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It was a bright, sunny Friday like this one, 50 years ago, that John F. Kennedy met his end in Dallas, Texas. This is, of course, well known, and one of the reasons why his death is such a central memory in our collective sense of history is that he was a peculiar kind of president when he was alive. For one thing, he was the first US president actually born in the 20th century. (Let’s hope it doesn’t take us until 2060 to elect someone born in this century!) His image was that of a young, virile, vigorous man who was going to get America “moving” again into the bright, sunny future. With his young wife and children, images of a fit New England yachtsman flowed easily from the Kennedy compound. This material was ripe for portrayal in the Silver Age comics of the time, and even before his death, Kennedy was made into a comic book hero.
This comic, John F. Kennedy: New US President, issued in 1961 shortly after his election, tells his life story in the four-colour panels of a wholesome, childhood hero. How he “learned much about government and leadership…” from his grandfather (“Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald). How he went to public schools in Boston. Sailing, swimming, Harvard Yard; all the trappings of a young Prince. Kennedy, in this account, was a “serious student who worked hard at his studies”. Who enjoyed working at the American embassy in London for his father, then serving as US Ambassador in the grim years leading up to World War II. Next comes his famous adventures during the war (which provides for the most exciting frames, showing the sinking of PT-109), then meeting Jackie, serving in congress, and ascending to the presidency.
As a comic clearly meant to promote the character of JFK, particularly to young children, the book does the job capably. Like most of the media of the day, it glosses over or ignores the hard truths of Kennedy’s life. He learned, for example, many things at his father’s and grandfather’s knee, including the art of philandering and womanizing. He was, in fact, an indifferent student, more interested in girls and parties than studying. Especially before the war, he reveled in his life as a rich playboy, leaving it to his older brother, Joe Jr, to take the family business seriously. His numerous health problems (detailed in Robert Dallek’s biography An Unfinished Life) are of course never mentioned, nor would they be until many years later. In short, we now know that Kennedy’s public persona was a fabrication, a media creation, “spun” by early versions of what we would now call a spin doctor. It obviously worked like a charm, as the image put forth in this comic book suggests; we still tend to think of him as a young, fit, intelligent, and charming man cut down in his prime 50 years ago today.
Another notorious Kennedy comic appearance was Action Comics #309. Scheduled for release in November of 1963, JFK poses as Clark Kent so Superman can take off on an important mission. Recalled after the assassination, it was re-issued in February of 1964, and it’s still something of a collector’s item. In an interesting bit of current news, the artist for that issue, Al Plastino, now 91 years old, recently successfully petitioned for his original artwork to be returned to him, so it can be displayed in the Kennedy Library, a fitting tribute to this president’s place in popular culture. (There is also an interesting parallel here with Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove, which was also scheduled for a fall 1963 release but pushed to 1964 after the assassination and had the final line, “Our fine young President is dead!” removed for obvious reasons of tact.)
And John Kennedy is still making appearances in comics today, most interestingly in JFK: Secret Ops, a Kickstarter-funded noir-ish book by St. Louis artist Craig Frank. Here, JFK survives the assassination but turns rogue and hunts down all those involved in the conspiracy. Moody and interesting, the book seems like John Kennedy meets Breaking Bad.
One has to wonder: would Eisenhower, LBJ, or Nixon get similar treatment? It does say something about the power of media spin and manipulation, as well as the strange circumstances of history, that John F. Kennedy remains the bright, young, shining star of American politics and can still light up the pages of a comic with the best of them.