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Ask Chris #118: What’s So Great About Jimmy Olsen?

Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why each and every week, we turn to you, to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: Why do you consider Jimmy Olsen one of the best characters in comics history? That might have sounded kind of derisive or snarky, but I’m genuinely curious to hear your take on the character. — @jameymcdermott

A: If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you’ve probably seen me mention that the three greatest comic book characters of all time are Spider-Man, Batman and Jimmy Olsen. Most people tend to at least see where I’m coming from with the first two, but that third choice tends to raise a few eyebrows. I stand by it, though: Jimmy Olsen is one of the greats.

Why? Because he’s the kind of character that could only exist in super-hero comic books, and embodies the ideas behind that universe in a way no other character does.That might seem a little counterintuitive when you consider that comics aren’t Jimmy’s native medium. For those of you who aren’t aware, Jimmy Olsen is basically his generation’s Harley Quinn, but without the legions of cosplaying SuicideGirl fans: He first appeared on the Adventures of Superman radio show as a minor character with an annoying catchphrase (“Super-Duper!”) so that Superman could have the occasional conversation with someone who wasn’t Lois Lane, and proved to be popular enough among fans that he made the transition back into the comics.

That’s where he really became his own character, especially once he got his own series in 1954. The very existence of that comic is one of my favorite things about Superman, because there was a time when that dude was so popular that a guy was able to get a comic that lasted 163 issues — more, if you count its transition into Superman Family in 1974 — just by virtue of being Superman’s Pal. And it makes perfect sense that it would, too, because Jimmy Olsen is one of the most perfect wish-fulfillment characters in comics history.

The most perfect, of course, is Billy Batson, the little kid that says a magic word and turns into a super-powered grown-up who still thinks like a little kid and has a talking tiger for a best friend — whose bright orange hair, green jacket, red bowtie and tendency to be written into wacky adventures by Otto Binder might seem a little familiar. But while Captain Marvel was a literalized power fantasy for kids, Jimmy Olsen takes a completely different route to wish-fulfillment: He’s the original Mary Sue.

Jimmy’s basically a kid — he’s usually referred to as a teenager, even though he has his own apartment and no parents to speak of until around 1969, when you find out his dad is Silver Age Indiana Jones — but he’s got a cool, grown-up job and he’s so awesome that Superman is his best friend! Not Batman, not Wonder Woman, not those jerks in the Legion of Super-Heroes, but Jimmy Olsen, a regular kid just like you.

It’s something that I think a lot of people can intrinsically relate to. Everyone has a desire for approval from the people they respect, and when you’re a kid, those people tend to be the authority figures in your life. Parents, teachers, older brothers and sisters, those are the people who you want to look at you and say “hey, good job,” and it’s very easy for Superman to become a fictional surrogate for that role. Not only is he the most powerful person in the world, but he’s also the actual best from a moral standpoint, someone who only uses his powers for the benefit of others. He’s the ultimate authority figure.

I’m pretty sure that’s why he spent so much time back in the Silver Age pulling those elaborate pranks on Jimmy and Lois in order to teach them lessons about relatively minor character flaws. If you look at it from the standpoint of someone for whom rearranging planets is as easy as walking down the street, it makes a little more sense than the idea that he’s just some weird alien sadist. They’re practical lessons meant as moral instruction, delivered in a memorable way on a scale on par with what he’s able to do, and sometimes that means forcing your best friend to marry a gorilla.

I didn’t become a big Jimmy Olsen fan until I was in my 20s, but his aspirational role for kids is definitely one I can relate to. Surprising no one, Batman was my hero when I was a kid, but as I’ve mentioned before, I never really wanted to be Batman. I wanted to be Robin, because that’s who gets to hang out with Batman. It wasn’t until I got closer to my teens that I really started to identify with the heroes — mainly Spider-Man and the X-Men, which are almost scientifically designed to appeal to the melodrama of your teenage years. As those characters show us, being the hero comes with a lot of responsibility. You’re always having to go and fight crime and use your abilities to help others, and even at the best of times, that can be a real drag. The sidekick, though? That’s just far enough on the sidelines that you get all the fun and none of the worry. Sometimes you get beaten to death with a crowbar, yes, but for most of it, the responsibility lies with someone else, and you just get the benefits.

Which is exactly how Jimmy Olsen works. He has adventures. He’s been to space. He occasionally gets super-powers, but only long enough to have fun with before they fade away. He has his own fan club, which is a pretty amazing example of his status as an aspirational character. Hell, he went back in time and brought down the Nazis from the inside!

He was also Marco Polo in a past life. Seriously: Jimmy Olsen had a lot going on in the ’60s, and that adaptability is another thing that makes him so great.

Which brings us back around to the idea that Olsen is a character that could only exist in super-hero comics. That might seem obvious, what with the fact that he’s a supporting cast member in a super-hero comic, but other prominent characters aren’t quite as tied to the medium. Superman didn’t need super-hero comics, as evidenced by the fact that super-hero comics didn’t actually exist when he was created. Batman and Robin were directly descended from the pulps, and probably would’ve worked just as well there if Bob Kane had actually been able to string enough words together to form a dime novel.

Olsen, however, is one of the earliest characters who emerged into a fully-formed universe, and experienced that universe by the rules that weren’t created for him. He’s a normal guy who operates in a world built for Superman, and the way that all plays out is fascinating.

But more than that, he had to exist not just in comics, but in Silver Age comics specifically. He needed to be shaped by a world that had that kind of, for lack of a better word, purity in its intentions and boundless imagination that still rigorously adhered to its own bizarre logic. I won’t say that Jimmy Olsen stories are the best of the Silver Age, or even the most evocative of what made storytelling in that era so distinct — the Weisinger era of Superman and those early Legion of Super-Heroes stories are both more likely candidates for that — but as a character, he’s certainly the most pure product of his time.

You can see how those ideas all fit together in the way that Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen plays out as a series. At first, there’s an attempt to build Jimmy as a standard hero. He’s essentially played as “What if Clark Kent didn’t have super-powers,” to the point where he’s even given his own sidekick: Jumbo Jones, the portly pilot of the Daily Planet’s Flying Newsroom:

But as the series goes on and Otto Binder replaces Jack Schiff as the go-to Olsen writer and infuses the series with more of that Captain Marvel-style weirdness, things take off. Jimmy becomes a character unto himself, and Superman starts taking more of that authoritarian role. You even start to get beautiful metaphors that blend with the tapestry of the larger Superman mythos.

The very idea of Jimmy’s famous Signal Watch, for instance, isn’t just a nice storytelling tool to bring Superman in at a moment’s notice (though it certainly makes things more convenient). It’s also a powerful metaphor that shows the modern Lex Luthor argument about how Superman’s presence on Earth is stunting humanity’s growth as a species to be the lie that it is. The watch gives Jimmy Olsen the ability to literally summon Superman to solve any of his problems, but he doesn’t rely on it for the simple reason that if he does, we get a boring story. Instead, Jimmy is built to understand, as we all should, that Superman is there to do the things we can’t, and with that understanding, he’s inspired to do his best to solve everything, pushing humanity to the limits of what it can achieve, before Superman gets called in.

That’s a beautiful aspect of Superman’s character, the inspirational aspect of his role as an authority figure, that’s often lost in more recent attempts to make him “relatable” or “less perfect” or “f***ing unreadable,” which unfortunately seems to be the goal most of the time. And it’s one that Jimmy, as a stand in for the reader, brings out in a way that’s both easy to understand and fun to read.

In a lot of ways, Jimmy Olsen is the Silver Age, all of its excesses and strange rules and metaphors and inspirations brought together in a perfect snapshot of the time. And that might be why creators in other eras have such a hard time working with him, even in a genre that’s steeped in nostalgia.

You can see a lot of that evidenced by Jack Kirby’s run on the book. I was talking to Benito Cereno the other day about where to draw the line between the various ages of comics, and I told him that for me, you can make a clean break between the Silver Age and the Bronze Age right there in October of 1970 and Kirby’s debut in Jimmy Olsen #133.

Don’t get me wrong: I like those comics a lot, but they’re not really Jimmy Olsen stories. They’re Kirby stories, and Kirby seems supremely unconcerned with Jimmy Olsen as a character and far more interested in those big ideas that dominate his work. As a result, Jimmy’s barely more than a background character to the adventures of the Newsboy Legion clones, the Hairies, the Weirdies, the Wild Area, Transilvane (the planet so evil that it has devil horns), Darkseid and, of course, Goody Rickels. Jimmy’s just sort of along for the ride, a bit player whose name just happens to be on the cover because Kirby told DC he’d take their worst-selling book and make it their best.

And the thing is, as soon as Kirby’s pencil touches the paper, the Jimmy that was is pretty much done. Even after he leaves and Jimmy goes back to adventuring in the days of Marco Polo, he feels like a different character, existing in a different kind of world. Once Kirby has arrived, there’s just no going back to the Silver Age.

In that respect, Jimmy Olsen works as a microcosm of comics as a whole. Kirby (and Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko, and John Romita, and so on) changed super-hero storytelling on a fundamental level with what they did at Marvel in the ’60s, and after Kirby’s arrival, DC pretty much spent the rest of the ’70s catching up. That’s kind of what DC does. O’Neil, Adams, Englehart and Rogers restructured Batman into the form that we know him today, O’Neil and Bates took Superman into different kinds of stories, the Justice League’s adventures got bigger and more threatening under Conway, Dillin and Perez, and so on. By the time they restructured the universe in an attempt to make it more modern in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Jimmy Olsen was basically tossed out of comics with the exception of an occasional IP-servicing appearance; he didn’t have the romance aspect that kept Lois Lane as a thriving character, and everything that made him great didn’t fit with attempts for more “realistic” stories.

And why should they? He doesn’t live in the real world. He lives in a world where his best friend is a flying alien who can juggle cars. He lives in a world where lightning strikes and nuclear meltdowns tend to create wisecracking do-gooders and not just third-degree burns. And for a world like that, no matter what era those stories are set, he’s the perfect character for it.

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to chris@comicsalliance.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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