118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair in Ossining, NY. The couple was convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in 1951, and their deaths capped one of the most controversial espionage cases of Cold War.
The two were accused of heading a spy ring that passed top-secret information concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Though they protested their innocence to the end, President Eisenhower spoke for many Americans when he issued a statement declining to grant them clemency.
For decades, the couple’s defenders maintained they were innocent victims of Cold War hysteria. However, the fall of the Soviet Union led to the release of declassified documents that confirmed Julius’s role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets while Ethel was at the least aware of her husband’s activities. Whether the two deserved the death penalty for their actions is another debate entirely.
Set against the backdrop of the early 1950s, 2018’s Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles stars Snagglepuss, a Southern-born playwright who’s the toast of New York City. But as Snagglepuss prepares for his next hit play, the House Un-American Activities Committee is hunting down every last subversive in show business. So far, Snagglepuss has stayed out of their spotlight… but Snagglepuss is gay, and his enemies are out to destroy him for it.
Along with bringing classic Hanna-Barbera characters into the “real world” of post-war paranoia, the series also features cameos by many real-life personalities from that era, including Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller and the Rosenbergs.
On Nov. 1, 1952, the U.S. detonated the world’s first thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb, on Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific. About 1,000 times more powerful than conventional atom bombs, the successful test gave the U.S. a short-lived advantage in the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.
After the USSR detonated its own atomic device in September 1949, the U.S. stepped up its program to develop the next stage in atomic weaponry. Those opposed to developing the hydrogen bomb included J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the brains behind the atomic bomb. He and others argued that developing hydrogen bombs would only lead to a nuclear arms race between the world’s superpowers. Sure enough, the Soviets exploded their own H-bomb the following year and by the late 1970s seven nations had their own hydrogen bombs.
As part of civil defence preparations, millions of American schoolchildren in the 1950s and ’60s were taught to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear attack. No surprise, comics were part of the effort to educate children about nuclear weapons and what to do in case of nuclear attack.
The H-Bomb and You, a giveaway comic prepared in 1955 by the Maryland Civil Defence Agency, starts with a teacher showing her students a film that demonstrates the destructive power of an H-bomb. After a fun history of civil defence where the kids learn about the historical ways we humans have laid waste to entire cities, she brings in an expert — a guy from the local civil defence agency — to talk about the ways you can survive “the H-bomb’s blast, heat, radiation and radioactive fall-out!”
Good thing he reminds the kids that enemy planes could break through all American defences at any time. A little constant dread about complete annihilation never hurt a growing child, I always say.
16. Sugar Ray
Competing professionally from 1940 to 1965, Sugar Ray Robinson is widely regarded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) boxers of all time. From 1943 to 1951, Robinson went on a 91 fight unbeaten streak, the third-longest in professional boxing history, and he became the first boxer in history to win a divisional world championship five times.
Born Walker Smith Jr. in 1921, he changed his name at the age of 15, when he tried to enter his first boxing tournament. When the rules required him to first get an AAU membership card, he realized he couldn’t get one until he turned 18; he got around that by borrowing a birth certificate from his friend Ray Robinson. (The “sugar” part came from when a woman in the audience at a Watertown, NY, called him “sweet as sugar.”)
On Feb. 14, 1951, Robinson and LaMotta battled in a fight that would become known as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. LaMotta had fought Robinson five times before (“I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes,” he later joked), but this last time in the ring together was a particularly bloody ordeal for LaMotta, who took probably just as bad a beating as anyone has in the ring. (The bout was re-created in the Robert DeNiro film Raging Bull. Robinson retired from boxing in 1965 with a record of 173–19–6 (2 no contests) and 108 knockouts in 200 professional bouts, ranking him among the all-time leaders in knockouts.
Ziff-Davis’s Bill Stern’s Sports Book promised readers the “world’s greatest true sports stories” — its third and final issue (cover dated Winter 1952) featured a nine-page bio of the “14-karat slugger” written by Ed Silverman (artist unknown).
Sportscaster Bill Stern was a household name in the 1940s and ’50s; he broadcast the first televised sporting event, the second game of a baseball double-header between Princeton and Columbia at Columbia’s Baker Field, on May 17, 1939.
On July 27, 1953, the U.S., China and the two Koreas agreed to an armistice, bringing the three-year Korean war to an end. The agreement was signed at Panmunjom, a village just north of the border between North and South Korea.
After the war, all civilians were removed from the Korean Demilitarized Zone between the two nations, except for two villages near the Joint Security Area on opposite sides of the Military Demarcation Line. After that, the empty village of Panmunjom fell into disrepair and eventually disappeared from the landscape. There’s no evidence of it today, but the building constructed for the signing of the armistice has since been renamed by North Korea as the Peace Museum.
“Hill at Panmunjom” was a four-page story that appeared in Charlton’s Fightin’ Marines #59 in 1964. One of the company’s longer-running titles, Fightin’ Marines is not to be confused with Fightin’ Army, Fightin’ Navy, Fightin’ Air Force or the Fightin’ Five (a short-lived Blackhawks-style team from the early ’80s), all of which were published by Charlton.
On Dec. 3, 1947, the 23-year-old Marlon Brando cried “STELLA!” across a Broadway stage during the first-ever performance of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The play shocked audiences with its frank depiction of sexuality and brutality onstage; on opening night, the curtain’s fall was met by a stunned silence, followed by a round of applause that lasted for 30 minutes.
Williams would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Jessica Tandy (playing Blanche DuBois) would win a Tony Award for best actress… but it was Brando who won the hearts of millions, a feat he duplicated in 1951 when he reprised the role of Stanley Kowalksi (this time opposite Vivien Leigh) for the film version of Streetcar.
Brando followed up that star-making role with other incredible performances in movies like The Wild One, Julius Caesar, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now. (There are even rumors of him appearing in a superhero movie of some note, but who knows how these crazy stories get started.)
One of his lesser talked-about films from the ’50s is Désirée, a 1954 historical romance starring Brando as Napoleon Bonaparte (Jean Simmons plays his love interest, the real-life Désirée Clary). Reviews were mixed with most critics praising the performances while panning the story; one critic said Brando’s performance was “better than Désirée deserves.”
Eastern Color’s Personal Love ran from 1950 to 1955, offering photo covers of contemporary film couples on the covers with typical romance stories appearing inside next to short biographies of film stars. Its 31st issue, for instance, ran text articles about Brando and Simmons as well as two-page comic bio of Born Yesterday’s Judy Holliday.
19. The King and I
On March 29, 1951, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I premiered at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. It was based on Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King of Siam (1944), which in turn was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam, in the early 1860s. The original cast featured Gertrude Lawrence as Anna with the king played by Russian-born Yul Brynner, who won a Best Actor Tony and later a Best Actor Oscar in the 1956 film version of the musical.
Though some modern critics have noted the dated depiction of the king and his subjects in the original production, the show’s many revivals on and off Broadway testify to its lasting appeal. As one biographer noted: “The King and I is really a celebration of love in all its guises, from the love of Anna for her dead husband; the love of the King’s official wife, Lady Thiang, for a man she knows is flawed and also unfaithful; the desperation of forbidden love; and a love that is barely recognized and can never be acted upon.”
Published by the wholesome-sounding Parents’ Institute, True Comics was a series that aimed to show young readers that “truth is stranger and a thousand times more thrilling than fiction.” Running for 84 issues from 1941 to 1950, it offered biographies of true-life heroes alongside history lessons, film recommendations and short stories with a moral bent.
Issue #30 profiled Anna Leonowens and her time in Siam with art by Don Lynch. As far as I can tell, Lynch was active mostly at DC from 1939 to the early 1940s, then moving over to Parents’ Magazine Press to work on True Comics and Calling All Girls until the mid-1940s.
20. The Catcher in the Rye
On July 15, 1951, J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye is first published. Starring Holden Caulfield, a disillusioned teenager rambling through Manhattan after being booted from prep school, it becomes an instant hit and a staple of high-school English courses for decades, making it one of the most-read American novels of the 20th century — though its references to sex, vulgar language and status as part of an “overall Communist plot” (according to at least one school board) also makes it one of the most banned books in the U.S. as well.
In his first issue of 1993’s Dork, Evan Dorkin uses drawings of Fisher-Price’s Little People to give The Catcher in the Rye the Cliffs Notes treatment. Very fun summary, though I still highly recommend reading the original text.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” – H.C.