118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
8. Joe McCarthy
On Feb. 9, 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed during a speech in Wheeling, WV, that he had a list with the names of over 200 members of the State Department who were “known communists.” The speech vaulted McCarthy to national prominence and sparked a nationwide hysteria.
In the following weeks, the list number fluctuated wildly, with McCarthy claiming at various times the total was 57, or 81, or 100 known communists. He never produced any solid evidence of even one communist in the State Department, but the damage had been done; at a time when Soviets had just detonated their own nuclear device and China had recently fallen to Communist forces, many Americans were primed to believe subversive forces were working to undermine their own government.
“McCarthyism,” as the hunt for communists in the United States came to be known, did untold damage to many lives and careers, and managed to scare millions of Americans. McCarthy overreached in 1954 when he accused the Army of coddling known communists; the televised hearings of his investigation into the U.S. Army revealed his bullying tactics to the public for the first time, and he quickly lost support. The U.S. Senate censured him shortly after and he died three years later at age 48.
In 1953, at the height of McCarthy’s power, Walt Kelly — who declared himself against “the extreme Right, the extreme Left, and the extreme Middle” — introduced Simple J. Malarkey to his Pogo strip. Malarky was an obvious caricature of McCarthy, to the point that a Rhode Island editor worried about cancelled subscriptions complained to Kelly’s syndicate. Kelly’s response was to begin depicting Malarkey with a bag over his head, with the explanation being that Malarkey was hiding from a Rhode Island Red hen (a reference to both the editor’s home state and McCarthy’s obsession with “the Reds”).
After that storyline, Kelly brought Malarkey back for one more appearance in 1955… sort of. This time, he had the character’s face covered by speech balloons, the fun part being how many readers recognized the hidden character (and the man he lampooned) by his speech patterns alone. When fans wrote in to complain that Kelly was kicking a man while he was down, Kelly replied: “They identified him, I didn’t.”
9. Richard Nixon
Born in Yorba Linda, CA, Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and to the Senate in 1950. His involvement in the Alger Hiss case established his reputation as a prominent anti-communist and vaulted him to national prominence, so much so that Dwight Eisenhower chose him as his VP running mate in the 1952 election. At age 40, Nixon was the second-youngest vice-president in U.S. history when elected, and he served with Eisenhower for eight years before narrowly losing his own presidential campaign in 1960 to Democrat John F. Kennedy. But he almost didn’t make it that far.
In mid-September 1952, just weeks before that year’s presidential election, the media reported that Nixon had a political fund, maintained by his backers, that reimbursed him for political expenses. Though not illegal, it exposed him to potential conflicts of interest, and Eisenhower was pressured from within his party to drop Nixon from the ticket. Nixon defended himself with the now-famous “Checkers” speech, which aired on television on Sept. 23, 1952.
In front of 60 million Americans — the largest TV audience at that time — he portrayed himself as a patriot and a man of modest means. The speech also featured a nod to Checkers, the cocker spaniel given to Nixon’s family from a Texas supporter and named by Nixon’s six-year-old daughter; Nixon said it was the one gift given to him that he has no intention of giving back. A hit with the public, the speech convinced Eisenhower to keep him on the ticket and they went on to win 442 electoral votes out of a possible 531.
The numbers looked even better in 1956, when a rematch against Democrat Adlai Stevenson saw Eisenhower and Nixon make gains in the electoral and popular votes. How much of that can we chalk up to the two campaign comics Forward With Eisenhower-Nixon and Eisenhower-Nixon: The Choice of a Nation? Probably not much. But it’s the first time (as far as I can tell) that Nixon appeared in a comic book. It wouldn’t be the last.
Choice was by Commercial Comics, the same outfit that printed Harry S. Truman’s campaign comic in 1948; Forward was printed by an outfit called Graphic Information Services that shared the same NYC address as Toby Press. Among GIS’s other books were the civil-defence primers Mr. Civil Defense Tells About Natural Disasters! and Operation Survival! (both with art by Al Capp — no surprise, since Toby Press was founded by Capp’s brother).
Based in South Bend, IN, Studebaker started in 1852 as the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, producing wagons for farmers, miners and the military. It manufactured its first automobile in 1902 and for the next half-century established a reputation for quality and reliability.
While the company was hit hard by the Great Depression, it bounced back in the postwar years with new models and innovative features, and even opened a new manufacturing plant in Canada (in Hamilton, ON) in 1948. But the 1950s brought challenges that decimated the company: an economic recession, ballooning labor costs, and price wars between the much larger Ford and General Motors that smaller companies like Studebaker, Packard and Hudson couldn’t match. The South Bend plant closed on Dec. 20, 1963, and Studebaker left the auto business entirely in 1966.
Turning Wheels: The Studebaker Story was a 16-page comic that came out in 1954. Originally published as part of the celebration of Studebaker’s 100 years in business, it told “the story of a great American corporation, of blue-prints and tools, of wheels and engines, of sleek automobiles and sturdy trucks.”
The comic focused on Joe Powell, a fictional employee. We seem him as a youngster visiting his father at the factory and follow his own career working for the company, all the way to his retirement and his joy of seeing his grandson join the company. “I’ve got no reason to be sad,” Joe says at the end of the book. “I’ve seen the business grow from wagons to the last word in cars… Tommy will carry on the work for me. And maybe after him his son and his son’s son. They’ll build the cars and trucks of the future — the wonderful future.”
It’s almost impossible for us 21st-century folks who weren’t there to understand just how quickly television transformed American society. Roughly 6,000 U.S. households had a television set in 1946; that number rose to 12 million by 1950, and by 1955 half of all U.S. homes had one. Almost overnight, millions of Americans welcomed Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Ernie Kovacs, Jackie Gleason and other early television pioneers into their homes — and their world would never be the same.
The kids weren’t left out of the revolution, either. Shows like Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Kukla, Fran and Ollie entertained and educated millions of kids while animators like the newly formed Hanna-Barbera studio rushed into the wide-open field to claim their stake.
Comic publishers weren’t caught entirely off-guard by television’s rise; books like Pines’s Television Comics and Avon’s Television Puppet Show appeared on racks as early as 1950. Comics also proved to be an ideal medium for real-life and animated TV stars who wanted to market themselves to their young audiences.
One of those early animated stars was Winky Dink of Winky Dink and You, a show that aired Saturday mornings from 1953 to 1957. It starred a boy named Winky Dink and his dog, Woofer; the “you” part referred to the kids at home who were encouraged to interact with Winky Dink and his friends via a “magic drawing screen” (a.k.a. a piece of vinyl plastic) that stuck to the television screen. Kids who had the magic screen could connect the dots or decode a secret message to help Winky Dink continue his adventure. Of course, if Mom and Dad didn’t want to pay for the “magic” kit, kids could also write directly on the screen using their crayons… which probably explains why the series didn’t last too long (there were also parental concerns about x-rays from TV picture tubes).
The sole Winky Dink comic (Dell’s Four Color #663), from 1955, used the same “interactive” technique, encouraging readers to draw whatever Winky needed right on the page. So if you’re someone who insists on buying only pristine mint copies, well…
12. North Korea, South Korea
A former Japanese possession, Korea — much like Germany — had been divided into zones of occupation after the war, with Soviet forces accepting the surrender of Japan in the north and the U.S. in the south. This led to the Soviets establishing a communist regime in North Korea while the U.S. became the main source of financial and military support for South Korea.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces moved south, advancing towards Seoul. The U.S. responded by pushing a resolution through the UN’s Security Council calling for military assistance to South Korea. With this resolution in hand, President Harry S. Truman dispatched American forces to Korea to engage in what he termed a “police action.”
This intervention turned the tide, and U.S. and South Korean forces marched into North Korea. This prompted communist Chinese forces to join the fray in late 1950, and the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate until 1953, when a ceasefire resulted in the continued division of North and South Korea at just about the same geographical point as before the conflict.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea was published by Canada’s Drawn & Quarterly in 2007. For a two-month period in 2001, Quebec animator and cartoonist Guy Delisle spent time in North Korea’s capital as part of an animation team that hired North Korean workers to do animation.
A big part of the reason why this book works as a work of art is it becomes clear Delisle doesn’t approach it as a polemic; he isn’t writing it to reveal some shocking truth about the “hermit nation” to the world. Instead, he simply shows his firsthand experiences while providing some context for the readers, allowing his art to reflect his playful perspective of the dystopian world he finds himself in.
13. Marilyn Monroe
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, the actress, singer and model became one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1950s and continues to be a major pop-culture icon to this day. In 2009, she was #1 on the TV Guide Network’s list of Film’s Sexiest Women of All Time, and the American Film Institute placed her sixth on its list of the 50 greatest film legends of the 20th century.
Fun fact #1: The woman who would be named Sexiest Woman of the Century by People, Empire and Playboy magazines after her death started her collection of titles in 1947, when she was crowned Miss California Artichoke Queen.
Fun fact #2: The most expensive dress ever sold at auction is the one she wore while singing “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy at a Democrat fundraiser gala in 1962. It sold for $4.8 million in 2016, beating the previous record-holder — the ivory dress worn by her in The Seven Year Itch — by $200,000.
Fun fact #3: In 1962’s “The Halloween Pranks of the Bizarro Supermen!” (from DC’s Adventure Comics #294), we learn that on Bizarro World it’s the adults who wear masks and play pranks on Halloween. This being Bizarro World, of course they choose masks depicting the most gruesome-looking Earth people they can think of: Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Mickey Mantle and Jerry Lewis. (Okay, that last one makes sense.)