Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Presidents in Comics: The Golden Age of Politics

Welcome back to our week-long overview of American presidents in comic books. Yesterday we gave you just a tiny taste of some of the juicy excitement to come, but today we're ready to jump in with both feet as we start our examination right at the beginning -- with the birth of comics and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

From the get-go, comics began featuring Roosevelt in cameo roles, dropping him into titles like Action Comics #15 (1939) and other patriotic themed books, such as Captain America (where he makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it psuedo-cameo in #2 that was expanded years later in a long retcon that explained Cap's new round shield). In those early days, the president was as much a symbol as the heroes he was interacting with, such as when he formed the Justice Society, an event that, again, has been greatly expanded upon in the decades since. During the war years, when our nation's enemies such as Hitler and Hirohito were frequently appearing in comics as villains for the bad guys to defeat, appearances by Roosevelt were an obvious counter, with the president usually commending the heroes, bestowing some sort of thanks upon the hero for their good service or providing them orders for their next mission.

This kind of benevolent view of the president as the nation's paternal protector continued mostly unabated through the rest of the Golden Age and into the Silver Age, and in turn, the presidents themselves often used the popular medium as a way to speak directly to their constituents. Starting with Roosevelt, presidents and presidential candidates alike took to issuing comics depicting their life story and communicating their platform and record. Truman and Eisenhower, for example, both issued comics telling their life stories.

While Eisenhower perhaps lost a bit of popularity in the comic world thanks to the government inquiries that nearly destroyed the medium, comics still treated presidents as special, untouchable guest stars, almost always taking pains to show both the president himself and the presidency as a whole in a positive light.

Perhaps the most famous example of this, and probably the most famous appearance by a sitting president in comics history, took place in Action Comics #309, when John F. Kennedy showed up for a guest spot in the lead Superman story. In the story, not only does President Kennedy team up with Superman, he also becomes one of the only people in history to know Superman's secret identity. But, as Superman says, this is okay because "if I can't trust the president of the United States, who can I trust?"

That's a question that would become tinged with with irony less than a decade later, but at the time it was just par for the course. Also ironic (if that's the word), and the reason for this comic's lasting fame, is the fact that it hit newsstands a week after Kennedy's death; DC claimed that it was too far along in the distribution process to hold up release. Whether or not that is true, DC did hold back release of a planned physical fitness issue that the publisher had developed with the Kennedy administration, though they did finally issue it in the pages of 1964's Superman #170.

Following Kennedy's assassination, and thanks in part to the rise of Marvel, presidents began to take a larger role in comics. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, appeared as his predecessor had in the pages of Action Comics among other places at DC. Over at Marvel, though, he was a bit more active than past presidents had been, issuing a full pardon for the Hulk in Tales of Suspense #88, for example, and personally calling together the legendary Howling Commandos for a special Vietnam missing in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Special #3.

Even then, though, and despite the growing clamor over Vietnam, the president still commanded respect, and these appearances hew pretty close to the established norm for presidents in comics. That would all change, though, in 1969 when a new supervillain appeared that would eclipse even Dr. Doom or the Joker: President Richard Nixon.

Tomorrow: Nixon! Has any other president ever been as influential in the comic world as Richard Nixon? From his appearances in Kirby's Fourth World to the commentary in Watchmen to his legendary appearance as a Captain America arch-villain, Nixon's the One... tomorrow!