There is a character in the Marvel Universe of great power and mystery, who, from the earliest days, has made numerous appearances in a wide variety of titles, often working behind the scenes and exerting tremendous influence over the lives of both the heroes and villains. And yet, this character remains almost completely unknown.
Though he has never received a profile in any official Marvel index or handbook, he does not have an entry in the online Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Nor are his many appearances reliably cataloged in the Marvel Chronology Project database. Who is this mystery man to whom even Earth’s Mightiest Heroes defer? None other than the President of the United States.
Occasionally, when the American government’s Chief Executive appears in Marvel comics, he is the sort of generic President that one often sees in movies and TV shows. More often, however, he is drawn to look like whoever is holding the office at the time the story is created, as a means of adding some realism to the comic or to make it more “relevant,” as they used to say. However, due to Marvel’s infamous “sliding time scale,” such appearances cannot be used to date the events depicted, nor can they even be taken as a reliable depiction of what “actually” occurred in the Marvel Universe. Continuity-pioneer George Olshevsky dubbed these “topical references” that can be discarded when constructing an overall timeline or chronology for the stories.
As a result, if the President appears looking very much like Richard M. Nixon, we cannot necessarily take it as read that it really is Tricky Dick. We can only make the assumption that it is a representation of the President of the United States. Who it might “actually” be depends on whether your chronology begins in the present and works backwards or begins at a certain fixed point and works forwards.
As I have detailed in previous posts, my timeline for what I call the Original Marvel Universe is of the latter variety, anchored to November 1961 as the first public appearance of the Fantastic Four. Therefore, the stories set during the first two years after this point occur during the administration of John F. Kennedy. By taking a close look at the stories from the period available to me, I compiled a list of the President’s appearances, both on-panel and “behind the scenes,” that is, when he is specifically mentioned but not actually seen. Then I plugged the appearances into my overarching continuity. The results were interesting, but they really serve merely as a prelude to the shocking events that would soon follow after Kennedy’s assassination.
As ever, some information presented on the timeline is speculative and some is based on historical accounts. See the Notes section at the end for clarifications.
Here, then, is a breakdown of the role played by President John F. Kennedy in the Original Marvel Universe:
January 1961 – John Fitzgerald Kennedy is inaugurated as President of the United States after defeating Vice President Richard M. Nixon in a tight race.
May 1961 – When an alien invader called Gormuu attacks California, the military requests permission to use nuclear weapons against it. The President agrees to a nuclear strike, but the Soviet Union refuses to endorse it, citing treaty restrictions. Acting without authorization, a local scientist named Reed Richards manages to defeat Gormuu with a very risky plan. Realizing the earth is vulnerable to further alien incursions, President Kennedy decides to make America’s space program a top priority. Thus, the President announces his decision to pursue the goal of landing men safely on the moon before the end of the decade.
July 1961 – During a review of spaceflight-related projects receiving government funding, Kennedy decides that the work coming out of Richards Laboratories in California is too radical to be of practical use for the moon landing, and that the money should be diverted to other projects. Kennedy’s staff then informs project director Reed Richards of the decision.
August 1961 – Kennedy is informed that Reed Richards went ahead with an unauthorized test of his rocket, which crash landed near a populated area in upstate New York, and that Richards and his crew were mutated in bizarre ways by exposure to high radiation levels while in orbit. Kennedy decides Richards is reckless and orders his government contracts cancelled and his security clearance revoked.
November 1961 – Kennedy learns that Richards and his three partners have pledged to use their newfound superhuman abilities to aid and defend humanity, calling themselves the Fantastic Four. Since they have just saved the world’s nuclear plants from subterranean attack, the Fantastic Four are granted a wary acceptance by the government, as well as the general public.
December 1961 – President Kennedy becomes concerned when an ingenious but criminally-insane scientist named Dr. Karel Stranczek tries to take over the world and is dubbed “Dr. Strange” by the news media. Luckily, the villain is apprehended by U.S. military paratroopers and sent to jail.
February 1962 – Kennedy is informed that one of his nuclear weapons research labs in New Mexico is being terrorized by a super-strong green-skinned brute called the Hulk. Speculation about where this creature came from is rampant, but the President is unable to get the answers he needs. The base commander, General Thaddeus E. Ross, assures the President that he can handle the situation.
June 1962 – As “superheroes” appear on the scene in numbers not seen since the end of World War II, Kennedy and his staff ponder the administration’s stance toward the mysterious adventurers. So far, public reaction seems largely positive.
July 1962 – President Kennedy watches the televised ultimatum delivered by Dr. Karel Stranczek, who has just escaped from prison and detonated a 200-megaton nuclear bomb in high orbit. Unwilling to surrender without a fight, JFK orders a full-scale nuclear strike on the mad scientist’s island stronghold. Unfortunately, a force field renders the bombs ineffective. Although Iron Man foils the scheme of the evil “Dr. Strange,” the villain escapes, disappearing without a trace. Later, after Kennedy learns that the Hulk was responsible for defeating a powerful alien invader dubbed the “Metal Master,” he offers the green-skinned goliath a full pardon. Then, both the President and his staff are irked when the Fantastic Four travel to the moon by their own means, thereby stealing NASA’s thunder. Kennedy decides that the government project will go ahead nonetheless.
September 1962 – When President Kennedy receives a tape from the megalomaniac known as Doctor Doom, on which he demands a post in the President’s cabinet, JFK and his top advisors meet and decide the United States must not allow any villain to dictate terms, no matter how powerful or dangerous they may be. Weeks later, while walking through the West Wing with his daughter Caroline, President Kennedy is swept to safety by the Secret Service, who inform him that an intruder wearing a wizard’s get-up and calling himself “Merlin” has somehow gained unauthorized access to the White House. Although the troublemaker is defeated by the hero called Thor, Kennedy orders security to be tightened.
October 1962 – After a mutant calling himself “The Vanisher” steals strategic defense plans by using his powers of teleportation, Kennedy is informed that the X-Men, who just saved the military installation at Cape Canaveral from another mutant terrorist, have a plan to deal with the situation. The X-Men meet the Vanisher and his army of gangsters on the White House lawn, where the criminals are quickly defeated. Meanwhile, Kennedy agrees to negotiate with a new group of superheroes, calling themselves the Avengers, for the granting of special security clearance and official recognition and sanction of their crimefighting activities. However, for the remainder of the month, the President is occupied with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
December 1962 – President Kennedy meets with the Fantastic Four when they are in Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Although they take full advantage of the photo-op, there is no love lost between the President and Mister Fantastic.
February 1963 – Kennedy comes to regret cooperating with the Avengers when the super-team suddenly demands the reins of power be turned over to them—or else. He declares a national state of emergency and sends military troops to try to defeat the renegade adventurers. As the situation becomes critical, martial law is declared nationwide, and other teams, such as the Fantastic Four, are advised to keep a low profile. Finally, the Avengers prove they were framed by Count Nefaria and his international crime cartel the Maggia. Relieved, the President lifts the state of emergency.
March 1963 – When the original Executive Director of the new international espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is assassinated by the terrorist organization HYDRA, President Kennedy approves the selection of Colonel Nick Fury of the CIA as his replacement. Fury accepts the assignment and immediately takes over operations at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.
May 1963 – President Kennedy receives a visit from Rick Jones, who uses his association with the Avengers to get a meeting in the Oval Office. There, the desperate teenager reveals to JFK the astonishing truth about the Hulk—that he and nuclear scientist Bruce Banner are one and the same. Since Banner has been jailed on suspicion of treason, Jones decided he had no choice but to confide in the President. JFK contacts his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and gets the charges against Banner dropped. President Kennedy decides the public interest is best served by keeping Jones’s revelation in confidence. Therefore, a week or so later, when Major Glenn Talbot meets with the President to try to convince him that Banner is both a red spy and in league with the Hulk, JFK knows Talbot doesn’t have a clue. He orders the Air Force officer to take Banner immediately to test the anti-nuclear device called the Absorbatron.
June 1963 – When the unpredictable Hulk is spotted heading directly towards Washington, DC, President Kennedy and other high-level officials are moved to a protective bunker. The Hulk drops out of the sky and lands on the White House lawn, only to be blasted by the “T-gun,” invented by Bruce Banner. The little-understood weapon fires energy rays that cause the Hulk to vanish into thin air.
August 1963 – A mysterious impenetrable dome suddenly forms over Washington DC, and President Kennedy assures members of Congress that it is not an American defensive device but some form of enemy attack. At first, it appears to be the work of the mutant X-Men, in an attempt to blackmail the nation, but it is soon revealed to be another scheme of Count Nefaria’s. Thanks to the X-Men, the plot is foiled and the nation’s capital is set free.
September 1963 – Kennedy and his staff watch on television as Iron Man battles his Soviet counterpart, the Titanium Man, throughout the nation’s capital. After an epic battle, Iron Man defeats his Communist foe in full view of the world.
November 1963 – On a visit to Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.
May 1961 – The President’s voice is heard coming from the White House in the flashback in Fantastic Four #271. This coincides with Kennedy’s real-life speech announcing his administration’s goals in space.
July-November 1961 – Kennedy is behind the scenes during the origin story depicted in Fantastic Four #1.
December 1961 – The initial defeat of the evil “Dr. Strange” is shown in flashback in Tales of Suspense #41. See the notes section in part one of my Doctor Strange Chronology for more about this obscure villain.
February 1962 – JFK is once again behind the scenes in the origin story presented in Incredible Hulk #1.
July 1962 – President Kennedy makes his first Marvel Universe appearance in the Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense #41. Although his face is not clearly seen, it is obvious the sequence of panels is meant to show world leaders watching the would-be conqueror’s ultimatum. Thus, this is also the first appearance of Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev. The Hulk’s presidential pardon is delivered at the end of Incredible Hulk #6, though the President remains behind the scenes. The Fantastic Four’s trip to the moon, and their celebrated return, are shown in Fantastic Four #13–14.
September 1962 – Both JFK and his famous rocking chair make an appearance in Fantastic Four #17, to discuss Doctor Doom’s threats. Then, he and daughter Caroline turn up for a cameo appearance in Journey Into Mystery #96. Pierre Salinger also appears in this story, courtesy of artist Joe Sinnott.
October 1962 – The “Chief Executive” is mentioned, but operates strictly behind the scenes in Uncanny X-Men #2. He is also certainly involved in the Avengers’ organizational period, which occurs between the first two issues of Avengers. The Cuban Missile Crisis happens behind the scenes.
December 1962 – The Fantastic Four’s trip to the District of Columbia occurs in Daredevil #2. Although the newscaster Electro is watching reports that the FF are to receive a “Presidential medal,” this story occurs at a point in the OMU timeline before the Presidential Medal of Freedom was reinstated. Thus, they were likely receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, the government’s highest civilian award at the time, but also meeting with the President for a photo-op. The news anchor probably just conflated the two events
February 1963 – The President again works behind the scenes during the crisis portrayed in Avengers #13.
March 1963 – The White House’s approval of Nick Fury’s selection as the new head of the Supreme Headquarters International Espionage and Law-enforcement Division is mentioned in Strange Tales #135. For more on the origins of Marvel’s top spy bureau, see Whence Comes… S.H.I.E.L.D.
May 1963 – In the Hulk stories in Tales to Astonish #64 and 68, the President’s face is not clearly seen, and he appears to be a sort of generic figure, not meant to represent any real-world officeholder.
June 1963 – The President is behind the scenes once again in the Hulk story in Tales to Astonish #75.
August 1963 – The President remains off-panel in Uncanny X-Men #23, but is on the other end of a phone conversation with an unidentified United States Senator.
September 1963 – In Tales of Suspense #83, we see two men who bear striking resemblances to Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert S. McNamara watching Iron Man’s battle on television. As it is clearly meant to show even the President of the United States is glued to his TV set, this could be considered a “topical reference,” and listed as an actual appearance of President Kennedy in the OMU chronology. However, since LBJ was Vice President at the time, it could also be considered an actual appearance for him. Since it could reasonably go either way, I’ll leave it to the individual reader to decide.
November 1963 – Kennedy’s assassination occurs behind the scenes, naturally.
Next Issue: The Shocking Secret of POTUS, Part Two!