Why Don Rickles?
That was the question I had, back in the spring and summer of 1971, as Jack Kirby devoted not just one, but two issues of Jimmy Olsen — the first two following the conclusion of his initial story arc for the series, a six-chapter saga that he’d begun in his very first issue — to a tale focused on the famous insult comic.
It’s not that my fourteen-year-old self had anything against Don Rickles; I actually thought the guy was pretty funny. But that didn’t necessarily mean that I wanted to see him — or any comedian, really — in my superhero comics. I certainly didn’t expect it, in any event.
Like most readers, I’d have to wait several years before learning the story behind the story. By now, of course, it’s been told many times, most frequently and reliably by Mark Evanier, who was one of Kirby’s two assistants at the time. Here’s just a portion of one such account, as offered via Evanier’s blog in 2017:
The event had originated with a suggestion from [Kirby’s other assistant] Steve Sherman and myself that Rickles — who boasted he “never picked on a little guy, only on the biggies” — make a brief cameo and insult Superman. After all, who was a bigger biggie than Superman? Jack liked the idea and permission was procured from Rickles via his publicist for what was then planned as a sequence of but a page or two…
Then DC’s own publicists decided that this presented an opportunity for promotion in other venues, and Kirby was asked to do two whole issues with Rickles, both to feature him prominently on their covers…
And thus, a “brief cameo” which might have made for a fun couple of pages in an otherwise unrelated story became… something else.
Jimmy Olsen #139, released in May, 1971, did indeed feature Rickles on its cover, though it should be noted that Kirby had nothing to do with the framed black-and-white “portrait” of the comedian featured on it. According to another of Evanier’s blog posts, Rickles’ publicist included the caricature in a packet of photos sent to Kirby for reference; it wasn’t signed (save by “Don Rickles”, wink-wink), and the artist remains unknown to this day. On the other hand, Kirby did pencil the face and figure of Don’s “long lost alter ego Goody!“, which were then dutifully embellished by the series’ regular inker, Vince Colletta. (The heads of both Jimmy and Superman were finished by Murphy Anderson, however, as per DC’s usual practice — which means that it ultimately took four artists to create this relatively simple, background-free cover. Comics, folks!)
The issue’s story picked up in the aftermath of the exciting climax of JO #138, which had seen the secret underground government research facility called the Project, as well as the neighboring city of Metropolis, narrowly avoid nuclear destruction due to a last-minute save by Superman. This adventure had also included the first time that the Golden Guardian, a clone of the original Guardian from the 1940s, had gone into action — and “The Guardian Fights Again!!!” opened with the new/old hero getting a checkup from his physician, aka Tommy, Sr. — a member of the original Newsboy Legion who’d shared perils and thrills (as well as a feature in Star-Spangled Comics) with the first Guardian back in the day. Doctor Tommy found the Guardian to be in good health — more or less. As he told the waiting Superman, Jimmy Olsen, and the new Newsboy Legion (all sons of the originals, save one), he wasn’t entirely satisfied with his findings…
Though the Guardian was cleared to depart the Project, his new young friends in the Newsboy Legion weren’t so lucky — one of their number, Gabby, had been diagnosed with a cold, and so, while Superman, Jimmy, and the Guardian all headed for Metropolis (the latter two in the Newsboys’ own Whiz Wagon), the boys had to remain behind under medical observation.
As they drew near the city, Superman zoomed ahead of his companions; returning to his apartment, he managed to change back into Clark Kent just before Jimmy and the Guardian arrived to enlist Clark’s aid before setting out to confront Morgan Edge, who as the head of the Galaxy Broadcasting System was both Clark and Jimmy’s boss. While they both suspected him (correctly) of involvement in at least one assault against the Project and its operations, they didn’t know as yet that Edge was a willing servant of Darkseid, lord of Apokolips.
Meanwhile, at the GBS offices, Edge was preparing for the arrival of comedian Don Rickles, whom he hoped to sign to a contract at his network. (Hey, even a servant of Darkseid has to attend to his day job sometimes.) He became alarmed when his secretary, Laura Conway, reminded him that soon they would have two Rickles on site — “Don — and his ‘look-alike!’” “Look-alike??” queried Edge.
Wait, what? Guys in “another office” somehow convinced Goody Rickels that “a producer” wanted to see him about “a pilot film”? As excuses for putting a civilian character in a superhero costume go, that one’s pretty darn flimsy. And why does Kirby want to put him in a costume, anyway? Just to keep him visually distinct from the real Don Rickles, when the latter finally shows up? Whatever the reason, the end result is obviously ridiculous, without being particularly funny, at least to this reader. Also, what the heck kind of name is “Goody”?
Or, to put all of that more succinctly: Why Goody Rickels?
That one, I don’t think even Mark Evanier has ever tried to answer. To my mind, there doesn’t seem to be any logical progression from “Don Rickles, famous insult comic, ‘the Merchant of Venom'” to “Goody Rickels, ‘sweet, lovable soul’ who looks ridiculous and says absurd (but mostly not insulting) things”. He exists as a character because of Don Rickles, but outside of his physical appearance, he’s not very much like Don. So what’s the point of him?
Still, I have to admit that in certain scenes — like this one — Goody’s somewhat surreal interactions with other, “straighter” characters can be mildly amusing, if not laugh-out-loud funny. That’s especially true when Kirby slips in the odd subversive sentiment under the guise of absurdity, such as in the last panel’s dig at John Wayne-style ultra-patriotism. Most people wouldn’t expect to find a cynical reference to “the American dream” in a comic book that co-stars a famous exemplar of “The American Way” (in addition to Truth and Justice, of course). But there it is.
(I also like how Kirby reminds us that Morgan Edge is an out-and-out villain, not just a lousy boss or even a conventionally ruthless businessman, via Edge’s strategy for dealing with the possibility that Goody’s presence might mess up his deal with Don Rickles: “The solution is obvious! This man must be killed!“)
Before stepping out, Edge left an assignment slip for Miss Conway to give Clark and Jimmy — they were ordered to check out a report of a UFO landing in a city park. Which they then proceeded to do (hey, the man’s still their boss), taking the Guardian along with them as they traveled to the scene by Whiz Wagon…
The Guardian and Jimmy put up a valiant fight against their assailants — even Goody got in a few accidental licks a la the conventions of slapstick comedy — but the odds against them were too great, especially once the guns came out:
Back at GBS, Morgan Edge took a call from Ugly Mannheim, who reported that the UFO — a “dimension trap” of Apokoliptican design — had only caught Clark Kent, though the reporter’s companions had been taken prisoner. “What’s your next order!?” he asked. “It’s still your play, Mannheim!” Edge snapped. “Dispose of them!”
So Ugly Mannheim, being an experienced and efficient criminal, ordered his men to shoot the three prisoners in their respective heads and then dump their bodies in… naahhhh. I’m kidding, of course.
And that’s how things stood for a couple of months. While June did bring a new issue of Jimmy Olsen, #140 was an all-reprint issue. We fans would have to wait until July to learn the fates of or heroes — and to finally meet Jack Kirby’s version of the “real” Don Rickles. (Who, as you might have noticed, never showed his face at all in the first half of this two-parter, despite the cover’s promise of “Two Rickles!“)
The cover of #141 includes another image of Rickles from the comic’s publicist’s packet (a real photo, this time), with the drawn portion of the cover being provided by Kirby (pencils) and Neal Adams (inks), reprising their collaboration from the covers of #137 and #138. For anyone who might have come in late, and thus been startled to see Rickles’ mug smiling at them from the cover of a Jimmy Olsen comic, a banner over the title logo offered this word of advice from the King himself: “Don’t ask! Just buy it!”
Of course, I was going to buy it, regardless…
JO #139 had no Kirby Kollages whatsoever, so it’s a pleasure to see them back in #141, and in force.
The addition of partial color to Kirby’s collage images (created using color photographs, but usually reproduced in black and white) is a plus, though we’re clearly still not getting the full graphic impact of these works.
“Good gravy“, indeed! I can’t recall whether or not my younger self had fully grasped just where Inter-Gang’s dimension trap had sent Clark prior to this page, but I’m quite certain that I never expected to see Lightray of the New Gods show up in this issue. This would be Superman’s first direct encounter with a denizen of New Genesis since he’d met the Forever People in the first issue of their series, all the way back in December.
24 hours might not sound like a lot of time, but it beats five minutes, right? In any event, it’s more than enough time for our three “mismatched companions-in-peril” to conceive and implement a plan: the Guardian will pursue Ugly Mannheim’s rolling HQ, in hopes that the crooks have an antidote to the “pyro-granulate” on board, while Jimmy and Goody take the subway back to the GBS building in hopes of obtaining some emergency medical help. (Why GBS, rather than the nearest hospital? Eh, don’t ask! Just read it!)
Meanwhile, back at GBS, the man of the hour is making his entrance, at last:
Kirby delivers a consistently good likeness of Don Rickles throughout the issue (to my eyes, anyway); there’s some irony to found there, considering that DC didn’t trust him to properly draw the entirely fictional Jimmy Olsen or Clark (Superman) Kent, and slapped Murphy Anderson heads over his renderings of those characters every time.
Edge takes Don into his office to begin negotiations, and Don quickly makes it clear that he’s aware of the mogul’s reputation as a shark. “Be yourself, lad!” he says encouragingly. “Say something filthy!” To which Edge coolly replies: “Money! Lots of it!”
The “strange kids” mentioned by Clark are the Forever People, of course. Interestingly, he tells Lightray that he heard Darkseid “mentioned” by them, when in fact Superman actually met the lord of Apokolips in FP #1; it’s not entirely clear whether Kirby has forgotten that little detail, or if he’s having Clark be cagey on purpose, on the reasonable assumption that his trying to explain to Lightray how an ordinary Earthman made Darkseid’s acquaintance would be challenging, to say the least.
The subway train scene goes on for the better part of two pages, mostly in the same going-for-laughs vein, though in fact things really are getting serious for our odd couple — indeed, by the time the scene ends, Goody has begun smoking (and by that I don’t mean that he’s taken up cigarettes).
Can the Guardian overcome Ugly Mannheim’s horde of armed Inter-Gang goons and retrieve the antidote in time to save Jimmy, Goody, and himself? Kirby leaves us wondering, as after another page of exciting but inconclusive action, he once again shifts scenes back to the GBS offices:
It sure seems that it’s taking the pyro-granulate less than twenty-four hours — a lot less — to do its thing, doesn’t it? I guess Ugly Mannheim was lying about that part — but though that’s hardly surprising on ethical grounds, there doesn’t really seem to have been any good reason for the lie, when you think about it.
After hustling Don into an anteroom to keep him out of the way, Edge makes a phone call to the Metropolis PD’s bomb disposal squad…
That big “BWOF” was, thankfully, not Jimmy and Goody going up in a burst of flame, but an aftereffect of the chemical reaction caused by the Guardian’s successful application of the antidote. At least, that’s what we’ll have to assume was happening in that panel, because when we see Jimmy and Goody on the next page, they’re no longer aglow, nor billowing smoke. “The antidote works quickly!” the Guardian declares, as he watches the two GBS employees drain the last drops from two antidote vials. “The pyro-granulate has been neutralized!” He goes on to assure his friends that Ugly Mannheim and his goons are now in police custody.
Clearly rattled by these events, Don Rickles asks Morgan Edge “if this cuckoo charade is over“; Edge, stewing silently over the complete failure of his fiendish plan, suggests the comic take a breather: “Sit in a chair! Think about your mother’s cooking!”
We’ve never seen a Boom Tube in the pages of Jimmy Olsen before — but if we’ve read Forever People #1, we know that Jimmy Olsen himself has seen a picture of one (and also heard the name), thanks to a couple of friends of his who encountered the young gods from Supertown in the opening pages of that comic.
You may recall from the opening paragraphs of this post that this whole business started with the idea that it would be funny to have Don Rickles show up for a couple of pages to insult Superman. And now you’ve seen how it ended; with a two-issue storyline in which Don Rickles never once meets Superman (the next-to-last panel on page 21 of this issue, where Clark pops out of the Boom Tube over Don’s sprawled form, is as close as Kirby gets), let alone insults him.
Evidently, Rickles himself wasn’t exactly happy with how things turned out — and his attitude did not improve with the passage of time. Again, here’s Mark Evanier:
The comedian himself was less than thrilled by it all. He’d agreed to a cameo without remuneration, and felt exploited when it turned into two cover-featured guest appearances. He was further offended by a request from a DC publicist who presumed Rickles would gladly take the comics onto talk shows and promote them. Years later in an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s NBC talk show, Rickles was less than delighted when the host hauled out a copy of the comic book and asked him about it. “Put that away,” he said. “I had nothing to do with that.”
The reaction of the comics fans of 1971, as reflected in Jimmy Olsen‘s letters pages, appears to have been mixed, though leaning towards the positive. Here’s a sampling of the lettercols from JO #143 and #144, commenting on #139 and #141, respectively:
“The Guardian Fights Again” was original and amusing… Everything about Goody was appealing, from his reference to John Wayne to that ridiculous costume. — Gerard Triano, Elmont, NY
I am not amused. To say that Jimmy Olsen #139 was a letdown is an understatement. To say I can’t believe Kirby would foist such an atrocious tale on his literate reading public is putting it mildly. To say that Kirby has betrayed my confidence in the fertility of his imagination is sad but true. — Mark Gruenwald [yes, that one], Oshkosh, WI
Only Jack Kirby would come up with the idea of putting Don Rickles and a bumbling look-alike named Goody Rickels into a comic book, and, apparently, only Jack Kirby could pull it off… Kirby’s attempt at capturing the essence of the Rickles brand of humor within the dialogue-limitations of the commercial comic book is so successful it borders on sheer brilliance. — Martin Pasko [yes, that one, too], Clifton, NJ
That’s how at least a few fans (including a couple of soon-to-be-pros) saw these books at the time. And your humble blogger? As I’ve already indicated, I was confused by the whole idea of one Don Rickles-focused issue, let alone two. But as best as I can recall, I enjoyed the actual comics well enough. Part of that was down to me already liking Don Rickles, and thinking that he was pretty funny in #141. (Goody was another matter.) But what really made the story worthwhile to me in 1971 — and what I still recall most fondly, fifty years later — was the Clark Kent sequence, in which Earth’s greatest hero not only met Lightray of New Genesis, but also saw the planet Apokolips for the first time. To me, this seemed to be an important step forward in the Jimmy Olsen branch of Kirby’s interlocking Fourth World epic; I wanted (and expected) Superman to become more directly involved in the war between New Genesis and Apokolips as the saga moved forward, and if I had to put up with a little “Goody Rickels” silliness to see some progress on that front, so be it.
I might have been less accepting of #139 and #141’s detour into silliness, however, had I known at the time that the next two issues, far from deepening the involvement of the Jimmy Olsen cast in the affairs of the New Gods, would actually put the whole Fourth World mythos on hold for a couple of months so that Kirby could riff on old monster movies instead. But that’s a discussion for another post, another day.
As he did with Forever People and his other titles, Jack Kirby met the challenge presented him as the editor of Jimmy Olsen by DC’s new “bigger & better” format — that is, the need to find appropriate archival material to fill the added pages — by turning to the work he’d done for DC in partnership with Joe Simon back in the Golden Age of Comics. But unlike with those other, brand new titles, which bore no relation to anything he’d done before, Kirby here had a source of reprint material that was entirely appropriate to the venue — namely, the original “Newsboy Legion” series from Star-Spangled Comics.
Somewhat ironically, the new format began with JO #141 — the first issue since Kirby had taken over the series that none of the members of the new Newsboy Legion actually appeared — though, of course, the original Newsboys’ partner in adventure, the Guardian (aka police officer Jim Harper) featured prominently in the issue’s lead tale (or, at least, his clone did). And a one page text feature by Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, “The Newsboy Legion Returns” — which explained both the group’s 1940s origins and how Kirby had updated them for the 1970s (and which reads to me like a piece that was composed for one of the earliest Kirby Olsens, but went unused until now for whatever reason) — joined Kirby’s umbrella “Golden Age Grabbers” foreword to introduce the vintage feature.
The reprint series led off, logically enough, with the feature’s first installment (which also served as the origin story for both the kid gang and their Guardian), as originally presented in Star Spangled Comics #7 (Apr., 1942):
Not having ever even heard of the Newsboy Legion, nor of the Guardian, prior to Jimmy Olsen #133, my younger self was actually pretty happy to have the opportunity to read this story, as well as the Legion adventures that followed it. Did I think they were worth the extra ten cents I was now paying per issue? I can’t honestly say that I remember; but I figure that they probably at least came as close as justifying the price hike to me as any of DC’s reprint choices of this era did. (And it’s not like DC was giving me any other option, right? Might as well read ’em and like ’em.)