118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
108. Wheel of Fortune
“WHEEL! OF! FOR-TUNNNNE!” Is there anyone out there who hasn’t once screamed at their TV screen, “No, you moron! The answer isn’t MISSISSIPPI ROVER!!!!”…? I’m guessing not.
The brainchild of producer Merv Griffin (who also gave the world Jeopardy!), Wheel of Fortune debuted on NBC in 1975 as a daytime game show with Chuck Woolery as host. In 1981, Griffin tapped Pat Sajak to take over hosting duties; with the addition of letter-turner Vanna White in 1982 and a move to nighttime syndication in 1983, all the pieces were in place for a pop-culture phenomenon that is still on the air after more than 6,000 episodes, making it the longest-running syndicated game show in the U.S.
The show gets it name from the Rota Fortunae (“wheel of fortune”), a symbol of the capricious nature of fate in ancient philosophy. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna (the personification of luck in the Roman religion), who spins it at random to change the positions of those on the wheel — some suffer misfortune while others experience windfalls for no reason other than that’s where the wheel landed.
Makes total sense, then, that a Justice League foe obsessed with luck would use a “wheel of misfortune” in his debut appearance.
(Justice League of America #6, 1961)
109. Sally Ride
On June 18, 1983, the space shuttle Challenger launches into space on its second mission. Aboard the shuttle was Dr. Sally Ride, an astrophysicist who became the first American woman to travel into space. (She was the third woman overall in space, after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.)
The U.S. had screened a group of female pilots in 1959 and 1960 for possible astronaut training but later decided to restrict astronaut qualification to men. In 1978, NASA changed that policy and announced it had approved six women to become the first female astronauts in the U.S. space program.
The new astronauts were chosen from some 3,000 applicants; among the six were Sally Ride and Shannon Lucid, who in 1996 set a new space endurance record for an American and a world endurance record for a woman during her 188-day stay on the Russian space station Mir.
Ride’s story is one of dozens featured in Femme Magnifique, a 2017 comic book anthology salute to women who “take names, crack ceilings, and change the game in pop, politics, art, and science.” Among the many contributors to the project are Gail Simone, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jill Thompson, Gilbert Hernandez and Gerard Way.
110. Heavy metal suicide
On December 23, 1985, two young men aged 18 and 20 from Reno, Nev., got drunk and went to a nearby playground at night. One placed a 12-gauge shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger, dying instantly; the other followed suit but survived with a severely disfigured face, dying three years later from a suicidal overdose of painkillers.
The parents of the second man took the heavy metal band Judas Priest to court, alleging that subliminal messages of “do it” in the band’s “Better by You, Better than Me” encouraged the two young men to take their lives.
When the case went to trial in 1990, it was closely watched by the music industry and constitutional lawyers, especially since the judge ruled in a pre-trial motion that subliminal messages were by definition not noticeable and therefore couldn’t be considered protected free speech under the First Amendment. In the end, though, the case was dismissed. In a 1991 documentary based on the trial, Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford makes the logical observation that if his band were really inclined to put subliminal messages in their music, then “buy more of our records” would have been a more obvious choice than commanding fans to kill themselves.
The Judas Priest story is just one chapter in a larger story that saw parents in the ’80s panic over the supposed threat of satanic forces possessing their children through heavy metal music, horror movies and fantasy role-playing games, with urban legends about suburban Satanists preying on children thrown into the mix.
In 1995, the character “Arseface” debuted in the second issue of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. In the series, a young man’s abusive home life drives him to emulate his suicidal hero, Kurt Cobain. When he makes a suicide pact with his friend, his friend dies but he ends up alive with a disfigured face. Tough break, but on the bright side at least he got to live a happier (if much weirder) second act than his real-life inspiration.
(Preacher #2, 1995)
111. Foreign debts
So which U.S. president added the most to the national debt? Depends on how you look at the numbers. Percentage-wise, Franklin Roosevelt leads the pack with a 1,048% increase, adding $236 billion to the $23-billion debt level left by Herbert Hoover. In second place is Woodrow Wilson, who added $21 billion — a 727% increase over the $2.9 billion debt of his predecessor. (To be fair to both gents, though, there were wars to pay for during both of their administrations.)
Among peacetime presidents, the trophy goes to Ronald Reagan, who added $1.86 trillion in debt (for an increase of 186 per cent) thanks to tax cuts and massive hikes in defence spending over his two terms. (George W. Bush and Barack Obama round out the top five, with both signing off on tax cuts, increased military spending and massive economic stimulus packages in response to the 2008 crash.)
While some concerned Americans in the ’80s looked at those ballooning numbers, there was also growing concern about the fact that a growing percentage of that debt was being held by foreign investors, and what that might mean to American interests if any of them tried to use their debt holdings as leverage.
As of August 2018, on a national debt of just over $21 trillion, some 70% is owned by domestic government, institutions investors and the Federal Reserve, while a shade under 30% is owned by foreign entities. Of the $6.2 trillion held by foreign interests, China and Japan lead the pack with just over $1-trillion in Treasury bonds and notes apiece; the other countries in the top five are Brazil, Ireland and the UK.
You wouldn’t think a sprawling epic set in a medieval land of dragons and magic ice zombies would take the time to discuss the intricacies of public debt and its impact on governmental operations, but George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is full of surprises.
In this scene from Dynamite’s comic adaptation of Martin’s novels, Eddard Stark arrives in King’s Landing to act as the king’s Hand (roughly analogous to a president’s Chief of Staff), and he’s shocked to learn the kingdom’s finances are in rough shape thanks to King Robert’s spendthrift ways. Those debts and the kingdom’s growing debt to the foreign Iron Bank of Braavos become one of the many pressures facing the kingdom as the series goes on.
If you’re wondering why none of the characters here look like the actors who play them in HBO’s Game of Thrones, it’s because the comic series is not affiliated with the TV series, despite the two debuting only a few months apart. “Competent but unnecessary” sums up the reviews I’ve seen for the comic.
(George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones #6, 2012)
112. Homeless vets
Nobody in the 1980s knew exactly how many homeless people were living on American streets — estimates ranged from a few hundred thousand to 3 million — but the fact there were any at all during a decade of prosperity shocked many Americans.
There were a few reasons why homelessness was on the rise. A 1982 recession hiked unemployment just as Reagan slashed funding for programs helping low-income Americans with food, shelter and medical care. It also didn’t help that many of the jobs created in the ’80s were lower-paying service jobs compared to the manufacturing jobs of the past, making it impossible for many families to stay afloat.
There was also the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, an act signed by Reagan that (among other things) drastically reduced federal mental health spending, leading to thousands of mentally ill patients turned out of institutions. With nowhere to go, many of them ended up in prison or on the streets.
An appalling fact about the new face of homelessness was the growing number of veterans among their ranks. A 1987 New York Times article cited studies that estimated anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the homeless in nine regions surveyed around the country were veterans, most of them having served since the beginning of the Vietnam War. Those studies found the veterans were on the streets for many of the same reasons as others, while also dealing with physical and mental traumas related to their service.
In 1988, the Department of Veterans Affairs Act changed the former Veterans Administration into a Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs, in part because of the large numbers of Americans eligible for veterans benefits. Concerns about the lack of support for veterans continue to this day.
In “The Lower Depths,” a small band of Joes working their way through the tunnels underneath New York City come across a group of people living in an abandoned subway station. They’re led by a homeless vet who doesn’t take kindly to armed guys on his turf, but they convince him to help them track down Cobra agents they believe are planning a toxic gas attack on the city.
My favorite part of this story is the reveal at the end, when we find out Cobra was only setting up that “gas attack” as a decoy to distract the Joes from their real mission: to hack into the phone system and start telemarketing vitamins and aluminum siding to the masses. Good gravy, Cobra! Is there no end to the depth of your evil? Go back to gassing innocent civilians!
(G.I. Special Missions #21, 1989)
On October 2, 1985, Rock Hudson — a tall, dark and handsome leading man during the 1950s and ’60s who made more than 60 movies during his career — died of complications from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Earlier that year, Hudson announced via press release that he was suffering from the disease, becoming the first major celebrity to go public with such a diagnosis.
The first cases of AIDS were reported in homosexual men in the United States in the early 1980s. At the time of Hudson’s death, AIDS was still not fully understood by the medical community and was seen by the public as a disease affecting only gay men, intravenous drug users and people who received contaminated blood transfusions.
His death was credited with bringing attention to an epidemic that would go on to kill millions of men, women and children of all backgrounds from around the world, including Freddie Mercury (1991), Liberace (1987), Anthony Perkins (1992), Robert Reed (1992) and Ryan White (1990), an Indiana teen whose experience dealing with discrimination caused national headlines. Hudson’s friend and former Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor became an outspoken AIDS activist and rallied the Hollywood community to raise millions for research.
In 1993, Tom Hanks received an Oscar for his performance in Philadelphia, the first major Hollywood movie to focus on AIDS. Also in 1993: Death of the Endless appears in various Vertigo books (and later her own eight-page booklet) to talk straight about AIDS and how to prevent it.
“Now, this comic contains words, concepts and maybe a few images that some people might find offensive. If you suspect you’re going to be one of those people, there’s a really easy solution to this. Don’t read it. It’s as simple as that. After all, the most it could do for you is to save your life.”
(“Death Talks about Life,” 1993, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean)
Cocaine was the perfect drug for the go-go Eighties, and its use among Americans soared during that decade. Despite the legal and health dangers, it became the recreational drug of choice among celebrities, athletes and Wall Street types, with an estimated 22 million Americans of all stripes having tried it at least once by 1982.
Robin Williams once joked that “cocaine is God’s way of showing you were making too much money,” but it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to make it more accessible to lower-income communities.
“Crack,” a freebase form of cocaine that can be smoked, first appeared in American inner-city neighborhoods around late 1984. Before long, it was considered a national epidemic, with the hardest-hit cities including New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta. It was also cited as a major factor in spikes in urban crime rates.
In those years of Nancy Reagan telling us to “Just Say No” and TV ads using fried eggs to illustrate the effects of drugs on the brain, there were many earnest attempts to warn people of the dangers of using drugs. Comic artists did their part with special anti-drug stories and even entire books warning about the dangers of drugs — like the time Marvel teamed up with the FBI to send Captain America off to war against drugs, or when DC came out with no less than three “very special episode” anti-drug comics starring the New Teen Titans.
And then there’s Crackbusters, a two-issue series published in 1986 by the short-lived Showcase Publications. It’s the story of two ex-jocks — one a computer tycoon and the other a pro football player who “went to the Canadian Football League to make [his] fame and fortune” — who decide the best way to tackle the complicated issue of drug abuse is to dress all in black and beat the crap out of street dealers.
Even more insane than the witty battle repartee they dish out is the fact their butt-kicking actually makes a dent in the Big Bad Boss’s profits, to the point he hires a hitman to take out these bothersome do-gooders. But not with anything as pedestrian as a handgun, no no — for this job, we need a guy who sprouts swords from under his suit sleeves. That’s just how we rolled in the Eighties.
“If they’re sellin’ drugs/In your neighborhood/Who ya gonna call…?”
(Crackbusters #1, 1986)
115. Bernie Goetz
On December 23, 1984, a New Yorker named Bernhard Goetz shoots four young black men, all ages 18 and 19, on the subway with a .38-caliber revolver — igniting a media firestorm over gun rights, racism, the legal limits of self-defence and crime in American cities.
The incident started when the four young men reportedly approached Goetz as he was riding the subway and demanded $5. Goetz shot each of them in response, then shot one of them a second time, severing his spinal cord. After refusing to give up his gun, he walked to the end of train, jumped onto the tracks and disappeared.
Now dubbed the “Subway Vigilante,” Goetz fled to New Hampshire while police investigated. When they found all four victims had criminal records and three were carrying screwdrivers at the time, many observers used this information to justify Goetz’s actions.
Goetz turned himself in to New Hampshire police on December 31. Back in New York, he was released on $50,000 bail while a grand jury was convened. He was initially indicted on only three counts of illegal gun possession, but prosecutors were dissatisfied with the charges, and the grand jury reconvened in March. This time, they charged Goetz with four counts of attempted murder, while the victims also started civil suits.
During the criminal trial, which began in December 1986, Goetz tried to persuade jurors that he had acted in self-defence. He was found not guilty on all criminal charges but was found guilty for violating one minor gun statute, for which he received a one-year sentence (he served eight months). In 1996, Darrell Cabey, who had been left paraplegic and brain damaged as a result of his injuries, received a civil judgment of $43 million — but given Goetz’s later bankruptcy, it’s unlikely he’ll ever receive that.
In 1985, Peter David’s “The Death of Jean DeWolff” ran over four issues of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. In it, a masked vigilante known as the Sin-Eater targets public figures he deems soft on crime. One of his victims is a judge who releases the muggers of one of Aunt May’s friends, Mr. Popchik, out on bail.
While random New Yorkers show up throughout the story to voice their opinions about the Sin-Eater’s actions, Mr. Popchik takes matters into his own hands when he feels threatened on the subway.