Bizarro Back Issues: Jimmy Olsen Is… Spartacus! (1973)
So hey, you know how Jimmy Olsen sometimes runs into a mystical jewel called the Star of Cathay that sends his consciousness back in time to his past life as famous 13th century merchant and explorer Marco Polo, who also had a super-powered pal in the form of a genie named Korul? If you don’t, that’s fine, I’m pretty sure there are only five or six people who are obsessed with Jimmy Olsen to the point of paying attention to his past lives, and at least two of them work for ComicsAlliance.
The point is, that was a strange piece of DC’s Bronze Age continuity, but maybe the weirdest thing about it was that it wasn’t the only time Jimmy Olsen got sent back to a past life. So I guess the question I really wanted to ask was: You know how Jimmy Olsen used to be Spartacus?
That’s right: Spartacus. It happened back in Leo Dorfman and Kurt Schaffenberger‘s “Arena of Death,” from Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #159, and while I’m a fan of both of those creators to the point of calling Schaffenberger the unsung greatest Superman artist of all time, this is… not their best work. And a lot of that comes down to structure.
The opening, for instance, is… well, if you’re feeling charitable, you can call it blunt. We just straight up kick off with a splash page of Jimmy Olsen being rocketed back through time because of jewel magic:
Say what you will, but this thing moves fast.
We do get a little explanation on the next page from some very chatty scientists, though. It seems that after his first adventure as Marco Polo a few issues before, Jimmy wanted to do some experiments with the Star of Cathay and see if it’ll do the same thing again. And scientists in Metropolis being what they are, they decide to just let this local reporter shoot Science Rays at a priceless jewel until he vanishes in a puff of smoke. And this, believe it or not, is one of the most responsible and well-prepared scientific experiments I’ve ever seen in comics, if only because they’re both wearing lab coats.
While the scientists try to figure out what to tell Superman when he inevitably shows up to ask why his pal has been reduced to a few scorch marks on a tile floor, Jimmy awakens in the distant past, laying on the floor of a dungeon. As we discover when a centurion opens the door to let him out of solitary confinement, he’s in the body of an even earlier past life: Spartacus, a gladiator in ancient Rome with whom you may already be familiar.
And much like Jimmy’s future lives, he has a very powerful pal:
“It’s probably familiar because it’s my real name!” is something I know I think whenever I hear the word “Chris.”
This guy’s name is Ursus the Mighty, and I’m going to go ahead and tell you right now that there is absolutely no explanation given for why he appears to have super-strength. But on the other hand, if you want Jimmy Olsen to stand around watching somebody smashing things up while asking that question and never being answered, then you have come to exactly the right place.
After they spark a riot over lunch, Spartacus and Ursus are sentenced to fight each other to the death in the arena, guaranteeing that the Roman Empire will be rid of at least one of their problems. The thing is, this is all part of a master plan that Spartacus cooked up but is now having difficulty remembering.
And that’s actually a pretty interesting thing about this story. Rather than just having Jimmy Olsen wander around in Ancient Rome, Dorfman’s script adds another layer to it by giving him a minor identity crisis. Before long, he’s convinced that he is and always has been Spartacus, and that his future life as a reporter for a major Metropolitan newspaper is the dream, albeit a very inspirational one.
Either way, when they face off in the arena, Spartacus and Ursas make their escape, with Ursas tearing the door off a cell and launching what is known to history as the Third Servile War. Before long, their army has swelled, and they’re set on toppling the entire Roman government.
Rome, however, is not what you would call “undefended,” and it’s only a matter of hours before they send out a young commander to quash this rebellion before it can really get started. Unlike recorded history’s insistence that it was Marcus Licinius Crassus who did the job, DC Comics knows the truth: It was young Julius Caesar.
But while Caesar was, by all accounts, a brilliant military commander, he wasn’t quite prepared for the mind of a future man like Jimmy Olsen, whose memories give Spartacus the idea to engage the Roman phalanx through modern tank warfare.
Assuming that by “modern tank warfare” you mean “literally just rolling a wagon full of dudes down a hill at them,” I mean, which is pretty much what happens.
One would think they wouldn’t need the 20th century’s finest minds to introduce the idea of rolling things downhill at your enemies, but here we are.
With Jimmy’s memories of modern warfare, the battle quickly turns in favor of Spartacus and his army of freed slaves, to the point where Ursas has a shot at ending the whole thing by taking out Caesar with an arrow. The thing is, Spartacus’s future memories also reveal that Caesar is destined to have another thirty years of success before he’s murdered by his pals on the Ides of March, so Ursas is stopped before he can fire the shot. Instead, Spartacus himself goes after Caesar, and ends up going facefirst into a trap that requires his suspiciously strong pal to show up and lend a hand.
And with that, well, the story just sort of stops. At the height of the action, with Spartacus in dire peril and the mystery of Ursas’s powers still unresolved, “Spartacus” blacks out and wakes up as Jimmy Olsen, back on the floor of the science lab where he vanished the day before, with Superman claiming that it was all a dream.
Seriously. That’s it. But don’t worry — four issues later, Jimmy was back in Marco Polo times having another adventure with past lives.