118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway kills himself with a shotgun at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. Born in Oak Park, IL, in 1899, Hemingway graduated from high school in 1917 and went straight to work as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. The following year, as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I, he was wounded by mortar fire and spent months recuperating.
During the 1920s, he lived in Paris with other expatriate writers and artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. He published his first collection of short stories in the U.S. in 1925, shortly followed by his 1926 debut novel The Sun Also Rises. He followed that up with such classics as A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea — the latter being an allegory for Hemingway’s own struggles to preserve his art in the face of fame and attention.
Famous for his economical writing style which had a strong influence on 20th century fiction, in life he was just as well-known for his macho, hard-drinking persona — something that comes through clearly in “Ernest and James” (DC’s Shade the Changing Man #31, 1993), a story that begins with Hemingway and James Joyce waking up on the floor of a Parisian cafe. They both discover they had the same dream about a “man who wore a bright coat” who goes by the name Shade. While they compare notes about what they saw in their dreams (with Joyce pondering the spiritual ramifications of two people sharing the same dream and Hemingway brushing it off as merely one of them telling the other about a dream and not remembering it), the man they both dreamed about appears to fall through the wall right in front of them.
“Don’t worry about Jim, he’s just very drunk and very Irish and very brilliant and I love and respect him very much. Now tell me who you are before I punch your face in.” Yep, that’s Hemingway, all right.
On December 15, 1961, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who administered Hitler’s “final solution,” is sentenced to death by an Israeli war crimes tribunal.
Born in 1906, in 1932 Eichmann joined the Nazi’s elite Schutzstaffel, an organization with broad policing and intelligence responsibilities in Nazi Germany. He steadily rose through the SS hierarchy, and with the German annexation of Austria in 1938 he was sent to Vienna with the mission of ridding the city of Jews. He set up an efficient Jewish deportment center and in 1939 was sent to Prague on a similar mission. That same year, Eichmann was appointed to the Jewish section of the SS central security office in Berlin.
In January 1942, Eichmann met with top Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin for the purpose of planning a “final solution of the Jewish question,” as Hermann Goering put it. Eichmann was appointed to coordinate the identification, assembly and transportation of millions of Jews and other “undesirables” from occupied Europe to Nazi death camps. Between three to four million people perished in the camps before the end of World War II, with an estimated two million executed elsewhere.
The end of the war saw Eichmann captured by U.S. troops, but he escaped a prison camp in 1946 and travelled under an assumed identity, arriving in Argentina in 1950. When Israel learned where he was, it sent Mossad agents to the South American country to capture him. On May 11, 1960, Eichmann was snatched off the street walking home from the bus. He was secretly flown out of the country on May 20; three days later, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that Eichmann was in Israeli custody.
Eichmann’s trial — the first to be televised, drawing millions of viewers around the world — began the following April. Facing numerous crimes against humanity, he said he was just following orders, but the judges found him guilty on all counts. He was hanged near Tel Aviv on May 31, 1962.
His capture and trial revived public interest in Nazi war crimes, with a number of memoirs and scholarly works revisiting the Holocaust and its impact. Eichmann’s actions also inspired the phrase “banality of evil,” first used by German philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (she covered the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker) to describe how someone so seemingly ordinary could take part in the most horrific acts imaginable.
How bad was Eichmann’s reputation? It was so bad that stories of his crimes even reached the citizens of the bottle city of Kandor, as seen here in a scene from 1961’s Superman #149. In this “imaginary tale,” Lex Luthor finally succeeds in killing Superman once and for all, and while everyone else in Superman’s circles mourn his death Supergirl brings him to Kandor, where Luthor is sentenced to the Phantom Zone as the judge declares him “the greatest villain since Adolf Eichmann!” Harsh but fair.
82. Stranger in a Strange Land
On June 1, 1961, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is published. The story of a human who comes to Earth after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians, it would become the first science-fiction novel to become a best-seller and in 2012 is named one of the “Books That Shaped America” by the Library of Congress.
Did it become a classic because or in spite of the controversy it generated? Literary critics — hardly prone to see science fiction as respectable literature in the first place — were savage, calling it “puerile,” “unendurable” and a “disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism.” Self-appointed guardians of public mores were just as critical, with the book regularly showing up on banned lists for its depiction of a post-World War III Earth with a one-world government, politically powerful religions and free love, the latter being especially appealing to readers who would go on to become hippies in that decade (Heinlein himself said he waited until the time was right to publish the book, as he knew a lot of its ideas wouldn’t be well-received in the more stolid 1950s).
Heinlein (1907-1988) was always surprised when other people thought he was writing a book about how he thought society should be organized: “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers… It is an invitation to think, not to believe.”
Much of Heinlein’s early work appeared in science-fiction magazines, with his comic-book appearances more along the lines of “inspired by” credits. Fawcett’s Destination Moon (1950) is an adaptation of the sci-fi film co-written by Heinlein and released that same year. Heinlein was one of three co-authors of the film’s script, which has a few plot points in common with Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocketship Galileo, a story about three teenage boys building a rocket to the moon.
On April 11, 1961, a 19-year-old singer named Bob Dylan stepped out on stage at Gerde’s Folk City in New York’s West Village to open for bluesman John Lee Hooker. Later that year, New York Times critic Robert Shelton would say this about Dylan’s first radio performance: “Among the newer promising talents deserving mention are a 20-year-old latter-day Guthrie disciple named Bob Dylan, with a curiously arresting mumbling, country-steeped manner.” Another review by Shelton of Dylan’s performance at Gerde City in September led to a record deal, and Dylan’s first Columbia album, titled simply Bob Dylan, was released March 19, 1962.
Born Robert Allen Zimmeran in Duluth, Minn., Dylan arrived in New York City in early 1961 to perform and visit his musical idol Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill with Huntington’s disease. Later, Dylan would write: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them… [Guthrie] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.”
From February onwards, Dylan played at clubs around Greenwich Village, befriending and picking up material from other folk singers. As the producer/talent scout John Hammond would write in the liner notes of his debut album one year later, “The young man from the provinces began to make friends very quickly in New York, all the while continuing, as he has since he was ten, to assimilate musical ideas from everyone he met, every record he heard.”
Dylan would later write about this period in “Talkin’ New York” (1962), which included a verse about his breakthrough gig at Gerde’s:
“After weeks and weeks of hanging around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the Union and paid my dues.”
The move to the big city worked out all right for him — on October 13, 2016, the Nobel Prize committee announced it had awarded Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
From “all along the watchtower” to “times they are a-changin’,” Dylan’s words have inspired comic writers for decades (see Alan Moore’s Watchmen for one of the more high-profile examples of this). But did you know Batman himself was a Dylan fan? Here’s “Bobby and Joanie” (Dylan and Joan Baez) about to play the Gotham City Coliseum, from 1974’s Superman #279.
On August 13, 1961, shortly after midnight, East German soldiers begin laying down barbed wire on the border between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the western section of the city.
After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the country was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation, with the Soviet-occupied section becoming East Germany and the others forming West Germany. Though located within the Soviet zone, Berlin was also split in four, with the Soviets taking over the eastern part of the city. After a massive Allied airlift in 1948 foiled a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, the eastern section was drawn even more tightly into the Soviet fold.
Over the following 12 years, East Germany saw between 2.5 million and 3 million people head to West Germany in search of better opportunities. By 1961, some 1,000 East Germans were leaving every day. In response, East German leaders began sealing off all access points between East and West Berlin. After soldiers laid down the barbed wire slightly inside the East Berlin border, it was soon replaced by a six-foot-high, 96-mile-long wall of concrete blocks (it was raised to 10 feet in 1970 in an effort to stop escape attempts). Many Berlin residents on that first morning suddenly found themselves cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. Guard towers, machine gun posts and searchlights were installed to deter defectors.
The Berlin Wall became one of the most iconic symbols of the Cold War. In June 1963, Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in front of the wall, celebrating the city’s resistance to tyranny and oppression. In a 1987 speech at the Wall’s Brandenburg Gate, Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” as a symbol of increasing freedoms in the Eastern Bloc.
On November 9, 1989, residents of East and West Berlin did just that, following an announcement from East German officials that border guards would no longer have the authority to keep citizens from crossing from one part of the city to the next. Families and friends separated for decades were reunited at last, and the celebrations in the soon-to-be-reunified Germany lasted for weeks.
There aren’t a lot of reasons to miss the Berlin Wall, but the art it inspired is certainly one of them. Access to the wall on the Eastern side was restricted for obvious reasons, but West Berlin residents expressed their disgust with the wall via decades of graffiti.
On the inside back cover of Cerebus #127 (October 1989), there’s a photo of a piece of graffiti on the wall — “mere yards to the right of Checkpoint Charlie” — featuring a local artist’s rendition of a familiar-looking aardvark. According to “Thorn,” this part of the wall technically resides in East Germany, but because it’s on the western-facing side the most that East German guards could do to anyone writing on the wall was take their picture and deny them entry to East Germany. Very shortly after this issue came out, all that was moot.
85. Bay of Pigs invasion
On April 17, 1961, a CIA-financed and -trained group of Cuban exiles arrives at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Their mission: to topple the communist government of Fidel Castro. The outcome: a complete and total debacle.
Following Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, the U.S. government decided his communist government was a threat to U.S. interests in the Western hemisphere. In March 1960, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to train a force of Cuban exiles for an armed attack on Cuba; Kennedy inherited the program when he became president in 1961.
Even though his military advisors said an amphibious assault on Cuba by a group of lightly armed exiles had little chance for success, Kennedy gave the go-ahead. On April 17, about 1,400 men armed with American weapons and using American landing craft waded ashore at the Bay of Pigs, an inlet on Cuba’s southern shore.
The hope was that the invading force would inspire Cubans to rally and rise up against Castro, but the plan immediately fell apart; the landing force faced rapid counter-attacks from Castro’s military, the tiny Cuban air force sank most of their supply ships and the U.S. refrained from providing air support. More than a hundred were killed, and about 1,100 were captured.
Instead of weakening Castro’s hold on power, the failed attack gave him reason to rail against “Yankee imperialists” and appear the hero to the rest of Latin America. It also led to him requesting more military aid from the Soviet Union; that “military aid” eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the closest the Cold War had ever risked becoming “hot.”
Given the embarrassing outcome for the U.S., it’s no surprise the botched invasion doesn’t get much play in the comics. With one notable exception: at the start of the 10th issue of IDW’s The X-Files: Season 10 (2014), we learn the TV show’s mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man was there on the ground providing support for the operation. Then again, this is Cigarette Smoking Man we’re talking about, so who knows how much of it is true.
The story’s title, “More Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” is a reference to “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” the Season 4 episode in which Mulder and Scully are told a speculative history of the mysterious man. Emphasis on “speculative.”