Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Pettigrew principle


Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency is nothing less than a history-marking event, regardless of how it turns out. For those of us who attended Catholic school in the 1960s, however, the campaign is not entirely unfamiliar.

If you were attending Catholic school at that time, you could subscribe to a comic book called Treasure Chest. As you might imagine, given the time and the audience, there were lots of “educational “and “inspirational” stories in Treasure Chest. As an adult, I would probably find these stories stupid or offensive, or both…if I remembered them. Fortunately, the stories I remember are the ones that slipped in under the radar. There was a series about kids living on a space station that I remember liking, and there was 1976: Pettigrew For President..

From what I’ve been able to put together so far, 1976: Pettigrew For President ran for 10 chapters in 1964. Treasure Chest came out every two weeks, so the story played out over roughly half a school year. The title character was Gov. Timothy Pettigrew, who was running for his party’s presidential nomination in that exotic future year of 1976. I would’ve been in fifth grade when the series ran, but my parents were already wondering how much longer would I be reading those weird funnybooks.

It probably took me a couple of chapters before I realized that there was something strange about “Pettigrew.” We would never see the governor’s face. We would hear his voice as part of a telephone conversation, but, if he was in the room, his head would always be blocked by something, or someone. I knew that the strip’s creators were building up to something, but I don’t think I had any theories about what it was. So I was definitely surprised when, on the last page of the story, as he accepts his party’s nomination, Tim Pettigrew is revealed to be African-American.

I know: to an adult, this all sounds heavy-handed, at best. To a fifth-grader, though, it was anything but, even though we never find out if the governor was elected president.
For what it’s worth, there’s a similar reveal in “Judgment Day,” a story that appeared in one of the classic EC science fiction comics. In this story, a man from Earth comes to Cybrinia, a planet where humans had deposited a colony of super-intelligent robots sometime in the distant past. The visitor was to evaluate the culture the robots had developed, to see if Cybrinia was worthy for inclusion in the Galactic Republic.

While many aspects of the cybernetic culture are positive, the Earthman quickly discovers that the robots with orange skins are discriminating against the robots with blue skins. This disqualifies the Cybrinians for membership in the Republic. Throughout the story, the human visitor wears a spacesuit that obscures his face. In the last panel, though, he takes his helmet off and “the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars.”

“Judgment Day” first appeared in 1953, but I first read it in Tales Of the Incredible, a paperback reprint which came out in 1965 (and is sitting beside my computer right now).

Someone named Bob Wundrock—another survivor of the Catholic School system, I’m guessing—has posted some pages from 1976: Pettigrew For President on YouTube. They confirm another memory I had of the series—Pettigrew actually looks a bit like Obama—and they provide some plot points that I’d forgotten.

Pettigrew’s major opponent for the nomination is the ominously-named Senator Oilengass. The governor picks Oilengass to as his vice president , but a typo adds some unintentional humor to the invitation. The word balloon reads: “Senator, will you run as vice-president with me? I’d be proud to have you?”

Go ahead, look at it again. I’ll wait.

Even in fifth grade, I was far enough into comics that I was looking at credit boxes and noticing artists’ signatures. So it registered on me at the time that 1976: Pettigrew For President was drawn by Joe Sinnott. Sinnott is probably best known as Jack Kirby’s inker on the Fantastic Four comic, but he was providing both pencils and inks here.

As for the writer, I still don’t know much about him. He appears to be someone named Barry Reese, but that’s all I’ve been able to find out. For the record, “Judgment Day” was drawn by Joe Orlando. I haven’t been able to find a writing credit for this story either, but stories in the classic EC comics are usually credited to Al Feldstein.

1776:Pettigrew For President may have been an indicator of the liberal trends in the Catholic Church at the time. Or it may have just slipped in under the radar. In either case, the so-called real world is finally catching up to it.


Gabby said...

I was in grade 5 that year and I have never forgotten that story. It came back to me when Jessie Jackson was campaigning and it's been on my mind since the start of this campaign. Over the years I'd looked on the net for any indication that I hadn't dreamed it and only now am I finding anything.

While much of the Treasure Chest collection is digitized and can be read online, that stops at the end of 1962-63 school year.

Anonymous said...

I can give you a little information about the author of the Mr. Pettigrew series. Berry Reece grew up in Mississippi live in Boston for a number of years and now lives in Annapolis Md.