Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Superman Family

(or "Driving The White Elephant")

Looking back, it's hard to believe that Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Pal, ever got his own comic series. Or that it ran...222 issues? Can that even be right? Jimmy Olsen, the nerdy little geek with the bow-tie and freckles, the poster child for "Why DC Got Its Butt Kicked By Marvel" and the target of endless post-Crisis revamps to attempt to shake the stench of lameness away from him, was the headliner for a series that ran longer than 'X-Factor'? How can this even be? We have to look at the storytelling engine here. Something must be wrong.

So we've got Jimmy Olsen. He's a young man, just starting out in his career as cub reporter for the Daily Planet. He's bright, helpful, but with just enough terminal enthusiasm that he frequently rushes into a situation without thinking about whether he can handle it. But luckily, he's also resourceful, adaptive, expert with disguises and pretty good in a fight...and he also happens to be the trusted confidant of Superman, the Man of Steel. However, don't think that being Superman's pal solves all your problems--Jimmy's as often the target of Superman's enemies as he is the recipient of his aid. We follow Jimmy as he looks for stories, helps the little guy, and does his best to help the biggest guy of all, Superman.

Wow. When you actually sit down and read it, suddenly it does seem like a pretty good storytelling engine. There are lots of hooks that help writers get a story going, Jimmy is the kind of character who never has trouble finding something interesting going on, and the Superman angle is a nice way of giving him an unconventional superpower--he's like Johnny Thunder, able to summon the lightning down on his enemies when he needs it, but never in control of the actual results. Nobody seems to like Jimmy Olsen anymore, but he's got a surprisingly good storytelling engine sitting there, waiting to be used. Even the bow-tie and goofy jacket make sense, in context; Jimmy presents a distinctive appearance because it helps fix a mental image of him in people's eyes, so that just changing the jacket and putting on a normal tie is half-way to a disguise.

All that really makes Jimmy Olsen seem lame is the whole "Gosh!" and "Super-duper!" thing...and let's face it, for the Fifties, that was cursing like a sailor.


Dylan said...

I will say this: if DC had the sense to give Grant Morrison a Jimmy Olsen book, I'd be all over that.

That is all

Monkey Migraine said...

Sad but true that Jimmy Olsen is better fodder for stories than Wolverine. But having a story engine doesn't make for a good character. Good point about how it's virtually impossible to make him less lame, but then again they did it with Rick Jones. Have you ever read his early appearances in the Hulk? He had the bowtie, plus the added lameness of pseudo-60's hip talk ("Well, king me daddy, if it ain't the Gray Guy himself! Get a load o' that jazz!", but look at him now.

I agree, dylan. Anyone who can turn Animal Man into one of the great comic series of all time could work with Jimmy Olsen.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem Jimmy Olsen has is that he is indelibly identified with the 1950s, and even though it's been more than a half-century since that era, we still haven't gotten over the Baby Boomers' pervasive and tireless hatred of the era that they evinced (and pop culture obediently echoed) back in the 1960s and then 1970s.

While it's true that some segments of modern society now devote great energy and money to trying to engineer a return to the political and societal norms and the cultural dominances and divisions of the 1950s, those segments don't tend to be fans of superhero comic books.