Monday , September 28 2020
Classic off-the-wall superhero comics!

Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby – Volume One

In the first place, this is not the volume to give to someone you’re trying to coach on the New Mature Graphic Storytelling. No, this is a book for someone so enmeshed in the givens of old school comic books that they reflexively refer to its greatest superhero artist as Jack “King” Kirby.
Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby (DC) is the first of two volumes of Kirby work done on the Superman series. Originally produced in the early seventies, after the artist had acrimoniously fled the comics company where he’d co-created many of its most enduring characters (Fantastic Four, the Hulk, X-Men, et al), the Olsen stories were some of the first works fans would get to see of this comics legend on his own. Unlike the Marvel books, where Kirby’s name was more consistently aligned with Stan Lee – or even the Golden Age of Comics, where he collaborated with Joe Simon on works like the WWII Captain America – this was All Kirby. In addition to penciling the books, the King also plotted and scripted the material.
In the case of Jimmy Olsen, the results were decidedly mixed. There are all sorts of stories on the reasons Kirby debuted on this decidedly minor DC title (some of which are recounted by onetime Kirby employee Mark Evanier in the collection’s intro), but whatever the behind-the-scenes, the end product was undeniably strange. DC was so provincially protective of its Superman cast that when they saw the first results, they pulled in some of their regular artists (Murphy Anderson most consistently) to redo the Man of Steel and cub reporter Olsen’s faces. The images aren’t as awkward as they could’ve been, but you can still tell the difference.
In approaching his first DC title, Kirby the scriptwriter essentially tossed Jimmy’s longstanding characterization as a callow, egocentric youth and remade him as action guy. All the comic relief (something fans expected from a Jimmy Olsen title more than they did, say, Batman) was provided by the Newsboy Legion, an updated second-generation version of Simon & Kirby characters whose heyday was the forties. The original Newsboys were a quartet of street urchins, modeled after the Dead End Kids, who battled Nazis on the streets of New York. Of course, each of the New Newsies was a duplicate of his father (Gabby, Big Words, Tommy and Scrapper – you can already tell what each one did in the group, can’t you?) In addition to this foursome, the culturally sensitive creator added a fifth: a black kid named Flipper Dipper (or alternately: Flippa Dippa), who was obsessed with scuba diving. You get a lot of panels with poor ol’ Flip, standing around awkwardly in his wet suit, lamenting the fact that they’re nowhere near the water.
Olsen and the Newsboys hook up after the young reporter’s new duplicitous boss Morgan Edge sends ’em all via a typical space-hogging Kirbyesque vehicle called the Whiz Wagon into the Wild Area – a hitherto unmentioned realm populated by motorcycle commune called the Outsiders and a mysterious group known as the Hairies. (Can’t help wondering: did they select that name themselves?) Kirby’s attempts at wrestling with youth culture slanguage circa 1970 provides much unintentional comedy (“Our life style is ‘wheels!’ This bag belongs to the ‘Hairies!'”), but his imagery and throw-everything-you-can-think-of-onto-the-page aesthetic still provide heaps of pleasure. Whatever his limitations as a scripter, Kirby remained unmatched as a visual imagineer.
The Olsen crew’s trip into the Wild Area leads them through a Zoomway packed with photo collage psychedelia, than to a secret underground government project where military scientists have broken the genetic code. For some strange reason, the Hairy scientists have chosen to duplicate Olsen and the Newsboys. No, I don’t know why these guys were chosen, but it gives Kirby the opportunity to show us a microscope slide of tiny Jimmys (each with miniature panties) and a later sequence where a bound Newsie sees a Lilliputian version of himself straddling his pug nose.
With Kirby, plot sense frequently took a back seat to spectacle (you can see why filmmakers like the Wachowski Bros. have adopted him as their patron saint) and never more so than in the Jimmy Olsen books. Once our heroes make their way to the Project, we’re introduced to a new crew of rival villains: the alien scientists of the planet Apokolips, who’ve stolen Project DNA samples to create their own nefarious creatures. First up: a giant-sized green-skinned Jimmy Olsen (but of course!), who rampages through the Project shouting “Kill to live! Kill! Kill!” Next: a four-armed “DNAlien,” who also does its best to trash the complex. What’s the point? Basically, to give Kirby an excuse to engage in Hulk-styled battle graphics.
I love these tales for their goofiness and robustness. (Haven’t even mentioned the two-parter that ends this volume, co-starring Don Rickles and a costumed doppleganger named Goody Rickels. It’s packed with more non-sequitars than a Dadaist Manifesto – the real-life Rickles was reportedly not amused – and a thoroughly nonsensical plot originally designed to put Rickles in the same room as the Man of Steel so he could insult him . . . but it never happens.) Like I say, this is definitely not the stuff you want to pull out if you’re trying to convince a would-be girl or boyfriend you’re not a hopeless case for reading comic books. These pages are pure (to use cartoonist Scott Shaw!’s exceedingly valuable label) Oddball. And boyishly entertaining for it.
Can’t wait for Volume Two.

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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