The Mystery of DC Comics' John F. Kennedy "Superman" Tribute Comic

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a curious piece of comic book history, the publication of a comic book featuring Superman teaming up with President John F. Kennedy, who was tragically assassinated 51 years ago today. The story -- "Superman's Mission for President Kennedy" from "Superman" #170 (written by Bill Finger and E. Nelson Bridwell and drawn by Al Plastino after Curt Swan allegedly originally drew an earlier version of the comic) -- was caught up in two different mysteries. One was more or less resolved earlier this year when the original artwork from the comic ended up where Plastino thought it had been for decades. The other still remains unsolved.

The story is a simple 10-page tale about Superman aiding President Kennedy's Physical Fitness Program by helping to inspire the children of America to become more physically fit. At the end of the story is a note (which was written on the actual original art pages, so it is not like it was added later) that states, "The original art for this story will be donated to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, at Harvard University." Plastino was shocked to discover a year ago that the original art never ended up at the Library, but instead ended up being purchased at a Sotheby's auction in 1993 and was put up for auction by Heritage Auctions. DC Comics ultimately purchased the pages and donated them to the Kennedy Library. Sadly, Plastino passed away a month before DC made the purchase. The pages officially went on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum this April. There is still the matter of who took the pages from DC Comics in the first place, but original art being taken from DC was so common at the time that it is likely impossible to ever learn who actually took the original pages.

The mystery that has yet to be resolved, though, is, well, almost everything else related to the story. The first mention of the story took place in an Aug. 30, 1963 article in the New York Times. The story featured a panel drawn by Curt Swan and George Klein. Here is the text of the article:

Superman has volunteered to help flabby Americans regain their stamina and muscle tone. The cape-clad comic book character, who doubles as a crack reporter for The Daily Planet, has answered President Kennedy's call for more exercise and has enlisted in the President's Council on Physical Fitness. Superman's publishers, National Periodical Publications, Inc. said yesterday that panels were now being drawn for the late fall issue of the Superman comic book that would dramatize the council's work. The story line, it was learned, would probably follow the Man of Steel from a talk with Mr. Kennedy through a triumphant tour of the nation's schools, where he will lead students in exercises - with marvelous results. During his plaeneless flights between muscular feats, Superman will pause long enough to skywrite across the epic-filled pages of the book. His message is a simple one - "Sound Minds in Sound Bodies - Join the President's Physical Fitness Program."

A couple of things leap out at you from the article. The first is that the published story bears only a slight resemblance to the description in the article. There is no skywriting and while Superman's tour eventually was triumphant, since it was all about Superman pushing kids to do more than what they were already doing (a recurring theme in the published story is that young Americans were being viewed as weaklings by other countries), the phrasing used in the article doesn't seem especially accurate. Secondly, note the use of the word "probably" in "the story line, it was learned, would probably follow the Man of Steel" (emphasis added). That flat out says that the story was not yet written. In addition, it states "panels were now being drawn." In an excellent post at his website, Mark Evanier correctly notes that there was no such thing as "panels being drawn" when it came to how DC Comics were produced at the time. There was either a completed story or there wasn't a completed story. There is simply no way that they could have a single penciled, inked and lettered panel from a story that was not yet finished. It just wasn't done. Stories were penciled. Then they were inked. And then they were lettered. Curt Swan would not still be penciling a story while earlier sections of the story were already inked and lettered.

So what is the deal with the panel shown? Evanier theorizes, and I tend to agree with him, that it is likely that editor Mort Weisinger commissioned just a single page (or perhaps even just a single panel) by Swan to test the waters, as it were. Weisinger was a pro at handling the press (he worked as a sort of gossip columnist on the side while working at DC -- he would collect gossip from various gossip columnists into one weekly column for a newspaper insert magazine) and he was also a longtime member of the Democratic Party who was enthralled by President Kennedy (he even made allusions to the rumored affair between Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe in a 1961 comic). Weisinger famously featured Kennedy in a number of Superman and Superboy comics of the day, including a notable story in "Action Comics" #309 (still on newsstands when Kennedy was killed) that revealed that Superman told his secret identity to Kennedy so that the President could help him in one of his famous "hide my secret identity from Lois Lane" plans. Evanier's theory is that Weisinger leaked the story to gauge interest in it and perhaps get the White House to do some official sponsorship of the comic.

In the letter column of #168, Weisigner claims that the story was scheduled to run in Superman #169. However, that issue had no room for a ten-page story in it. That comic has three stories in it -- none of which were ten pages long. In addition, the cover (which would go to print roughly a month ahead of the comic itself) specifically mentioned all but the 14-page story. The three previous issues (#166-#168) that went to print in the time leading up to Kennedy's assassination, also did not have room for a 10-page story as they were all full-length stories (in #170, Weisinger now claims the story was originally set to run in #168). So basically, the story did not appear to be set to run before Kenendy died. It seems as though Weisinger was engaging in a bit of puffery -- talking about how they had to "pull" a story, only to see that story draw enough attention that he had to rush out that very story, only with Plastino replacing Swan. "Superman" #170 had room for a 10-page story ("Superman" #171 had a ten-page story, "Superman's Sacrifice," so that was very likely the story that was pulled to make room for the Superman Kennedy story) so the story was rushed into that comic. As soon as Weisinger saw the attention the story was getting, he was bound to get the story out as quickly as possible. The issue, by the way, was a bit hit when it came out.

The chances that Swan actually finished the story before it being taken over by Plastino seem very unlikely. If DC had Swan's pages when Kennedy died, does it make any sense for them to trash them? Nor, as some have theorized, does it make sense that he would have given the pages away to a Kennedy museum, especially as there is no evidence of that ever occurring. Before he died, Plastino's daughter, MaryAnn Charles, relayed a note from her father that he took over the project from Swan very early on. So for those who wonder what happened to the Swan pages, I agree with Evanier that they do not exist and the only version of this story that exists is the Plastino version.

The next big question is when did Plastino draw the story? Plastino insisted that he began the story before Kennedy died. His daughter noted, "He was working in close cooperation with the Kennedy administration several months before the President was assassinated. The splash page that Curt had created had already been shelved. Al stopped working on the story after Kennedy died until Johnson asked that he finish. And it was published in 1964." I think Plastino is correctly remembering the Swan aspect of the story, but I have some serious problems with the rest of the story. First off, as even the original New York Times article noted, the story was not actually done in concert with the Kennedy administration. Secondly, I am a bit wary of whether the Johnson administration ever actually contacted DC about the issue. Finally, the first page of the comic was obviously drawn after Kennedy died and the final page had on the original artwork (not as an add-on) the caption about the original artwork being donated to the Kennedy Library. This goes back to what I talked about earlier -- comics weren't done piecemeal at the time. Furthermore, the story does not appear as thought it was done piecemeal. For instance, there is a consistent letterer throughout the story, which wouldn't make sense if the first page was drawn much later than the rest of the piece. The first page was definitely done after Kennedy was killed and it looks like the last page was drawn after Kennedy was killed, as well. Therefore, it is likely that the whole story was done after Kennedy was killed (that a guy couldn't pinpoint the exact time he began working on a story 50 years earlier is certainly reasonable).

I think that the most likely truth is the following timeline:

  1. Weisinger has Bill Finger, Curt Swan and George Klein do a mock-up to drum up interest in a future storyline. It does not get that much attention and Wieisinger temporarily shelves the idea. Perhaps he even does assign the script to Plastino to do in the future. That would perhaps explain why Plastino believed that he began working on it before Kennedy was killed. Perhaps he was assigned it before November 22, 1963.
  2. Kennedy is assassinated. The story clearly was not set to appear in #168 (as claimed in #170) or #169 (as claimed in #168).
  3. Weisinger claims in #168 (the first issue released after Kennedy's death) that he squelched the story. It is more likely that he squelched a story that had not actually been produced yet. He might have had a Bill Finger script at that point, though, and it might have already been assigned to Plastino.
  4. Response to the notice in #168 is tremendous, so Weisinger realizes he now has to put out the issue. #169 is already in the can, but he has a ten-page space in #170 (whose cover would have already gone to print - obviously Weisinger would have preferred to use something like this on the cover if he could) where he could put a story.
  5. E. Nelson Bridwell rewrites Finger's script to make it fit into a 10-page gap and Plastino draws it.
  6. DC ignores what they said they'd do and the original art just lays around before someone takes it home and it ends up eventually being sold at Sotheby's in 1993.

Sadly, with everyone involved in the story now passed away, it is basically impossible to prove this speculation one way or the other, so the final mystery of "Superman" #170 will likely have to remain unresolved.

For more of Brian Cronin's investigations into comic book mysteries, check out Comic Book Legends Revealed on COMICS SHOULD BE GOOD!

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