Jimmy Olsen, Rebirth and Diversity in DC Comics

Kyle King Kyle King

March 6th, 2016

T. Kyle King is a lawyer, a former sports blogger, a panelist on the "Twin Peaks"-centric "Wrapped in Podcast", and a Superman guy.

Jimmy Olsen, Rebirth and Diversity in DC Comics
1 Comment

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.


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.

Jimmy Olsen

Credit: DC Comics

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.

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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.”

Jimmy Olsen

Credit: DC Comics

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.

Jimmy Olsen

Credit: DC Comics

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.

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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.

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One Comment

  1. williamsire says:

    Nothing in this article reflects upon what made the Jimmy Olsen character popular and appealing to generations of fans/readers. Its easy to see why. DC Comics doesn’t know, nor do I think they care. They just want to say that their fringe ideology rose to prominence despite the overwhelming evidence that when it comes time to harvest of it there is nothing to place in your basket. Meaning… There are no readers.

    DC’s push for diversity may have been successful had their stories become more sophisticated to meet the modern times and they added new diverse characters whom appealed to general audiences. Instead their stories only became more and more profoundly stupid ignoring what made their characters who they were to the readers (of course as stated earlier “readers” is a concept DC Comics have abandoned) or who they were in context of the story. Their books became nothing more than a platform to sell their political and social agenda. An idea which has only been embraced by keyboard warriors and mostly internet cheerleaders whom it is very apparent chose not to purchase their titles.

    The only nail Dan Didio and his contingent of village idiots have to hang their hat on is that they think (or rather it appears they do) the most important thing for them is to upset conservatives/republicans. It is so apparent that they are basking in their own self indulgence thinking that they have done that irrespective of the fact that those conservatives/republicans may have been paying consumers of their product. Previous groups of publishers held in high demand that their product appealed to the consumer market and intentionally avoided even the appearance of a political or social agenda just to maintain as broad an audience appeal as possible. How did establishing one accomplish a broad audience appeal?

    I think the evidence of the past vs the present draws the inescapable conclusion that the previous groups of publishers, as well as movie and television executives are correct. For the record recasting characters as black, or any other race, women, etc was being done early in entertainment history. I’m not certain it goes as far back to 1938 when Superman was created but I’m willing to bet it did. Where they were smart, and this group is stupid is that in the past they didn’t change characters when the consumers like the characters as they were. I don’t think there was loss of TV viewers over THE ODD COUPLE were recast as black.

    This article is a masquerade for a sales pitch, one that is going to fail. Why am I so cession it’s going to fail…? Because every one before it failed… hence DC Comics rebirth. Why is this one supposed to succeed when it’s nothing more than a new attempt to sell the same thing people don’t want. Let’s take this one for example, in 1893 somebody made a stupid decision. They decided Dick Grayson had to grow up. Note: This was likely due to Captain Americas “Bucky” having grown up. However Dick Grayson as Robin was leading the Teen Titans which was selling on par with Marvels X-Men. Nobody cared about Bucky. Dick became Nightwing and Jason Todd became Robin. It wasn’t long before it was evident consumers didn’t like this. They were speaking very loudly by their lack of support as the cash register. How did DC respond? They announced a call in vote to determine if they were going to keep Jason Todd. (I’ll always state that I think this was DC Comics attempt to save Jason Todd no matter how they sold it to the readers.) The votes came in… Jason Todd was axed. Seems logical to put Dick Grayson back in the role. NO…. They created a Grayson clone…Tim Drake. Then to insure this attempt wouldn’t fail they immediately launched Tim Drake in his own title.

    I could go into the whole history but I want to get to the end result. You had a title, “The New Teen Titians” that was soaring. You had the “Batman” line which Robin was feature in and those titles were soaring with his appearance in them (and without). You had a brand with world wide recognition, his look and his name. Now and for most of the last 33 years what do you have from that action.

    That isn’t the same as diversifying characters and driving a political/social agenda but it’s the same result. 33 years of doing something your consumer market product purchasing readers never wanted. It’s not at all surprising that what you end up with are defunct titles that sit of the shelf and in back issue bins while steadily declining in sales as well. That is the reason for DC rebirth, because they realize this at DC. But instead of abandoning the ill conceived ideas and poorly constructed business concepts, its just another run at the same thing.