Saturday, October 15, 2016

Retro Review: Jack Kirby's Jimmy Olsen

In 1970, Jack Kirby was already one of comicdom's most accomplished creators. To an uncommon degree, he moved from company to company during this phase, working for several different publishers and syndicators of content, sometimes in freelance, sometimes under contract. He – also to an uncommon degree – worked as a part of prominent pairs, working with Joe Simon in the Forties and Fifties, then Dick and Dave Wood, and teaming up with Stan Lee to spectacular success in the Sixties. Working with those various partners, Kirby co-created the likes of Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Magneto, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Black Panther, and teams of staggering prominence – the Newsboy Legion, the Challengers of the Unknown, the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and X-Men. By Kirby's account, which Lee disputed, Spider-Man was also a Kirby-and-Simon creation, and therein one sees the central tension in Jack Kirby's career. As an artist who frequently teamed up with writers, Kirby was often edged out of the principal credit – and the financial gains – for many of the characters he created, or helped created. Kirby possessed a remarkable imagination, to say nothing of his skills in bringing passion to artwork, but ended several creative and business relationships on bad terms. This brought him, in 1970, to DC (the heir of comic companies he had already left on bad terms, years in the past) for a new chance at a fresh start.

One of the most mind-bending incongruities of Kirby's work for DC in the Seventies is that the master creator with such impeccable credentials began his new career working on such a minor title. While Kirby planned work on multiple new series featuring mythical ideas that he had begun to explore while working on Thor, he was first given writing and pencil duties on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. It is hard to imagine a title and a character more obviously subordinate to another chracter – a powerless young man with no superpowers, dubbed the mere "pal" of Superman. Inarguably, Kirby used the small title to introduce some very big ideas, making early-Seventies Jimmy Olsen prominent in big-concept comics history, far out of proportion to its small concept origin.

Kirby's Jimmy Olsen brought together several aspects that might seem incongruous, but were a perfect fit for the circumstance. If there's one thing that distinguished Jimmy Olsen from DC's most prominent characters, it was his youth. Kirby took over the title the year after Woodstock, at the height of student protests against the Vietnam War, when language and fashion developed around a counterculture that defined its era. Jimmy Olsen, far more than, say, a Batman title, was the perfect venue for incorporating those ideas. Kirby makes the youth culture that was prominent in the Woodstock Era an important element in his story, and that is the one area in which Jimmy Olsen has unquestioned superiority over Superman.

Kirby injects youth into his title by introducing two different groups of youngsters (furthermore, young men). One from his own past, the Newsboy Legion, was the a creation of Kirby and Simon in the prewar years, and was therefore a property of DC that he was free to use again. In order to use them as newsboys despite the intervening decades, he introduces a team of newsboys who are the sons of the originals, each of them virtually a doppleganger for his father. The younger generation of newsboys promptly adopt Olsen as their leader – old enough to earn their respect, but not so old as to lose it. Kirby also shows the older Newsboys, now men, as supporting characters, and a clone of the Guardian to fill in for the deceased superhero who operated with the original Newsboys.

The other group of youths in this story is the Hairies, who are a mashup of so many disparate influences that a lengthy essay could profitably discuss the Hairies alone. The Hairies, for the visual trait that earned them their name, visually resemble hippies and other counterculture figures of their time, nearly a decade before this facet of one's appearance became the title of the massively successful Broadway musical Hair. Appearance is only a superficial characteristic of the Hairies; they are otherwise distinguished by their origin as creations of the DNA Project, a biotech initiative run by the older generation of Newsboys. The Hairies, products of human cloning and genetic engineering, are superior to ordinary people in spirit and in intellect, and left the DNA Project to live in homes and vehicles produced by the superior technology that they themselves created.

Olsen's relative youth lead both the Newsboys and the Hairies to recognize him as a leader; in this way, there is a perfect harmony between the title character, Kirby's plot, and the Woodstock era. Kirby, the master writer, thereby made his assignment on a minor title starring a minor character a brilliant one, with Olsen's youth, Kirby's ideas, and the current culture all coming together in a uniquely appropriate way.

That said, Kirby's ideas are so far-reaching that virtually anything would intersect with them in some way or another. In current parlance, Kirby's work in Jimmy Olsen is a mash-up – of so many different cultural and technological perspectives that it is simultaneously disorienting, all-encompassing, and wonderful. Virtually every scene begins by plunging the reader in some fresh, exciting domain, soon adding qualities or perspectives from other domains. There are secret government organizations, secret armies, strange aliens, famous celebrities from real life, strange religions, adherents of countercultures, monsters and villains, mysterious cryptozoological species, futuristic technologies, miraculous vehicles, and dose after dose of biological engineering. Kirby mashes up these different fantastic story elements in multiple different ways in each issue. It's always exciting, entertaining, unpredictable, and perhaps in some way educational.

At times, it is apt to make many readers find it too unpredictable, too erratic, too kooky. In one very strange feature, Kirby includes a text essay in issue #135 that rambles almost disturbingly about the Hairies, and it is hard to say in what voice Kirby is speaking. The Hairies are not real, but he writes in the first person as though they might be real, or as hypothetical entities who might come into existence one day. He describes their science fiction underpinning as the result of DNA engineering, but emphasizes their moral and cultural qualities, as idealists who live in perfect harmony. He writes of them with unadulterated admiration as though they embody an ideal society that, in Kirby's view, should exist in a perfect world, but he goes on to say that mankind should feel threatened by the Hairies because they're better than we are, and that it is inevitable than mankind seek to kill the Hairies, exterminating them. At the end of the essay, Kirby concludes "I felt great, writing that! It made me feel that all's right with the world, that my place in it was secure. It made me feel like a man!!!" This emotional ramble would sincerely make me worry about Kirby's sanity if that concern were still relevant. Perhaps he was a masterful creator who enjoyed getting swept up in the emotion of his creations. This essay makes him appear, perhaps, to be swept up to an unhealthy extent. The quality of what is in Kirby's stories makes it intriguing to consider every recorded aspect of the man and his thoughts, perhaps clues as to how work of this quality is formed.

The wild worlds that Kirby created hosts a cast of heroes led by Jimmy Olsen. As Olsen triumphs against bizarre alien conspiracies led by Darkseid and shines as a man of action, he becomes a top-rate hero in the DCU, more relatable than most, as a young man with no superpowers, no super powers (usually), and no super origin. He simply rises to the occasion time after time. When he encounters an amazing vehicle, he soon starts piloting it. When he learns of an enemy base, he infiltrates it. When he is transformed into a hideous monster  – twice! – he ends up being un-transformed back to his normal self. The series is the epitome of a "normal" man going up against cosmic forces, coping with them just as well – at times better – than his superpowered pal Superman. And it is strange to contemplate that DC's most cosmic foe, Darkseid, was introduced in a title headlined by that common young man, Jimmy Olsen.

Thus DC lore inherits the improbable and disproportionate quirk that the master creator Kirby and his most amazing creations began at an arbitrary midpoint in a title named for a non-superpowered sidekick. The combination was probably too odd to survive, and lasted less than a year and a half before Kirby focused on titles of his own concoction. Soon, both the Jimmy Olsen title and Kirby's most productive work at DC were at an end, but the legacy endures in the Fourth World creations of Darkseid and Apokolips. Kirby's work in Jimmy Olsen stands as a historic turning point in comic history, and those issues remain worth reading as a record of how great storytelling in comics is done.

9 comments:

  1. I am a huge fan of Jack Kirby, and his work at DC was brilliant. I am thankful that DC released the Fourth World Omnibuses so that we can read all the stories in order.

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  2. Rikdad -- Great choice to review. I recall these Jimmy Olsen issues as a beautiful mess. The concepts and confusion came flying at the reader, a massive change from nearly everything else DC was doing at the time, except for the Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-ups (something maybe worth your time to write about).

    It's important to remember that the Superman family of comics within DC held huge sway, partly because Superman generally was the No. 1 selling comics magazine and partly because longtime editor Mort Weisinger had been so adept at world-building across the line. Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen seems more minor now than it did at the time, because that universe was so coherent and Superman so popular.

    When Weisinger left, Kirby descended upon Jimmy Olsen, initially turning him into Superman's EX-Pal. The Lois Lane comic began focusing on contemporary social issues, while Julie Schwartz green-lit Denny O'Neil's "Sandman Saga" in the mothership book, something unlike anything ever before shown in those august pages.

    As a child, I recall seeing the covers of the first two Jimmy Olsen issues by Kirby. As stark a departure from precedent as one could imagine. Jimmy exclaiming "Gun him down!" as a motorcycle knocked Superman down was simply mind-blowing, even if the story inside didn't show anything that stark.

    A signal of the work's importance is that Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns and so many others keep mining Kirby's Fourth World material nearly a half-century later. At his best, Kirby dazzled.

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  3. Jonny, I'm glad that you've had the pleasure of reading this work. The notion of chronology and Kirby's 1970-1972 work is complex, and I decided to review the Jimmy Olsen run alone. I may combine all three of his other titles in one review. Obviously, there is great overlap, but then, each is somewhat distinct. Because Jimmy Olsen was an existing title, and because of the unique way that youth stands out as a concept, I reviewed it separately.

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  4. MWTE,

    Great commentary in your comment! I'm glad you had the pleasure of reading this in the original time frame. In ways that importantly color my perspective, I did not – I read it, instead, circa 2008, when Morrison was bringing this material into Final Crisis and his Batman run. That is precisely why I am reviewing Kirby's work now, between my previous retro review of Morrison's Batman run and an upcoming retro review of Final Crisis.

    I must have seen some of Kirby's original work on the stands, but I didn't pick up these series until the revival under Gerry Conway, which largely alienated me from the material. Only when I went back in 2008 to read the original Fourth World work of Kirby did I appreciate how incredibly inventive Kirby's work was, and how, as you put it, confusion flew at the reader… but in a good way.

    Later handling of these characters subtracted Kirby's wild, crazy invention while keeping the names, costumes, and plot lines… which missed the point, I think. Kirby could have thrown his Fourth World work in the garbage, made up new characters and situations, and it would have been equally compelling. It was his knack for walking the line between compelling narration and utter chaos that made his work so good. And, unlike names and costumes, that is something that's harder to copy.

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    1. Compelling narration wins every time. I think that's why Grant Morrison at his best is so memorable, and why he clearly pays Kirby homage in ways large and small.

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  5. Ive just been reading the 4th World omnibus edition, and more than anything, the scale of Kirby's imagination continues to astound. Slightly off-topic, but Rikdad, would you ever consider writing your thoughts on animated superheroes? I'd love to read your take on Superman:TAS and Justice League, especially the ones that deal with Darkseid and/or the other Kirby 4th worlders.

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    1. I've been rewatching the Dini/Timm Animated Universe, and couldn't help but fall to tears at the conclusion of Apocalypse Now part 2... really effective stuff and the tribute coda to Kirby at the end totally got me

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    2. Slacker, one thing is keeping me from reviewing the recent animated series: I've never seen them. I've seen a few clips, possibly one or two whole episodes, but by and large that era has blown right past without my viewing. The same is happening now with the Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, and Gotham series. I watched about 3 seasons of Smallville.

      It occurred to me this week that the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Batman series is upon us (last July, if we want to be precise). I saw all of that, but little of it recently.

      The Filmation Justice League shorts captured my imagination at an early age and was explicitly marketed by the end of one issue of JLA back in the day. With just a couple/few hours of total material, it's very light stuff, meant for kids, but I think it was interesting from a sociological standpoint at a critical time in superhero history.

      For the TAS material, I'd have to find the time, and that doesn't seem like it'll be soon.

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    3. The recent "Return of the Caped Crusaders" animated movie is a sequel of sorts to the 1966 Series. I watched it last weekend and it was a lot of fun. If you enjoy Batman: The Movie you will probably like it :)

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