The Boy of 100 Faces! A Tribute to Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen
Zee zee zee zee! This day marks the first appearance in 1938's Action Comics #6 of an unnamed office boy who would before long go on to great heights as Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen. While this office boy would make a handful of appearances in the Golden Age, the name Jimmy Olsen wouldn't be uttered until the advent of the Adventures of Superman radio show in 1940, in which the cub reporter was introduced largely so Superman would have someone to talk to. This version would be integrated into the comics in 1941's Superman #13, but would disappear after a few more appearances.
Then came the Adventures of Superman television show in 1953. The TV show took a number of cues from the radio program, not the least of which was including Jimmy Olsen, portrayed by Jack Larson, as a major supporting player. The success of the show prompted DC to launch a solo series starring the cub reporter, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, which would go on to be in many ways the quintessential Silver Age series.
In the hands of Otto Binder and Curt Swan, who produced the first several years of Jimmy's solo series, Superman's Pal became a hotbed of the bizarre and unpredictable storytelling that the era is now known for. Puzzle plots, misleading but (usually) still accurate covers, and stories that played out like a literalization of a Freudian fever dream were all par for the course.
Due both to Jimmy's propensity for disguises and his willingness to drink whatever any scientist handed him, many stories dealt with bizarre transformations that could range from outlandish comedies of errors to something closer to angst-ridden body horror. But through all this, Jimmy remained a likable, if cocksure, young man who would face any danger to get a scoop, because he knew his best friend would always be there to save him. And he always was.
Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen experienced something of a sea change when Jack Kirby took over the title in 1970 with issue #133. Kirby introduced myriad new elements — the DNA Project (later known as Project Cadmus), the Hairies, the reintroduced Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, and some dude named Darkseid — and the book became much more of an ensemble cast with the Newsboy Legion and Superman getting the spotlight just as much as Jimmy. (However, thanks to genetic experiments, both of the DNA Project and villains Simyan and Mokkari, the bizarre transformations didn't change).
Chris Sims marks the shift of Superman's Pal into a Kirby-style action book as the surest dividing line between the Silver and Bronze Ages, as Jimmy was, prior to Kirby's run, the purest Silver Age character of them all, and a change for him meant a change for DC Comics as a whole.
Jimmy's adventures in his solo title continued a little while before being folded into the anthology title Superman Family. This era saw Jimmy move even farther from the science fiction stories that were the cornerstone of the Binder/Swan and even Kirby run; now he ran around as an investigative reporter who went by “Mr Action” and embroiled himself in the types of urban crime stories typical of the Bronze Age.
He would be removed even further from his Silver Age roots following Crisis on Infinite Earths, after which he more or less faded into the background as a supporting character who almost never became a werewolf or married a gorilla. Occasional references to his previous adventures would pop up, such as when he played the character of Turtle Boy in a series of pizza commercials.
There have been a few attempts here and there to revive Jimmy as the fearless boy reporter whose life is just as strange as you would expect from someone whose best friend is an alien. Perhaps the most prominent example is All-Star Superman #4, a spotlight on Jimmy that includes a strange transformation, his relationship with Lucy Lane, a strange set of circumstances that lead to a confrontation with Superman, and many of the hallmarks of a classic Jimmy story.
Others include the 2011 Jimmy Olsen one-shot by Nick Spencer and RB Silva, a story from 2011's Superman 80 Page Giant, and the undoubtedly well-intended but not particularly well-executed “Mr Action” storyline in Countdown to Infinite Crisis.
Nevertheless, these stories have been the exception, not the rule. Even in Grant Morrison's New 52 Action Comics run, a much more mundane Jimmy Olsen had become Clark Kent's pal, not even Superman's. No signal watch to be seen anywhere.
Maybe one day in the future, Jimmy Olsen will once again be a star player and not just the kid in the background getting yelled at by Perry White. But in the meantime, we can appreciate that for a period of almost two decades, 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.
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