DC Histories: Jimmy Olsen

Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about one of my favorite character in the DCU, Jimmy Olsen.

Jimmy Olsen #1 (2011) Cover

Jimmy Olsen #1 (2011) Cover

Jimmy Olsen didn’t start off as Jimmy Olsen.

In the beginning of the Superman story, relatively few of Superman’s supporting cast were in place. Lois Lane and Clark Kent were there from the start, but the newspaper they worked at was the Daily Star and their editor was George Taylor. Introduced early on in the office was a young, snoopy office boy with blonde hair and a bow tie. Though he wasn’t named in the issue, this would turn out to be an early prototype of Jimmy Olsen.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #6 (1938)

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #6 (1938)

Jimmy himself didn’t appear until two years later and in a completely different medium. Just like the first meeting of Superman and Batman, Jimmy Olsen first appeared in an episode of the Adventures of Superman radio program. In 1940, in the first chapter of a multi-part story titled ‘Donelli’s Protection Racket,’ Jimmy Olsen debuted. It is here he’s first described as a “red-headed freckle-faced copy boy.” It would be a description that would stick with Jimmy for the next 73 years.

It is in this same story that Jimmy’s mother was introduced. Jimmy’s father, it seemed, died three years earlier and passed his candy store business on to his wife after he died. It wouldn’t be the first time Jimmy was described as not having a father in his life.

The following year, Jimmy made his comic book debut in Superman #13. There, he was key to uncovering the identity of a villain known as the Archer. The story ended with Jimmy getting his first byline in the paper but his last name was never given. That didn’t come until a few more issues.

From Superman (Vol. 1) #13 (1941)

From Superman (Vol. 1) #13 (1941)

He appeared a few times in these Golden Age adventures but faded out in the pages of the comics. However, Jimmy maintained his place in the Superman radio show where he continued to be a reoccurring character until the series wrapped up in 1950. It wasn’t until the Adventures of Superman television show started in 1952 that Jimmy Olsen again returned to comics pages. Jack Larson’s portrayal of Jimmy, then mostly known as “Jim Olsen,” helped a new generation of fans become enamored with the young reporter. It also meant that a decade long exile of Jimmy from the printed page was reversed and Jimmy was soon granted his own ongoing solo title in the form of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

With the Adventures of Superman television show’s emphasis on visuals, Jimmy took to his new role of photographer with zeal. He had always been a low level intern, cub reporter, or office boy, but his photography job was brand new. That job followed Jimmy to his own series where he was granted access to the Daily Planet‘s “flying newsroom.” It was in this upgraded helicopter where Jimmy started getting plenty of scoops.

From Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #1 (1954)

From Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #1 (1954)

In this first issue, Jimmy’s signal watch was presented for the first time. A seemingly normal watch made to tell time, it let off a distinctive “zee zee” sound effect when its crown was turned just so. The sound was well out of the human range of hearing, but Superman’s super hearing meant he could pick it up anywhere in the city. This was Jimmy’s way of letting Superman know he needed help.

When the signal watch first appeared, it wasn’t clear who had made it. Years later, it was shown that the watch was a gift to Jimmy from Superman as a present for Jimmy having gone back in time to help Superman when he was a baby on Krypton. But that’s a whole other story.

From Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #36 (1959)

From Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #36 (1959)

The relationship between Superman and Jimmy became the cornerstone of Jimmy’s life. By the time the Silver Age rolled around, it was now canon that Jimmy’s mother was dead and his father was presumed dead. Jimmy was all alone and most of his companionship was from his job and his friendship with the Man of Steel.

Jimmy’s time with Superman did have a downside. He was constantly being exposed to alien elements, magical objects, and radioactive potions that turned the normally human reporter into a parade of freaks and oddities. Between Jimmy’s time as a giant Turtle Boy, a human flamethrower, a human Geiger counter, a human metal-eater, Insect Boy, Sun Boy, Elastic Lad, and so many, many more, being friends with Superman could have been perceived as more a curse than a blessing. Still, Jimmy took all of these changes with ease and always seemed ready to move on to the next adventure.

Superman: The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen (2007) Cover

Superman: The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen (2007) Cover

These Silver Age issues of Jimmy Olsen have an almost dream-logic to them that makes sense as long as you don’t question them too much. They’re wonderful, surreal stories that still make me happy whenever I stumble across one that I’ve never read before.

Aside from Superman and the Daily Planet staff, Jimmy had a few other friends. For much of this time, Jimmy dated Lucy Lane, Lois’s sister, off-and-on. He also had a group called the Jimmy Olsen Fan Club who was always happy to hear him tell tales of his adventures or help out in a pinch.

From Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #37 (1959)

From Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #37 (1959)

Jimmy also became close with Dick Grayson, the first Robin. As Superman and Batman became friends in the pages of World’s Finest Comics, Jimmy and Dick followed suit. They eventually formed their own clubhouse called the Aerie. Eventually, Batman grew to trust Jimmy so much that he revealed his secret identity to the cub reporter and knew that he wouldn’t blab to the world. After Superman, Dick Grayson, and Alfred Pennyworth, Jimmy was one of the only people to know that Bruce Wayne was secretly Batman.

From World's Finest Comics #144 (1964)

From World’s Finest Comics #144 (1964)

If any of these Silver Age Jimmy Olsen adventures sound interesting, you’d do well to download Tom’s Week with Jimmy Olsen podcast where former iFanboy writer Tom Katers talked about eight random Jimmy tales from this time period. It’s worth a listen.

Over time, Jimmy’s solo series began to flounder and it lost a regular creative team. Jimmy’s adventures seemed stale. It was one of DC’s lowest selling books and when Jack Kirby made the jump from Marvel to DC in 1970, he requested that he take over the series because it wouldn’t put anyone else out of the job. With his first issue, Kirby began to weave Jimmy into the tapestry of the Fourth World he was creating in the pages of other titles like New Gods and Mister Miracle. Here, Jimmy was at odds with Superman, a place that he’d been over the years but never for longer than a single issue and nearly always because it involved some sort of lesson one friend was teaching the other. In this tale, Jimmy tried to investigate a story away from Superman’s help.

From Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (1970)

From Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (1970)

Kirby remained on the book for only a year and a half. His final issue was #148 and the series was quietly cancelled with issue #163. Its numbering continued in a new title called Superman Family. Solo Jimmy stories continued on in the pages of this new title, including new tales of Jimmy and Superman’s time in the Bottle City of Kandor. While in the city, Superman would always lose his superpowers and the duo took the identities of Nightwing and Flamebird. As Flamebird, Jimmy proved he could hold his own in a fight.

From Superman Family #173 (1975)

From Superman Family #173 (1975)

Jimmy’s adventures remained much the same for the next few years. However, as it did everyone else in the DCU, 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths changed Jimmy’s story. Reset from the beginning, Jimmy was now living with his still-alive mother. The pair got along well enough but Jimmy’s father was killed in the line of duty as a government agent years earlier.

When a friend of Jimmy’s took too many sleeping pills in a suicide attempt, Jimmy and his mother frantically looked for help. Finding none, even after calling 911, young Jimmy created an ultrasonic tone that alerted Superman. Thanks to this early signal watch prototype, Superman and Jimmy became friends.

From World of Metropolis #4 (1988)

From World of Metropolis #4 (1988)

Eventually, Jimmy’s post-Crisis path remained very similar to his Silver Age one. He got a job at the Daily Planet and became a junior reporter and photographer. Over time, he began to investigate his father disappearance, which brought him into contact with Project Cadmus, the organization Jimmy was tied in with during the tales written and drawn by Jack Kirby. Other parallels followed, including Jimmy turning into Elastic Lad and his on-and-off again relationship with Lucy Lane.

With all of these side adventures, Jimmy still found time to do his job. When Superman was killed by Doomsday, it was Jimmy’s photographs that became the public face of that tragedy. His photos appeared on page one of the Daily Planet and on the cover of an issue of Newstime, a national news magazine whose offices were located in Metropolis.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #77 (1993)

From Superman (Vol. 2) #77 (1993)

Over the years, Jimmy quit the newspaper business and got a job at rival news organization Galaxy Broadcasting, he was forced over to an online news platform called LexCom, and other such employment changes. When everything shook out though, Jimmy still found himself back at the Planet alongside Perry White, Lois Lane, and Clark Kent. That was where he belonged.

That made it even weirder when he began to rapidly develop super powers in the pages of Countdown, later retitled Countdown to Final Crisis. In that series, Jimmy became so powerful that he grew into a giant green Turtle Boy / Godzilla thing who then slugged it out in the streets of Metropolis with an equally giant Darkseid. It was an obvious callback to the silly Silver Age Jimmy Olsen stories but it felt out of place in a character who been portrayed for two decades as simply a photographer for a newspaper. If Jimmy lost the fight with Darkseid, the world would be destroyed, making the stakes way too high for this kind of story. The weight of the piece made the whole thing crumble in upon itself as disbelief failed to be suspended for many readers.

From Countdown to Final Crisis #2 (2008)

From Countdown to Final Crisis #2 (2008)

Luckily, Jimmy’s next major story was a complete departure from his time in Countdown which, it should be said, was never mentioned again. When on the trail of a mysterious figure in a photograph, Jimmy stumbled upon a group called 7734. Operated by General Sam Lane, Lois’s father, 7734 was a military organization obsessed with the complete eradication of the Kryptonians who had been freed from the Bottle City of Kandor. Jimmy’s investigation broke the case wide open and let the public see just how obsessed General Lane was with destroying his enemies and how little he cared for things like the law. It was a major story for Jimmy, and one that nearly killed him several times.

From Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen Special #2 (2009)

From Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen Special #2 (2009)

Soon after that case wrapped up, Jimmy was given his first solo story in years. In a series of backup tales in the pages of Action Comics, a story began about a bad week in the life of Jimmy Olsen. This tale, written by Nick Spencer with art by RB Silva and DYM, lovingly called back many Silver Age tales but kept the light, bright tone that Countdown missed so completely. It was spectacular story made even better by the in-continuity first appearance of Chloe Sullivan, a character created for the Smallville television show who had dated Jimmy in that series. It was eventually compiled and completed in a one-off issue titled simply Jimmy Olsen.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #893 (2010)

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #893 (2010)

The last decade of comics has seen several reboots of the Superman line of books, one after the other. In 2007, it was stated that Jimmy Olsen’s parents were both out of his life before he got his job in the offices of the Daily Planet. A homeless Jimmy had taken to having several paper routes a day and was living in a corner of the Planet‘s processing plant. Perry White saw himself in the hustle of the young boy and gave Jimmy a job as a copy boy in the editorial office. From there, Jimmy’s star only shown brighter.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #665 (2007)

From Superman (Vol. 2) #665 (2007)

Just three years later, Jimmy’s origins were again reset in the pages of Superman: Secret Origin where it was said that Jimmy got his job at the Planet by taking the very first photograph of Superman. These types of reboots only became more useless when continuity was again tossed out the following year in the wake of the New 52.

Jimmy has appeared in the completely rebooted New 52, but he hasn’t been given much to do. Much of the Daily Planet staff seems to have been relegated to minor roles these days, and Jimmy is no exception. Here’s hoping that he’s given something special to do soon. After all these years and all these adventures as a member of the DCU, he’s earned it.

 


Jeff Reid owes much of the detail work on this article to The Essential Superman Encyclopedia. It’s a wonderful resource and something you should seek out. Seek out Jeff on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I love Jimmy. I really do wish they would give him, and the rest of the Daily Planet staff, more to do.

    These days though, it seems like the Justice League are Superman’s main supporting cast with the Planet staff simply being kept around to respect tradition.

  2. Man that Jimmy Olsen one-shot (or series of backups) was fantastic. I would buy a series like that every month, me and like 4 other people…

    Anyways, another good write-up. Those Tom vs. Jimmy Olson podcasts are incredibly hilarious

    • I enjoyed Spencer’s Jimmy Olsen story as well, so, I guess, we’re up to, say 5 other people for a series. Maybe we could brand it Justice League Olsen? “Spinning out of the shocking conclusion of Trinity War, they are the last front against Evil . . . ” Or you know, something like that. 🙂

      As always, a great article.

      Also, I love how pretty much the day after Countdown to Final Crisis ended, everything about it was tossed out. DC should really have just stamped Elseworlds on the trades. Wasn’t Jimmy Olsen placed in charge of patrolling the Multi-Verse at the end? Boy that whole story turned into one big mess.

    • Make it 6, I’m intrigued by this prospective series of Jimmy Olsen (feels weird to say). I’m going to see if my LCS has any copies of that one shot.

  3. Fun article, can’t believe it was about Jimmy Olsen. I like him usually, but like all Superman characters it depends largely on how he’s written. I have been wishing Superman’s old Daily Planet coworkers could be bump up to supporting characters, but it seems like every writer/director/screenwriter eschews them for just Lois/Jimmy/Perry. Kinda of a boring office if that’s the only three people you talk about besides Clark. That’s one of the reasons I love All-Star Superman so much, it feels like that office is full of fun and interesting characters. I kinda doubt a Jimmy Olsen series would do well with the New 52. But maybe if it was Lois Lane/Jimmy Olsen or something you could capture the female Lois fans and maybe tell some non-superhero stories. I don’t know what a series focused on the exciting world of Journalism would look like (aside from “Phantom Jack”) but I’m sure the right person could sell it.

    Like I said, fun article. Maybe one on Steve Lombard next?

  4. Fort Bridwell? Lost city of Kurtiswana? Well played, Busiek, well played!

  5. So when Jimmy Olson goes to Kandor, he dresses up like Hyperion? Nice!

    • Good eye, though Jimmy was Flamebird first in 1963 and Hyperion didn’t arrive on the scene until 1969. It’s really Hyperion who dresses like Jimmy Olsen in Kandor. 😉

    • And since the Squadron Supreme are JLA analogues, it’s definitely Hyperion who’s the Jimmy-come-lately.

    • @Jeff Reid I actually knew the Flamebird thing was first, just making a joke. Still, I wonder I it’s a bizarre coincidence or an intentional homage?

  6. I loved the way Jimmy was portrayed in All-Star Superman.

    But then I loved just about everything about that title.

  7. Batman just loves telling everyone who he really is, eh?