by KC Carlson
This coming weekend (as of this writing on 20 November 13) is a confluence of 50th Anniversaries of two (or maybe three) major pop culture events. 22 Nov 63, of course, was one of the saddest days in American history, for those of us alive then. November 22 is the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a terrible tragedy which has since been turned into a cottage industry of conspiracy theory books, movies, TV shows, comic books, and items too unbelievable to believe. (I remember one of the kids in my neighborhood had a bronze coin bank replica of the Dealey Plaza assassination site. This is where he saved his allowance and stray coins to later buy comic books.) Those of us who were alive then remember that the entire country basically shut down, went home, and watched the unbelievable events of the weekend (including another assassination two days later) on television.
About four weeks later, Action Comics #309 was scheduled to hit comic racks, featuring an ill-timed story featuring President Kennedy helping Superman protect his secret identity. Back in those days, comic books were prepared so far ahead of publication (unlike today) that this issue was already in the distribution pipeline and unable to be recalled. DC later canceled another Kennedy/Superman story promoting Kennedy’s President’s Council on Physical Fitness, but President Lyndon Johnson insisted that it appear as a tribute to Kennedy. It ran in Superman #170 in 1964, with an explanation about the story.
Most Americans didn’t realize it until years (or decades) later, but the day after the Kennedy shooting (23 Nov 63) was the debut of Doctor Who on the BBC. Originally intended as a children’s show, the story of a crotchety time traveler was more popular when featuring monsters, particularly the almost-as-well-known-as-the-title-character Daleks, and the program became a worldwide phenomenon once it was exported around the world.
Doctor Who was shown in the US beginning in the 1970s, primarily on PBS stations, and became a cult favorite of science fiction fans as the character regenerated through seven actors and a large number of (often attractive female) companions. Relaunched in 2005 with more modern writing and acting (as well as a good deal of previously-forbidden romance), the show has gained new sophistication and a growing audience. More popular than ever, it has a huge worldwide viewership. This weekend, there are a number of new Doctor Who programs and retrospectives to honor the 50th Anniversary and to preview the much-anticipated Doctor Who 2013 Christmas Special (airing on Christmas Day).
Of course, Doctor Who has a long history of comic book appearances in the UK, running since the 1960s (although early stories have challenged established continuity). Beginning in 1979, Marvel UK published Doctor Who Monthly (later Weekly), and some stories were reprinted by Marvel Comics in America. These feature several significant comic creators including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, and John Ridgeway. Recently, new US Doctor Who comic books have been published by IDW, although their license expires at the end of this year.
TV viewers this weekend will be hard pressed to find programs not about assassinations, TARDISes, single bullet theories, Daleks, the Warren Commission, or Cybermen.
YEAH YEAH YEAH!
A third major pop culture phenomenon is associated with both of the above, but due to a long-evolving international history, a single start date is difficult to be determined. 22 Nov 63 is the British release date for the Beatles’ second album, With the Beatles (and its much-imitated album cover), and Beatlemania was already well in full bloom in England (the Beatles’ home country) in 1963. Not so much in America, however. At least not yet.
That would happen on 9 Feb 64, when the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (which was watched by so many people there were rumors — more likely urban legends — that crime rates actually declined for an hour). People were primed to watch them, as their music had finally started to be released as singles in the US.
2013 is the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles’ “arrival” in England, and 2014 will feature many Beatle-y 50th anniversaries in America. Because pop culture is nothing if not gregarious, the Beatles are also associated with both the Kennedy Assassination — their sunny outlook and poppy songs apparently dragged America out of their assassination doldrums, according to editorials and commentators on slow news days back in the day — and Doctor Who. The Doctor and the Beatles have numerous fictional connections and one real one. A Doctor Who episode (the first part of “The Chase”) has the only known existing footage of a BBC Beatles performance of “Ticket to Ride”, which was ironically lost in a video purge by the BBC. (Ironically because the BBC also purged many early episodes of Doctor Who — some of which are still missing.)
SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE COMIC BOOK SERIES ARE NOW 50 YEARS OLD
Marvel Comics had some of their biggest launches during this era, including Avengers #1 and X-Men #1 in 1963 (possibly on the same day, 2 Jul 63), and those titles are now celebrating their 50th Anniversaries. The original Captain America returned just six months later (3 Jan 64) in the pages of Avengers #4, and Daredevil #1 debuted just one month after that (on 4 Feb 64, although some say this was originally planned to debut months earlier, with the X-Men, but was delayed when artist Bill Everett was overcommitted with work). Cap was eventually spun out into his own feature in Tales of Suspense (sharing the title with Iron Man) and got his own book in 1968. All four features have been long-term successes (with some ebb and flow) for Marvel ever since.
26 March 64 was the day that many Batman fans (and DC executives) had been waiting years for — both Batman and Detective Comics were moved from Jack Schiff to fan-favorite editor Julius Schwartz. Schwartz (and DC management) wanted big changes, including new creative talents and the wresting away of some of creator Bob Kane’s control of the characters he (co-) created. The first “New Look” Batman comic (Detective Comics #327) went on sale 26 Mar 64 — exactly 300 issues after the character’s debut.
After the Comics Code was initiated in the 1950s (and DC Comics was a major supporter), Batman lost much of the mystery and darkness of his “creature of the night” origins. Schiff lazily shifted the character to being a poor man’s Superman imitation, down to the Batman “Family” of characters including poorly defined female characters, imps, and dogs, just like Mort Weisinger’s Superman “Family” of titles — which were successful because Superman was a science-fiction-based, fanciful, kid-friendly character, 180 degrees from Batman’s original interpretation. Other than the gadgets in his utility belt, Batman was never science fiction, and he never really worked in the kid-friendly time-travel and interplanetary adventures of the Schiff era, although compared to some of the absolutely weird Batman tales (Zebra Batman! Bat-Boy!) to come, the SF-based stores were often masterpieces by comparison. (Grant Morrison ultimately reminded us of that. See Batman: The Black Casebook TPB for reprints of the best of this era’s Batman stories, as selected by Morrison.)
Schwartz and his new Batman talents (including artist Carmine Infantino and writers Gardner Fox and John Broome) had some work to do. They couldn’t just turn the Batman back into a dark avenger of the night because of the Comics Code (although this would eventually happen much later), so this New-Look period became the era of the Darknight Detective, with emphasis on the characters using their intelligence to solve crimes and defeat foes.
Unfortunately, the Batman TV show’s debut shortly after the Bat-reboot, and DC’s management’s insistence on mimicking its silliness as much as possible, derailed the New Look before it could completely take hold, making the Bat-books of the 1960s very schizophrenic reads.
Things would get better, however, as Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and others managed to bring “atmosphere” back to the character by the late 1960s, eventually returning some of the darker elements of the original 1930s Batman. (And old-school Bob Kane and his “ghosts” would be forever phased out by this time.)
Also turning 50 soon: Hasbro Toys’ G.I. Joe action figure. Instant Replay, invented by CBS director Tony Verna and first used in the 1963 Army-Navy Game, which revolutionized sports television. The TV game show Jeopardy, created by Merv Griffin and hosted by Art Fleming.
My favorite act of civil disobedience is also 50 years old — UK Pirate Radio, which began on 29 Mar 64, when Radio Caroline began broadcasting non-stop rock-and-roll music to England and beyond from a boat anchored just outside UK territorial waters. (The tightly controlled BBC Radio only played rock/pop music a couple of hours per week.) A 2009 movie called Pirate Radio (The Boat That Rocked in the UK) was financially unsuccessful, but it is now a cult classic. Written and directed by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Blackadder), the film features an eccentric, mostly British cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman is the standout American) and an excellent rock/pop soundtrack. The history is fictionalized in the film a bit, but you’ll get the gist of it in this outrageous slice of pop music history.
And finally, celebrity comic book fan Nicolas Cage turns 50 on January 7, 2014. Happy Birthday, Nic!
KC CARLSON SEZ: For more of the crazy connections between comic books and the Beatles, pop on over to this installment of Dial B for Blog for an excellent rundown of Beatles-inspired covers, as well as the origins of DC Comics’ Swing With Scooter, a comic series inspired, in part, by the Fab Four. WARNING: Blog may play Beatles music at you as it uploads.
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.