If getting a Superman comic just right is a hard feat to accomplish in the 21st century, it’s nothing compared to getting one featuring his pal just right.
While the Silver Age stalwart Jimmy Olsen has never, ever gone away from his supporting character gig in the Superman comics, he hasn’t been a successful star in his own right for decades now, and the various attempts to make him work as a leading man in the post-relevance, post-Crisis, post-“Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!’ era never seemed to work out quite right.
In the last few years, for example, we’ve seen James Robinson put Olsen at the center of a dark, deadly serious sci-fi espionage thriller plot as part of the “New Krypton” direction of the Superman books, and Paul Dini and a battalion of writers and artists do…whatever they were trying to do in Countdown.
The problem with the character seems to be that while he is so fantastical that he’s extremely difficult to fit into the more realistic DC Universe line of the last few decades. There was always an almost magical realist quality to the character—a teenage reporter for a big city newspaper who had all sorts of fantastical adventures based solely on his proximity to Superman (and the scores of mad scientists that apparently populate the Metropolis suburbs), and who was always able to triumph, or at least survive, based on his wits. Powerless, he was kind of like Clark Kent, only without the deception, the milquetoast act and the need to change clothes in order to act.
Also, he was a kid, like his readers.
Of course, once kids stopped reading and more and more adult logic started being applied, well, it’s hard to even get past “teenage reporter”—Is he an intern? Did he go to J school? Why doesn’t he live with his parents?
Writer Nick Spencer, like relatively few others—Abhay Khosla in his Superman 80-Page Giant 2011 #1 short story, Grant Morrison in All-Star Superman #4—doesn’t seem to have had many problems making Silver Age Jimmy Olsen work in the 21st century. Or, if he did labor mightily to perfect his take and to find the best way to communicate it, one can’t see it in the final scripting. His Jimmy Olsen seems effortless.
He seems to have accomplished this by accepting the ground rules of the DC Universe and not tried rationalizing them or make too much real world sense out of them—this Jimmy Olsen is still a Silver Age, magical realist type of character and his world is still utterly fantastic. The writing—its characterization, its world-building, its dialogue, its storytelling—didn’t get more realistic, it simply got more sophisticated.