April 18: Strange Visitor from Another Planet
Superman saved the life of an innocent woman on death row, stopped a man from beating his wife, and brought a corrupt politician to justice in his first appearance in Action Comics on this date in 1938. Created five years earlier by Jerry Siegel, and drawn by his Cleveland high school friend Joe Shuster, Superman, according to Siegel’s daughter Laura Larson, was able to champion many of the causes that Siegel believed in and to fight “very real social evils his readers were powerless to conquer . . . What he could not do, he had Superman do.” The “true genius of Superman,” she continues, “is both his dual identity and his compassion for the human race. He chose to use his unsurpassed powers for the good of mankind, usually for people he didn’t know.” Action Comics was launched by Jack Liebowitz, with a print run of 200,000 copies; Superman was a last-minute addition from the slush pile. Siegel and Joe Shuster were paid $10 per page, or $130 for their work on this first strip. Action Comics #1 is the only comic book that has sold for more than $2 million for a single issue.
“Early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind . . . and so was created ‘Superman’, champion of the oppressed . . .” —Jerry Siegel
April 17: Daffy Duck
Daffy Duck made his first appearance on this date in 1937 as a bit player in “Porky’s Duck Hunt,” starring Porky Pig. Mel Blanc provided the voice for Daffy, and would do so for 52 years, a world record. In the hands of various cartoon directors, Daffy proved to be a very elastic character, but always with a hint of hysteria and hyperactivity. During World War II, Daffy battled a Nazi goat intent on eating Daffy’s scrap metal in “Scrap Happy Daffy,” and also hit Adolf Hitler over the head with a giant mallet in “Daffy the Commando.” In the 1950s and ’60s, Daffy Duck was frequently paired with Porky Pig and, in a rivalrous manner, with Warner Brothers’ most popular character, Bugs Bunny (all three characters were voiced by Blanc). Film critic Steve Schneider calls Daffy “a kind of unleashed id” that “expresses all of the things we’re afraid to express.” Today, the irrepressible duck is voiced by Jeff Bergman, who also has replaced the late Mel Blanc for Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and numerous others. To see Daffy outwitting the Third Reich in “The Commando,” look below.
“Well, kids, don’t let anyone tell you this show isn’t realistic!” —Daffy Duck
April 16: The Oncomouse
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled on this date in 1987 that animals created in laboratories can be patented. In April of the following year, Harvard was awarded the first patent under this ruling for the oncomouse, a mouse genetically engineered to be highly susceptible to breast cancer. The mouse was designed by Philip Leder (with Timothy A. Stewart of Genentech). Leder is best known for his work with Nobelist Marshall Nirenberg in the 1960s in the elucidation of the genetic code. His scientific group was also the first to define the base sequence of a complete mammalian gene, and he did key research into the structure of genes that carry the code for antibody molecules. According to Michael Crichton (writing in the New York Times in 2007), “Our genetic makeup represents the common heritage of all life on earth. You can’t patent snow, eagles or gravity, and you shouldn’t be able to patent genes, either. Yet by now one-fifth of the genes in your body are privately owned. . . . The results have been disastrous. Ordinarily, we imagine patents promote innovation, but that’s because most patents are granted for human inventions. Genes aren’t human inventions, they are features of the natural world. As a result these patents can be used to block innovation, and hurt patient care.”
“The genetic code allows us to see the beautiful construct that evolution has created. The genetic code is exquisitely important and, at the same time, aesthetically pleasing.” —Philip Leder
April 15: Escape from Ponary
On this date in 1944, seventy Jewish and ten Russian prisoners attempted to escape from the forests near Ponary, Lithuania (near Vilna) where they had been assigned to help dig up and burn the bodies of tens of thousands of people, mostly Jews, who had been murdered in those woods since 1941. “At night the prisoners were kept in a pit, and during the day they worked, with their legs in chains,” according to Yad Vashem, “removed bodies from the pits, arranged them in piles and burnt them. The prisoners knew that when they had finished working, they too would be murdered. At night they dug a 35 meter-long tunnel under the fence to a minefield.” After three months of digging, on the night of April 15th, “they filed off their chains and . . . fled through the tunnel. They were discovered by the guards and most of them were caught or shot. Fifteen of them succeeded in escaping and eleven of them reached the partisans in the Rudniki forests.” The Soviet Red Army was about to enter Lithuania, and the Nazis were feverishly trying to get rid of evidence of their crimes.
An “underground newspaper, Laisve Kotovas, also reports that the Germans are exhuming Jewish corpses from mass-graves near Kaunas. The paper says that Lithuanian policemen refused to participate in the mass-executions of Jews, and were replaced by pro-Nazi Ukrainians and Russians and by members of the battalions led by the Russian commander Vlassov who deserted the Red Army and joined the Nazi forces.” —Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 18, 1944
April 14: The Grapes of Wrath — and the Viking Press
John Steinbeck’s great novel of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath, was published on this date in 1939 by the Viking Press, a literary house founded by three Jews: Harold K. Guinzberg, the son of a major activist in the American Jewish Committee (and the father of Thomas Guinzberg, who founded The Paris Review); George Oppenheimer, who like Guinzberg was a Harvard graduate; and B.W. Heubsch, who was the first publisher in the United States of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence before joining forces with Viking in 1925. Steinbeck’s book won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award, and was made into a widely acclaimed movie in 1940. It was also widely attacked, and even banned, as socialistic. The Viking Press has been a major literary force through the decades, publishing Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), most of Saul Bellow’s novels, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), as well as works by Hannah Arendt, Geraldine Brooks, William S. Burroughs, Peter Matthiessen, Carol Brooks, Thomas Pynchon, Wallace Stegner, Nadine Gordimer, Barbara Tuchman, Don DeLillo, Robertson Davies, William Kennedy, Salman Rushdie, and J.M Coetzee, among many other literary greats. To see Henry Fonda delivering the final “Tom Joad” passage from the film, look below.
“As the first Jewish literary publisher (and a radical one at that) in the United States, Huebsch’s colophon was appropriately enough a menorah. In its cultural sallies, the Viking Press’ drakkar sought, with an invisible menorah on its bow, to cut through the dark seas of nativism and enlighten America as to the reality of its pluralism.” —Chris Green