118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
1. Harry Truman
America’s 33rd president was sworn into office April 12, 1945, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Although he presided over the end of the Second World War, the economic turmoil of the immediate postwar years saw his personal approval levels drop to the point that he was widely expected to lose the 1948 election to Thomas Dewey. But Truman — today remembered for the sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here” — took his case directly to the people, travelling 22,000 miles by train across the country to deliver “whistle stop” speeches from the back of his train car.
In 1948, speaking directly to the people also included comic books, which were enjoying a postwar boom thanks in part to returning soldiers retaining their wartime habit of picking them up. Publisher Malcom Ater was producing promotional comics for commercial concerns (one of his first jobs was The History of Gas for the American Gas Association) when he approached the Republicans with the idea of producing a comic book about their presidential candidate, but they considered the idea too undignified for their campaign. Undeterred, Ater pitched his idea to the Democratic National Committee, which liked it enough to order three million copies. The 16-page comic, The Story of Harry S. Truman, combined biographical details of Truman’s life with talking points about the Democrats’ platform, and given its wide circulation there’s plenty of reason to believe the book had an impact in the swing states that decided the election in Truman’s favor.
2. Doris Day
Born in Cincinnati in 1922, Doris Mary Kappelhoff began her career as a big band singer in 1939; her first hit recording was 1945’s “Sentimental Journey. Aside from her long music career, she was also a popular film star beginning in 1948 with Romance on the High Seas and a series of bedroom comedy films with co-stars James Garner and Rock Hudson. Later in her career, she turned to television with The Doris Day Show (1968-73) and the short-lived Doris Day’s Best Friends in 1985. In 2011, she released My Heart, her first new album in nearly two decades, becoming the oldest artist (at 89) to score a UK Top 10 with an album featuring new material.
Early issues of Bob Hope’s comic book weren’t just a showcase for “America’s favorite funnyman” — published in 1950, the very first issue offered short biographical features on rising stars Rhonda Fleming (who co-starred with Hope in 1949’s The Great Lover) and Day, who readers were told “is also making movies now, and it probably won’t be long before Doris Day makes top billing!” Wouldn’t be long, indeed.
3. Red China
Following the end of the Second World War, China fell into a period of civil war that ended in 1949 with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong taking control of most of China and proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The fall of the world’s most populous nation to a Communist regime greatly stoked anti-communist fears in the U.S., which didn’t formally recognize the PRC until 1979 (following Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to the country).
The Red Iceberg (1960) was one of several anti-communist comics published by Impact, an imprint of the Catechetical Guild Educational Society of St. Paul, Minn. Founded in 1942 by Father Louis Gales as a way of imparting Catholic values on young comic readers, the society distributed millions of religious and anti-Communist comics to Catholic schoolchildren during the Cold War.
4. Johnnie Ray
Born in Dallas, Ore., in 1927, John Alvin “Johnnie” Ray was one of the first postwar recording artists to gain a mass audience; the book British Hit Singles & Albums noted that Ray was “a sensation in the 1950s, the heart-wrenching vocal delivery of ‘Cry’… influenced many acts including Elvis and was the prime target for teen hysteria in the pre-Presley days.” Though his career in the U.S. was largely over by 1960, he continued to tour in Europe and Australia almost up to this death in 1990. Among the tributes he received from later performers was an appearance in the Billy Idol video for “Don’t Need a Gun,” a song that also name-checks Johnnie Ray alongside Elvis and Gene Vincent.
Youthful Hearts was one of several romance comics that sprinted to the stands in an effort to duplicate the success of Simon and Kirby’s Young Romance, widely considered the first true romance comic. According to Michelle Nolan, author of Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics, Youthful Hearts and Youthful Romances by Youthful Magazines Inc. were “excruciating for lack of quality,” despite decent art by a very young Doug Wildey. A gimmick they used to attract readers was to plaster photos of teen heart-throb like Ray on their covers while incorporating them into the melodramatic stories inside. “Cry With Johnnie Ray!” appeared in the third (and last) issue of Youthful Hearts in 1952.
5. South Pacific
The smash musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein opened on Broadway April 7, 1949. Based on James Michener’s 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, it was an immediate hit, running for 1,925 performances. The plot involves an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during the Second World War who falls in love with a French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. Another romance between a U.S. lieutenant and a young Asian woman explores his fears of the social consequences for marrying her.
The show’s attempt to make a statement about racial bigotry — particularly its use of the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” — caused much controversy at the time. When the show went on tour in the Southern U.S., lawmakers in Georgia introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow,” with one legislator going so far as to say a song justifying interracial marriage was “implicitly a threat to the American way of life.” When asked for comment, Hammerstein said he did not think the legislators were representing their constituents’ wishes very well, and he was surprised at the suggestion that anything kind and decent must necessarily originate in Moscow.
In his continuing feature “Sam Glanzman’s War Diary,” Glanzman — a Navy man who served aboard the USS Stevens during the war — recounts the people and events he saw during the war. His stories brought a personal, more human touch to a comic genre that was often prone to jingoism. “Sam Glanzman’s War Diary: The Islands” appeared in DC’s Our Army at War #266 in 1974.
6. Walter Winchell
Born Walter Winschel in New York City in 1897, Winchell rose to the top of the gossip journalism ladder with a newspaper column that at its peak was read by 50 million people daily in 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and a Sunday night radio show heard by 20 million listeners. He was one of the first American commentators to attack Hitler and pro-Nazi organizations in the U.S. while speaking out against American isolationists, and he was an outspoken supporter of civil rights for African-Americans. On the flip side, he thought nothing of using his position to destroy the careers of his personal and political enemies, his support of McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade hurt him as the public turned against the rabble-rousing senator, and he was notorious for publishing material told to him in confidence by friends. He died in 1972.
Winchell was so famous in the 1940s that he could be named-checked alongside President Truman and Gen. Eisenhower in “Autograph, Please!” from Superman #48, 1947. From elsewhere on the web: “When the Daily Planet mounts an autograph contest, Superman helps Johnny Terrill collect signatures from around the globe and across time to give him the confidence to walk again. But Johnny has to compete against a young heir and his crooked bodyguards, who actually want to collect signatures so they can later forge checks. When Lois and the heir discover the bodyguards’ plans, Superman comes to their rescue, and then supplies Johnny with the winning autograph.” And yeah, good on Superman for taking pity on a kid with a dream, but… across time??? That’s got to be against the contest rules, no?
7. Joe DiMaggio
“Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio played his entire 13-year career (1936-1951) for the New York Yankees. Athletically, he’s probably best known for his 56-game hitting streak (May 15-July 16, 1941), a record that still stands. He’s also remembered for his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1954; after her death, he had a half-dozen red roses delivered three times a week to her crypt for 20 years. DiMaggio’s status as one of baseball’s greats (and one of history’s great romantics) have earned him many shout-outs in pop culture, from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” to a great story in DC’s 100 Bullets, where we learned DiMaggio was once recruited by the mysterious Agent Graves to avenge his wife’s death.
Long before DiMaggio completed that mission, though, he offered his autograph to a young Dick Grayson posing as a champion autograph hunter. In “Comedy of Tears!” from 1942’s Batman #13, Batman and Robin are surprised to find Joker’s new mission in life is to make people cry. Once they suss out his reasons for acquiring certain signatures, they bait a trap for him using the autographs of famous people like DiMaggio, a noted butterfly collector, and some random dude who I hear wrote comics or something…
(To be continued…)