Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? by Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, and Nathan Fairbairn
I have generally not been in favor of Big Two superhero comics going “realistic.” That’s mostly because what counts as realism in superhero comics looks more like cynicism or nihilism from any other point of view, and because superhero comics are inherently one of the very most artificial artforms ever devised by the hand of man.
So I’m happy to point out that Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? is very artificial, and revels in it. The only other series I’ve seen that has as many introducing-this-character-with-their-fantastic-logo! boxes is Paul Grist’s deeply quirky Jack Staff. But this book does that trick one better: the person being introduced every single time is Mr. James Olsen himself, our hero and main character, in an unending sequence of sillier and sillier locutions about Superman’s wingman.
(I’m pretty sure I remember “Superman’s wingman” somewhere in the middle there. Nearly every way you could think to describe the Olsen boy are already in this book.)
Perhaps I should back up slightly.
Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen was a famous Silver Age title, from the era where comics were flagrantly artificial and their audiences were assumed to be entirely made up of children who would age out within a year or three. It ran for twenty years, and regularly turns up in random internet “have you ever seen this insane thing?” collections. (Two words: Goody Rickles.)
And Jimmy, as a character, is closely associated with that era. He doesn’t get the full-force opprobrium directed at some kid sidekicks, since he was intermittently depicted as an actual adult (if a juvenile, silly, easily-distracted one) and had an actual job that made sense in the context of the comics. But he was often comic relief in core Superman stories, and his own title was, to use a technical term, regularly batshit crazy (in the best possible way).
So Mr. Jimmy Olson comes with some baggage. And the 2019 series about him – by writer Matt Fraction, artist Steve Lieber, and colorist Nathan Fairbairn; collected as Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olson: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? – leans heavily into the silliness, providing not just a goofy Jimmy, but a very weird take on Batman, an extended Olsen family with shocking connections to Lex Luthor (who also gets an extended family), the aforementioned massive number of story-introducing boxes, and a lot of just plain goofiness.
For example: the book opens with a story from some piece of product entitled Superman: Leviathan Rising Special #1, which I gather from context was some kind of crossover event thingy. (“Crossover event thingy” is a technical term in corporate comics.) In that story, Olson wakes up in Gorilla City, surprisingly married to an interdimensional jewel thief after a long night of drinking gorilla-strength champagne, and ends up in the possession of a cat that vomits astoundingly large and sustained streams of blood. Complications quickly ensue.
This all seems like random goofiness. Nearly all of it will become very important to the overall plot of Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? Note: I am not saying any of it becomes any less goofy.
The actual plot of the main story takes a while to coalesce, and is told out of chronological order. My sense is the playing-with-time stuff isn’t to be daring or stylistically inventive; it’s just another way to be randomly goofy and confusing. I liked and appreciated all of it; those who like more straightforward superhero stories may be annoyed or bored.
So we get Jimmy causing trouble, having to flee Metropolis for Gotham City, having his Life Model Decoy (named something slightly different I don’t want to dig through all the pages to find) “murdered,” and hiding out as an oddball “modern” version of himself (Timmy Olson, cringe YouTube sensation!). We also see Jimmy’s fabulously wealthy family (stuck-up brother, boho playwright sister), Jimmy’s deep family history (return to the frontier days of New Obsterstad with the feud of the Olsson and Alexander families!), Lex Luthor lurking around the edges of the story doing that I-am-such-a-villain hand-wringing gesture, Jimmy’s landlord/lawyer, a very silly very minor villain, an interdimensional would-be conqueror, and a rapidly-increasing death count of people close to Jimmy.
Again, we don’t get any of that in order: we get bits and pieces of all of it, smash-cutting from one Jimmy Olson story intro to another, and it all coalesces about halfway through this twelve-issue miniseries.
To my mind, if you’re going to do a superhero story, or even a story set in a superhero world (this is more of the latter; Jimmy is always central, and most of the important characters don’t have powers), you need to be at least halfway lighthearted. We all know every ending will be happy, all deaths are temporary, and all drama is momentary. And Who Killed gets that tone right: it doesn’t make fun of its own story too much, but it doesn’t try to pretend this is about the fate of the world, either.
To my mind, this is what good comics in a superhero milieu looks like: fun, with consequences to actions but not overly invested in them, full of random oddities and an overall sense of possibility.