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Another Kennedy Conspiracy Theory

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The New York Times has an obit up for Al Plastino. Every time I see one of these, I can't help but register that back in the sixties and seventies, and even into the eighties, it was unthinkable that a legit newspaper would care about the death of someone in the comic book field. When Bill Everett died in 1973, it wasn't covered.  It's so great that the mainstream press now acknowledges the impact that men like Al Plastino have had on people.

There's a matter I should cover here.  The Times obit says…

But in his telling, Mr. Plastino, who died on Monday at 91 in Patchogue, N.Y., took his greatest pride in a single special issue, "Superman's Mission for President Kennedy," which he began drawing in 1963, before Kennedy's assassination. The story, conceived with the Kennedy White House, paired Superman and Kennedy as allies in promoting the president's new physical fitness program.

The issue was not yet finished when the president was killed in Dallas that November, and DC initially decided to call it off. But after getting encouragement from the new administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the project went forward in revised fashion.

For the issue's cover, Mr. Plastino drew a flying Superman looking toward a ghostly, larger-than-life image of the president looming over the Capitol dome, where a flag is at half-staff. Also on the cover was a note explaining the story behind its publication. The last page included another note: "The original art for this story will be donated to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, at Harvard University."

There's something screwy about this whole tale of the Superman story about President Kennedy. The above is wrong about it being a drawing for the cover. The story was not featured or even mentioned on the cover of the comic it appeared in, Superman #170 (June, 1964). What they're describing is the first page of the story. You can view it and much of the supporting evidence for what I'm about to discuss over on this page but read the following before you do.

Some facts. On August 30, 1963, the New York Times ran a story about a then-upcoming story in the Superman comic book in which J.F.K. enlisted the aid of the Man of Steel to help promote physical fitness. Some points of interest about that article: It made no mention that the story was in any way requested by or done in cooperation with the White House…and it reprinted one panel from the story. The panel was drawn by Curt Swan, not Al Plastino. It said the story was scheduled for "the late fall issue" of Superman. #165 of that comic went on sale the week after the article appeared so "late fall" would suggest #166, which went on sale the first week of November.  However, it also said panels were "now being drawn" for the story.  If that was true, it would mean that the story would probably not be done in time to be printed in 1963 and that the story was not drawn all at once, the way almost all comic book stories are.

The story did not appear in #165, #166 or even in #167. In #168, which came out the following February, the letter page was pre-empted by an announcement that just as that issue was going to press, they'd learned of the murder of President Kennedy. They reprinted the N.Y. Times piece and stated that the story was to have been published in #169 but they pulled it from that issue and would be substituting other material. They had decided, they said, to not publish it and to instead present the original artwork to Kennedy's "gallant widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy."

I am a bit suspicious it was ever slated for any issue around this time. The story was ten pages. If they yanked it at the last minute and substituted another story, then the issue in question would have a different ten-page story in it. But #166, #167 and #168 all had book-length stories in them and #169 had three stories — one eight pages in length, one fourteen and one five. So where would a ten-page story have appeared? In each case, the cover of the comic in question went to press several weeks before the insides and the covers were specific to the stories inside. So there couldn't have been a last-minute switch of the interiors for a ten-page story in any of them.

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The J.F.K. physical fitness story finally appeared in #170. A caption on page one (the page the Times just confused with the cover in their Plastino obit) stated that it was originally to have appeared in #168, not #169 as they stated earlier. This was the one drawn by Al Plastino. Even though it was an important story that had been mentioned in the New York Times, it was not on the cover. The other story in that comic — "If Lex Luthor Were Superman's Father" — was on the cover…and longer.

So we have all these questions and conflicts. There is no record of either a Swan version of this story or the Plastino version ever being actually presented to the Kennedy Library or Mrs. Kennedy or any person or institution. There is no explanation as to why the panel in the New York Times was by Swan but the published story, which featured the same scene with slightly different dialogue, was by Plastino. And why didn't DC put the Superman/JFK story on the cover of #170, giving it some importance and also probably upping sales of that issue? Or save it for the next issue when they could have featured it on the cover?  And why only ten pages for such a special story?

Okay, here's the best I can do to come up with a theory. This is guessing and I welcome anyone else's theory that makes any more sense…

Let's start with why that panel in Times was by Swan when the published story was by Plastino. Folks discussing this on the 'net are theorizing the Swan version of the story was lost; that DC donated it to Mrs. Kennedy and then when they decided to print it later, they didn't have access to the original art or good copies of it. Ergo, they had to have it redrawn. I find that highly unlikely. It was a historic story and it didn't dawn on anyone there that they might want to publish it at some point?

My suspicion? There was no completed Superman/JFK story drawn by Curt Swan. Superman editor Mort Weisinger was great at promotion and had press connections. Maybe he had a script written but I'm skeptical he had more than a page drawn. He could have just had that one panel done.  Remember that line in the 8/30/63 Times story about "panels now being drawn."  That wasn't how comics were ever done.  Curt Swan penciled a story, a letterer lettered it, an inker inked it…and the entire story was completed.  How could they have one finished, inked panel to print with that Times article, if other "panels were now being drawn?"  Well, they could if Weisinger only had one panel or page prepared.

That "panels now being drawn" line may be our biggest clue.  Suppose I'm right and Weisinger just had one page or panel drawn.  He sends it to the reporter who's writing the item up for the Times.  The reporter asks, "Can I see the entire story?"  What can Weisinger say?  He has to say, "Not yet.  It's still being drawn."

Why would Weisinger just have the one page or panel done and not the entire story? Well, I can think of several motives but the most likely is that he was trying to sell someone in the White House on the idea of endorsing the project.  You probably wouldn't want to have the whole story written and drawn if you wanted them to endorse the concept and offer input.  And maybe he did get them interested or maybe he didn't but, eager to promote the project, he jumped the gun in announcing it to the New York Times. Whatever his reason, he was up to something. He planted the item and then the game plan, whatever it was, changed when Kennedy was killed.

In the first issue that went to press after 11/22/63, which was #168, Weisinger did indeed announce that they weren't going to print that story but at that point, I believe it hadn't even been drawn or scheduled. Then they got a lot of letters urging them to print it and maybe the publisher came to him and said, "Hey, Mort. I'm getting calls from people who think it makes us look bad to not to publish a story that Kennedy (allegedly) wanted to see published. Get it drawn and stick it in the next issue that's going to press." They may even have received a bit of actual encouragement from the White House, though I'm suspicious about that, too. By this point, #169 was presumably off to the engraver and it was too late to change the cover of the following issue…but they could change the insides of #170.

#170, I theorize, was close to being ready to go with two stories in it — a ten-pager called "Superman's Sacrifice" and that fifteen-page story called "If Lex Luthor Were Superman's Father." The latter couldn't be bumped because it was depicted on the cover and it was too late to change the cover. So they moved "Superman's Sacrifice" to the following issue and quickly had the Superman/J.F.K. tale completed to run in its place. That's why only ten pages for a story that could have used a lot more.

Folks who analyze such things have concluded that the script represents the work of two writers — Bill Finger and E. Nelson Bridwell. These were two men who never worked together otherwise. Finger (best remembered now as the unbilled co-creator of Batman) was a freelancer and Bridwell was Weisinger's Assistant Editor. If there are enough traces of Bridwell's writing style in the published story to recognize him, that probably means Finger wrote a script and then Bridwell did extensive rewrites. Perhaps Finger's script was done back before Swan had allegedly drawn it and it needed to be rewritten to fit into ten pages so it could run in that space in #170. Or maybe Finger's script was done after Kennedy's death to fit that slot in #170 but it needed a lot of quick revisions so Bridwell did them then. Either way, they gave it to whichever of their two main Superman artists (Swan or Plastino) could get it done in time and at that moment, that was Plastino.

So he drew it and it looks like someone else did some retouchings on some of his drawings of Kennedy. It was published with a little blurb at the end saying that the original art would be donated to the Kennedy Library…which no one at DC ever got around to doing. Instead, the art was most likely just taken home by someone around the office — that happened with a lot of DC artwork at the time — and it later wound up in an art auction, much to Mr. Plastino's surprise and displeasure.

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There are some other scenarios possible but I feel pretty certain that the Plastino version was drawn after Kennedy was killed, not before, and Mr. Plastino misremembered when he said otherwise…an easy, innocent mistake to make. The first page was definitely drawn after and the lettering on it, explaining that the story was being published at the request of President Johnson, is by the same letterer who drew the rest of the story. It's unlikely it would have been the same letterer if the first page had been created months later, apart from the rest of the story. The wording on that first page also sounds rather phony to me. It says the story was "prepared in close cooperation with the late President Kennedy," even though neither the New York Times item nor the letter column announcement in #168 made any such claim. If it was true, wouldn't that have been mentioned before?

None of this stuff about President Kennedy cooperating with DC or President Johnson requesting the story's publication is consistent or convincing. You know what they would have done if all that had been true? When Kennedy was killed, they would have tabled the story for a while so as not to be accused of disrespect or bad taste. Then they would have published it a few months later saying, "J.F.K. would have wanted it to see print" and if applicable, that the White House had requested it. They would not have lost the original art to Swan's version if there really was a Swan's version, and they would have published it as the cover feature in a big, heavily-promoted edition with tributes to Kennedy and exercise tips in the back. Instead, they burned the whole idea off quickly, calling little attention to it…because it was a bit of a sham in the first place and they just wanted to be done with it.

So that's my theory.  There are other components to all this that I could mention…like the eight other comic book artists on the grassy knoll or the single-brush theory but I've spent more time thinking about this than it's worth. And if you've made it this far, so did you…about halfway through this posting.