
But not so much. This outfit does not say “falcon” or “bird-man” to me. It says “circus performer” or “disco dance champion.” I realize that his mentor Captain America is wearing a pretty colorful, cartoonish costume himself, but at least that makes sense for the character and involves body armor, a practical thing for the life he leads. This? Man, he’s got a V-neck going all the way down to his belt. This could just be a vest with no shirt underneath, which automatically makes me wonder if you’re a stripper. And any time you have a mask that doesn’t attach to your shirt or cape (not counting domino masks), it makes me think of a Mexican wrestler.
The color combination is also bizarre. Green and orange? Really? Are you the Falcon or the Parrot? And I get that you are wearing one large glove because you’re a falconer and that’s the hand that Redwing likes to land on, but it’s not helping the already ridiculous outfit. Strange boots too.
THE CLASSIC COSTUME
The Falcon later rethought his outfit a little bit. In Captain America #144, published in 1971, he threw together a new look with a whole new color scheme. We’re still dealing with the V-neck problem, but at least this isn’t as garish as the other suit. Red and white work nicely together. Red also works since many birds are, indeed, red and Falcon’s pet/friend bird is actually named Redwing. And what’s more, this outfit actually incorporates wing-like designs rather than relying on a loose-hanging amulet to get people to think of a bird.
It’s still not quite there, though. For one thing, even though we know it’s purpose, it’s still weird to see Falcon only wear one glove. And without the wings that Falcon would later wear, the design of this costume seems like something that could belong at the icecapades.
In 1974, the wings came into play and this becomes a much stronger look as a result. Now we’ve got someone who is clearly a man called “Falcon.” What’s more, this makes other elements of the costume seem stronger now. The claws on the boots and the hint of a beak on the nose seemed a bit odd before.
Now with the wings complementing them, we have a stronger impression of a hero who is both man and bird. But at the same time, it doesn’t look like we’re weighing him down, which is important since, at heart, the Falcon is still a very human character. His power of bird-telepathy is not directly combative like superhuman strength or agility, so he’s mostly a normal guy relying on skills he learned from Captain America. And these skills work best when he’s got freedom to move, fight and perform acrobatic feats.
So this was the costume that became known as Falcon’s “classic” look. He’d wear it for decades, with only minor tweaks added here and there by some artists, such as the size of the wings, weather or not shorts were drawn on it, or, later on, the color of the boots (we’ll get to that in a second).
Hey, look at that. It’s a fun tech lay-out of the Falcon’s wings. Isn’t that cool? You’ve got to love those old Marvel Universe Handbooks. Not only did the Black Panther make these wings for the Falcon, he provided him with a vibranium-weave outfit. Vibranium is a fictional ore that exists in the Marvel Universe which can absorb sound and kinetic energy. So wearing it is an effective form of body armor.
But you know, I’m thinking it’s less effective when you leave a big open section in the middle of your armor just because you like V-necks. At least Falcon now wears two gloves. Just because Redwing likes to land on one hand, it doesn’t mean you have to leave the other hand totally naked. Michael Jackson and Khan can get away with it, but that’s pretty much it.
Also not sure about the boots. Later artists had them altered slightly and I think this design works a bit better. The previous yellow-over-red look stood out a little too much for my tastes. To me, it made him look as if he had chicken feet rather than just decorative footwear.
I still don’t like the vest that wants to be a shirt, but I’ve seen worse outfits than this. Moving on…
OUT WITH THE OLD
In the 1990s, many characters in comics had a redesign and the Falcon was no exception. The colors may be the same, but we’ve got a whole new mask here, a new full bodysuit, full-winged boots. Even the wings are noticeably larger. Depending on the artist, the gloves would either be red or white.
I like that Falcon has more protection now and looks more serious as a superhero. But the shirt design of outstretched wings seems a bit repetitive to me when his wings are so prominent now. The problem increases when you realize he also has wings on his boots and a wing-design belt buckle now. We get it, man, you like feather. Also not sure about the mask. I’m used to seeing a Falcon who’s a little more cavalier with his identity, never minding that government officials and other folks learn his real name. And that bird piece on the mask just looks a bit silly to me. Despite these details, it’s not a bad outfit. But there is one other problem.
Falcon now looks a lot like Marvel’s other hero Stingray, an aquatic-based adventurer who wears this special suit of armor that’s pictured above. A couple of time, Falcon in his new costume would be in the same room as Stingray and it really looked as if the two should’ve been embarrassed to have come to the party wearing the same outfit.
THE BIRD ARMOR
So in 1999 there was this lame cartoon called Avengers: United They Stand. Half of the cartoon was spent putting the Avengers in special outfits that they would wear for one mission. Jungle armor, space armor. Basically, they wanted to sell toys. The Falcon showed up and he had this suit of armor on which was probably the least absurd costume seen in the series.
First of all, this armor looks too bulky for a guy who’s supposed to be able to easily shift from flight to street-level martial arts. The shoulder pads and extended collar alone would inhibit a lot of movement. I can dig the sleek appeal of the rest of the suit. But that chest plate just makes me laugh a little bit. An angry bird face staring at us? Nah. A bird silhouette or profile I could deal with. That’s worked for characters such as Hawkman and Blackhawk. But an angry bird face with what seems to be an open beak? It just looks so strange it’s comical. At least he only wore this in the cartoon, right? It’s not like the costume made it into the comics.
Ah, dammit!! Really, Sam? Really? You were named after the historical inspiration for Uncle Sam, have some respect, dude. Things would be so much better if you lost that weird chest piece. I could accept that the wings are separate now and the rest of this outfit works, but bird-face-chest has to go!
Not long afterward, Sam ditched the armor, telling Captain America that he felt he had lost sight of himself. He’d never needed armor before to be a hero, why had he needed it now? He also remarked that many people no longer recognized him and that the Sub-Mariner had mistaken him for Stingray.
So we’ve got this new design that calls back to the classic idea but is far more streamlined and basic. No wing lines, no feathered boots or fake bird claws. A red suit with a chevron. The shirt still leaves a lot of Falcon exposed. I like the bare arms, but leaving his ribs and sides open to attack seems a little foolhardy, even if it is slimming.
Falcon later modified the look, making it a full body suit with visible padding (although not all artists drew the padding on it). This I can get behind. It can work as a practical, “realistic” suit but also has just enough to it to tell you that this guy’s a superhero. The gloves weren’t consistent. Sometimes he’d have one large falconer’s glove, sometimes he’d have a brace on one hand and wrappings on the other.
If it has any problems, it might be that it’s too simplistic. Now it would be okay for Falcon to have that wing design belt. Some decoration to let you know who he was so you weren’t completely relying on the wings.
Speaking of the wings, by this time Falcon had gotten himself a new pair that were “hard-light” constructions, basically solidified holograms. That way he could summon them at will. Neat, huh?
THE RETRO LOOK
A couple of years later, the Falcon went for a more retro look. This is a much stronger callback to the classic outfit, but doesn’t make all the same mistakes. This outfit wouldn’t be difficult to put together for a live-action movie but maintains enough design to come off as a superhero costume rather than something 100% utilitarian.
We’ve restored the wing-like lines of the classic shirt, which was not as overt as the 90s costume. So now it’s more stylized, more subtle than just, “Hey, I have wings, get it?” And the fact that we actually have a shirt and not a vest is a vast improvement (a “vest improvement”? There has to be a pun here somewhere…)
At first, the Falcon in this guise was shown wearing one small white glove and one large falconer’s glove. Most recently, they’ve been giving him two classic superhero-style gloves. All of these work, frankly, and are up to personal preference.
And that brings us up to speed, faithful readers. You can check out the Falcon’s adventures in the pages of Captain America and Heroes for Hire. With a Captain America film and an Avengers movie in the works, it hopefully won’t be too much longer before the non-comic reading public can be introduced to this high-flying hero. He’s a great character and deserves a chance to really fly solo.
If you have suggestions for future Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. pieces, please toss them to me via e-mail or Twitter. I should warn you right now that there will be upcoming pieces on the Earth-born GLs and the fashion of Star Trek featuring myself and Tim Gunn. I hope you enjoy them. Until next Friday, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.