Jimmy Olsen: 75 Years of Superman’s Pal
October 23rd, 2015 | by Kyle King
DC Comics has spent the last couple of years commemorating the 75th birthdays of some of the industry giant’s most venerable superhero comics characters, but there is one glaring omission. Our Superman writer, Kyle King, offers some suggestions on how to correct this error.
Superhero comics, as a genre, came into existence with the publication of Action Comics #1 in 1938 and swiftly expanded in the years immediately following that epochal event. Consequently, DC Comics in 2013 began publishing a series of 75th anniversary compendia featuring classic characters who debuted in the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Batman, Captain Marvel, Catwoman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Joker, the Justice Society of America, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Robin the Boy Wonder, the Spirit, and, of course, Superman.
Without exception, those characters were richly deserving of their own commemorative collections, but there is one conspicuous absence from that list: James Bartholomew Olsen.
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The cub reporter and photographer may have been the unnamed red-headed copy boy initially appearing in Action Comics #6, but Jimmy Olsen was officially introduced under his own name in the Adventures of Superman radio serial on April 15, 1940. Despite the fact that the 75th anniversary of Olsen’s identifiable debut came and went six months ago, no hardbound compilation honoring Superman’s pal has been released.
This oversight is inexplicable.
After being introduced in the Man of Tomorrow’s popular radio show, Olsen quickly made the jump into the canonical comics and subsequently became a mainstay of Superman stories in other media. Jimmy was an important character on television (in Adventures of Superman in the 1950s, Lois and Clark in the 1990s, and Smallville in the 2000s) and in film (in two Superman serials in the 1950s and in the Superman movies of the 1970s and ‘80s) who even found his way into a Spin Doctors song in 1991. Olsen’s current profile has been upped considerably by the casting of Mehcad Brooks to play the role in Supergirl.
Ultimately, though, the true test of Jimmy’s durability is his longevity in his natural medium of comic books. There, he fares pretty well: Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen ran for 163 issues between 1954 and 1974, a span that saw the youthful photojournalist’s adventures penned by creators as diverse and original as Otto Binder and Jack Kirby. (By comparison, Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane ran for 137 issues from 1958 to 1974, The Joker ran for just nine issues in 1975 and 1976, and fellow sidekick Robin would not star in his own solo series until the 1990s.) As late as 1966, Jimmy’s individual title was one of the top five bestselling books on the market.
Since DC thus far has failed to reward Superman’s pal with the 75th anniversary edition he so richly deserves, I am going to help a publisher out by offering my services. Take note, because these are some of the Jimmy Olsen tales that ought to be included in the overdue collection celebrating three-quarters of a century of the ginger photojournalist with the bow tie and the signal watch:
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #15 (September 1956): In many ways, this issue was typical of Binder’s collaborations with Curt Swan, as Jimmy Olsen, Speed Demon features such familiar elements as a crackpot scientist who turns out to be correct, a shaky explanation that succeeds in concealing Superman’s secret identity, and an untested serum that causes Jimmy to undergo a short-lived transformation when he drinks it accidentally. What makes this story noteworthy is its timing: Jimmy encounters a chemical that gives him super-speed and turns him into a crime-fighter, and he does so one month before the release of Showcase #4, which introduced police scientist Barry Allen as the new Flash in the issue that arguably kicked off the Silver Age. Was that a coincidence? Maybe not: Jimmy Olsen’s solo series was the brainchild of overarching Superman editor Mort Weisinger, whose childhood friend and professional colleague Julius Schwartz was responsible for the revival of dormant heroes from the Golden Age that began with Showcase #4 in October 1956. Incidentally, the script for Jimmy Olsen, Speed Demon twice uses the phrase “in a flash”, so perhaps the story serves as the prologue foreshadowing an emerging new era.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #36 (April 1959): Lois Lane’s little sister, Lucy, made her first appearance in this issue, thereby giving Jimmy an on-again/off-again love interest whose job as a flight attendant made it easy for her to drop in and out of stories effortlessly. While Sam Lane’s younger daughter generally treated Olsen less than kindly, her presence attested to the growing popularity of his character. It is no accident that, when the time came for Superman’s best friend to enter into a romantic relationship, he did so with the sibling of Superman’s girlfriend. While Jimmy and Lucy never belonged together like Lois and Clark do, the younger couple’s tumultuous relationship remains a part of Olsen’s personal history.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #53 (June 1961): The Daily Planet photographer’s transformations were so numerous that they must be ranked; Olsen so regularly was changed into someone or something else that he twice was turned into a werewolf. However, there is no more definitive Jimmy Olsen transformation than the one that occurred in the Jerry Siegel story self-explanatorily titled The Giant Turtle Man! Influenced heavily by the cover of a 1940 pulp edited by Weisinger in his youth, the scale-covered, bridge-destroying, bug-eyed Olsen became the emblematic image for the sci-fi strangeness that routinely recurred in the early Atomic Age. So iconic has the Turtle Man become that he returned for multiple covers, appeared on television in a flashback sequence from the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and was paid homage in the form of the Kirby-created D.N.Alien version of the young reporter from Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136.
Superman #158 (January 1963): This clever tale by Edmond Hamilton introduces numerous story elements that since have become important in Kryptonian lore. Powerless, ostracized, and trapped with Jimmy in Kandor, Superman strikes back by creating the bottle city’s equivalent to the Dynamic Duo. The Man of Steel chooses his home planet’s avian equivalents to a bat and a robin when giving himself and his photographer pal the names Nightwing and Flamebird. Superman’s selection of the “Nightwing” nomenclature retains its resonance to this day, both in comics and on television, so the first appearance of a hero operating under that moniker should not be forgotten, nor should the human teammate who fought alongside him.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #79 (September 1964): In 1964, Marvel Comics’ appeal to the burgeoning youth market had not yet firmly taken hold, as the publisher’s top seller for the year, Strange Tales, was only the industry’s 35th most popular book. It therefore fell to Jimmy Olsen to reach out to youngsters in Glen Weldon’s favorite Superman story, The Red-Headed Beatle of 1,000 B.C.! The wacky adventure with the wonderful cover sees Jimmy being tricked into time-traveling to Biblical Judea, where he befriends Samson and invents Beatlemania before Superman rescues him while exclaiming, “You seem to be as popular as Ringo, the Beatle drummer!” The square portrayal of the Man of Steel exemplifies why Stan Lee ultimately was able to capture the Zeitgeist of that era and leave teenage readers believing that “DC” stood for “Dad’s Comics”, but this Silver Age story represents an early attempt at tapping into the tenor of the times through the coolest youth in the DC Universe.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (October 1970): I went back and forth over which story to include from Kirby’s 15-issue stewardship of the series after he made the jump from Marvel, and, although Transilvane remains my personal preference, there really is no denying the importance of the King’s game-changing debut at DC. In his first 22 pages for his new employer, Kirby revived old characters, introduced new concepts, and began the Bronze Age. Innovations got underway in abundance in the issue that marked the start of the Fourth World saga, kicked off the swinging ‘70s for the Man of Steel, and bragged (accurately) on the cover that it featured “the new Jimmy Olsen”.
All-Star Superman #4 (July 2006): Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quitely’s meticulously crafted and lovingly executed paean to the grandeur and majesty of the Silver Age Superman simply had to include an issue featuring Jimmy Olsen in a central role, and the creators left few boxes unchecked in a story containing Lucy Lane, physical transformations, the signal watch, a new variety of kryptonite, and “Mr. Action” wearing women’s clothing. Morrison’s and Quitely’s most important contribution in The Superman/Olsen War, however, is their reaffirmation of a long-forgotten yet immensely significant truth from the ‘50s: Jimmy Olsen, much like the bow ties he wears, is cool.
Action Comics #893 (November 2010): The backup feature in this issue was the opening chapter of Nick Spencer’s Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week storyline, and the whimsical tone was established from the outset. After an opening scene with sultans and sarcasm, we settle into the here and now, where Jimmy listlessly plays video games, is dumped by his girlfriend Chloe Sullivan, and finds himself stuck in the doldrums. Snappy dialogue and wacky plot twists set Olsen’s solo adventure into motion at a rapid-fire pace, foreshadowing the fun that is to come.
Superman #39 (May 2015): In his last issue before turning the book over to the current creative team, Geoff Johns offered readers a preview of the upcoming Truth arc by showing Superman spending a day without his powers but with the company of Jimmy Olsen, to whom he has revealed his secret identity. In a simple yet heartwarming story, Johns cut to the essence of the heroism and selflessness that define the Man of Steel and have made him an inspiration to generations. At the core of this story is the genuine friendship Jimmy shows while taking Clark on a guided tour of what it means to be human before being shown through a single powerful line of dialogue (“You think I only step in front of guns because I’m bulletproof?”) that the Kryptonian understands that idea intuitively. The sincerity and significance of Superman’s relationship with his best pal have never been more elegantly summarized than they were in this issue.
Bizarro #2 (September 2015): This was an especially tough call for me, because I love this entire series. Frankly, I could have picked a random issue of Heath Corson’s and Gustavo Duarte’s buddy comedy and been perfectly content to include it, but the combination of road trip photos, subtle references, witty banter, and unapologetic absurdity contained in this issue made it a terrific microcosm of what makes Jimmy Olsen continue to work even today, 75 years after his first appearance, with or without the presence of his super-powered pal.
What other Jimmy Olsen stories ought to be included in a comic collection commemorating the character’s 75th anniversary?
Be sure to share your favorites in the comments below!
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T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.