118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
34. Roy Cohn
As Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings and one of the Department of Justice prosecutors at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Roy Cohn established himself early in life as one of the nation’s most rabid anti-communists.
To foment anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S., Cohn and McCarthy claimed that foreign powers had convinced closeted homosexuals employed by the U.S. government to pass along government secrets in exchange for keeping their sexuality secret. It was directly because of Cohn that Eisenhower signed an executive order on April 29, 1953, that barred homosexuals from working in the federal government.
In 1984, Cohn — who left McCartney’s office shortly after for a 30-year career working for millionaires and mafia figures in New York City — was diagnosed with AIDS; he attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving experimental drug treatments. He died in 1986, insisting to the end it was liver cancer. Testimony from his friends and colleagues confirmed his sexuality, though; political strategist and colleague Roger Stone once said of him, “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men.”
Because of his unique status at the heart of the Red Scare and what came to be known as the “lavender scare,” Cohn has entered the pop-culture consciousness as a symbol of power-seeking hypocrisy, with several films and plays based on his life.
In WildStorm’s 2007 Red Menace series, a 1950s-era hero named “The Eagle” unmasks himself as World War II veteran Steve Tremaine. The House of Un-American Activities Committee uses his wartime friendship with a Russian superhero to brand him a communist and orders him not to resume his superhero career.
Given the title’s timeframe and subject matter, it’s not surprising to see Cohn make an appearance; in this scene, the writers show how easy it is for someone like Cohn to use disinformation to spread fear and chaos. And where there’s chaos, we’re told, “The people will demand a new order…”
35. Juan Perón
On September 19, 1955, Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón was deposed in a military coup.
A populist who came to power in 1946 with the backing of the working classes, he became increasingly authoritarian as Argentina’s economy declined in the early 1950s. His greatest political asset was his charismatic wife, Eva “Evita” Peron. While Peron removed political opponents from their positions and restricted constitutional liberties, he won overwhelming support from the poor masses thanks to Evita’s unofficial role as caretaker of the working class.
Evita’s death in 1952 led to the collapse of the coalition that backed her husband. As the nation’s economy slid and corruption grew, his attempts to force the separation of church and state was met with resistance; in June 1955, church leaders excommunicated him, encouraging military officers to plot his overthrow. Peron was forced to flee to Paraguay and later settled in Spain, where he served as leader-in-exile to the Peronists who remained loyal to him.
In March 1973, those Peronists won control of the government in national elections, and Peron returned to power. His second wife, Isabel, was elected vice-president, but she wasn’t able to win the hearts of the people like Evita did; two years after Peron died in 1974, she was deposed in an air force-led coup, and a military junta ruled Argentina until 1982.
Among Peron’s many critics was Juan Carlos Colombres, or “Landrú” as he was known to his Argentine fans (a pen name he picked because a colleague said he resembled the notorious French serial killer Henri-Desiré Landru). Born in Buenos Aires in 1923, Colombres contributed to many humor and satirical magazines in his home country, including his own Tía Vicenta, which also featured work by other Argentine humorists.
From elsewhere on the Internet: “In his comic strips, cartoons and illustrated columns, Landrú cleverly satirized the customs, speech and overall thinking of the Argentinean society. His mockery was ironic and subtle, and aimed at all social levels. His artwork was simple and effective, and often peppered with visual metaphors, like his depictions of Perón as a pear and [military dictator Juan Carlos] Onganía as a walrus.” He died in 2017.
The image above appeared c. 1973; the headline translates to “General Perón starts his third presidential term.”
“I am no genius. I have created nothing. I play the music of other men. I am just a musician.” Born in Parma, Italy, in 1867, Arturo Toscanini entered Parma’s Royal School of Music at age 9; by the time he was 17, he was conducting his own compositions at the school.
After his graduation, he joined a travelling opera company as a cellist. One night in Brazil he filled in as conductor during a performance of Verdi’s Aida. Toscanini, who had memorized the opera’s score, performed brilliantly and greatly impressed the audience. He continued to serve as conductor for the remainder of the season, establishing his reputation at the young age of 19.
His career highs included conducting the world premieres of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892) and Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème (1896), as well as the Italian premiere of Richard Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung (1895). In 1908, he left Italy to lead the New York Metropolitan Opera where he conducted another world premiere, La fanciulla del West, in 1910.
Returning to Italy during World War I, Toscanini was firmly opposed to the rise of fascism in Europe. In 1931, he was attacked by blackshirts for refusing to play the fascist anthem Giovinezza at Milan’s La Scala, and while he had been the first non-German to conduct at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, he refused to attend the festival in 1933 because of the Nazi regime.
Toscanini returned to the U.S. where the NBC Symphony Orchestra was created for him in 1937. Toscanini would serve as the orchestra’s musical director for 17 years, conducting his last live concert, an all-Wagner program, at Carnegie Hall on April 4, 1954. After he died at his home in the Bronx in 1957, his body was returned to his native Italy and buried in Milan.
Musical conductors aren’t the type of people you might picture as comic book heroes, but True Comics #42 (1945) by Parents’ Magazine Press ran a five-page biography of Toscanini, focusing on his “contributions to the struggle for freedom” and his refusal to bow to Mussolini’s fascists.
On May 8, 1951, chemical giant DuPont debuts Dacron to the world as suits made of the polyester fibre are first shown in New York City. Known as polyethylene terephthalate to people in the business (and referred to by the trade name Terylene in the UK), it was the first polyester fibre to reach the consumer market.
DuPont touted the material’s light weight, durability and resistance to wrinkles and creases. Prominent menswear retailer Hart Schaffner & Marx tailored the polyester-blend fabric into suits that sold for $79.50 (about $770 in today’s money). The suits were said to be cooler than summer-weight woolens, and the pants would keep their crease unless you deliberately removed it with a hot iron.
Within weeks, Dacron shirts for men and blouses for women were showing up in clothing stores. Synthetic fabrics represented everything new and innovative about life in postwar America, and so they were here to stay, for better or worse, spawning such memorable fashion highlights as the polyester leisure suits of the 1970s.
Fun fact: Biaxially oriented polyethylene terephthalate is a polyester film made from stretched PET that’s valued by media archivists for its transparency, chemical stability, and gas and aroma barrier properties. Comic collectors might know it better from one of its trade names: Mylar.
In Bongo’s five-part mini-series Comic Book Guy: The Comic Book (2010), we learn the “secret origin” of Jeff “Comic Book Guy” Albertson, owner and proprietor of Springfield’s The Android Dungeon. You can bet a comic book preserved in Mylar plays a pivotal role in his story.
38. Dien Bien Phu Falls
On May 7, 1954, Ho Chi Minh’s forces defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu after laying siege to the northwest Vietnam stronghold for 57 days. The Viet Minh’s victory signalled the end of French colonial influence in Indochina.
The battle’s real start was back in 1945; hours after Japan’s surrender in Work War II, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a way of preventing the French from reclaiming their former colonial possession.
Despite a French proposal that allowed Vietnam to exist as an “associate state” within the French Union, the arrival of a new player in the region (Mao’s Communist China) in 1949 gave Vietnamese communists a major political ally, and the fighting that had been ongoing since 1946 began to intensify.
In November 1953, the French occupied Dien Bien Phu, a small mountain outpost on the border near Laos. In early 1954, the Viet Minh army under General Vo Nguyen Giap moved against Dien Bien Phu and encircled it with 40,000 troops and heavy artillery. Despite massive air support, French forces held only two square miles by late April and surrendered shortly after.
At the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords ending the First Indochina War, France agreed to withdraw its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina. The peace deal also stipulated that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh, and the south to the State of Vietnam, nominally under Emperor Bao Dai.
Although the defeat brought an end to French colonial efforts in Indochina, the United States soon stepped up to fill the vacuum, increasing military aid to South Vietnam and sending the first U.S. military advisers to the country in 1959.
In the seven-page “Dien Bien Phu!” (EC’s Two-Fisted Tales #40, 1954), writer John Putnam and artist John Severin put together a report of the battle from the point of view of Jean DuVoisin, correspondent for “Paris-Presse.” In the story, we see a map of the French forces’ territory, with each point of defence on the map represented by a photo of “a beautiful ‘pin up’ girl” — as each point of defence fall to the Viet Minh, another photo is taken down. I’m not an expert on French military history, so I don’t know if that detail about pin-up photos was accurate. But it feels like the kind of thing the soldiers would have done.
39. Rock Around the Clock
On July 9, 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets became the first rock-and-roll single to hit the top of Billboard’s pop charts, a spot it stayed at for eight weeks. It wasn’t the first rock-and-roll record, but it became an anthem for America’s rebellious teens and is widely considered to be the song that brought rock-and-roll into mainstream culture.
While exact numbers are hard to come by, “Rock Around the Clock” is considered the biggest-selling rock-and-roll single of all time, with a figure of at least 25 million cited by the Guinness Book of World Records. A frequently used piece of promotion about the song claims that it’s playing somewhere in the world every minute of the day.
Fun fact: “Rock Around the Clock” was featured in the 1978 film Superman, heard playing on a car radio just prior to Glenn Ford’s final scene in the film. Why the inclusion? Probably because Ford, who played Pa Kent in the film, also starred in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle — the film that, by using the B-side song under its opening credits, helped it take off.
In Marvel’s Patsy and Hedy #49 (1957), Patsy and the gang are planning next week’s big dance with a “groovey selection” of rock-and-roll records. But all their parents get wind of this gathering and show up to forbid the kids from playing “that crazy rock and roll” at their party. Ruh-roh! How will the kids ever get to hear their Bull Bailey and His Meteors records now…?