Monthly Archives: January 2019

Fine, You Didn’t Start the Fire. Now Stop Your Singing and Help Us Put It Out. (Part 12)

118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections 

73. U-2
Not to be confused with any Irish pop bands that might come to mind, the “U-2” in Joel’s song refers to the American U-2 spy plane. Travelling at altitudes of up to 70,000 ft., the U-2 was equipped with state-of-the-art photography equipment that could, as the CIA boasted, take high-resolution pictures of headlines in Russian newspapers as it flew overhead. Flights over the Soviet Union began in 1956, and the CIA assured Eisenhower the Soviets did not possess weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down the high-altitude planes.

That was true until a plane piloted by Francis Powers disappeared on May 1, 1960, while flying over the Soviet Union. Not to worry, the CIA told the president — even if the plane had been shot down, it was equipped with self-destruct mechanisms that would render any wreckage unrecognizable and the pilot was instructed to kill himself in such a situation.

Based on this information, the U.S. government issued a statement that a weather plane had veered off course and supposedly crashed somewhere in the USSR. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev then pulled off one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War by producing not only the mostly intact wreckage of the U-2, but also the very much alive pilot. Eisenhower had to publicly admit that it was indeed a U.S. spy plane.

Aside from making the U.S. look foolish, the U-2 incident gave Khrushchev cause to storm out of a U.S./Soviet summit that was held in Paris later that month, pushing back talks on the status of Berlin and nuclear arms control. Eisenhower later called the “stupid U-2 mess” one of the biggest debacles of his presidency. On a brighter note, Powers was released in 1962 in exchange for a captured Soviet spy.

Now, I’m not saying that Nick Fury wouldn’t have gotten caught if he had been on that plane taking pictures… but I’m not saying that because I shouldn’t have to say that. Here’s Fury from 1965’s Strange Tales #136 in some pulse-pounding picture-viewing action, “forty miles above Earth.” (Sixty-two miles straight up is generally considered the start of outer space.)

74. Syngman Rhee
On April 27, 1960, Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, resigns amid fierce protests against his rule. A staunch anti-communist and authoritarian, Rhee was appointed head of the Korean government in 1945 before winning the country’s first presidential election in 1950. He led South Korea through the Korean War, but because of widespread discontent with corruption and political repression, it was unlikely that he would have been re-elected by the National Assembly. So Rhee ordered a mass arrest of his political opponents; in the following election, he received 74% of the vote. After the 1956 election, he amended the constitution to allow himself to run for an unlimited number of terms.

In March 1960 — after Rhee, now 84, won 90% of the vote thanks to his main opponent dying shortly before the March 15 vote — protests against electoral corruption broke out in Masan. Violence erupted as police started shooting, and the protesters retaliated by throwing rocks. A few weeks later, the body of a student who had disappeared during the riots was found in Masan Harbor. Rhee’s regime tried to censor news of the incident, but without success — it sparked a national movement against electoral corruption.

On April 19, students at Korea University protested police violence and called for new elections. The protests were again violently suppressed, leading to a demonstration at the presidential residence by thousands of students, who dispersed only when police fired point-blank into the crowd. By April 25, the protests had grown even larger as professors and other citizens began to join the students, throwing the country into near anarchy. Rhee stepped down April 26 and was flown out of South Korea by the CIA. He died in exile in Honolulu in 1965.

Just a friendly neighborhood reminder of the power that students possess when they join forces to fight injustice.

(Amazing Spider-Man #68, 1969)

75. Payola
On February 11, 1960, the payola scandal reaches a new level of public awareness when President Eisenhower calls it an issue of public morality and the FCC proposes a new law making payola a criminal act.

The term “payola” is sometimes used as a blanket reference to a range of corrupt practices in the radio and recording industries. But within the music business, it specifically refers to the practice of record companies paying radio stations and DJs to play their songs on the radio.

As the Congressional payola hearings got under way in February 1960, the public heard tales of lavish disk jockey conventions paid for by record companies, and DJs receiving “listening fees” from record companies for “evaluating the commercial possibilities” of records. Several DJs admitted to accepting money from record companies and saw nothing wrong with it; one even compared it to “going to school and giving the teacher a better gift than the fellow at the next desk.”

Why the government concern about some radio celebrities pocketing extra cash from record companies? Technically, the Harris Commission (the Congressional body set up to look into the practice) cited abuse of the public trust as their main concern; the commission argued it had a right to ensure public airwaves weren’t being used to perpetuate fraud on the listening public. On the other hand, 1960 was an election year and it’s not totally unlikely that politicians were looking for an easy way to be seen as standing on the right side of a moral issue (and painting the music industry as a wretched hive of scum and villainy for older voters already inclined to see it as such wasn’t exactly a hard sell).

In the end, the payola hearings didn’t so much eradicate the practice as force it to evolve into different ways of doing business. As recently as 2002, the New York District Attorney’s office uncovered evidence that executives at Sony BMG made improper promotional deals with several large commercial radio chains, resulting in a $10-million fine.

“Payola” (Archie #109, 1960) finds Archie becoming the DJ for the school’s radio station, putting him in the plum position of picking the songs written and recorded by his fellow students to play. Archie’s friends start offering him bribes (or capitulating to his demands; run, Veronica, RUN!) to get their songs on the air, and pretty soon his policy becomes “no pay, no play.” It’s up to Archie’s dad to show him the error of his ways with a spanking new dance beat called “Brush to the Brat’s Butt.”

76. Kennedy
On November 8, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 43, narrowly beats U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon to become the youngest man ever elected President of the United States. The campaign was bitter and hard-fought, as Nixon took every opportunity to paint Kennedy as too young and inexperienced to handle the awesome responsibilities of the office (even though Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy).

Foreign policy figured prominently in the campaign, with Nixon arguing that Soviet influence was contained after eight years under Eisenhower and Kennedy rebutting that Eisenhower and Nixon lost Cuba to Communism and allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to develop between the two global super-powers. Issues aside, many observers believed that Kennedy’s performance during the four presidential debates — the first to be televised live — put him over the top, with his poised delivery contrasting sharply with Nixon’s discomfort under the studio lights.

Kennedy claimed throughout the campaign he looked forward to meeting the challenges facing the strongest nation in the free world. He would not have to wait long to find out what those challenges would be.

In “The Superman Super-Spectacular!” (Action Comics #309, 1964), the television show Our American Heroes gathers many of Superman’s friends for a surprise tribute to the Man of Steel. Lois and Lana, always on the lookout for ways to prove Clark is Superman, are certain that Clark will not appear while Superman is in the studio… until he does, and passes all their tests to determine if he’s a robot or impostor. After the show, Superman thanks Kennedy for disguising himself as Clark. “If I can’t trust the President of the United States [with my secret identity], who can I trust?” Superman says. Who, indeed.

Footnote: This comic was cover-dated February 1964, meaning it appeared on stands just days after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. It was too late for DC to recall the book; fortunately, the country was too riveted by current events to pay much attention to this unintentionally posthumous tribute to the president.

77. Chubby Checker
On August 6, 1960, Chubby Checker appeared on the TV show American Bandstand and performed “The Twist.” The song became a national sensation, hitting the top of the Billboard chart the following month and again in 1962 — making it the only song to hit No. 1 in two separate chart runs.

In 1958, Ernest Evans (b. 1941) was a high-school student and part-time chicken-plucker working in Philadelphia, home to the popular show featuring teenagers dancing to Top 40 music. That year, for his annual Christmas card, host and producer Dick Clark decided to have a Christmas novelty record made, and he delegated the job to a friend in the business named Kal Mann. Mann then turned to Tony Anastasi, owner of the poultry market where Evans worked, and suggested that Mann give his charismatic young employee a shot at recording the tune.

At this recording session, Clark’s wife asked Evans what his name was. “Well,” he replied, “my friends call me Chubby.” As he had just completed a Fats Domino impression, she smiled and said, “As in Checker?” That little play on words got an instant laugh, and stuck: from then on, Evans would use the stage name “Chubby Checker.”

The song that would make Checker famous had been a non-hit in 1958 for its writer, Hank Ballard, best known for 1954’s “Work With Me Annie.” Believing “The Twist” to be a potential smash — but unwilling to have the controversial Ballard on his show — Clark picked the wholesome Chubby Checker to record a cover. With the help of Clark’s on-air promotion, “The Twist” turned Checker into an overnight sensation.

As all hit records do, “The Twist” and the dance it inspired then faded away. After Checker had a second #1 hit with “Pony Time,” something remarkable happened — a full year after the “The Twist” hit the top of the charts, a gossip item in the New York papers placed actress Merle Oberon and the elderly exile Prince Serge Obolensky of Russia at the Peppermint Lounge, Twisting the night away. Suddenly a fad was reborn — this time among the adults. Soon enough, “The Twist” began a remarkable second run up the charts, reclaiming the #1 spot on January 13, 1962.

Despite Checker’s laments about his most popular song — “I was on my way to becoming a big nightclub performer, and ‘The Twist’ just wiped it out… No one ever believes I have talent.” — his follow-up “Let’s Twist Again” (like we did last summer!) in 1961 earned him a Grammy for Best Rock and Roll Solo Vocal Performance. So I’d say Checker did all right.

How popular was the Twist? Would you believe “popular enough to get its own comic book” popular? Dell’s one-shot The Twist (cover art by Bill Williams) came out in the spring of 1962 to capitalize on the dance’s revival as a fad. Since it’s hard for a dance move to star in a comic (and no one seemed interested in bringing Checker into the mix; seriously, Dell, “Skinny Becker“…?!?!?), the story inside revolves around a pizza parlor and a dance hall competing for customers. Let the games begin.

78. Psycho
Ten things you might not have known about Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film that changed everything:

1. The film is based on Robert Bloch’s novel, which was inspired by Ed Gein, the 1950s Wisconsin serial killer whose case would also inspire such movie murderers as Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs).

2. Hitchcock bought the rights to Bloch’s novel for $9,500. A 1959 rumor had Hitchcock sending his assistant out to buy up all available copies to preserve the secrecy surrounding his film’s plot so few people would know the twist.

3. Paramount was so against the idea of Hitchcock making Psycho that it only agreed to distribute the film when Hitchcock offered to finance the production himself and forgo his $250,000 fee. In return, Hitchcock got a 60% stake in the box office. Smart move — the movie cost only $800,000 to make and hauled in more than $50 million.

4. Like most screenplays, there are some changes from the book. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s brilliant move was making Marion Crane — who only features in two chapters in the book — seem the central character in the film.

5. Psycho was the first American film to show a flushing toilet. Stefano wrote it into the scene where Marion disposes of a scrap of paper so that it couldn’t be cut by censors.

6. Hitchcock refused to release a plot synopsis to the press, something that was unheard of in the days before “spoiler alert” culture. The only other director who had ever done that was Cecil B. DeMille, who refused to tell reporters the plot of The Ten Commandments. (Though in fairness, most people could have guessed on their own how that story would turn out.)

7. The infamous shower scene features 78 different camera angles and 52 cuts, and it took seven days to shoot. For close-ups of Janet Leigh’s blood swirling down the shower drain, Hitchcock used Bosco chocolate syrup.

8. The shower scene was originally supposed to have no music, but composer Bernard Herrmann insisted he be allowed to play Hitchcock his score. Hitchcock loved the now-famous screeching effect so much he increased Herrmann’s salary.

9. The 1957 Ford sedan that Marion drives was also a prop borrowed from Leave It to Beaver, where it had served as the Cleaver family’s car. (Another connection? Jerry Mathers — the Beaver himself — got to help makeup artist Robert Dawn, who worked on both Psycho and the popular 1950s sitcom, create Mrs. Bates’s mummified skull.)

10. Psycho marked the fifth and final time that Hitchcock would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director (he never won). The Academy gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968; Hitchcock’s speech in its entirety was, “Thank you… very much indeed.”

The list of works influenced by Psycho is a long one, but for now let’s just focus on just the one. In 1986’s Batman #395, we meet Burt Weston (get it?), a wannabe actor turned criminal who’s dubbed “Film Freak” by the Gotham media for his habit of basing his crimes on famous films. When a reporter discovers his identity, he attempts to kill her with an homage to Norman Bates. SCREE-SCREE-SCREE-SCREE…

79. Belgians in the Congo
On June 30, 1960, the proclamation of The Republic of the Congo’s independence from Belgian colonial rule almost immediately leads to the Congo Crisis. This series of secessions and civil wars over four years saw an estimated 100,000 lives lost to violence — including the nation’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, and UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, who was killed in a plane crash while trying to mediate the crisis.

Belgian rule of the African state began in the late 19th century, during an intense period of European colonization of the continent. The following decades saw a high degree of racial segregation within the country, especially after World War II as large numbers of white immigrants moved into the Congo. The years following World War II also saw the U.S. and the Soviet Union show much interest in central Africa’s vast natural resources (for instance, much of the uranium used by the U.S. nuclear program during World War II was Congolese). As a result, the conflict that broke out after Congo’s independence also became the site of a Cold War proxy contest between the two super powers.

Escalating post-independence tensions was the Belgian government’s decision to send in troops to protect Belgian citizens and business interests. On July 14, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 143, calling for total Belgian withdrawal from the Congo and their replacement with a UN-commanded force. This was initially welcomed by Lumumba, who hoped the UN troops would help his government deal with the secessionist states of Katanga and South Kasai. But the troops were there only to maintain the peace; secession was viewed as an internal matter by UN officials who didn’t want to take sides. Rebuffed by the UN and the United States, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for military aid, a decision that split his government, stoked fears in the U.S. of a communist takeover, and ultimately led to Lumumba’s execution at the hands of Katangese rebels.

While the crisis eventually abated, continued instability rocked the country for decades and inspired other wars and secession movements elsewhere in Africa — making it clear the path to independence for the former colonial states wasn’t going to be an easy one.

When I think “Belgians in the Congo,” there’s only one Belgian that stands out. Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo) is the second volume of the comic series The Adventures of Tintin by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Serialised weekly for a Belgian newspaper from May 1930 to June 1931 before being published in a collected volume in 1931, the story follows our young reporter to the Belgian Congo where he meet the locals and uncovers a diamond smuggling operation.

The book was a commercial success and Hergé redrew and colored it in his distinctive ligne-claire style in 1946. Fair warning, though: the book is definitely a product of its time, and seeing its depiction of the Congolese people from a 21st-century perspective can be a discomforting experience. But as Hergé biographer Harry Thompson argues, Tintin au Congo should be viewed in the context of European society in the 1930s, when the Belgian view of the Congolese was more patronizing than malevolent.