Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Among the many great lists in my new book, Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent? (which you probably still have time to buy for someone for Christmas! Go buy it!), is a list by John Rozum (the awesome creator of both Xombi and Midnight, Mass.) about the four best characters introduced during Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run.
However, John is so awesome that he actually wrote a SECOND list that we had to cut because of space constraints (there was too much awesomeness to fit into just one book!). So now, here, for your enjoyment, is John Rozum’s take on “The Twelve Best Covers of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen”…
(Just to be clear, from here on out, it is John Rozum’s writing – BC)
After the infamous witch hunt against comic books led by Fredric Wertham the publishers not forced out of business saved themselves with a self imposed comics code authority which meant that any comic book sporting that badge was tame reading with no murder, gun play, horror, sex, or anything else deemed unfit for minors to read. This is why during the silver age of comics you’d see Batman, Robin and Superman engaged in competitive sports such as tennis and downhill skiing on the covers of World’s Finest. In their own titles, Batman and Robin were faced with giant aliens and the mystery of why Batman must wear different colored costumes and not just his familiar blue, grey and yellow gear. Meanwhile Superman was subjected to wild transformations courtesy of red kryptonite when not avoiding getting roped into marriage by Lois Lane.
Seen as quaint, old fashioned, and even dumb, I admire the crazy inventiveness that went into these comics when it was necessary to give the superheroes busy work when they couldn’t be shown fighting violent super criminals instead. My two favorite series from this time period were Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane and especially Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. The stories inside were inspired and often very funny whether intentional, or not. The best part of these comics though was their covers, which almost make it unnecessary to read the featured stories, but made you want to every single time. Modern comics could take a lesson from these covers. How many people feel driven to pick up a copy of the Flash simply because there is yet another well rendered image of the titular character drawn in a way that implies speed? We see it almost every month. Same goes for covers depicting grimacing heroes in mortal peril against their foes. Ho-hum, I say. However, seeing Jimmy Olsen astride a giant red ant commanding it to carry a chunk of green kryptonite towards Superman in order to destroy him so that Jimmy can rule the world practically defies the casual reader not to buy it.
The first thing you wonder as you browse through a gallery of covers for Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is if the title is meant as sarcasm. Many of the covers feature Jimmy trying to destroy Superman, enslave him, expose his secret identity, or simply mocking the man of steel when he’s overcome by misfortune making him about as much Superman’s pal as Lex Luthor. Of course a number of covers feature Superman, uncharacteristically being callous if not incredibly cruel to Jimmy. Other covers feature them as rivals in a variety of contests, or in role reversals where Jimmy is the superpowered one and Superman weak and bothersome always needing Jimmy to get him out of a jam. The bulk of the covers though have Jimmy bizarrely transformed, or an egomaniacal menace, or in his own love triangles. Below are my favorite covers from this series, but to be honest, every one of them is a perfect gem.
The trick in this is that describing them doesn’t really do them justice. They need to be seen to truly be appreciated [luckily, while the book would only have shown six of the images, on the blog we’ll be able to show you all twelve – BC]. Here are a dozen of my favorite covers from Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen in no particular order.
Issue #65 (cover by Curt Swan and George Klein)
On this cover a carnival barker is presenting his star freak, Jimmy Olsen, the human porcupine. Jimmy, wearing green swim trunks and matching slippers has dozens of eight inch pointy quills jutting out from all over him (except where the swim trunks are, making you wonder how he put them on). Two of his quills have launched from his upper arm to knock Lucy Lane’s hat off of her astonished head. Jimmy, alarmed by this miscounts his ejected quills when he exclaims “Oops! One of my quills hit Lucy Lane’s hat! Help me Superman!” Superman swooping down over the heads of the fat lady and the illustrated man is also struck by several of Olsen’s shooting quills which break harmlessly against him. Superman informs Jimmy that he’s out of luck. “I’m sorry, Jimmy! This time you’re the victim of a magic spell which even I can’t undo!”
What I love most about this cover is that the dramatic visual excitement comes from the mundane action of Jimmy’s quills shooting Lucy’s hat off her head, and that that was enough to intrigue readers into finding out more. There’s no dynamic action, or poses. Everyone is very flat looking and static. This is just another typical day in the life of Jimmy Olsen. Of course, Superman makes you wonder what’s so super about a hero who gives up so easily when his friend needs his help.
Issue #53 (cover by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye)
The giant figure of Jimmy Olsen stands in the middle of a river with Metropolis in the background. But beyond simple gigantism, all is not well with Jimmy. From beneath his jaw line and covering all of the rest of him except his hands is green scaly skin, though with his head and hands unaffected it makes it look like he’s wearing some strange, cool, bodysuit. His eyes are also large and blue instead of white, grown beyond the limits of his lids. He looks angry and dangerous, and has torn a bridge in two with his bare hands as puny ships pass below him and beneath his notice. Superman flies towards us admonishing Jimmy for experimenting with a growth ray after he’d warned him not to. Now Superman must remove Jimmy from the earth.
What makes this cover great for me is that while it has that mystery of “what the hell happened to Jimmy?” that most of the covers have (and which this cover answers with Superman’s quick explanation as well as the caption proclaiming Jimmy Olsen as the Giant Turtle Man) this cover doesn’t have any of the humor of other covers featuring a transformed Jimmy Olsen. Even the cover where Jimmy has been transformed into a werewolf is made amusing by the real problem which is that he’s too frightening to get any girls to kiss him in order to transform him back. Here, just as Superman proclaims, Jimmy appears menacing, monstrous, and scarier than any giant monster depicted on a movie poster ever was. It’s a nice contrast to the regularly lighthearted covers for this series. The goofy scenario is played completely straight and that draws me to it.
Issue #117 (cover by Curt Swan and Neal Adams)
The cover is bisected by a black curtain on one side and an open space revealing a bright city of the future on the other. In front of the curtain, Jimmy, either standing unconscious, or just hanging his head in grim resignation is chained and manacled, as a sinister man in a business suit with a yellow vest and purple cape auctions Jimmy off to a group of businessmen wearing capes including a fellow with a white beard wearing Batman’s cape and cowl, and a man who looks suspiciously like Clark Kent wearing a Superman cape. The auctioneer proclaims that Jimmy the slave has been sold to the gentlemen wearing the Superman cape.
This cover is so zany, even for this series, that it almost seems like an imaginary cover created recently meant to gently poke fun of how ridiculous the premises of some of the Jimmy Olsen stories were. The artwork has a serious and even somewhat sinister look to it and is played completely straight. This amplifies the goofiness of seeing a bunch of regular citizens bidding on Jimmy Olsen, while wearing superhero capes. What really takes it that extra step into goofy comical masterpiece is the caption at the bottom of the cover that reads: “Why does everyone on this world wear a hero’s cape? Read the Incredible ‘Planet of the Capes’” Guess which popular science fiction movie had just come out when this issue appeared o newsstands? For anyone who has ever wondered about what inspires my own work, look no further.
Issue #79 (cover by Curt Swan and George Klein)
This is the single greatest comic book cover from the run of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and is one of the greatest comic book covers of all time.
Set against a Middle Eastern backdrop, Jimmy, with a longish mop top of red hair, wears a toga and sandals while blowing into a ram’s horn which he holds in one hand and beats a drum with the other. Before him is a crowd of anachronistic babes all wearing sheer pastel colored dresses that look like they came of the rack of a movie studio wardrobe department furnishing costumes for a 1960s sword and sandals epic. The young ladies all have identical raven colored haircuts matching Jimmy’s and are overwrought with emotion to be in his presence, calling out “Yeah-Yeah Yeah!” Superman, who has been witness to all manner of loopy behavior from Jimmy is befuddled as he thinks “Great Krypton! Jimmy has started a Beatle craze here in the ancient past. He’s become as popular as Ringo!”
If I could own one piece of original comic book art, this would be it. In one image the entire run of Jimmy Olsen, and the entire Silver Age of DC Comics is encapsulated. The caption on the cover proclaims Jimmy Olsen to be “The Red-Headed Beatle of 1,000 B.C.!” and the screaming girls reinforce it. Everything about this cover is great, but the best bit is Superman declaring that Jimmy has become as popular as Ringo.
Issue #88 (cover by Curt Swan and Sheldon Moldoff)
This close contender for the top spot is also musically oriented. An enthusiastic audience watches as Superman makes an ass of himself dancing some sort of variation of the Twist on stage and singing “yah! yah! yah!” while Jimmy plays a stringed instrument which looks like it could be a sitar, a long necked banjo, a bass, a tanbur, a saz, or the mutant offspring of all three. In the background a drummer provides the beat. A disgusted Perry White calls out “Superman! Stop dancing! There’s an emergency down the street!” Jimmy, looking his hippest, retorts with “Cool it, Big Daddy! The gang’s waiting to see Supie dance the Krypton Crawl next!” The reader will no doubt want to see it too since the cover copy declares this new dance to be bouncier than the Beatles and more electrifying than Elvis!
This cover is a perfect example of DC’s superheroes during their world without crime period enforced by the Comics Code. Everything about it is a cause for a chuckle, from Perry White’s serious scowling in contrast to the festive atmosphere to Jimmy’s uncharacteristic dialogue to Superman’s complete surrender of dignity in order to entertain. If this scene had appeared on a cover for “Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane” Lois would probably have dropped her matrimonial designs for Superman after witnessing this and moved on.
Issue #110 (cover by Curt Swan and Neal Adams)
A completely bland and straightforward cover set in a barber shop which depicts Jimmy Olsen in a barber’s outfit happily giving a smiling Superman a trim. The only visual excitement is provided by the recursive image of Superman holding a copy of this very comic, showing Superman holding a copy of this very comic on downward. Cover copy asks “How can Jimmy cut Superman’s indestructible hair of steel?
This is one of the first issues of Jimmy Olsen I ever bought ( a decade after the series ceased publication) and what attracted me to it was the notion that this was once enough to draw a potential reader to pick it up and pay the 12 cents to take it home and find out the answer. Of course I paid a considerable amount more than that to do the exact same thing. The truth of the matter though is it is a compelling question, leading to even more questions about what it means to have superpowers.
Issue #107 (cover by Curt Swan and George Klein)
Jimmy, wearing a hat labeling him a tour guide, gleefully directs the attention of the group of tourists, seen stepping off of his tour bus, to Superman, looking humbled as he wears a sanitation worker’s cap and guides a push broom to sweep litter from the streets of Metropolis. Jimmy shouts into a megaphone just a couple of feet from Superman, “Yes folks! Superman used to clean up gangs…now he cleans up garbage.”
This is one of many examples Jimmy Olsen acting in a manner that completely defies the title of this comic book series. Allegedly Superman’s pal, he’s relishing and even profiting from Superman being reduced from the shining example of people at their greatest potential, to now serving in a position that most people view as demeaning. Don’t worry, Superman, despite his boy scout image, could dish it out too.
Issue #115 (cover by Neal Adams)
A huge blazing sun dominates the orange sky. Jimmy Olsen and Aquaman, both on the verge of death, struggle to crawl towards the top of a sand dune where Superman waits, standing astride the bones of some poor soul who perished there. Superman has a look of gleeful cruelty on his face as he tauntingly holds up an ice cold pitcher of water out of their reach. Aquaman is too parched to speak, but Jimmy pleads to Superman to stop this crazy test. “Let us share that water or we die!” Superman, unfazed, responds with “Sorry Jimmy! The ground rules allow only one survivor! You or Aquaman.”
This cover practically dares you not to buy this comic. Jimmy and Aquaman pitted against each other in some deadly contest of survival? Superman acting uncharacteristically and abominably cruel towards both of his friends? How can you not want to know why? Or, how it will all turn out?
Issue #98 (cover by Curt Swan and George Klein)
As Lucy looks on in horror, Jimmy, dressed in a leopard skin toga slips a wedding ring onto the finger of his bride, a gorilla wearing a bridal veil. Superman wearing a witch doctor’s headdress stirs a cauldron over a fire, completely blasé about the whole scenario. Jimmy declares that this joke has gone far enough and that he doesn’t want to marry a female King Kong. Superman apologizes, but states that as the local witch doctor he now pronounces Jimmy and the gorilla, man and wife.
Like all good comic book covers, this one poses two important questions which the reader must find out by purchasing this issue. First, how did Jimmy get into this predicament where he finds himself taking on a gorilla as his bride? Second, how did Superman become the local witch doctor? All other questions such as what’s cooking in that cauldron are just gravy. This cover is just one of several that features Jimmy in some sort of complicated hijinx involving a gorilla. In the 1960s the sure fire way to increase sales was to feature a gorilla on the cover.
Issue #38 (cover by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye)
Jimmy sits at a counter piled high with dirty dishes, calmly eating away from a plate of food. He orders up another stack of hotcakes from Superman and declares he just can’t stop eating. Superman, wearing a chef’s hat, is flipping pancakes onto a plate at super speed while simultaneously pouring a glass of milk. Meanwhile at a blackboard covered in hash marks, Perry White keeps track of how many hamburgers, hotcakes, pies, and glasses of milk Jimmy has consumed. It’s a ridiculously large number. Flabbergasted, Perry wonders how Jimmy is able to eat dozens of meals and keep going.
This cover packs so much story into a single image that it’s pretty impressive. The scenario itself is a classic example of the world without crime that the superheroes occupied during this period where they had little else to do with their powers than engage in odd contests and keep their regular non-powered friends amused, occupied and out of trouble.
Issue #35 (cover by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye)
“A great friendship is broken when Jimmy Olsen becomes ‘Superman’s Enemy!’” declares the cover copy. In the offices of the Daily Planet, a pouting, stubborn Superman stands with his arms folded over his chest and his back to Jimmy. Lois tries to order Jimmy to apologize to Superman for all of the trouble he’s caused him and that Superman will forgive and forget. Jimmy in defiance announces that he’ll never apologize to Superman. “I hate him! And I’m going to destroy every souvenir he ever gave me!” To prove his point he petulantly uses his name plate to smash a framed signed photograph of Superman.
There were numerous covers where Jimmy turned against the man of steel, or felt slighted by him, but this one rises to the top because of the body language of everyone featured on it. The level of immaturity demonstrated by Jimmy and Superman is quite comical. It’s hard to imagine Superman acting this way with Batman at a meeting of the Justice League, ready to stomp his foot and announce “I won’t do it! You can’t make me!” What we learn from Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is that the man of steel has incredibly thin skin.
Issue #125 (cover by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson)
Superman sits facing us, his features illuminated by the light sent forth from a movie projector sitting on the table beside him. Tears stream down his face, towards his fist clenched in torment. Jimmy stands behind him, beaming in delight as he uses a large eyedropper to collect the tears from Superman’s cheeks. “Jimmy! What kind of Pal are you?” Superman asks. “How can you laugh at this heartbreaking movie?” Jimmy just tells him not to ask questions. “Just keep bawling, Superman. Every teardrop is precious to me!” This truly must have been “Superman’s Saddest Day!”
Yes, it’s another cruelty cover, with Jimmy relishing the anguish of Superman. Why Superman, if he’s so distressed, doesn’t simply switch off the projector is one question we have? The other is why did it take Superman one hundred and twenty-five issues to question Jimmy’s friendship? Almost certainly unintentional, this cover makes us complicit in Jimmy’s crime, because there is no possible way not to feel an amused grin spread across your face when confronted by this cover.
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