118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
On November 28, 1956, French film-goers were the first to see Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu… créa la femme (And God Created Woman). By the time the erotic drama reached American audiences almost a year later, it was heavily edited to conform with the censorial standards of the time. Bardot had starred in other films before, but this one — a film about an immoral teenager in a respectable small-town setting — made her an international sex symbol, to the point that the term “sex kitten” was invented specifically with her in mind.
While French intellectuals declared her the most liberated woman of post-war France, American audiences were watching her in the 1958 film Manina, the Girl in the Bikini (actually a dubbed version of the 1953 French film Manina, la fille sans voiles) and deciding that maybe those new-fangled bikinis weren’t so scandalous after all. Bardot retired from acting, modelling and singing in 1973 to focus on various causes; she’s particularly well-known for her animal rights activism.
Speaking of taking pity on lesser creatures… In “Jimmy Olsen’s Sweethearts!” in 1961’s Jimmy Olsen #56, Metropolis’s most famous dweeb gets the brush-off from Lucy Lane, who’s going out to dinner with a guy who owns “hundreds of oil wells” and is going to “produce a big picture.”
A jilted Jimmy decides to show her he’s a better catch by appearing at the same restaurant with Marilyn Monroe on his arm. Later, Jimmy is seen gallivanting around town with Tuesday Weld, has lunch with Jayne Mansfield, and ends up in the middle of a catfight between Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot. (“I scratch your eyes out! Jimmy is my man!”)
You know, I’m starting to figure out how Jimmy’s book managed to last for so long.
(“I’ve got a great future as a newspaperman!” Oh, Jimmy. I don’t know how to break this to you…)
On Nov. 4, 1956, a national uprising in Hungary that began 12 days earlier is brutally crushed by Soviet troops, leading to thousands of Hungarians killed and wounded and nearly a quarter-million fleeing the Eastern European country.
The uprising began when thousands took to the streets of Budapest demanding a more democratic system and freedom from Soviet oppression. In response, Communist Party officials in Hungary appointed Imre Nagy as the country’s new premier, and he tried to restore peace by asking the Soviets to withdraw their troops. The Soviets did so, and Nagy then abolished one-party rule and announced that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact.
That didn’t go over so well with Moscow, and Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the rebellion. At 5:20 a.m., Nagy announced the invasion to the nation in a 35-second broadcast declaring, “Our troops are fighting. The government is in place.” Within hours, he sought asylum at the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest; he was captured shortly thereafter and executed two years later.
The Soviet Union’s actions stunned many in the West. Nikita Khrushchev had pledged a retreat from the repressive Stalinist policies of the past, but his violent actions in Budapest suggested otherwise. Inaction on the part of the United States angered and frustrated many Hungarians, especially since recent Voice of America radio broadcasts by Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested the U.S. supported the liberation of captive people in communist nations.
By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition. While the Soviet’s actions helped strengthen control over the Eastern Bloc, they also led to considerable criticism of the Soviet Union abroad. Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter its Man of the Year for 1956, and Communist parties in Western states saw their memberships plummet as factions within those parties fought over whether the USSR had the right to do what it did.
Created by Dayton, OH, publisher George A. Pflaum, Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact was a comic mainly distributed to Catholic schools between 1946 and 1972 to foster Catholic values in American schoolchildren. One of its regular features was “This Godless Communism,” a 19-chapter series designed to inform children about the evils of Communism and the Soviet Union government in particular. With recent events like the mass slaughter of Hungarians to point to, it was hard for most Americans to disagree.
(Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact Vol. 17 #18, 1962)
On Dec. 1, 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man — a violation of the local racial segregation laws in Montgomery, Ala.
Learning of Parks’ arrest, the NAACP and other African-American activists called for a boycott of the local transit system beginning Monday, December 5. They spread word of the protest via flyers and activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize the protest.
The boycott stretched on for more than a year, and participants carpooled or walked to work and school when no other means were possible. Since African-Americans constituted 70 per cent of bus ridership before the boycott, their absence dealt a serious blow to the municipal transit system.
On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama and local bus segregation laws as being in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. With the battle won, Rosa Parks was among the first to ride the newly desegregated buses. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his civil rights movement had won its first great victory. It wouldn’t be the last.
First published in 1957, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story went through several editions and remained in print for years; it was distributed widely to schoolchildren in the 1960s. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia has repeatedly cited the comic as the inspiration for his three-volume March graphic novel trilogy.
From the wikis: “Instead of the typical distribution network for comics in those days, which were newsstands, pharmacies, and candy stores, The Montgomery Story was distributed by the Fellowship of Reconciliation among civil rights groups, churches and schools… FoR staff members, particularly Jim Lawson (an African-American divinity student at Vanderbilt University) and Glenn Smiley, traveled through the South, giving workshops on nonviolence. They would distribute the comic to younger attendees as something to take with them and study.”
On March 27, 1958, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev replaces Nicolay Bulganin as Soviet premier, becoming the first leader since Joseph Stalin to hold the USSR’s two top offices at the same time.
Born into a Ukrainian peasant family in 1894, Khrushchev went to Moscow in 1929 and steadily rose in the party ranks until in 1938 he was made first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. He became a close associate of Joseph Stalin, and when Stalin died in 1953 Khrushchev fought Stalin’s chosen successor, Georgy Malenkov, for the position of first secretary of the Communist Party. Khrushchev won the power struggle, and Malenkov was made premier, a more ceremonial post.
In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the 20th Party Congress, leading to the release of millions of political prisoners. Almost immediately, the new atmosphere of freedom led to anti-Soviet uprisings in Poland and Hungary. Khrushchev flew to Poland and negotiated a diplomatic solution, but the Hungarian rebellion was crushed by Soviet troops.
Despite being nearly ousted in 1957 by party hardliners, he secured the removal of Malenkov and other top party members who had opposed him. The Supreme Soviet’s vote to name him first secretary and premier recognized him as the undisputed leader of the USSR.
In foreign affairs, Khrushchev talked of “peaceful co-existence” with the West. A visit to the United States by Khrushchev in 1959 was hailed as a new high in U.S.-Soviet relations… but the early 1960s saw those relations hit dangerous new lows over the U-2 affair, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s protegé and deputy, organized a successful coup against him, and Khrushchev stepped down as leader. He died in 1971.
Because of Khrushchev’s role as Soviet leader at the height of the Cold War, he often appears in Silver Age comic stories as the instigator of various acts of badness against our freedom-loving heroes. For instance, in 1963’s Tales of Suspense #46, he’s introduced as “the ‘Mr. Big’ of the Iron Curtain” who orders the Crimson Dynamo to go to the United States and “get rid of Iron Man.”
What’s brilliant about this story is that Khrushchev doesn’t even have to be mentioned by name; he was so reviled and feared by the West by this point that all that was needed was Don Heck’s obvious likeness of the man to make clear which foreign leader was behind the latest threat to our favorite pro-capitalism hero.
“I’m all wired to perform electric miracles! You’ll be… uh… shocked at my powers!” Oh, Dynamo. Leave the terrible puns to the professionals.
51. Princess Grace
On April 19, 1956, American actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in a lavish ceremony watched by more than 30 million viewers on live television. The daughter of a former model and a wealthy industrialist, Kelly was born in Philadelphia in 1929 and began acting as a child. After high school, she attended the American Academy for Dramatic Arts in New York. While she auditioned for Broadway plays, the classic blonde beauty supported herself by modelling and appearing in TV commercials.
In 1949, she debuted on Broadway in The Father by August Strindberg. Two years later, she landed her first Hollywood role, a bit part in Fourteen Hours. Her big break came in 1952 when she starred as Gary Cooper’s wife in High Noon; two years after that, her performance in The Country Girl won her a Best Actress Oscar (beating out Judy Garland in A Star is Born).
The star of Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief gave up her acting career at age 26 when she married Prince Rainier, whom she met in 1955 at the Cannes Film Festival. Biographer Robert Lacey described their wedding as “the first modern event to generate media overkill.”
Tragically, Princess Grace died in 1982 from injuries suffered after her car plunged off a mountain road near Monte Carlo. Her death was mourned by millions around the world.
Editorial Novaro’s Mujeres Célebres (Famous Women) was a Mexican comic series that focused on the lives of famous women throughout history. Running from 1961 to 1974, it ran the gamut from Cleopatra and Helen Keller to legendary movie stars like Kelly and Sophia Loren to Mata Hari and Eva Braun. Its Grace Kelly issue appeared in 1966.
52. Peyton Place
On September 24, 1956, Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place was first published. A novel about how three women are forced to come to terms with their identities both as women and sexual beings in a conservative New England town, it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks.
Metalious’ sensational story of sex, violence and scandal in a small town — based in part on Gilmanton, NH, where she lived — made the author an international celebrity and a local pariah. The novel transformed an otherwise obscure township into a symbol of decadence and hypocrisy and it rivalled Elvis Presley’s hips as a symbol of the roiling waters of rebellion lurking just beneath the surface of the repressed 1950s.
While few would argue it’s a classic work of fiction, it does have its admirers (Stephen King once described his book Salem’s Lot as “Peyton Place meets Dracula“), and its success — Return to Peyton Place came out in 1959, with both novels receiving film treatments — was a harbinger of things to come in the once-stodgy publishing world.
Naturally, something this big in pop culture would attract the attention of the usual gang of idiots at MAD; “Passion Place” from 1965’s MAD #95 was the magazine’s parody of the ABC prime-time soap opera based on Peyton Place that aired 1964-69.
In it, the local newspaper publisher takes readers on a tour of a town where the population is too busy cheatin’ and gettin’ it on to get anything else done: “We have all kinds of people… young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad, Republican and Democrat. And they all live here together because they have one thing in common…” “They’re all making out!” #AintThatAmerica
53. Trouble in the Suez
On October 29, 1956, Israeli forces pushed into Egypt toward the Suez Canal, sparking the Suez Crisis. They were soon joined by French and British forces, which nearly brought the Soviet Union into the conflict and created the biggest international crisis since the end of World War II.
The tension had been brewing for some time. Two years earlier, the Egyptian military had begun pressuring the British to end their military presence (granted in the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty) in the canal zone. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s forces also clashed sporadically with Israeli soldiers along the border between the two countries. Supported by Soviet arms and money — and furious with the U.S. for not providing promised funds for building the Aswan Dam on the Nile River — Nasser ordered the Suez Canal seized and nationalized.
The British, angered by Nasser’s actions, sought the support of France (which believed Nasser was supporting rebels in the French colony of Algeria) and Israel in an armed assault to retake the canal. British and French troops successfully took control of the area around the Suez Canal, but the Soviets — eager to exploit Arab nationalism and gain a foothold in the Middle East — railed against the invasion and threatened to rain down nuclear missiles on Western Europe if the Israeli-French-British coalition did not withdraw.
In response, Eisenhower cautioned Khrushchev to refrain from direct intervention in the conflict, and also issued warnings to the French, British and Israelis to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. (Eisenhower was particularly upset with the British for not keeping the U.S. informed about their intentions.) Threatened with U.S. sanctions, the British and French forces withdrew by December, and Israel pulled back in March 1957.
The effects of the crisis were wide-ranging. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden stepped down amid accusations he lied to Parliament about the crisis, Great Britain’s and France’s status as world powers was diminished, Nasser emerged as a hero to the Arab world, Europe’s reaction to being threatened with nuclear weapons by the USSR led to the formation of the European Economic Community, and the fight laid the groundwork for future clashes (such as the Six-Day War) between Israel and its Arab neighbors. But on the bright side, Canada’s Lester Pearson scored a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in defusing the crisis.
As if anyone needed reminding of the complicated politics in that region of the world, in 1943 Real Life Comics (“True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Heroes!”) ran a five-page history lesson on the Suez Canal — “one of the vital gateways of democracy!” — in its 11th issue.