By August, 1970, I’d been buying and reading comic books for a full five years. Somehow, however, in all that time, I hadn’t yet sampled an issue of Jimmy Olsen.
I’m not really sure why that was. My very first comic book had been an issue of Superman, after all, and I’d picked up a couple of Lois Lanes pretty early on, as well. And I don’t recall having anything particularly against the red-headed cub reporter (in comics, anyway — I think I always considered the version played by Jack Larson on the live-action TV show to be kind of a doofus). Indeed, as best as I can remember, I actually kind of enjoyed Jimbo’s appearances in World’s Finest, where he basically functioned as the Robin to Superman’s Batman, as well as having his own team-up thing going with the genuine Boy Wonder on the side (the Olsen-Robin team even had their own secret HQ, the Eyrie).
And then there was this DC Comics house ad for Jimmy Olsen #104 (designed, as were all such ads during this era, by the great Ira Schnapp), which I remember poring over with fascination in the summer of 1967…
…though I wasn’t so fascinated by the ad that I actually bought the book. I dunno — maybe Jimmy was just too weird for me, as a young comics reader.
But whatever the reasons why I’d avoided the solo adventures of Superman’s Pal™ up to this point, there was no way I was going to pass on Jack Kirby’s first work for DC since his recent departure from Marvel. Even if it made absolutely no sense to me that the guy I knew as the artist of Fantastic Four, Thor, and so much more besides — the “King” of Marvel comics — was going to be writing, as well as drawing, the ongoing exploits of the former Giant Turtle Olsen — or as the copy on the bold, bright-orange cover of Kirby’s premiere issue brashly styled him, “Superman’s Ex-Pal, The New Jimmy Olsen”.
How did this happen, anyway? By all accounts, Jack Kirby came to DC in 1970 with a deal that allowed him to create and edit three brand-new interconnected series, based on concepts that had been creatively percolating during his last few discontented years at Marvel. But the deal also called for him to take over one existing DC series. According to one oft-told tale, Kirby asked DC Editorial Director Carmine Infantino to give him the company’s worst-selling title, which he’d proceed to make a hit; the truth, however, is that though Jimmy Olsen was indeed the poorest performer among DC’s four Superman-starring titles, it wasn’t actually the publisher’s lowest-selling book overall. A somewhat more credible account states that Kirby, not wanting to take work away from other creators, asked to be assigned to a series that didn’t currently have a writer/artist team attached to it — and Jimmy Olsen, which was just about to come under the editorship of Murray Boltinoff with the departure of longtime Superman “family” editor Mort Weisinger, filled that bill.
It’s also been claimed that Kirby asked Infantino for the opportunity to show what he could do with DC’s flagship character, Superman; as well as, conversely, that it was Infantino who asked Kirby to revamp the Man of Steel. According to longtime Kirby friend, onetime Kirby assistant, and posthumous Kirby biographer Mark Evanier, “It was probably a little of each.” As noted by that writer in his introduction to the 2003 trade collection Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby, Kirby would have been “eager to prove his value to his new employer”; meanwhile, Infantino may well have considered Superman due for a major facelift as the post-Weisinger era got underway.
However it ultimately came about, Jack Kirby, formerly Marvel Comics’ single most important artist, did indeed get his shot at DC Comics’ single most important character. And on August 25, following several months of breathless promotional build-up (which had begun with a full page ad that teased “The Great One Is Coming”, and continued with a series of “Kirby Is Coming” blurbs scattered across DC’s line), Jack Kirby’s Superman was at last revealed to the world…
…though, weirdly enough — it turned out not to be entirely Jack Kirby’s Superman.
We’ll have quite a bit more to say about that a bit further on, but for now, let’s jump right in to the first three pages of Jimmy Olsen #133, as the titular hero — and his readers– simultaneously embark on a brand new adventure, one that will prove to be like nothing those readers had ever seen in this book’s pages before:
It seems entirely appropriate to the beginning of this new phase of his career that Kirby leads off, not only by introducing a number of new characters and concepts to us at the same time that his protagonist, Jimmy Olsen, is first encountering them, but also by hitting us with a double-page splash at the earliest possible opportunity — as though standard panels just aren’t large enough to contain the outpouring of his imagination, finally liberated from the constraints (some admittedly self-imposed) under which he’d produced his later work for Marvel.
The Whiz Wagon, a perfect example of Kirbytech at its most gosh-wow spectacular, is a clear descendant of the the Fantasti-Car, the vehicle Kirby had created for Marvel’s Fantastic Four years before. As we’ll soon see, however, this new ride was destined to function as road transport considerably more frequently than that earlier conveyance, which tended to be used primarily for aerial travel, ever did.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking right now (just as my thirteen-year-old self was at this point, back in 1970) — what’s all this about “my new boss, Mister Edge“? Wasn’t Jimmy talking about the Daily Planet on that double-page spread just now? What the heck happened to Perry White? Never fear, faithful reader; all will soon be revealed, I promise.
I was talking about Kirby’s introducing new characters right out of the gate a few paragraphs ago — but, of course, the Newsboy Legion (with the notable exception of Flipper Dipper — or is that Flippa Dippa?) weren’t really new; though they might as well have been, as far as I and most other young readers were concerned, since they hadn’t been seen on newsstands since 1947. The original Newsboy Legion — the fathers of the crew we meet here — were a kid gang who had been created in 1942 by Kirby and his then-partner, Joe Simon, and then gone on to appear in their own feature for fifty-seven issues of DC’s Star-Spangled Comics. They may have been relatively unknown in 1970, outside of the most avid (or oldest) fans of comics’ Golden Age — but their co-creator still remembered them, of course, as did other old hands still working for DC, at least one of whom (artist/editor Joe Kubert) had worked on a Newsboy Legion story or two himself back in the day.
Oh, the guy in the yellow-and-blue costume with a shield on his arm, who might strike one as a somewhat less patriotic take on another Simon & Kirby character? Sorry, but we’ll have to postpone our discussion about him for a later post — one coming up in November or thereabouts.
Of all the characters and concepts Kirby introduced in his first issue of Jimmy Olsen, none had as immediate an impact on the whole Superman family of titles as did Morgan Edge, president of the Galaxy Broadcasting System. Because, obviously, if Clark, Jimmy, and the rest of the staff of the Daily Planet are going to be answering to a new boss in one of the books, it stands to reason that they’ll be doing the same in all the others. And that’s exactly what would happen in Superman, Action, and the rest, though it wouldn’t become evident for another couple of months.
According to Mark Evanier (as reported in The Jack Kirby Collector #17), Kirby wanted to use the character “to explore the theme of organized crime gaining a foothold in corporate America – particularly a giant media conglomerate. Given the shady background of the company that acquired Warner Brothers and DC, it was something of an inside joke…” (If you’re wondering, the “shady” company referred to by Evanier would presumably be Kinney National Services, Inc., headed by Steve Ross.) Evanier has also asserted that Edge was physically based on the actor Kevin McCarthy, best known to genre fans for his starring role in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie; in addition, Kirby refers to Edge in a later issue of Jimmy Olsen (#138) as a “smiling cobra”, which was a well-known nickname for James T. Aubrey, president of the CBS television network from 1959 to 1965.
Considering all of that, I guess you could say that it takes a village to make a villain — or to make this particular malevolent mogul, at least.
Actually, if that car had hit Clark “head on“, it should have been pretty much demolished, don’t you think? So maybe that guy in the last panel on page 6 was exaggerating, and the speeding vehicle merely clipped our Metropolis Marvel. Or… maybe this mysterious “Inter-Gang” has access to some extremely powerful and resilient automobiles. As readers will discover over the next few issues, that latter option is a distinct possibility.
The family relationship between the Fantasti-Car and the Whiz Wagon seems especially obvious in the preceding sequence, as the latter vehicle takes to the sky.
Though it’s not specifically spelled out, our young protagonists’ flight from Metropolis’ “slum district” to the edge of the enigmatic Wild Area appears to take hardly any time, suggesting that the latter region is right on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area. As we’ll soon discover, it’s also evidently quite large, which makes it seem improbable that it’s remained so hidden and unknown. But, hey, let’s just make like the Whiz Wagon, and roll (or fly, or motorboat) with it…
I probably hardly need to point out the visual resemblance (from the neck up, at least) between Iron Mask and a certain malevolent monarch of Latveria. His subordinate Vudu doesn’t have quite as obvious an antecedent among the trove of Marvel characters designed by Kirby in the ’60s, although he reminds me at least a little bit of the Demon. (No, not that one. Not that one, either. This one.)
The motorcycle gang introduced by Kirby on these pages, the Outsiders, has been deemed to have drawn inspiration from real-life biker organizations such as the Hell’s Angels, as well as such pop-cultural touchstones of the times as the 1969 film Easy Rider. According to an interview with Jack Kirby’s wife Roz published in The Jack Kirby Collector #10 (Apr., 1996), however, the most direct stimulus for the group’s creation may have been a group of noisy kids who rode motocross bikes in the vicinity of the Kirbys’ first home in California. It’s doubtful that this “gang” could have been anywhere near as intimidating-looking (or acting) as the Outsiders, but they were probably still damned annoying.
Rather than try to extricate the Whiz Wagon from this magnetic trap,Jimmy and the Newsboys ultimately decide to abandon their vehicle, at least for the moment, and mix it up with their assailants directly:
No sooner have our young stalwarts subdued both Iron Mask and Vudu than still more heavy metal thunder comes rolling in:
And now that the Last Son of Krypton has made his first on-panel appearance in this story in his full regalia, it’s probably time to confront the fact that he’s not drawn by Jack Kirby. Not entirely, at least, and not in every panel of the story. And never his face. Because, as many if not most of this blog’s readers likely already know, DC routinely had Kirby’s heads, and often his figures, of Superman, Clark Kent, and Jimmy Olsen redrawn by other artists, allegedly to make them appear more “on model”. In the case of this and the next two issues of Jimmy Olsen (as well as in the first issue of Kirby’s new series Forever People, forthcoming in December), that uncredited task fell to Al Plastino, a DC veteran whose earliest work on the Superman titles had appeared in 1948.
Before digging down into this topic, I have a somewhat chagrined confession to make; back in the summer of 1970, my thirteen-year-old self didn’t even realize that Supes and Jimmy had been extensively redrawn. As familiar as I was with Jack Kirby’s work by this point, I still wasn’t exactly what you’d call a sophisticated connoisseur of individual artists’ styles. Al Plastino’s straightforward, relatively simple style didn’t call a lot of attention to itself; and since I didn’t know what Kirby’s Superman should look like, I accepted that all the images I was looking at had been drawn by Jack Kirby (and inked by Vince Colletta), just like it said in the credits.
Things would change once Murphy Anderson took over the redrawing chores (which included inking the faces he re-pencilled) with Jimmy Olsen #136; Anderson’s artwork had a polished, distinctive look with which I was quite familiar from his mid-Sixties work on Spectre and Hawkman, (and which, in every other context, I very much enjoyed); when work that was clearly his started to show up within Kirby and Colletta’s panels, it was immediately jarring. But while I instantly recognized (and disliked) the awkward interpolation of Anderson’s portraiture in these later Kirby Olsens, I wouldn’t realize for years that the art in the preceding issues (and in Forever People #1) had been altered as well.
Fifty years down the pike, I still don’t find Plastino’s redrawings to be quite as aesthetically dissonant with Kirby’s style as I do Anderson’s. Nevertheless, I wish that they — as well as Anderson’s — didn’t exist. And I also wonder, along with many other fans: why did DC choose to handle things this way?
The reason most commonly given is that the powers-that-were at DC at that time believed that Kirby’s rendering of Superman veered too far “off-model” from how he was regularly presented in the publisher’s comics, something they were concerned could have an adverse effect on their profitable licensing of the character. As Carmine Infantino put it in an interview with Jim Amash for the book Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provocateur (TwoMorrows, 2010):
…we had to maintain the look of the Superman characters. We had licensing agreements all over the world, and they wanted — expected — a consistent look to the characters. It’s the same thing with Mickey Mouse. You don’t change the look no matter who the artist is. Mickey Mouse has to look like Mickey Mouse. Same thing with Superman… Jack just didn’t draw a very good Superman, or at least keep him on model. And we had to keep him on model. I discussed this with Jack, and he agreed.
The problem with this assertion, as I see it, is that — especially in comparison with Disney’s approach to Mickey Mouse, who did indeed look exactly the same wherever you saw him, regardless of the medium or context — DC’s “model” for Superman wasn’t really all that precise. Below are three portraits of the Man of Steel, all published by DC during the years that Jack Kirby was drawing Jimmy Olsen:
The first portrait shown is by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, and is from Superman #236 (Apr., 1971). The second, by Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, originally appeared in Justice League of America #86 (Dec., 1970). And the third, by Neal Adams, is a detail from the cover of DC 100-Page Super Spectacular #6 (1971). Are these three renditions of DC’s flagship character similar? Unquestionably. Are they identical? I don’t think so. And I also think that Kirby’s rendition, as seen both in the pencilled panel for Jimmy Olsen #143 shown earlier, as well as in the never-used “button” art Kirby drew for the series’ trade dress shown at right, is as much “on model” as any of them.*
It must be acknowledged, however, that Kirby was not the only recipient of this treatment; nor was the practice of retouching art limited to DC’s Superman titles. As Jim Beard, Keith Dallas, and Jason Sacks write in American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1970s (TwoMorrows, 2014): “Several Curt Swan and Wayne Boris Superman stories of the 1960s included Kurt Schaffenberger faces on their rendition of Lois Lane while Stan Lee sometimes prevailed on John Romita to fix the face of a particular Marvel Comics character.” (The latter situation, incidentally, is known to have occurred in regards to Kirby’s art.) Even more relevant to the present discussion, at the same time that he was redrawing Kirby’s Superman and Jimmy in Jimmy Olsen, Murphy Anderson was also stepping in to help out on Lois Lane, where he inked Werner Roth’s Superman heads in a number of issues; according to an editorial note by E. Nelson Bridwell in the letters column of Lois Lane #121 (Apr., 1972), this was done at the request of the series’ regular inker, Vince Colletta. Since Colletta was also inking Jimmy Olsen, it’s possible that there was some connection between the two Anderson assignments; on the other hand, Anderson also appears to have retouched the Clark Kent heads in at least one Supergirl story, published in Adventure Comics #406 (May, 1971) — a story that was otherwise inked by Jack Abel, as well as being written, pencilled, and even edited by Mike Sekowsky. (This move was evidently found necessary by DC, Mark Evanier notes, “even though Sekowsky’s interpretation of The Man of Steel had appeared, usually unexpurgated, for years in the Justice League of America comic.”) As best as I can tell, the one person who might have been involved in the editorial process on all three titles — Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Adventure — was E. Nelson Bridwell himself, as he’d been the assistant editor for the Superman line since the Weisinger days, as well serving as the full editor of Lois Lane since Weisinger’s departure. Could DC’s early ’70s fussiness about Superman being “on model” have stemmed from Bridwell? It seems possible, at least, although Carmine Infantino surely must have given his blessing to the retouching program, if only indirectly.
And though Kirby may have “agreed” to this practice, as Infantino put it, he was hardly happy about it. He was very clear on this point when interviewed by Gary Groth for The Comics Journal, some nineteen years later:
They cut the heads off my Superman, and then they replaced them with a standard Superman head… it bothered me, of course, because a man is entitled to draw things in his own style. I didn’t hurt Superman. I made him powerful. I admire Superman, but I’ve got to do my own style. That’s how I would see it, and I had a right to do that, and nobody had the right to tamper with your work and shape it differently.
For my money, what makes DC’s tampering with Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen so especially egregious, above and beyond any other example of “art correction” one might cite, comes down to a couple of things:
First, it just looks so bad. In the interview with Jim Amash quoted above, Infantino responded to Amash’s expressed dislike of the Kirby-Colletta-Anderson mishmash on aesthetic grounds with the following:
But you weren’t the typical reader. You were serious about the art, much more so than most fans. I think the fans want to see a consistent look to the characters. I don’t think it bothered most of the readers. They were more interested in the characters than they were the art. You were too sensitive to it.
Hmm, I dunno about that. In 1970-71, I was already a more-than-casual fan of comic books, but, as I’ve already noted, I was still hardly a comic art connoisseur; and I disliked the Anderson interpolations as much as Amash did. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine that any reader who was paying attention wouldn’t have found the discrepancy in art styles jarring, even if they couldn’t articulate exactly how or why what they were seeing was “wrong”. And even if you concede Infantino’s point, surely DC’s Editorial Director himself — a highly talented artist, with one of the best design senses ever seen in comics — must have recognized how bad it looked. Why didn’t he care?
The second issue relates to the incongruity of DC going to some lengths to lure Kirby from Marvel, then promoting the hell out of his arrival with the “Kirby Is Coming” campaign — and then, once he’d actually arrived, subverting his artwork with alterations. What was the big deal about getting Jack Kirby, if you’re not prepared to deliver Jack Kirby?
I’m inclined to believe that, however much Infantino and others at DC respected Kirby’s commerciality — and probably his imagination (“He was a great idea man,” Infantino told Amash, “maybe the best ever in comics.”) — on some level, they didn’t really believe his artwork was up to DC’s standards. To again quote Mark Evanier:
…DC was then very into cultivating a “DC look,” with some there taking a certain pride in the fact that the art in their books didn’t resemble the inferior (to them) artwork in the Marvel titles. So along comes Jack Kirby and what he does, almost by definition, is a “Marvel version” of the jewel in the DC crown, Superman…and to some in the office, that just didn’t look right.
In the latter decades of his life, Infantino took umbrage with the idea that he might have purposefully sabotaged Kirby’s artwork, noting that making the changes to Kirby’s Superman and Jimmy Olsen renderings “was costly, time consuming and embarrassing”, but was necessary “to protect the integrity of valuable comic book properties”. Such may well have been his conscious motivation. Nevertheless, I still can’t help wondering if the real reason the great artist and designer couldn’t see what a mess the practice was making of Jimmy Olsen was that when he looked at the bits of Murphy Anderson’s work in the middle of Jack Kirby’s pages, he thought — at least on a subconscious level: Well, at least that much of the art looks good.
Anyway, them’s my two cents’ worth on this long-fraught, never-to-be-fully-settled topic. Thanks for indulging your humble blogger. We now return you to our originally scheduled story…
Notice the inversion of black and white in the page number “13” just above? That’s the handiwork of John Costanza, who conceived this means of “signing” his work in the years before DC began including letterers’ names in their books’ published credits.
Superman’s use of his heat vision to detect the “afterimage” of the Whiz Wagon is an application of this particular super-power that I don’t recall anyone having thought of prior to Kirby — although I may well have missed an earlier instance of it being so employed. (If any Super-scholars out there are aware of one, please feel free to weigh in in the comments section.)
The first Wild Area denizen that Superman meets seems made from a different mold than the hog-riding Outsiders; still, like them, he represents a recognizable type of the late-Sixties/early-Seventies American counterculture — in his case, a meditating, peace-and-love-promoting guru.
Superman’s comment about finding himself in a “dropout society” would seem to put him (and Kirby) firmly on the side of the squares. Nevertheless, the hero’s subsequent adoption of a “youthful” mode of speech (or Kirby’s sense of such, at any rate) to admonish the attacking gunman comes across as sincere, and works better than it probably should (at least for me).
This issue’s cover had proclaimed that Jimmy Olsen was about to become “Superman’s Ex-Pal”, and had buttressed that notion both with its visual of Jimmy and Yango’s cycle slamming into Supes at speed, and with Jimmy’s accompanying shout of “Gun him down!” This kind of cover scenario, in which the series’ star was shown inexplicably turning on his Super friend, had been used extensively in the Weisinger era as a “hook” to compel readers to buy the comic to learn the explanation for Jimmy’s uncharacteristic behavior.** (Indeed, it had even been employed in the title’s last pre-Kirby issue.) Almost invariably, however, the apparent animosity between the two pals would be explained away by the story inside — it was all due to a trick, a mistake, mind control, a hoax, a dream, etc., etc.. But in Kirby’s hands, this familiar trope becomes something different from the norm; because, while the cover may have exaggerated the situation somewhat, there is a real conflict between Jimmy and Superman in this story. Jimmy does stand by while his new subordinate Yango doses his best friend with Kryptonite gas, and afterwards ominously intones, “Superman has a lot to learn about his place — and about me!”
The “Mountain of Judgment”, eh? Things just keep getting curiouser and curiouser…
Like the meditating dude we met on pages 14 and 15, the treehouse city of Habitat indicates that the Outsiders represent a broader analogue to the real-life counterculture of 1970 than their “outlaw bikers” aspect might initially suggest. Habitat appears to be Kirby’s nod to the “back to the land” movement, especially as expressed in the renewed vogue for communes and other kinds of intentional communities. (Although it may have put my younger self more in mind of Lincoln Logs, or maybe even Tinkertoys.)
And so concludes Jack Kirby’s first new story for DC Comics in 11 years.
As the King’s opening statement at the beginning of his renewed association with the publisher, Jimmy Olsen #133 served notice of an exciting new approach, not just to a single series, but to the whole Superman family of titles — and, by extension, to DC’s entire line, as well.
Though it wasn’t immediately evident to the readers of August, 1970, the comic would also soon be recognized as representing the first chapter of what would prove to be the most personal and ambitious work of Jack Kirby’s whole, long career — the “Epic for Our Times” we would eventually come to call the Fourth World.
How can that be, one might ask, considering that there’s not a Parademon, Mother Box, or even a Boom Tube to be found in the whole blamed thing? Ah, but that’s a question for another post. For the answer, please check back in this space come October, when we’ll be taking our 50-years-later look back at Jimmy Olsen #134.
To wrap up this post, I’d like to share two last “bonus” items from Jimmy Olsen #133, though only the first of them was actually published in the comic book itself.
That would be the text page that Jack Kirby wrote to introduce himself to DC’s readers in the summer of 1970. It’s a fascinating look at how the creator saw himself, as well as his work, at this stage of his career, and indicates the cautious sense of hope he seemed to feel regarding his new relationship with DC Comics (“National Periodicals”) in general, and with Carmine Infantino in particular — a hope which would, alas, never be fully realized, though a lot of great comics would come out of the alliance over the next several years:
The second, and originally unpublished item is Kirby’s first, rejected pencil sketch for the cover of Jimmy Olsen #133. Many photocopies of Kirby’s uninked pencils, for both published and unpublished work, have come to light over the decades, and they provide an opportunity to enjoy the artist’s creativity in its rawest, least mediated form.
And as far as Jimmy Olsen is concerned, it also provides the opportunity for us to see Jack Kirby’s Superman the way he saw him, without any “help” from other artists:
*It must be admitted that Kirby did have problems keeping one aspect of Superman’s visual on model — namely, his “S” shield emblem. I doubt any fan would have objected, or even noticed, if the DC-mandated retouching had begun and ended with fixing those.