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Superman's Pal, JFK

 

One of the Legendary Comic Books of the Silver Age featured a cameo by President John F. Kennedy. Part of its legend comes from the fact that it hit the newsstands just a week after JFK was assassinated.

The comic was already at the printers when the assassination occurred and it was too late for the company to cancel the issue. They were afraid the public would consider the comic to be in bad taste under the circumstances. I don't know if the public did, but in retrospect, the issue is a quirky piece of comics history, as well as a sad commentary on how times have changed.

It starts off as a typical Silver Age Superman story. Superman is expected to attend a public ceremony in his honor. All in the line of duty for a hero as beloved as Superman. The problem is that Clark Kent has been selected as one of the people to share the stage with him.

Now normally this would be no biggie; Superman would just use one of his robot duplicates to impersonate him or maybe ask his buddy Bruce Wayne to pose as Clark Kent. Except that Batman is also supposed to be at the event honoring him; and Lois Lane has set up metal detectors at all the entrances to the hall as one of her wacky schemes to prove that Clark is really Superman. Dang that woman!

So what's a Man of Steel to do?

The story leaves the reader in suspense until the very last page. Superman appears at the event, and shakes the hands of both Batman and Clark Kent. Lois fails to detect any robot impostors. How did Superman pull it off?

At the very end we see Superman going to thank his secret accomplice who helped by posing as Clark: John F. Kennedy.

(Part of me has to wonder if that would really work, if Kennedy really could convincingly impersonate a 6-foot plus Midwestern farm-boy. I have this mental image of Lois saying, “You can cut the phoney ‘Bahston accent’ any time now, Clark; no one is laughing!”)

In the last panel, Superman tells his super-confidant: "I knew I wasn't risking my secret identity with you ! After all, if I can't trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?"

Comics guru Tony Isabella has cited this issue as his standard for a good president. A good president, he says, is one to whom Superman can confidently divulge his Secret Identity. Sadly, we have had very few in my lifetime whom I think Superman could trust.

But for the heck of it, let’s play that game. Granted, this is going to be highly subjective and open to argument, but what the hey: Which presidents could Superman trust.?

We’ll leave off Kennedy; I was barely a toddler when he died; besides, we’ve already established that Superman trusted him. Next.

I don’t think he’d trust Johnson. Although I think that Superman would approve of many of LBJ’s social programs, Johnson was also a shrewd horse-dealer. Any president in whom Supes confided would face the temptation to take advantage of that confidence and use Superman to his own ends. And I could see Johnson doing that.

I don’t see Supes trusting Tricky Dick at all. Apart from Nixon’s antipathy towards reporters, trust is a two-way street and I don’t see Nixon bringing himself to trust Superman. He’d be more likely to have the FBI investigate him to discover his Secret Identity. Heck, Nixon might even put Lex Luthor on his payroll, and keep in mind that this was the era where Luthor was an Evil Scientist and not a Respected Zillionaire Industrialist.

I can’t really say about Ford. He seemed to me like a decent enough guy, but he really wasn’t president long enough to give a good sense of what kind of person he was He’s doomed to be a footnote of history, I’m afraid.

Jimmy Carter is one I think Superman could trust. Carter always struck me as a man with a great deal of moral integrity, both as president and his career afterwards. You can argue about how good a president he was, but I think he was and is a good man.

Reagan… not so much. Don’t get me wrong; I liked Reagan. I drew political cartoons for my college newspaper during his administration and he was fun to draw. But whenever he talked about Values and Morality, I always had a sense that he was playing to the audience, giving them what they wanted to hear. There’s an old saying in the Theater that the most important part of acting is Sincerity… and if you can fake that you’ve got it made. Ronald Reagan was a very good actor. I like to think that he did have a strong sense of decency, but I think he more often used it to justify his ideology rather than to inform it.

Unlike some of the previous presidents, Reagan appeared numerous times in the comic books himself. (Even not counting REAGAN’S RAIDERS, an earnest fan comic of the ‘80s in which Ronald and his closest advisers gain super-powers and punch out the Foes of America). I can think of two instances in which he is shown directly interacting with Superman.

In Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Superman is portrayed as the President’s lap dog, running errands for him and clandestinely fighting America’s enemies. In Miller’s dystopian future, all super-heroes have been forced into retirement or hiding. Superman’s arrangement with the President allows him to continue doing some good in the world, but he clearly resents it..

Another take on the idea was given in a FIRESTORM storyline by John Ostrander during the ‘80s in which Firestorm decides to use his powers to disarm both the US and the USSR. There is a scene in one issue where President Reagan summons Superman to the Oval Office in order to ask him to take Firestorm down. Superman respectfully declines, saying that he’s not entirely sure the boy is wrong, and that it’s an idea he’s though about himself; (a cute allusion to the well-intentioned but badly-executed SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE).

I do think, however, that Superman could trust George Bush père. The elder Bush was a former director of the CIA, not to mention a Skull-and-Bonesman back in his Yale days. I think he understands the importance of keeping a secret and would respect Superman’s. Although I didn’t vote for him, I always felt Bush Sr. was a man of integrity.

Bill Clinton, less so. It’s been said that Clinton regarded JFK as a role model; if so, he imitated Kennedy’s less admirable qualities. I think he did all right as president… but not nearly as good as he might have had he not let his id get the better of him. I don’t think he’s quite dependable enough for Superman to trust with his Secret Identity. (Although in a curious coincidence, it has long been established – long before Bill Clinton was elected -- that Clark Kent’s home address in Metropolis is an apartment on Clinton Avenue).

I don’t think Bush fils is terribly reliable either. Like Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush likes to speak of his religious faith, but unlike Carter, I’ve never felt the sense that this faith translated either into his policies, or (which is more relevant to this little game) his personal life.

Which brings us down to Barack Obama. I suppose here my own political biases, as if they weren’t already obvious, are evident. I like Obama, and I think he’s a decent man. But even more than that, he is himself a comic book fan. He is our first Presidential Geek-In-Chief. Whether you like or hate his policies, you have to give him that. Some of our previous presidents have seemed like comic book characters, but none of them have been fans. Obama is.

If Superman ever met the President in person, as he occasionally has in the comics, he would doubtless say, “It is an honor to meet you, sir.” That is because Ma and Pa Kent raised him right, and taught him to show respect. Superman would show respect to the office regardless of his opinion of the office-holder and regardless of who Clark Kent voted for. I think Obama alone, of the presidents I’ve listed, would reply, “No, Superman, the honor is all mine.” He would certainly keep Superman’s secret, and would take pleasure in that responsibility.


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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.