Thursday , April 18 2024
A new collection of comic book stories from the late 50s – 60s presents superhero comics at their silliest.

Graphic Novel Review: The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen (DC Comics)

"When will impulsive cub reporter Jimmy Olsen learn to heed the advice of his famed pal, Superman?" the omniscient narrator asks in the middle of The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen (DC Comics). To those comic book readers wise to the ways of Silver Age superhero comics, the answer is obvious: not so long as there are writers ready to think up new and humiliating ways of physically messing with the lad. Being Superman's Pal ain't easy.

The collection of comic book tales in Transformations primarily come from 1957 – 65, when the Man of Steel's redheaded boy buddy was starring in his own title (as was "Superman's Girlfriend" Lois Lane). It was an era where grotesque physical transformation was a regular comic book plot device – not just for best pals like Jimmy, but for the big-name superheroes and superheroines as well.

The practice made for striking covers (Lookie here, the Flash's been transformed into a living marionette!) and high-concept storytelling that the predominately kid-aged readership could instantly grasp. But DC's scriptwriters, at times, seemed to save their silliest, most humiliating transmogrifications for regular folk like Jimmy. Perhaps it was their punishment for deigning to approach these godlike creatures: those who the gods wish to destroy, they first turn into a human porcupine.

Thus, the transformations which our hero experiences in this collection are many and varied: porcupine boy, giant turtle creature, werewolf, human genie, Bizarro, even (horror of horrors!) a fat man. The means by which these physical changes occur often revolve around the off-the-wall experiments of a loopy scientist named Professor Potter (because he's potty, get it?), and, frequently, it's the result of our hero stupidly eating or drinking something he shouldn't.

More than once, alien intervention is to blame. In one particularly humiliating moment ("Jimmy Olsen, Freak") Jimmy is changed into a grotesque human balloon with oversized ears, a tongue dangling over his eyes and long red hair covering his face by a quartet of polygamous aliens jealous over the fact that their wife is considering our hero for her fifth husband. Unlike most of Jimmy's changes, this 'un only lasts for about four panels. But it made for a great cover.

Your tolerance for this sort of nonsense most likely depends on whether you grew up with it or not: I was seven when the first of these stories ("The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen") debuted, so it remains a part of my comic book legacy. Yes, this stuff is profoundly dumb, but even a present day Art Comics exemplar like Daniel (Ghost World) Clowes got his start retooling Lois Lane transformation stories in an alt comics format. As crafted by solidly old-fashioned comics scripters like Otto Binder & Jerry Siegel and slickly illustrated by pros like Curt Swan, these are concise (most of 'em clock in at 8-10 pages) little entertainments whose central question – how do human oddities get along in the world? – is one that interests more than just a child readership. (If you don't believe me, take a gander at the Discovery Health Channel's schedule.) At least three of the stories in this book contain sequences where our hero winds up working in a sideshow – remnants of an era where circus freak shows were still considered all-ages family entertainment.

By the end of the sixties, however, Marvel's growing cast of unapologetic human oddities (Ben Grimm, Bruce Banner, X-Men) had changed the lens through which to view such physical aberrations. Being different was less a subject for comedy, and Jimmy's changes subsequently lessened. One last tribute to this wackiness, though, was concocted by writers Binder & E. Nelson Bridwell with artist Pete Costanza in 1967's "The Planet of 1,000 Olsens." The story doesn't really involve any actual changes on Jimmy's part; instead, our hero is taken to a planet inhabited by nothing but robot recreations of previously seened changed Olsens – big turtle, porcupine, etc. – all as part of some loopy super-villain's scheme to destroy the planet Earth.

Our hero impersonates the fat Olsen robot with a convenient inflato-suit and some well-placed cheek padding, though he's never really inconvenienced by the experience. Transformations' final tale, "Menace of the Micro-Monster" from '75, isn't even the least bit degrading. In it, our cub reporter gets to play serious temporary superhero in the bottled city of Kandor. 'Scuse me while I turn back to reread the story where a chameleon-headed Olsen makes his left ear grow Dumbo-sized just so he can hear a gunman up on the roof . . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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