118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
91. Pope Paul
On June 21, 1963, the man born as Giovanni Battista Montini gains a new name and title when he’s elected Pope Paul VI. Serving as the head of the Catholic church until his death in 1978, Pope Paul presided over a tumultuous time in the church’s history. Ascending to the papacy during the Second Vatican Council, he was confronted with the task of implementing decisions that affected every facet of church life — decisions that weren’t always welcomed by more conservative Catholics. (Among other changes, the Council recommended dropping Latin as the language of Mass, allowed women to take a more active role in the liturgy, and allowed the laity to serve as Eucharistic ministers.)
In July 1968, he published his encyclical Humanae vitae (Of Human Life), which reaffirmed the church’s stand on the long-simmering controversy over artificial means of birth control, which he opposed. This and his firm belief in retaining the practice of priestly celibacy caused much criticism from both inside and outside the church, and created a divide between Catholics that persists to this day.
On the other hand, Paul VI was one of the first popes to travel extensively, especially in the Americas and in Africa, where his speeches touched on world peace, social justice, and international co-operation. Another ongoing theme of his papacy was his efforts to lessen tensions between the Catholic church and other faiths, meeting with other religious leaders (often being the first pope to do so) and placing more emphasis on those aspects that united the churches rather than on those that divide. (One welcome result of this work was a revision of church rules regarding marriage between Catholics and those of different faiths.)
While Paul VI failed to address some of the issues affecting the Catholic church during his papacy, he’s credited with making progressive decisions — such as actively bringing more bishops from all continents into a previously Eurocentric structure — that helped bring the church into the 20th century.
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; it aimed to instil good Catholic values in schoolchildren. You better believe they gave Paul VI the cover treatment when he became pope.
(Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact #347, 1963)
92. Malcolm X
In 1963, Malcolm X began a collaboration with Alex Haley on his life story, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He told Haley, “If I’m alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle.” Sure enough, Haley completed and published it in October 1965, eight months after Malcolm’s assassination.
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, NE, in 1925, Malcolm was the son of a Baptist preacher who was also a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Though his father’s death was ruled a streetcar accident, Malcolm and his mother believed he was killed by a white racist group. His mother later suffered a nervous breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were split up and sent to foster homes.
Finding himself in Harlem in 1943, Malcolm was sentenced to prison for burglary at age 21. It was there he discovered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, popularly known as the Black Muslims. Turning to an ascetic way of life and reading widely, he became a loyal disciple and adopted X — symbolic of a stolen identity — as his last name.
As an activist and outspoken public voice of the Black Muslim faith, Malcolm challenged the mainstream civil rights movement and the non-violent pursuit of integration championed by Martin Luther King Jr. He urged followers to defend themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary.” Malcolm’s assertion that Kennedy’s assassination amounted to “the chickens coming home to roost” led to his suspension from the Black Muslims in December 1963.
A few months later, he left the organization, travelled to Mecca, and discovered teachings that led him to abandon his previously antagonistic stance towards whites. Convinced that racism had corroded the spirit of America and that only blacks could free themselves, in June 1964 he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity and moved increasingly in the direction of socialism. On Feb. 21, 1965, he was assassinated by a Black Muslim at a rally of his organization in New York City.
After Malcolm X’s death, his book lived on, popularizing his ideas and laying the foundation for the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Because of his role in American history, Malcolm X has been portrayed several times in film, including by James Earl Jones in 1977’s The Greatest and by Morgan Freeman in the 1981 TV movie Death of a Prophet. But it was the 1992 Spike Lee film starring Denzel Washington that sparked renewed interest in the activist’s life, with the Library of Congress selecting the film in 2010 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Lee’s film also inspired a handful of comic biographies about Malcolm X that were not affiliated with the film.
(The Life and Times of Malcolm X, 1993)
93. British Politician Sex
On June 5, 1963, British Secretary of State for War John Profumo resigns from Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government after admitting he lied to Parliament about his sexual relationship with Christine Keeler, at the time a 21-year-old model and topless showgirl.
The two met in 1961 at a pool party (Profumo was 46 at the time). He stopped seeing her after he was warned by security services that Keller counted Russian naval attaché and foreign intelligence officer Yevgeny Ivanov among her other acquaintances — creating a possible security risk given that Profumo was in charge of Britain’s defence. (A later investigation found no evidence of state secrets being passed along.)
Keeler knew both Profumo and Ivanov through her friendship with Stephen Ward, a socialite who had taken her under his wing. The exposure of the affair generated rumors of other scandals and drew official attention to Ward’s activities. He was charged with a series of immorality offences and took an overdose of sleeping pills before his trial ended.
The sensationalism surrounding the whole affair was like nothing Great Britain had ever seen. The scandal only grew after allegations that Profumo had assisted in the disappearance of Keeler, who had not showed up for court when she was due to give evidence in an unrelated criminal case. (She was later found in Spain.) In his letter to the Prime Minister, Profumo said: “In my statement I said there had been no impropriety in this association. To my very deep regret I have to admit that this was not true, and that I misled you and my colleagues and the House.”
Macmillan told Profumo that he had no option but to accept his resignation and said: “This is a great tragedy for you, your family and your friends.” In truth, though, it was just as tragic for the ruling Conservatives, who went down in defeat in the 1964 general election in part because of the scandal. (Macmillan didn’t even stay around to lead the party into the election; shortly after a full report on the Profumo scandal was delivered in September 1963, Macmillan resigned as party leader.)
The Profumo Affair earns a brief mention in “Blue Murder,” a chapter of Alan Moore and Alan Davis’s Marvelman series, when a newspaper editor grouses about a “bloody D-notice” over superhero shenanigans (a D-notice is an official request by the UK government to news editors not to publish or broadcast items on specific subjects for reasons of national security).
(Warrior #8, 1982)
94. JFK Blown Away
On November 22, 1963, while travelling through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza in an open-top convertible, John F. Kennedy is assassinated.
First lady Jacqueline Kennedy rarely accompanied her husband on political outings, but she was there riding beside him, along with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, for the 10-mile motorcade through the streets of downtown Dallas. Sitting in a Lincoln convertible, the Kennedys and Connallys waved at the crowds gathered along the parade route. As their vehicle passed the Texas School Book Depository Building at 12:30 p.m., Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired three shots from the sixth floor, fatally wounding Kennedy and seriously injuring Connally. Kennedy was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at Parkland Hospital.
Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who was sitting three cars behind Kennedy in the motorcade, was sworn in as president at 2:39 p.m. He took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One as it sat on the runway at Dallas Love Field airport. The swearing in was witnessed by about 30 people, including Jacqueline Kennedy, who was still wearing clothes stained with her husband’s blood.
The 1964 Warren Commission report concluded that neither Oswald nor Jack Ruby (who shot Oswald as he was being moved to another jail by police) were part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. Despite its conclusions, the report failed to silence conspiracy theories about the event.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations — established in 1976 to investigate the killings of Kennedy and Martin Luther King — concluded in a 1979 report that Kennedy was “probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy,” but it could find no evidence pointing to anyone other than Oswald. Speculation about who was involved in Kennedy’s assassination continues to this day.
Because of its pivotal role in American history, the Kennedy assassination is often referenced in works of popular fiction, including comics:
- It’s a central plot point in 2008’s The Umbrella Academy: Dallas.
- We learned who was really behind the shooting in an issue of 100 Bullets guest-starring Joe DiMaggio.
- The Red Skull is identified as Kennedy’s assassin in the Marvel Ultimate universe.
- In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the Comedian quips “just don’t ask me where I was when I heard the news” about Kennedy’s death (the movie makes it clear he was the one who did it).
- There’s a hilarious bit of dialogue in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run in which a SHIELD agent casually reveals who was really behind the killing.
- Set in 1963, the 1992 Dark Horse mini-series Badlands follows a small-time crook as he discovers his new post-prison job involves him in events beyond his control.
And then there’s Vertigo’s Uncle Sam, a two-issue mini-series by Steve Darnell and Alex Ross in which a homeless man in a tattered Uncle Sam suit seems to flit between the present and the past, reliving darker moments in American history as either a witness or a participant. Here, a passing car causes him to remember (hallucinate?) that fateful drive in Dallas, back when it was still possible to believe “that we’re really on the edge of a new frontier.”
(Uncle Sam #1, 1997)