Although it seems pointlessly quaint to modern-era sensiblilities, the office of the President of the United States was treated with a special reverence when it came to comics. At least, for the first twenty-five years or so.
While historical Chief Executives such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were often depicted in all their glory, the sitting President was considered too rarefied to appear openly as a comic-book character. When a story called for the appearance of the President, he was usually rendered in shadow or with his face otherwise obscured as a nod to the dignity of the man and the office.
Occasionally, the artist would play coy with the readers by inserting an element which made the identity of the President apparent---like Franklin Roosevelt's trademark cigarette holder. Other times, they got downright sneaky, as in “The Superman of the Future”, from Action Comics # 256 (Sep., 1959). This involved a convoluted scheme enacted by Superman to protect the President from an assassination attempt. Following the custom, the President was never portrayed directly, but one panel showed the Man of Steel disguising himself as the Commander-in-Chief. On the make-up table was a bald skull-cap resting on a modeling bust---a clear-but-subtle reference to Dwight Eisenhower, the man who occupied the Oval Office at the time.
Then it got tossed out on its ear in 1961---when John Fitzgerald Kennedy took the oath of office as the thirty-fifth President of the United States.
Kennedy’s election heralded a change in image for the American president. Before, the President had been older, avuncular, staid. Now, Americans had a Chief Executive who was relatively youthful, handsome, and vigorous. Kennedy represented a change of mood in the country; the old, gentrified ways were out, replaced by a new generation of dynamism.
JFK captured the enthusiasm of the nation and of the comics as well. DC Comics, the company which had launched the Silver Age, delivered bright, clean stories emphasizing modern technology and the sense of an optimistic future. Now we had a President who symbolised those very things. Kennedy was the real-life representation of DC's Silver Age. Thus, it was no surprise that the character of JFK began to appear in DC's stories---and not as a vague, silhouetted figure. His youth, good looks and thick shock of brown hair made him as acceptable a comic-book "leading man" as Hal Jordan or Ray Palmer.
The John F. Kennedy of Earth-One debuted in the Imaginary Story “Lois Lane and Superman, Newlyweds”, from Lois Lane # 25 (May, 1961). After Lois and the Man of Steel tie the knot, they appear at a formal reception as the President and Mrs. Kennedy offer their congratulations.
(As fate would tragically have it, that panel also depicted the second Silver-Age President to appear in full---then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, standing in the receiving line with Lady Bird.)
This occasion heralded the beginning of a series of Presidential appearances in Mort Weisinger's "Superman family" of magazines, at one point reaching such a frequency that Kennedy could reasonably been considered a member of the Man of Steel's supporting cast.
JFK’s first appearance in an in-canon DC tale came in “The Jinx of Metropolis”, from Jimmy Olsen # 56 (Oct., 1961). It amounted to a cameo appearance in which he accepted from Superman a meteor-repulsing device from Krypton, the Man of Steel's contribution to America's space effort.
Mort Weisinger gave the President more face time in Action Comics # 283 (Dec., 1961). The backdrop of "The Red Kryptonite Menace" was a summit conference between JFK and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The reader would discover, however, that the on-camera appearances of the two world leaders was a sham---the "Kennedy" and "Khrushchev" encountered by Superman were actually two Durlan villains from the future in disguise.
It was worth the deception, though, to see artist Curt Swan’s smoothly spot-on renditions of the two world leaders.
Kennedy's next appearance in DC comics was a "real" one and took place in the milestone Action Comics # 285 (Feb., 1962), the issue in which Superman revealed the existence of his cousin Supergirl to the world. As part of the ceremonies, Supergirl was presented to the President and the First Lady at a reception on the White House lawn. In the second chapter of the story, President Kennedy requests the aid of the Girl of Steel in combating the threat of the Infinite Monster, thus further solidifying the ties between JFK and the Superman family.
Meanwhile, here in the real world, for thirteen days in October, 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union perched on the brink of atomic war. The Soviet installation of nuclear missiles on the hostile island nation of Cuba, a mere ninety miles from the closest American soil, posed a clear and present threat. President Kennedy’s unflinching, determined response ultimately forced the Soviet forces to go home and take their missiles with them.
Even as Americans mopped their brows in relief, they acknowledged the young President’s courage and his popularity soared. So much so that, Mort Weisinger took the remarkable step of taking the results of the upcoming 1964 Presidential race for granted.
The Legion of Super-Heroes tale in Adventure Comics # 305 (Feb., 1963) included a character rejected for Legion membership---Antennae Boy, who possessed the ability to audibly receive radio transmissions from the past, present, and future. During a demonstration of his power, one of the intercepted signals proclaimed:
Bulletin! Kennedy re-elected President of U.S.!
Over at 625 Madison Avenue, Marvel Comics was slower to jump on the Kennedy bandwagon. JFK made a one-panel cameo (or at least his hair did) in Fantastic Four # 17 (Aug., 1963) and another in Journey Into Mystery # 96 (Sep., 1963).
In Tales to Astonish, where it was a rare Iron Man story in which the armoured hero wasn’t beset by Communist adversaries, the President’s name was often invoked. Defeated Red spies demanded to know how Iron Man was able to thwart their plans.
“Does Kennedy tell Khrushchev?” was Shellhead’s frequent rejoinder.
Meanwhile, DC fans had responded positively to seeing Superman and Supergirl interact with the President. Mort Weisinger followed suit by upgrading JFK’s appearances from simple walk-ons to taking an integral rôle in the plots. Curt Swan was handed a script for “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy”, a story promoting the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. The story would appear in an upcoming issue of Superman.
Until then, JFK would make his most substantive appearance to date in Action Comics # 309 (Feb., 1964). The story within, “The Superman Super-Spectacular”, was intended to be a landmark tale in the relationship between the Man of Steel and the Man in the Oval Office. History, though, would give it significance for another, more tragic reason.
“The Superman Super-Spectacular” begins with the Metropolis Marvel responding to a request for aid from the White House. However, the successful completion of his task leads to another mission, which in turn leads to another, and then another, and yet another. At the end of his busy day, Superman receives the thanks of a grateful Commander-in-Chief. Unknown to Superman, his jam-packed schedule was secretly arranged by President Kennedy and Daily Planet editor Perry White, to keep the super-hero too busy to uncover a well-planned and well-deserved surprise on his behalf.
Lured to a television studio, Superman is astonished to learn that he is the featured subject of the television show Our American Heroes (Earth-One’s version of This Is Your Life). During the live broadcast, a parade of Superman’s friends and associates, going back to his boyhood, appear to pay him tribute.
The Man of Steel realises that Clark Kent will be expected to appear. Appearing as both Superman and Clark at the same time was usually not an insurmountable problem for him. But this time events conspire to thwart his usual solutions.
Lois Lane and Lana Lang, realising that Superman will be in just such a bind, equip themselves with a robot-detecting device, to prevent the Man of Steel from employing one of his mechanical doubles. The Batman also appears as a guest, but as a gag, has used heavy make-up to make his features resemble a Bizarro. The Legion of Super-Heroes arrives to honour Superman, but an emergency summons the team back to the thirtieth century preventing Chameleon Boy from impersonating Clark.
And by the time he remembers his two Kandorian doubles, Van-Zee and Vol-Don, they are already on stage in their rôles as members of the Look-Alike Squad and too tiny to double for Clark Kent.
Superman is running out of options.
Nevertheless, Clark Kent shows up for the programme’s finale. To their dismay, Lois and Lana’s detector shows that Clark is not a robot, but a flesh-and-blood human. And the readers are challenged to deduce how Superman and Clark Kent were able to appear together.
Most readers probably didn’t think on it overmuch, but simply turned to the remaining four panels of the story to learn what kind of trick the Man of Steel pulled off this time. But, this time, it was quite a trick.
“Well, Superman, I don’t need the make-up and glasses any longer,” says the mystery stand-in, once the two of them are alone. “Did I make a good ‘Clark Kent’?”
“You were perfect, Mr. President!”
That’s right. The man behind the Clark Kent guise was the President of the United States.
With that privileged information, President Kennedy entered rare air in the Superman mythos. Jimmy Olsen didn’t know the Man of Steel’s secret identity. Nor did Lois Lane or Perry White or most of the regular and semi-regular characters. It even distinguished Kennedy from the other Chief Executives, as no other U.S. President had ever been entrusted with the knowledge that Superman was Clark Kent.
This was exactly the fun sort of tale that die-hard Superman fans got a kick out of. Unfortunately, real life spoiled any chance of readers viewing “The Superman Super-Spectacular” as fun.
On 22 November 1963, a few days after that issue went to press, President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas.
The horrendous act sent ripples of shock and grief around the world. And in the offices of DC, it created a particular quandary. Thousands of copies of Action Comics # 309 had already been sent to the distributors. It was too late to recall them, and on 26 December 1963, Action Comics # 309 hit the stands.
It was a caprice of fate and nothing more, but DC feared that the story, particularly arriving while Kennedy’s death was still fresh in the minds of the public, would open the company up to charges of bad taste and capitalising on a national tragedy. Mort Weisinger hunkered down for the barrage of letters he knew would come.
To Mort’s credit, he took the bull by the horns and printed several of them in the Metropolis Mailbag of Action Comics # 312 (May, 1964).
Some fans were loudly indignant, such as Felice Michetti, of Yonkers, New York:
However, in the story, “The Superman Super-Spectacular”, I was greatly dismayed by the outcome of this story. I think that at a solemn and grave time as this your story was in bad taste. Surely the use of the late President John F. Kennedy could have been avoided.
Richard Allen Pachter, of Brooklyn, New York, was at least tolerant:
I’m sure “The Superman Super-Spectacular” was printed before our great national leader was brutally assassinated. So before you apologize, I’ll forgive you for having our late and beloved President John F. Kennedy portrayed in this story.
It is unfortunate that this great story had to be marred by revealing at the climax that the “surprise guest” was a man who is now dead. While this did take away from the enjoyment of the story, I hope that none of your readers will be offended by this seeming disrespect. I hope they will remember national magazines are prepared many months in advance of the publication date and that you did not exploit the President’s death.
And to DC’s relief, some actually found favour with the tale. John C. Sherwood, of Marshall, Michigan, was one:
Your story was wonderful. It superbly shows that our late President was, indeed, a great man who would always help a friend in trouble. Thanks for this splendid story.
Weisinger responded to all of these comments with an honest, straightforward explanation:
The issue of ACTION COMICS featuring the story in which President Kennedy came to the aid of Superman was already printed, and in the hands of our distributors, when word of the tragic assassination broke. Copies mailed to thousands of our subscribers were already in transit and it was physically impossible to recall them.
Within 24 hours, this issue became a collector’s item and, in many areas, sold at premium prices. Although many news dealers asked that we go back to press to fill the demand, we refused to do so . . . .
We are thankful for the numerous readers who wrote us, explaining that they understood that our magazines go to press months in advance, and that we had no control over the released issues.
“Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy”, written by Bill Finger and rendered by Curt Swan and George Klein, had been scheduled to appear in Superman # 169 (May, 1964). Instead, another story appeared in its place. Because the tale had been heavily promoted by DC---it had been prepared at the request of the Kennedy White House---Weisinger knew there would be questions. So, the letter column of the upcoming issue of Superman---# 168 (Apr., 1964)---was replaced with a memoriam written by Mort himself.
Here, he explained the withdrawal of “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy”:
The finished story, which showed Superman cooperating closely with President Kennedy, was scheduled to appear in our next issue. Because of the President’s untimely end, however, we have cancelled its appearance. Instead, we plan to present the original artwork to his gallant widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
In the social attitude of the time, the readership clearly felt that DC’s intentions were sincere and heartfelt, and the company suffered no bad press or serious backlash from the public.
It wasn’t quite the end of John F. Kennedy’s Silver-Age participation in DC comics, though.
A month after the announcement that “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy” was being shelved, officials from the new White House administration contacted DC and requested that the story see print. President Johnson wanted it published “as a tribute to his great predecessor.” More important, as far as DC was concerned, the Kennedy family gave its consent.
However, there was a problem. The original artwork to the story, the pages drawn and inked by Swan and Klein, could not be located. Either the art had been given to Mrs, Kennedy, as Weisinger had indicated, or it had been simply lost. Another possibility was that the discarded pages had been appropriated, as memorabilia.
Unfortunately, Swan and Klein were waist-deep in other DC projects, and with time of the essence, utility artist Al Plastino was drafted to re-draw the story.
Plastino’s art had always been journeyman, at best. And he was fond of taking short-cuts, such as constantly reëmploying the same stock poses. It didn’t help any that he was working under a very tight deadline. Consequently, when “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy” finally saw print in Superman # 170 (Jul., 1964), the results looked rushed and uninspired.
In death, Kennedy's presidency attained a lustre that it probably would have lacked had he lived. DC continued to honor the myth of "Camelot" by making reverential references to the slain President. In "The Infamous Four", from Jimmy Olsen # 89 (Dec., 1965), the intrepid cub reporter, on a mission to Earth's future, unmasks a gang of alien criminals when they fail to observe a nationwide moment of silence on the centennial of Kennedy's death. Meanwhile, over in Lois Lane # 62 (Jan., 1966), Lois, observing JFK's bust in the Senate hall, reflects that Kennedy "might have become our greatest president if not for an assassin's bullet."
John F. Kennedy’s time as a de facto member of Superman’s supporting cast led to one lasting change. It marked the end of the old traditon of obscuring the identity of the sitting President. JFK’s successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, were depicted openly, in both name and likeness, whenever they appeared in a Silver-Age comic.
Not everything had changed, though. The stories still treated the man in the White House with dignity and respect.
It would take something called “Watergate” to do away with that convention.