Jimmy Olsen, Rebirth and Diversity in DC Comics
March 6th, 2016 | by Kyle King
The DC Universe is on the verge of a line-wide Rebirth, which DC Comics chief creative officer Geoff Johns insists will be “an echo of the past, but looking to the future” that “is definitely for comic book readers more than it is for casual readers.” ComiConverse’s Man of Steel Writer and resident Jimmy Olsen fan, T. Kyle King, thinks it’s time for Superman’s pal to star in his own title once more.
In the wake of the publisher’s abrupt abandonment of its inclusive DC You initiative, many fans understandably have taken offence at Johns’ above-quoted comments. Given the legitimate concerns that DC Comics may be backtracking from its earlier admirable efforts to broaden comics’ audience and diversify the books’ characters and creative teams, this may not be a popular moment to go to bat for a square straight cis white male ginger in a bow tie who essentially embodies the Silver Age sensibilities of Eisenhower-era America.
I get it. Honestly, I do. But hear me out: Jimmy Olsen can be the gateway to a more inclusive DC Universe.
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No, seriously. He really can. Here’s why, and here’s how:
Jimmy invariably is a product of his time. As noted above, the most familiar incarnation of Olsen is the handiwork of Otto Binder, and that version of the character exemplified the Superman stories of the period. As straitlaced and squeaky-clean as he seemed at the time, though, Jimmy was the youthful face of DC Comics’ efforts to shed its “Dad’s Comics” image and become more like Marvel in the 1960s.
However ham-handed DC’s attempts to get hip may have been, the publisher rightly saw Jimmy Olsen as the established character best suited to appealing to the spirit of a changing age. Hence, it was Jimmy who donned a Beatle wig and danced to the music of the British Invasion in a classic story by Leo Dorfman, who became a hippie and rebelled against the stodgy Superman on an iconic Neal Adams cover, and who ventured into the Wild Area to turn on, tune in, and drop out with motorcycle-riding Outsiders and counter-cultural Hairies in the hands of Jack Kirby.
By the 1980s, Jimmy Olsen had ceased to be a perennial victim passively awaiting rescue, becoming instead the intrepid adventurer “Mr. Action”. Since the reboot of the DC Universe in the mid-‘80s, Jimmy has played central roles in the comic book storylines Superman: Metropolis, Countdown to Final Crisis, Superman: New Krypton, Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week, Bizarro, and Truth, while the character appeared as a regular cast member in the live-action television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in the 1990s, Smallville in the 2000s, and Supergirl in the 2010s.
Clearly, although Olsen consistently has retained his essential elements in every era, Jimmy has changed with the times. If that fact hadn’t been clear before, it certainly was confirmed when fans recognized Mehcad Brooks’s portrayal of James Olsen as being true to the character of the comics.
Brooks, the first African-American to play Olsen on-screen, is aware of the progress his casting represents, as he noted in an interview that, “in 1940, we didn’t have that mentality we do now. So that’s a beautiful thing.” Underscoring why he was so well suited to the role, Brooks observed in the same interview that it “sounds corny, but I’m kind of corny” that the historic nature of his casting “gives me hope.” Corny and hopeful? Yeah, that’s Jimmy Olsen, all right.
For these reasons, James Bartholomew Olsen is perfectly positioned to use his past to move forward through what appear at first to be throwbacks but end up becoming updates. As a believer in the sort of in-depth investigative research that goes into “Batgirling” — which has been defined as “the injection of diverse representation and progressive themes into [comic book] series” — I see the traditional freckled-faced ginger Jimmy as a suitable candidate to be, if not “Batgirled” precisely, then at least “Archied”: Archie Andrews’s modernizing makeover into #HotArchie, after all, increased his present relevance, but it also kept constant his core characteristic of “being the guy who’s always there for his friends when they need him.”
As it is with Archie, so it is with Jimmy, only more so. Both are good friends — Olsen’s long-running solo series (which was replaced as one of the top five bestselling comic books by Archie) even described him in the title as a “pal” — and good people who are trying to be better. Jimmy, like Archie, can have his defining traits highlighted in the transition from traditional to progressive, and the Daily Planet photographer even has certain advantages over his fellow redhead: Olsen already finds himself in a more diverse locale (the large city of Metropolis, rather than the small suburb of Riverdale) and in a position more likely to encourage openmindedness (as a journalist, instead of as a high school student).
Who better than Jimmy Olsen to view the world through 21st-century eyes? He was apprenticed to Lois Lane, an award-winning woman succeeding in a profession dominated and defined by an “old boy” mentality, before Rosie the Riveter was working to build warplanes for American servicemen in World War II. His best friend is an alien sun god with freeze breath and heat vision. He regularly undergoes physical transformations into forms, both human and otherwise, differing dramatically from the norms into which he was born. He grew as a person during a recent cross-country car trip with an imperfect Superman duplicate.
That backstory gives Olsen tremendous promise as someone who “can continue to transform into an interesting character for the modern age.” At a time when growing numbers of comics readers are eager for nuanced portrayals of LGBT characters, Jimmy provides a surprisingly ideal vehicle for telling such stories. Jack Larson, the playwright most widely known for playing Jimmy Olsen on television in the 1950s, came to terms with his sexual orientation during his time in Hollywood, when he met his longtime partner, James Bridges. The Daily Planet photojournalist, whose frequent use of disguises often has included instances of dressing as a woman, at one time was rumored to have been changed to Jenny Olsen for Man of Steel, giving rise to recommendations that the character should be a trans woman.
Olsen could, of course, be a trans woman instead of a cis man, just as Mehcad Brooks has shown that the character can be a black male named James rather than a white male named Jimmy. What he always is, though, is a reporter living in the midst of the varied cultural mosaic of a major American city who takes entirely in stride the richness of human (and, often, extraterrestrial) diversity. Consequently, Olsen is best equipped to serve as a guide to the wide array of variation existing within his forward-thinking environs.
Although I reject the idea that Superman lacks complexity, it is true that, while a writer might make the Man of Steel more powerful, it is not possible to make the Last Son of Krypton more noble; Superman already is as good as he is going to get. Jimmy, though, remains a work in progress; over the years, he has grown and changed in shifting circumstances, but there are areas into which he has not gone, and this is the time to take him there.
Take, for instance, the subject of appropriate transgender representation in comics, a topic of such significance that Marcy Cook has offered to provide free transgender consultation service to publishers to help them get it right. As Cook also has noted, the tragic reality is that trans women disproportionately are victims of violent crime, and J. Skyler therefore has written thoughtfully that, in stories prominently featuring transgender characters, “both joy and heartache need to be portrayed in balance.” Suppose, then, that, in Metropolis, the local police were failing adequately to address violent crimes committed against members of that city’s transgender community.
Wouldn’t Jimmy Olsen be a likely candidate to use his job as a journalist to call attention to this travesty of justice?
That is simply one example of how Olsen, an openminded and inquisitive reporter with a wide-ranging experience, could serve as the audience’s eyes and ears on a journey through a diverse setting larger and more varied than Riverdale or even Burnside. In recent years, “The Boy of 100 Faces” has been updated incrementally for limited runs in such series as Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, Nick Spencer’s Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week, and Heath Corson’s Bizarro, but, because Olsen’s progression is our progression, we need to accompany him on a marathon rather than merely join him for an occasional sprint. Now is the time to capitalize on Jimmy’s heightened profile from the Supergirl series.
In 2015, when Superman’s pal turned 75, Benito Cereno, expressing his hope that “Jimmy Olsen will once again be a star player” in the DC Universe, wrote appreciatively of the period in which “a red-headed boy in a bow tie and green checked blazer with an insatiable thirst for scoops was at the center of a series that was uniquely — and almost sublimely — comics.” Mr. Action is ready to usher in another unique and sublime age in superhero comics history.
DC Comics, call me; we need to talk.
Everyone else, please join in the ComiConversation in the comments.
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.