How old should Jimmy Olsen be?
The short answer might be, who cares? For Countdown‘s purposes, he’s a goofball of indeterminate youth. Even so, Countdown is meant to invest readers emotionally in DC’s shared universe, and Jimmy is a key gateway character. DC clearly wants Countdown readers to connect Jimmy’s current troubles with past wackiness. Thus, Jimmy needs a history with said wackiness; and that means he must be old enough to have said history.
However, as enduring a character as he is, Jimmy isn’t exactly an everyday player in the Superman titles. His look and attitude have changed depending on the creative team’s tastes. In the post-Kirby ’70s and ’80s he was “Mr. Action,” a go-getter reporter with delusions of grandeur. For much of the post-Crisis revamp he was a comic-relief slacker who might be living in his car one week, working a bizarre job the next, and fighting vampires with Robin the Boy Wonder shortly thereafter.
According to Christopher Miller’s unauthorized chronology, Jimmy should actually be older than Tim Drake, and more particularly around the same age as the original Teen Titans. Miller bases this on a couple of 1988 Superman stories (early in the post-Crisis revamp) which say Jimmy’s “about 20.” He’s not quite as old as Dick Grayson, Roy Harper, or Donna Troy, nor is he as old as his slacker forebears Snapper Carr or Jack “Starman” Knight. However, he is ostensibly the same age as Kyle Rayner and Helena “Huntress” Bertinelli, and he’s older than ‘80s stalwarts Ron “Firestorm” Raymond, Violet “Halo” Harper, and Joseph “Jericho” Wilson.
Those are all third-generation characters, as are Countdown fixtures Jason Todd, Mary Marvel, and Holly Robinson. Not surprisingly, many of these characters lack a particular niche; and some have been marked for death.* Kyle, Donna, and Jason aren’t supposed to exist. Bart Allen took the place of the third-generation Wally West (becoming commensurately older in the process) and was murdered shortly thereafter. The “Earth-1″ versions of Karate Kid and Luorno Durgo are not only displaced from their own time period, but also disconnected from current Legion continuity.
Again, this isn’t surprising to me. I’ve said before that DC’s present four-generation structure seems to favor the third generation the least. The first generation and its legacies have a home in the Justice Society, the second has the Justice League, and the fourth has the current Teen Titans. The past-present-future parallels are crushingly obvious. However, a significant number of third-generation heroes are too old to be sidekicks and too young to be headliners. Into this environment comes the newly superpowered Jimmy Olsen, not sure if he’s cut out more for the Titans or the Justice League, and therefore stuck in between as well.
What’s more, Jimmy doesn’t seem to be acting like someone who’s grown up in the superhero community. I’d have thought the Jimmy of Jack Kirby’s tenure, or even the Jimmy of Jerry Ordway’s Kirby homages, would have reacted differently to the revelation of his super-powers. That Jimmy might have gone to STAR Labs or the Steelworks sooner, and might not have fancied himself a superhero. In fact, this Jimmy’s subplot seems more earnest than wacky to me. Of course, it’s intertwined with the decidedly un-wacky “Death of the New Gods” subplot, so that probably makes a difference.
Thus, I get the impression that this is a new-for-2007 Jimmy Olsen, whose main distinguishing characteristic is his relationship with Superman, not the ancillary weirdness said relationship might have encouraged. Normally, where continuity butts up against storytelling, I’m on the side of the story; but in this case, I don’t think Jimmy’s character has been served well by his somewhat directionless arc. The fact that he has either been de-aged or has lost (or is ignoring) big chunks of his history also doesn’t seem to help the larger message of Countdown. Intentionally or not, it’s focused on these misfit third-generation characters, of whom Jimmy was ostensibly one. Countdown could stand to tighten up its narrative, and playing up the similarities between its leads would be a good place to do so. However, if Jimmy is no longer considered old/experienced enough to be part of the third generation, that’s one less thing he has in common with them. It also aligns Jimmy more with the fourth generation.
As it happens, DC appears to have done something similar with Supergirl. It’s taken me a while, but I finally realize that the role of confident, professional Supergirl I got used to reading about in the pre-Crisis days has been assumed largely by Power Girl. With Infinite Crisis restoring PG’s Kryptonian heritage, she’s pretty much the pre-Crisis Supergirl in everything but her name(s).
“Supergirl” herself spent the past twenty years in various degrees of inexperience, mostly as either the naive Matrix-Supergirl or the off-on-her-own-tangent Linda Danvers/PAD character. Linda became persona non grata after her series was cancelled, and I’m not quite sure she is still in continuity. Regardless, Linda had seven years to get comfortable being Supergirl, so replacing her with the just-arrived-from Krypton Kara Zor-El was a return to the old naivete. Although Miller’s time line lists Linda as a “teenager” when she merged with Matrix, as Supergirl she was a credible third-generation character. She was written as older and more responsible than the teen heroes of Young Justice (also written by Peter David), and once lectured Superboy on the responsibility of wearing the “S”-shield. By contrast, the Kara Zor-El introduced in 2003 was clearly younger and less mature than either her pre-Crisis self or the post-Crisis Linda. She was Superman’s protege, more on par with Tim Drake than Dick Grayson. Having her join the Teen Titans cemented the current Kara’s fourth-gen status.
A few weeks ago I suggested that Snapper Carr would be a good mentor for Jimmy. Snapper was the Justice League’s teenage groupie, and had powers himself for a while. Having Snapper guide Jimmy along the fringes of the powered world — the Christopher Eccleston to Jimmy’s Milo Ventmiglia, if you will — still seems to me to be an excellent way to guide those hypothetical new readers around the vast DC Universe. Snapper’s showing up elsewhere now — I won’t spoil where — but I hope there’s room for him in Countdown.
The more I think about it, though, the more I wish that Jimmy were treated more like Snapper. Yes, Snapper is a goofball who (by the way) screwed over the Justice League so completely they had to build a new headquarters. Nevertheless, Snapper is still treated nominally as an adult, and allowed to develop and mature. Kurt Busiek continues to do right by Jimmy, but his stuff doesn’t appear every week.
Jimmy and Supergirl are important enough to the Superman mythology that the absence of either one would cause readers to wonder. However, historically they haven’t been everyday players, and I think it’s easy for either of them to be pigeonholed into somewhat limiting roles. Supergirl seems to have secured a place in DC’s regular lineup for now, and the longer her series goes, the more mature she’s bound to become.
Jimmy doesn’t have that luxury, though. Maybe the thinking is that Countdown isn’t really meant for readers who’ve paid too much attention to Jimmy Olsen. Given the realities of the direct market, I find that a bit hard to believe.
Look, I understand that DC can’t invent a “new, younger Jimmy Olsen” like it would a new Robin or Wonder Girl. Snapper notwithstanding, it also doesn’t have a character who quite fulfills this particular Jimmy role, like Power Girl is the “new old” Supergirl. For whatever reason, it needs Jimmy at the forefront of this particular Countdown arc, and it needs him to behave in a certain way. (Putting Ron Troupe in the slot wouldn’t have worked.) It just feels to me like Jimmy’s regressing unnecessarily, when the story might have been better served by a Jimmy who could draw on his third-gen experiences. I don’t really agree with the return of Teenage Supergirl, but in the great scheme of things it can’t be forever. Jimmy’s (ordinarily) a regular person, though, and he should be allowed his proper share of maturity.
I realize I’ve just spent over a thousand words arguing for a more rational Jimmy Olsen, but there you go.
* (Of course, many are also Above The Law, Hard To Kill, Under Siege, Out For Justice, and probably some other Steven Seagal movies I’m not remembering.)