At a restaurant in his home town of Annapolis, Md., where he once washed dishes as a young man, Rodney Barnes sat in front of his notepad, writing the fifth issue of “Falcon,” one of Marvel Comics’ most prominent black superheroes.
The series is a milestone moment for Barnes, who grew up reading comics as a young child and enjoyed trading them with friends while recounting superhero story lines. Barnes loved comics so much that he would occasionally drop his school lunch money at the local comic book shop, eagerly anticipating his next adventure.
Barnes would become a writer and producer on shows like “The Boondocks,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “My Wife and Kids,” and got his first taste of Marvel world-building when he was hired for Hulu’s “Runaways,” which debuts Nov. 21.
Barnes told the company he was interested in writing comics, and his first gig was a spinoff from Marvel’s “Secret Empire” miniseries event, “Secret Empire: Brave New World” No. 2 which published in June. That led to Marvel offering him “Falcon.”
The first issue of “Falcon,” by Barnes and illustrated by Joshua Cassara, sees the hero, Sam Wilson, in transition after years of being Captain America, a role he gave up just before the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, finally returned to the mantle.
Nick Spencer had spent years writing the character dealing with parts of the United States that wouldn’t accept a black man as Captain America. The biggest challenge for Barnes was where to take him next.
“Nick acknowledged the culture. And he acknowledged it in such a way that it was authentic and it was human,” said Barnes by phone from the restaurant, taking a break from his writing. His new comic has the Falcon looking back on that period, but from a different perspective. “It’s one thing to have [news networks] and other people not wanting a black Captain America. It’s another thing [to say] what’s the effect within the culture. How do black people see it? Probably the thing I’m most appreciative about in getting this opportunity, is being able to speak from this side of the fence to the hero himself.”
Barnes’s first story arc on “Falcon” puts Sam Wilson on the South Side of Chicago, no longer under the limelight of being Captain America, but instead taking on gang violence in a more grass roots way as the Falcon.
“[Sam] wants to clean up gang violence,” Barnes said. “And what he finds is that there’s a force that’s kind of stirring up a lot of the anger and pain that already exists there. And that’s Blackheart.”
Barnes says the villain, the son of the devil-esque demon Mephisto, gives him the opportunity to tell a different kind of urban superhero tale.
“I wanted to take it to where there are apocalyptic implications even in communities of color,” Barnes said. “Being able to have Blackheart as the big bad in this is kind of fun because you can take Sam in places he’s never been. I’ve never seen him deal with supernatural stuff before.”
Facing a villain they can’t punch their way to victory against, Falcon and his new sidekick Patriot will seek the aide of another classic black Marvel character that will appear in this series, Doctor Voodoo, a mystical being who specializes in going up against otherworldly threats.
“I needed another magic person to come in and create that bridge and help explain things and to help Sam out in situations where muscle won’t help,” Barnes said. “You need someone who understands mysticism and dark magic and energy and I always kind of dug Doctor Voodoo back when I was a kid. It was cool to kind of dig him up.”
Rayshaun Lucas, the Patriot, is a young masked millennial who Barnes says lacks standard superhero power and finesse but makes up for it with character and personality.
“If you think the sidekick role is the guy who’s almost equal and prepared to jump in, [Patriot’s] not really that guy. He’s still in training,” Barnes said. “Sam’s been mentoring him. He’s probably a third into the process of transitioning into being a hero. When you put him into action, you’ve got to look out for him too.”
Barnes says at this point in his career he’s happy to finally get the chance to contribute to the medium that gave him his initial insight into storytelling.
“It’s a fun journey. To be at this point in life and you’re able to deal with characters that you love and a universe that you love,” Barnes said. “Comics have been there consistently to sustain me, to pacify me and now to help add quality and depth to my life. It’s a blessing.”