This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most infamous days in world history: November 22nd, 1963. Based on the violent and deadly events of that day, the names John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald will be forever linked.
Lee Harvey Oswald is one of the more notorious figures in world history. The historical brief is that he was “the man who shot JFK”, although saying that in those simple terms amounts to a political stance in the world of conspiracy and intrigue that has surrounded the Kennedy assassination for the past fifty years. As someone with a longtime interest in the greatest historical mystery of the 20th century, I’ve known his name for about half of those fifty years. And for most of that time, as a good and faithful conspiracy theorist, I’ve discarded it, tossed it aside, and ridiculed it in favour of large, elaborate explanations for why and how this US President was shot to death in Dealey Plaza. Following the trend in Kennedy-assassination lore, in recent years my attention has turned back to the much-maligned Lee Oswald. Once you start sifting through the information and memories that cover his short but singular life, you come to know the character of this man who, I’m now convinced, had motive, means, and opportunity to carry off the crime. But it’s only been lately that I’ve been able to add “comic-book character” to Oswald’s list of achievements.
It makes a certain sense. JFK was, of course, a larger-than-life, airbrushed American hero, with several comic appearances of his own, even within his own lifetime. Every super-hero needs a super-villain. I suspect one of the motivations behind conspiracy theorists is that, as a villain, Oswald doesn’t seem up to the job. So we manufacture a rogue’s gallery of suitable figures: LBJ, Clay Shaw, Guy Bannister, David Ferrie (who could easily pass for a Batman villain without any enhancement), Fidel Castro, Carlos Marcello, Howard Hunt, George HW Bush, Jack Ruby, Nikita Khrushchev, the CIA, the FBI, and about a dozen others. We spin them around in our minds and somehow assemble the Legion of Doom, until we have an enemy worthy of our shining hero. Not this small, petty man with his cheap rifle and his $1.25/hr job at a book depository.
But oddly, in the Kennedy assassination in comics, the character that keeps coming up is Oswald. He appears mostly in that wonderful sci-fi cliche scenario where a character (or characters) travels back in time and stops the assassination. Avengers West Coast #60 is fairly typical, in which a villain travels back to save JFK and history turns to his favour. In scenarios like that, Oswald is usually played as a hapless pawn of history, the stereotypical “angry lone nut”. In Oz Squad Special #1 from December of 1995, Oswald is hunted by the men in black, and the Oz Squad solves the mystery. (That particular story arc was never concluded.) He appears in the Before Watchmen series — specifically Len Wein’s Ozymandias #4, “Shattered Visage” — pretty much as part of the scenery, as the action swirls around the characters Ozymandias, the Comedian, and JFK.
Probably the most interesting appearance of Oswald in comics is in DC’s recent “The New 52″, where, in Justice League #24, he is no less than “President Oswald” — on Earth-3, of course, but that’s still an interesting turnaround. (Reviewer Minhquan Nguyen asks the obvious question: Does that mean JFK is some sort of assassin on Earth-3?)
It’s interesting that none of these comics seem to attempt to come to terms with Oswald’s true character. In truth, as you can read in any number of books (I like Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale), Lee Harvey Oswald lived a fairly unique and interesting life. Although he only made it to 24 years old, he had lived in both the northern and southern US (giving him that strange accent, combining his native southern drawl with a New York tough-guy flavour), been a US marine stationed in Japan, lived in the Soviet Union for two years (renouncing his US citizenship), come back to the US with a Russian wife and moved in the strange underworld of New Orleans the summer before November 1963. Very few American men of his age, in his time, can claim such a widely adventurous life. Although he had very little education, and his dyslexia made his writing seem less impressive than it was, he developed his mind in some admirable ways. He had strong political convictions, but mostly he seemed to be in it for himself, greatly entitled, frustrated by the class of his birth but determined to make something of his life. And then, in the final act, he stepped on the stage of history for the first and last time, involved in three assassinations over three days, one of which was his own.
JFK’s killing is one of those indisputable turning points in history. At least in our shared cultural memory, it lies on fulcrum of the 1960s. No matter how you feel about Kennedy personally and politically, his death presents history with a distinct “before and after”. So this has provided, in addition to the kaleidoscopically elaborate alternate explanations put forward for the murder, more than ample fodder for creators of speculative fiction, from Gene Roddenberry (who pitched a “Kirk saves Kennedy” story for the first Star Trek movie) to Stephen King (whose recent time-travel novel 11-22-63 pulls together the latest research). Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination is one of those events where you can imagine any number of super-heroes and villains standing in the shadows. Whether it’s the Comedian pulling the trigger behind the grassy knoll in Watchmen, or Professor X freezing time just before Zapruder’s film turns over and JFK’s head explodes in that grotesque pink mist we’re forced to re-watch every November, it’s one of those times you can’t imagine the X-Men or any number of other major characters not involving themselves.
This is rich material for any storyteller. There’s a great comic book to be written about the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. I’d like to see how a talented writer and artist team could present it and add it to the great tradition of biographical and historical comics.
(to be continued…)