Ask Chris #179: The Jimmy Olsen – Robin War!
Q: Why is it that Robin has endured as Batman’s teen sidekick, but Jimmy Olsen hasn’t as Superman’s? – @doubting_tom
A: I don’t know why, but for some reason, I got a lot of questions this week about sidekicks in general and Robin in particular, but this one stuck out for a pretty obvious reason, which is that I really, really like to talk about Jimmy Olsen. It’s weird, though, Tom, because you’re absolutely right: As much as I might love the guy, he’s often ignored in and minimized in superhero stories, something that doesn’t happen a lot to someone who was once a fixture of the cast who was popular enough to hold down a solo title for 150 issues. Meanwhile, we’re up to our pointy bat ears in Robins, ex-Robins, dead Robins, potential Robins and Future Robins. It seems a little imbalanced.
But at the same time, there’s definitely a logic to it, and there are a lot of reasons that those two characters have ended up how they did. It has to do with when they showed up, the role they fill in the story, how they’ve changed over the years, and the idea that maybe Jimmy Olsen isn’t really a sidekick at all.
I mean, that’s what we call him — I’ve done it more than just about anyone, mostly because I’ve thought about Jimmy Olsen more than most people have thought about Superman over the past ten years — but really, that’s more because “sidekick” is the word we use for teenagers who hang out with grown-up superheroes than because it’s his actual role. They’re not really partners in the way that Batman and Robin or Captain America and Bucky are; Jimmy doesn’t generally head into battle and help Superman fight Lex Luthor’s robots or anything. If he had to fill out a form, he wouldn’t list “crimefighter” as his primary occupation, and if anything, he’s usually the one who has to be rescued from whatever trouble shows up in the story. Robin might’ve pioneered the role of the Boy Hostage, but Jimmy went pro with it, to the point where his only consistent accessory (aside from the bowtie, I suppose) is the watch that he uses to call Superman for help.
Really, Jimmy Olsen is exactly what it says on the cover: He’s Superman’s Pal. That’s what makes him great, too, because it changes so much about both of those characters. One of the flimsy justifications that people who make bad Superman stories always go to is that he’s too powerful, too godlike, and that someone like that just can’t relate to the average human and that’s why he needs to walk across the country or whatever. This, of course, is hot garbage for a variety of reasons, but Jimmy Olsen pokes a pretty big hole in that theory just by existing. If Superman was really so godly and remote from humanity, then how is his best friend just a normal guy?
Superman has plenty of people he calls friends, which makes sense. If you made a habit of destroying killer robots and meteors, you’d probably be pretty popular too. But while he has friendships with Batman or the Legionnaires or the rest of the Justice League, the character who’s defined as his friend is a regular guy. Relatively smart and resourceful, sure, and the product of a world in which super-horses and criminal swamis are an unavoidable fact of life, but otherwise perfectly normal. Superman relates to him better than he relates to anyone else, and Jimmy, average young man that he is, can relate to Superman. They’re friends, in a way that goes beyond just hero worship or sidekicking. Those dudes actually hang out.
One of the aspects of Jimmy that I really like that’s often lost in the shuffle — it’s one of the few modern additions to Jimmy’s character, recently brought up by Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison in Superman Unchained and Action Comics — is that Jimmy’s just as much Clark’s friend as he is Superman’s:
That’s something that really adds to how both of those characters work, and helps to root Superman in his humanity. Establishing that Jimmy can relate to both of them equally on their own terms is a pretty big deal, and it gives Clark someone to talk to who isn’t a billionaire vigilante or mythical royalty, friends that are every bit as hard to relate to for the average reader as an flying spaceman with heat vision. He’s Superman’s Pal.
Of course, that also makes Jimmy disposable.
I hate to say it because, as I’ve mentioned before, Jimmy Olsen is my third-favorite comic book character of all time — right after Batman and Spider-Man, which means I’m one of the few people who likes Jimmy Olsen more than Superman — but if you’re paring thing down to the essentials, Jimmy’s relationship with Superman doesn’t do anything that Lois’s relationship doesn’t do better.
I’m a pretty big fan of friendship based storytelling, but the idea of the most powerful person in the universe falling in love with an “ordinary” human woman because she has the same exceptional courage in pursuit of the truth as he does despite her human fragility is, well, more romantic in every sense of the word. There’s a poetry to it that you don’t really get with Jimmy, and every aspect of her personality just increases how interesting they can be when they’re paired up. Her competition with Clark as a reporter, her willingness to look past the powers because she wants to find out more about the person behind them, those are all great character traits. Even the Silver Age’s version of her half-mad pursuit of marriage has this great idea at its core, that she’s so tenacious and fearless that she isn’t going to let him run away from their obvious love for each other because he’s afraid of the people close to him being hurt. It’s actually really great, even if it manifests as some truly bonkers nonsense some (most) of the time. With the more modern idea of Lois as someone who’s also involved with Clark rather than just dismissing him as a milquetoast, something that really only came around in the ’80s, she filled a lot of the role that would’ve gone to Jimmy otherwise. There’s a reason Olsen’s been pretty much twiddling his thumbs since Crisis, and most of it comes from that redundancy with Lois’s evolution.
Even though they do it in different ways, both of which are valid and both, I’d argue, are necessary, Jimmy and Lois cover a lot of the same ground in what they reveal about Superman, and if you have to pick one, there’s no competition. Lois wins every time, hands down. There’s just way more emotion to “I love you, Lois Lane, until the end of time” than you’re going to get with “hey Clark, let’s play XBox.”
I’d call that the core reason for Jimmy’s decline, but there are other factors, too. I’ve always maintained that while he was around pretty early, Jimmy really evolved as a character in the ’50s, and developed in the way that only a product of the Silver Age could develop. As pal Andrew Weiss has often pointed out, Jimmy’s just a human version of Captain Marvel’s pal Mr. Tawny (they even wear the same suit and jacket), transplanted along with a lot of Captain Marvel’s aesthetic into Superman’s world by Otto Binder. A lot of his personality is intricately tied to that particular era of Superman, of which Binder was arguably the most crucial creator, so he’s intricately tied to it in the same way that Batman still has echoes of the noirish, pulpy ’40s, or that Cable has with the ’90s, or that Luke Cage has with the ’70s.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing, if not for the fact that comics in general and DC Comics in particular have been trying their damnedest to run as far away from the perceived silliness (and, let’s be honest, actual silliness) of that era for the past forty years. It has a weird double effect on the character too. Not only have they tried to mothball a lot of the things that make Jimmy unique — the strange adventures, the optimism, even the idea that he could just hang out with Superman — they’ve also changed Superman himself into a character who’s less receptive to that kind of friendship. It started with John Byrne, who stripped out both Jimmy and Pete Ross in favor of rebuilding Superman with the focus on Lois and Lana. It wasn’t an entirely unwelcome change, but it cemented the idea of a Superman without Jimmy as a necessary ingredient. Throw in the shift towards more high-stakes, fate-of-the-world storytelling, and the very idea of Superman’s Pal seems weird. Superman can hang out with Jimmy Olsen when he’s dealing with the kind of weird problems of the Silver Age (so many swamis, you guys) but when he’s flying off to stop Darkseid from enslaving humanity or General Zod from building a mountain of skulls or whatever, stopping for a chat with his human pal seems as out of place as taking the time to build wax statues in the Fortress of Solitude.
It also goes back to what I was saying earlier about how Jimmy pokes a hole in the Superman-is-Unrelatable theory. He does, but so many people, and so many creators, have that rooted in their head that they’re compelled to make it work. They don’t adjust the perception of Superman to match the stories, they adjust the stories to match their perceptions. If Jimmy proves that Superman is someone the average person can relate to, then I guess we just can’t have Jimmy Olsen cluttering up our story where sad lonely Superman cries about stuff, which is a mostly what he ended up doing for the first decade of the 21st century. Would you want to hang out with the douchebag Superman from the first half of “Grounded,” or the dour deadbeat dad/stalker from Superman Returns or, heaven forfend, the washed-out killer from Man of Steel? I don’t think Jimmy Olsen would. As Erica Henderson put it when I chatted with her about this, “We can’t really have Jimmy back until Superman stops being sorry for being Superman.”
So if all that’s true, why does Robin endure? At first glance, they share a lot of the same qualities, but they’re shifted just enough to make a huge difference in how their characters work.
To start with, Robin, like Jimmy, is unquestionably a product of his era. The ’40s were lousy with kid sidekicks, from Speedy to Bucky to Stuff the Chinatown Kid to Toro to, regrettably, Ebony White, but think about how many sidekicks you’ve heard of who were created after 1960. The latest prominent sidekicks I can think of are Kid Flash in 1959 and Aqualad in 1960, and I have to think that’s more because of Robin’s popularity than because the sidekick zeitgeist still being in effect. Supergirl came about in ’59 too, but even though she fits the definition of “sidekick” better than Jimmy Olsen (she actually does go on adventures and contributes to them in a non-hostage fashion), most of her appearances were solo stories over in Adventure Comics. Wonder Girl was never really a sidekick — she was actually created by accident, when Bob Haney didn’t realize that the Wonder Girl he was writing into Teen Titans wasn’t Wonder Woman’s sidekick, but Wonder Woman herself in the past, a la Superboy.
This, incidentally, ruined the continuity of the DC Universe forever, so the next time DC reboots, blame Donna Troy.
There’s a big shift in superheroes in the ’60s that essentially makes teen sidekicks obsolete, at least as they were up to that point, and its name was Spider-Man. Peter Parker heralded the arrival of the solo teen hero, which at the time was a pretty revolutionary concept. Billy Batson was a kid, sure, but when he said his magic word, he turned into a grown-up; Spider-Man was a kid even with the mask on. Robin was in solo stories starting in the ’40s, but he was still the back half of Batman And; Spider-Man was the star attraction of his own story. Even the name was a shift — calling a high schooler “Spider-Man” instead of “Spider-Boy” says a lot about how much it changed things. Since then, virtually every younger character in superhero comics, whether it’s Speedball or Nova or Jaime Reyes or Invincible or Terry McGinnis or Buffy the Vampire Slayer have followed that model. It works pretty darn well.
But even though teen sidekicks became a punchline (well, more of a punchline than they already were when Wertham started poring through back issues looking for homoerotic subtext), even when the genre moved on, Robin endured. They not only kept him around, but when the character got a new role (which, incidentally, largely followed the Spider-Man formula), the role remained. We got a new Robin, then another one, then more. He’s in the fabric.
For why, you have to go back to the beginning again. I’ve always been under the impression that reason all those heroes had sidekicks in the first place was so that they could appeal to the kids. Adults are fundamentally difficult for children to relate to, just by virtue of being adults. They’re authority figures. They already have names like “Captain America” already, and when you hit the ’50s and they basically turn into dads, they’re even harder for their target audience to relate to. Hence the need for sidekicks, to give the kids someone they could more closely relate to, as well as providing the character with someone to talk to, explain the plot, or rescue — all the standard stuff that comes from adding in a partner. You know, Watson stuff.
I don’t know if that was the actual intent of those stories, but it definitely worked that way for me when I was a kid. Watch your feet, I’m about to drop a name, but I mentioned this to Batman ’66 and Aquaman writer Jeff Parker earlier today when we were talking about it on Twitter: As much as Batman was my hero, I never wanted to be Batman. I wanted to be Robin, because he got to hang out with Batman. He does all the cool stuff, has the utility belt, gets to ride in the cool car, but he doesn’t have to be quite as grim as Batman himself. All the benefits, without all the responsibility.
Admittedly, Robin does have to watch his parents die, but rather than going off and brooding and training for years and honing himself into a living weapon to make war on all criminals, he gets a new father figure that day, and it’s the coolest dude on Earth. I never wanted my parents to die, but, y’know, if they had to go, getting Batman as your new dad is a good consolation.
That’s the great thing about Robin, and the thing that really makes for the best sidekicks: They function as the heroes, but in miniature. Robin is probably the single best example of this idea, followed closely by Supergirl, because they’re constructed to mirror the tragedies that shaped the characters they associate with. Robin, as originally constructed, has that same defining moment, witnessing his parents’ murder, but Batman is there immediately. Dick Grayson isn’t alone in the way Bruce Wayne is, which makes perfect sense. Batman already exists. Dick Grayson doesn’t have to go off and become Batman, because that role is already filled, and since it is, someone is there to lessen the tragedy.
I talked about a lot of this stuff a while back so I won’t retread that ground too much, but Robin shows a crucial aspect of Batman’s character, just like Jimmy Olsen shows a crucial part of Superman’s. In the same way that the idea of humanity, expressed as kindness and unrequited altruism, sits at the core of Superman, Batman’s core is about family, expressed as protection and safety. As a child he loses his, so as an adult, he builds a new one, and Robin is the first step in making that happen. Becoming the father figure that he lost is a bigger victory for Batman than anything else in the history of the character, because it shows that he’s winning. He has already changed the world, just by making sure that someone else didn’t have to go through what he went through alone.
It’s worth noting that Robin originally appears before Alfred, which sets up this interesting dynamic where he becomes a father figure and then gets one of his own to replace the one he lost — and then gets another interesting wrinkle when Commissioner Gordon evolves in the ’70s, as a peer and partner to Batman who is himself a father. It’s a weird way of dealing with the single most important moment in Batman’s life and how it changes him, but it’s made for some pretty interesting stuff over the past 75 years.
Those core ideas of family and protection and safety are inextricable from the greater idea of Batman. Even those stories of Batman as a dark loner almost always involve Gordon or Alfred, filling that role of family that was pioneered by Robin. It’s all crucial for Batman to work as the unique character he is.
So why, then, has Robin endured as a representation of family when Jimmy Olsen hasn’t endured as a representation of humanity for Superman? Well, he hasn’t. Not really, not any better than Jimmy Olsen has. It’s like I said, Jimmy’s role is largely usurped by Lois, who does it better and with more storytelling efficiency, and the Kents, who provided the modern version of people Clark could go to when he needed to be himself — I like the Kents only slightly more than I like Jor-El and Lara, but I can’t really argue with the metaphorical benefits of establishing Clark’s humanity by showing his actual human parents. With the focus on them, Jimmy fades into the background; someone else is doing his job. Robin went the same way. The difference is that the role remained the same — we just called four or five very different characters by the same name.
Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, even Lucius Fox in the Nolan movies, they all do the same things that Lois, Lana and the Kents do for Superman, but Robin — or more accurately, the Robins — are always there because they’ve quite literally become different characters over the years, with each one fulfilling a particular need and reflecting a particular aspect of the character.
What it comes down to is that Robin, the role and the characters that have taken it, have changed over the years in a way that Jimmy Olsen didn’t, a way that Jimmy Olsen couldn’t because there can only ever be one of him. If you create a Jason Todd or a Tim Drake or a Damian Wayne, you don’t have to lose Dick Grayson in the process. You can make a completely new person and put them in a mask and pixie boots without losing the previous incarnation, all while they’re all evolving as characters along with Batman himself. That’s a lot easier to do when you’re just handing off a costume, and a lot harder to do when you’re trying to create an entirely new Jimmy Olsen — although that didn’t stop Smallville from trying, when Jimmy Olsen died and was, I swear to God, replaced by his brother Jimmy Olsen.