A Tribute to the of
I recently had the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. on business. As I was sitting at Reagan National Airport, waiting on my plane I enjoyed the view of the Capitol dome and it got me to thinking about a Superman story that just might be a good choice to review this time around.
Remember the introduction to the old Superman cartoons? I think even the radio serials and the television series had the same basic phrasing. "...who fights a never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!" A little jingoistic perhaps, but what the heck? I tend to be a little jingoistic sometimes and after all, the character of Superman was conceived in this great land of ours and grew up in America's heartland on a farm. How much more American can an alien from another world be? Therefore it seems only natural that the writers at DC would choose to have their #1 hero assist none other than the President of the United States on one of his favorite programs geared toward America's youth. The story was presented in Superman #170 from July of 1964 and it was titled "Superman's Mission for President Kennedy!" Story writing credits go to Bill Finger (the seldom acknowledged co-creator of Batman) and E. Nelson Bridwell--under the direction of Editor Mort Weisinger. Pencils and inks were done by Al Plastino.
The story begins with the splash page (+ original art) depicting a large outline of President Kennedy in black and white over the Capitol dome with Superman in the lower right hand corner of the panel looking back toward it as he flies away, a somber look on his face. The text box explains all: "This story, prepared in close cooperation with the late President Kennedy, was scheduled for publication in Superman No. 168 when word of his tragic assassination reached us. We immediately took it off the press and substituted other material. However, White House officials have since informed us that President Johnson wanted it published, as a tribute to his great predecessor. And so we dedicate to the memory of our late, beloved President this plea for his physical fitness program, to which he was wholeheartedly devoted during his life."
The story opens in the unlikely setting of Switzerland where some U.S. and European exchange students on a biking tour are trapped due to an avalanche. Superman, of course, flies to the rescue and clears away the debris, freeing the students. Meanwhile ace television reporter Lana Lang has arrived on the scene to cover the story. After the excitement of the exploits of the Man of Steel, the grateful European students continue their ride while their U.S. counterparts, feeling fatigued, must pause for a rest before going any further. Lana dutifully reports this to her viewers, one of whom is sitting in the White House. President Kennedy decides on the spot to enlist Superman to help with the problem. Superman quickly heeds the summons and as the President explains the assignment, he becomes more enthused about being a part of things. He mentions that our forefathers were hardy folks who chopped trees and tilled the soil, but with the advances of the modern age our youth are getting soft. He produces a photo of Colonel John Glenn, who attributed the success of his orbital flight to his own physical and mental toughness as much as anything. A worthy role model for the youth of the land. The President's final comment before sending Krypton's favorite son on his way is "We must show our youngsters that everyone has to keep fit--not just sports heroes! Once we lose our physical alertness, our mental awareness will vanish as well!" So with this rather unusual mission at hand, Superman wastes no time in seeking out some of America's youth to begin his campaign of inspiration. He happens upon a group of cross-country runners who are not pursuing their race with much enthusiasm. One is even depicted playing with a yo-yo. He offers them an autograph if they can catch him while he runs in front. Ever the fair one, he gives each of the runners an autograph at the finish line and they vow to put the same effort toward their next competition.
Later, at another school's gym, Superman witnesses some overweight young men trying to get into shape. He spirits them away to an outdoor location and then bores into the earth until he hits a steam pocket, creating a makeshift Turkish bath to sweat the pounds away. The next day at yet another school he observes a couple of track and field athletes called the Thompson twins (wasn't that a rock band several years ago?) who seem to lack the necessary confidence to really excel in their endeavors. He comes up with a plan to transport them to the moon in the safety of a space dome. Practicing in the 1/6 gravitational environment gives them just the psychological boost they require to pursue their goals with greater zest.
Checking back in with a very pleased President Kennedy, Superman is told that reports are streaming in from all over the country that the youth are being inspired. Oddly, Superman tells the President that he'd better switch back to his Clark Kent identity and get back to the Daily Planet before editor Perry White misses him. I looked at the panel closely and it's not a thought balloon but a statement. I guess maybe Superman figured if he couldn't trust the President with such privileged information, he couldn't trust anyone. ;-) As Clark rejoins his co-workers at the newspaper office, he encounters a fully-converted Perry White, who announces that they are going to undertake the President's physical fitness program as a staff. In the cafeteria, he chides Clark for starting to eat some bread. Bread and pastries are off-limits now and he instructs them to take the stairs instead of the elevator back to the office. This presents a bit of a challenge for Clark as he reveals in a thought balloon that Superman can't perspire, so he clandestinely gets some water from a drinking fountain to create the illusion of working up a good sweat. As the weekend rolls around, Perry announces that they're all going on a 10-mile hike with full field packs. He makes this proclamation with a lit cigar in his hand. Ol' Perry must have been a Marine once upon a time. During the hike a rainstorm hits and Perry, Clark, Lois and Jimmy take cover in a nearby cave. Unfortunately they are no sooner inside then a boulder falls into the entrance, trapping them inside. Clark suggests that perhaps they can dig their way out after a rest. Jimmy laments the fact that he can't call Superman on his signal watch since it's in the repair shop. After the others have gone to sleep, Clark picks up the boulder and presses it up into the ceiling. Just as he gets it secured into place, his companions awaken. He is certain that his cover is blown, but Perry says with great pleasure that it only demonstrates that the new physical fitness regimen has finally made a real man out of wimpy Clark Kent. Uh, sure Perry.
The next day a parade is held in downtown Metropolis with both the Supergirl and Jimmy Olsen fan clubs in full attendance. Signs and placards abound touting the goal to be strong Americans. One particular sign is highlighted. It reads: "Observe the President's physical fitness program and the "weakling" Americans will be strong Americans!" As the fireworks go off in the background, President Kennedy, in attendance with Superman on the reviewing stand, congratulates the Man of Steel on getting the youth of America interested in his program. A final editor's note states that the original art for this story will be donated to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library at Harvard University.
This story, which could be described as a public service announcement, was short and to the point. It was obviously also a loving tribute to a beloved President by the staff of DC. Incidentally, this isn't the only instance of real historic figures being woven into stories by the editors and writers. I'll list just a few here. Adventure #294 which featured a Bizarro tale had the Bizarros wearing Halloween masks of Mickey Mantle, Jerry Lewis, President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. (Hmmmm.) Action #289 had a time travel scene where Helen of Troy was in attendance. In another tale of time travel, President Abraham Lincoln was shown at Ford's Theater in Superboy #85. Jimmy Olsen #79 had Superman's pal dancing along happily to a televised performance by The Beatles and Adventure #361 had a bizarre appearance by some of history's most notorious murderers, including John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and even Brutus and Cassius who did Julius Caesar in. In the Bronze Age the writers, perhaps in a fit of inflated ego, even wrote themselves into a 1975 two part, #s 123 & 124 JLA/JSA story. Julius Schwartz, Elliot S! Maggin and Cary Bates were all in attendance. One other item of interest is that in the above listing, Jerry Siegel was the writer for several of the Silver Age stories.
This story is such an unusual one that it defies my typical rating criteria, so I'm just going to let it stand on it's own merits. You be the judge. Obviously I felt it had some merit or I wouldn't have put it up here for your consumption, although I must admit that some of my selections weren't the greatest products of the era. Still, I hope you'll agree that this was a nice tribute by the staff of DC and that it served some public good for the awareness factor if nothing else.
As always, you are invited to send me feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. I've very much enjoyed recent correspondence, particularly from a new reader (or just one who decided to step forward) with some input on some of my older reviews which of course are available in the archive section. Once again, please join me in about two weeks for the latest trip down memory lane here at the Silver Age Sage.
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