Friday, March 18, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133--"Kirby's Here!"


So it was, in August 1970, after months of hype and buildup, that Jack Kirby finally made his debut at DC, beginning the epic saga of the Fourth World and the New Gods that would forever leave its mark on the comics industry; the auspicious debut of Kirby's most heartfelt work, and one of the greatest stories ever attempted in comics.

In Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133.

That's comics for you. The sublime and the ridiculous don't just rub up against each other, they're frequently indistinguishable.

The famous (untrue) story is that Kirby had bragged that he could turn DC's lowest-selling book into its highest-selling one. Mark Evanier, in the afterword, says that it was actually a case of Kirby not wanting to boot any existing artist off a book they'd been attached to, and Jimmy Olsen was one that had no permanent creative team. So it was here that Kirby started to plant the seeds for the Fourth World epic.

This is pretty ironic, since Kirby was well known for rarely wanting to tackle other people's characters, or even return to his own once he was through with them. The story gets even weirder when you learn that the DC editors, unhappy with his version of Superman in an age when they were still desperately trying to stay "on model" with their characters, had some of the more traditional artists redraw his Superman and Jimmy Olsen drawings!

...Did I say this was an "auspicious" debut?

Still, when you understand what Kirby had to work with, the results grow a lot more impressive. Kirby immediately made two smart moves that revitalized Jimmy Olsen's book. One was to bring in his own Golden Age characters, the Newsboy Legion, and have them team up with Jimmy, which of course makes a certain amount of sense, being kid reporters and all. For the first time in this issue, but not the last, Olsen suddenly becomes the de facto leader of a group of misfits.

The second move was to reinterpret Olsen, and the book as a whole, as a stand-in for the countercultural youth movement that even the squarest of Americans were beginning to accept. Now, desperate attempts to make a character "hip" by dressing him differently and having him use modern slang is a long, ignoble tradition in comics, and in some ways, SPJO #133 is no different. But Kirby had a strange and sincere affection for the counterculture of his time--possibly due to the fact that they embraced his comics so warmly--and, interestingly enough, he seemed to understand them on more than a superficial level. What makes this issue immediately interesting is the way Kirby zips back and forth between celebrating the free love era and parodizing it.

Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion (who are actually the children...or possibly clones...of the original WWII-era Legion) hop into their Whiz Wagon at the behest of the shifty Morgan Edge, the new owner of the Daily Planet, to seek out the mysterious "Wild Area", home of "weird motorcycle gangs" and a "dropout society". This inexplicable (even by comic standards) lost land is apparently located...somewhere on the other side of an ocean, yet, as we later see, part of it is under Metropolis. Given the bizarre adventures Jimmy's had over the last three decades, I suppose being saddled with an amphibious, flying car and a gang of 40s-era street urchins and being told to find a lost civilization of biker gangs shouldn't be *that* disorienting, but it's still pretty obvious we're deep in Kirby-land.

Edge's reasoning for sending this gang of minors is that the inhabitants of the Wild Area, to coin a phrase, don't trust anyone over 30. Superman, of course, follows along to look after Jimmy--at least that hasn't changed with Kirby's taking the reins. (I have a theory that Silver Age Superman and his Justice League cohorts were so powerful, and so good at their jobs, that virtually all regular crime vanished from the face of the Earth in the DC Universe of the 50s and 60s, leaving only the crazy supervillains, aliens and mad scientists to cause trouble. The relative scarcity of these types explains why Superman had so much free time to play pranks on people, save Jimmy's butt every time he went charging off into danger, and try to kill Lois Lane. But anyway.)

On arriving in the Wild Area, Jimmy and co. immediately run afoul of a couple of low-rent Doctor Doom lookalikes on motorbikes, named Iron Mask and Vudu. "GO! GO! GO! Vudu! Death is fast! Death is loud! Death is Final!" screams Iron Mask as they charge into battle; the phrase "GO! GO! GO!" makes for perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of Kirby's philosophy one could ask for. Despite apparently being seriously outmatched, Jimmy and his charges make short work of the bikers, and are promptly proclaimed to be the new leaders of their gang, in accordance with the Stereotypical Savages Act of 1932. (Seriously, I love how nakedly Kirby transposes the "lost civilization" tropes onto a story about biker hippies. And the hilarious thing is that it works so perfectly.)

So when Superman arrives, he finds himself facing one hell of a generation gap. The "dropout society" of the Wild Area is one modelled on true anarchy, and here comes Supes, the very symbol of order and patrician authority. "The Establishment", if you will. There's no WAY this is unintentional, even though Kirby, admirably, doesn't belabour the point. Even more interestingly, considering what comes later, Kirby takes Superman's side in this sequence, pitting him against a bloodthirsty gang of militia-types who, believably enough, have used the Wild Area's lawlessness as an excuse to pull a Most Dangerous Game on whoever they can track. ("We dig only our own vigilante group! So--it's like you're doomed!") Superman, of course, makes short work of them, deadpanning, "Sorry, but I CAN'T play your scene!...[That's] something you should dig--but FAST!" Apparently his powers also include super-sarcasm.

Eventually Supes meets up with Jimmy, and here Kirby does something fairly brilliant. We all know that Jimmy attempting to kill Superman, or vice versa, is de rigeur in these things, and indeed, the cover features yet another depiction of Supe and Jimmy's unhealthily abusive relationship. But would it shock you to know that the events depicted on the cover--Jimmy, gleefully commanding his gang to take down Superman--actually happen in the book? And it's not the usual, convoluted explanation of Jimmy being mind-controlled or having amnesia or it being a shapeshifting witch from the future taking his form (that happened, what, every other thursday?) No, while Jimmy apologizes for this particular bit of the ol' ultraviolence a few pages later, the attack was motivated by Jimmy himself, in sound mind and with no real extenuating circumstances--and in fact, Jimmy's latent hostility towards Superman erupts several times throughout the rest of Kirby's run! The King isn't just following the standard tropes of the comic here: he's recasting the antagonism between Superman and Jimmy as the generation gap, the struggle between the counterculture and the establishment, writ large.

Heavy, man.

Superman is knocked out thanks to a convenient Kryptonite gun and wakes up in "Habitat", a jaw-dropping tree-city as only Kirby could render it, whereupon it becomes clear that there's more going on here than a few random biker savages and crazy hippies. No, some advanced force built this place, and Jimmy is determined to get to the bottom of it. But that's for next time...

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