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.
This is, in essence, a novel length adventure with the same spirit, imagination and tone as the best Jimmy Olsen stories from 50 years ago, only written by a grown-up who has mastered comics-scripting for an audience of grown-ups who have mastered comics consumption.
There’s an artificiality to the plot, a story entitled “Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week,” and an obviousness to Spencer’s plan. Accepting the Jimmy Olsen-is-like-a-cool-Clark-Kent-who-doesn’t-even-need-Superman version of the character, Spencer gives Jimmy his own Lois Lane (Chloe Sullivan, created as a teenage Lois stand-in for the Smallville TV show and being imported to the DCU here), his own Lex Luthor (Sebastian Mallory, a rising junior executive at Lexcorp) and even his own Mr. Mxyzptlk and Maxima and Steel (When Jimmy needs some super-engineering, he goes to Steel’s niece Natasha, not Steel himself, who is, of course, Superman’s Steel).
The story is tightly structured around the week referenced in the title. Jimmy has just been dumped by his girlfriend Chloe, who is spending a week following Mallory around for a feature on him her new media outlet. Each chapter is a day of that week, a day in which the three characters spar in various ways and deal with typical Metropolitan problems, given a lighter feel and more hip edge. Aliens invade, for example, but they’re just scouting for a city to celebrate an alien party on—a party, it turns out, which will destroy the planet with its intensity! A visitor from the Fifth Dimension wreaks havoc…by winning Jimmy Olsen in a celebrity bachelor auction.
In addition to all of the new characters, Spencer makes fine use of Lois Lane and, especially, Perry White. Superman himself is relegated to only two one-panel cameos, one in a flashback; part of the impetus for this story is that Superman has walked off into his JMS plot, leaving Jimmy and Metropolis on their own (And there’s some pretty good digs at the state of the Superman franchise throughout).
Putting aside the whole issue of this being a great story featuring one of mainstream super-comics’ most challenging characters, it’s a superior story—whip-smart, clever as all get-out, quite funny and perfectly put together.
Spencer certainly lucked out getting RB Silva as the pencil artist and a “Dym” as inker; the art on the book is fantastic, and, ironically, many times better than what one would see in the main Superman book the one featuring Superman (and, come to think of it, a majority of DC’s superhero line at the moment). (By the way, you can see some of the pages in this preview the main page has up).
Silva’s pages are packed with panels and visual content—perhaps due to the format the book was originally intended for, which we’ll get to below—and it’s all wonderfully designed, richly detailed, perfectly easy to read, highly expressive and fluid and cool-looking (Like Frank Quitely in All-Star Superman, Silva’s Olsen simultaneously looks old school and in-style; Silva’s pretty good at fashion and clothes in general, which is something one doesn’t see often enough in superhero comics).
Remarkably, Silva is the only pencil artist, too, at least until a few pages in the last chapter, where are few other pencilers and inkers are called into help finish the book. I wish the fact that a single art team completed most of a single story weren’t as remarkable as it is, but well, that’s the state of mainstream super-comics at the moment.
This was definitely one of the best super-comics I read this week. Or month. Or…well, let’s just say it’s been a really long time since I’ve been so thoroughly satisfied with a superhero comic, and so hard-pressed to find anything to complain about.
Of course, I my only experience with the book was buying it from a comic shop this week as an 80-page (counting ads), $6 one-shot, akin to the 80-Page Giants DC used to publish, although constructed more like an original graphic novel than any of those, as a single creative team was responsible for the bulk of the contents.
Unfortunately, Spencer, Silva and company didn’t make this to be read as a one-shot or original graphic novel, at least, not originally.
The story began as a back-up feature in Action Comics, during the relatively short time that DC flirted with short back-up features in many of their books as a way to justify increasing the price from $2.99 to $3.99 (That is, the books would go from $2.99/22 to $3.99/32, instead of the $3.99/22 that Marvel was moving their whole line toward at the time).
But DC abandoned the back-ups, opting instead for $2.99/20 books, which left a few back-up features unfinished, including Spencer and Silva’s Jimmy Olsen. To finish the story, they decided to publish the whole thing as a one-shot, which is great for readers like me, who were interested but hadn’t been buying Action Comics (The back-up stories, in my experience, were great in theory, but only really worked if a reader wanted to read both; I tried out a whole bunch, but none of the books had both lead features and back-up features I wanted to read, so I ended up dropping everything with a back-up and just hoping the portions of the books I wanted to read would end up in collections eventually). Such readers essentially get a cheap, complete graphic novel reading experience, an experience akin to the DC Comics Presents line of almost-graphic novels, only with more current material.
If you were already loyally following the story though, I imagine you’d be pretty annoyed by the move, as it meant you had to rebuy the portions of the book you’ve already read—I believe the first five chapters saw print already—in order to read the climax. You’d basically be paying $6 for 20 pages. Or, perhaps more likely, just never reading the end because who wants to pay $6 for 20 pages?
The thing is, I’m not sure a better way for DC to have handled this; it seemed like a lose/lose/lose set of options going forward. If they published a $3 one-shot featuring just new material and wrapping up the series, then they would have to pay to publish something that would sell fairly dismally (basically, only to people who were reading Action Comics and were doing so at least in part for the back-up and wanted to know how it ended), and then be in the position of having to publish this one-shot on top of that, and/or publish a trade collecting this story…which is only 68 pages long, way too short for a trade collection of the sort DC usually publishes (Collect it with the aforementioned Khosla-written story, and you’re still only at 78 pages.)
I don’t think there was a good way for DC to handle this, beyond keeping the back-up running in Action just a few more issues in order to finish it up, although that was presumably costing the company too much money, or else they would have done just that.
It’s certainly a good example of how chaotic big publishing decisions at DC seem to have gotten over the last year or so. They moved their whole line from $2.99/22 to some books being $3.99/32 with back-ups for a while. Then they launched some books for $3.99/22 (Batman Inc, Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors, etc). Then, months later, they lowered the price of those books back to $2.99/20 or /22, dropped all the back-ups and launched an entire advertising campaign around the fact that they were “drawing the line at $2.99.”
Meanwhile, an excellent comic story like this gets a bit lost in the shuffle.
Oh well. At least we can look forward to more great Jimmy Olsen comics from Nick Spencer in the near future, right? Oh, that’s right. Dammit.