WARNING: This article contains spoilers.
Reaction to Batman V Superman has been . . . mixed. Some people loved it, some people hated it. I didn’t have a strong opinion either way.
At least, until they killed Jimmy Olsen.
Okay, look — I get it. The Jimmy Olsen character doesn’t really fit the tone of the new DC films. He’s become too much of an archetype to work for modern audiences. The idea of Henry Cavill’s Superman having a befreckled and bow-tie-clad teen pal would set many moviegoers to gnashing their teeth, and rightly so. My beef is, if the character is too archaic to work in this new universe, then why include him in the movie at all? Because sticking Jimmy Olsen in there just to murder him shows a shocking disregard for a character that has been highly profitable for DC, and for a character who has a history to rival the Man of Steel himself. Don’t believe me? Then grab your Daily Planet press pass and your Speed Graphic camera and join me as we explore DC’s greatest untapped resource, Jimmy Olsen!
James “Jimmy” Olsen first appeared in DC Comics Action Comics #6, (November 1938). Although unnamed, the lad immediately made an impression on readers thanks to his eavesdropping on a meeting between Daily Planet editor Perry White and reporter Clark Kent. Jimmy passes the information on to Kent’s rival Lois Lane, establishing a relationship that endures to this day. And while readers would have to wait to learn his name, sharp-eyed viewers will note the character’s iconic bow tie already in place!
Jimmy made his first named appearance in Adventures of Superman radio show on April 15, 1940. The character’s inclusion was mandated by the show’s producers, who felt that Superman needed someone to “talk to” over the course of the episodes. Then, in 1948, Columbia Pictures released the first Superman serial to theaters. The 15-part serial starred Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent/Superman, Noel Neill as Lois Lane, and Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen. Bond was a familiar face to theatergoers, having played “Butch” in the Hal Roach Our Gang comedies. He reprised the role in 1950’s Atom Man Vs. Superman, but it is fellow actor Jack Larson who most older fans associate with the character. Larson’s enthusiastic portrayal of Olsen in 1952’s Adventures of Superman television show was an instant hit with younger viewers, providing them a character they could relate to.
In early 1954, someone at DC Comics took note of the popularity of Jimmy Olsen. As editor of both the Batman and Superman families of books, Mort Weisinger found himself often on the spot for characters for his publisher to use. Weisinger himself had already created such notable Golden Age heroes as the Green Arrow, Johnny Quick, and Aquaman. After a short stint away from the industry while he served in the military, he returned to DC Comics and the Superman books. Introducing the concept of the “imaginary story,” readers witnessed non-canonical events like the Man of Steel getting married, having a super-son, and turning into a baby (ugh). Weisinger also had some interesting ideas about Jimmy Olsen. He saw in the character an untapped potential and the chance to tell a different kind of story. The only problem was convincing his publisher to go along with it. The higher-ups at DC had no faith in Jimmy Olsen or the proposed “sister” comic, Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane, but the influential Weisinger would not be swayed.
Issue one of the aptly titled Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen appeared in October of 1954. In it, the cub photographer found himself investigating his own cases, although Superman usually appeared at the end to sort things out. Over the course of comic’s three stories, Olsen assumes the guise of an ice-cream vendor, a dish washing appliance salesman, a lumberjack, as well as Superman himself. Things would only get stranger from here!
Under Weisinger’s pen, Jimmy Olsen soon found himself at ground zero for atomic-age body horror. In short order, Jimmy developed an oversized “super-brain,” six extra arms, and lycanthropy. Oh, sure, he got better, but still — the trauma the poor kid went through is consistently masked in these stories by a terrifyingly sober sense of acceptance when it comes to these fates. It’s like the comic’s creators were in the process of prepping kids for the inevitable atomic holocaust. Whereas you or I might have a nervous breakdown if our bodies became “elastic,” our boy Jimmy simply joins the circus. It is this resiliency that Weisinger saw in the cub reporter, his benign and undefined nature making him a ginger-haired launching pad for the most absurd situations he could think up in a lunch-hour. That said, he did have help.
Mort Weisinger was was a savvy creator. He was one of the first comics professionals to actively engage with his readership, literally soliciting ideas from neighborhood kids he could later embellish on. He understood that, while professionals worked on the books, it was the comic’s readership that possessed a true passion for the material. Who better to come up Superman’s latest challenge but a child who spent all day dreaming about the character already? This led to stories that featured increasingly improbable transformations. Jimmy endured life as a bird boy, a turtle boy, and a human porcupine; he became a fat boy, a freak, a genie, and even Hitler’s pal. Through it all, Jimmy remained the good-natured patsy of Fate, becoming elastic once every summer because even kids only have so many ideas.
Jimmy Olsen remained a strong seller, it’s sales bolstered by The Adventures of Superman television show entering into afternoon syndication. The stories in the comic grew even more outlandish, with wild titles like “The Sea-Monster That Loved Aqua-Jimmy,” “Jimmy’s Robot Slave!” and “Jimmy Olsen, Freak!” Wesinger also used Jimmy to hit on the pop culture beats his fellow “square” creators might not bother with. Over time, readers watched Olsen go from being the red-headed Beatle of 10,000 B.C. to hosting “Hippy Olsen’s Hate-In!” in issue #118. The times they were a changin’, and Jimmy was changing with them. The lad frequently became his former Pal’s antagonist. Here are a few brutal examples:
Pretty odd, but odd was becoming a bit . . . familiar. For all the weirdness, Jimmy always seemed to end up where he’d started, a cub reporter whose primary character trait seemed to be poor judgement. The book began leaning heavily on reprints, preferring to remind readers of its former glory than do anything new. Then, in October of 1970, the seemingly impossible happened. Long-time Marvel Comics creator Jack Kirby left the company his career was synonymous with to work for rival publisher DC. Even stranger, he took the reigns of the now-faltering Jimmy Olsen title, making the book the staging ground for his most ambitious comic yet. The Fourth World saga came to include the titles The New Gods, Miracle Man, and The Forever People, but in time has come to influence the entirety of the DC multiverse. And to think, it all started in Jimmy Olsen #133!
Kirby left the book after only 15 issues, and the title ran on fumes until being rebranded as The Superman Family with issue #164. Big changes came with the rebranding: instead of being saddled with sci-fi tropes and endless reprints, Jimmy was reinvented as urban investigator “Mister Action!” In spite of a strong start, reader interest began to wane and Jimmy’s final solo story appeared in Superman Family #222. After decades in the spotlight, Olsen returned to the supporting player status he’d sprung from. His position in the DCU was diminished even further after the Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped away his lifetime of adventure. And while more recent appearances have flirted with past glories, Jimmy Olsen’s story has never regained the luster of the Wesinger years. And yet . . .
With the 2016 launch of DC Rebirth, the multiverse stands to be reshaped yet again. Could a return to former glories be in the cards for Jimmy Olsen? Only time will tell, but as a property, he remains a unique and powerful character. Jimmy has been a lens through which we have observed some of the most seismic shifts in the medium’s history, his title a hothouse of innovation and experimentation spawning metatextual concepts only now coming into vogue. If the new books are any indication, DC Comics is committed to honoring it’s long and varied past while moving forward into the future. I think it’s safe to say that future is finally ready for Jimmy Olsen . . . again.
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