Superman: The Unauthorized Biography
Glen Weldon (Author)
A celebration of Superman's life and history - in time for his 75th birthday. How has the Big Blue Boy Scout stayed so popular for so long? How has he changed with the times, and what essential aspects of him have remained constant? This fascinating biography examines Superman as a cultural phenomenon through 75 years of action-packed adventures, from his early years as a social activist in circus tights to his growth into the internationally renowned demigod he is today.
Hardcover: 352 pages
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SPOILERS AHOY! There are SPOILERS in this article related to the eighth season finale of "Smallville". If you have not as yet seen the finale, titled "Doomsday", this article discusses pivotal changes to the "Smallville" status quo as a result of the finale. You have been duly warned.
For purposes of this article, I will mostly refer to the Jimmy Olsen who appeared on "Smallville" for the past several seasons - as portrayed by actor Aaron Ashmore - as Henry James, which will hopefully clear up more confusion than it causes.
The eighth season finale of "Smallville" raises interesting questions about Jimmy Olsen's relatives. Jimmy Olsen on "Smallville", played for the past several seasons by Aaron Ashmore, died at the hands of Davis Bloome during the finale's climax. The jaws of Superman fans collectively dropped - how do you kill Jimmy Olsen, Superman's pal, before there is a Superman? And what's that the priest said about Jimmy's name being Henry James Olsen? Everyone knows Jimmy Olsen's comic book name is James Bartholomew Olsen.
During Jimmy's funeral scene, a dark-haired man and a young mop-headed, bow-tie wearing boy are shown standing over the casket. As they walk away, a woman approaches the man and puts her arms around him and walks off with them. The little boy turns around to take one last look at the casket.
Chloe notices the young boy and walks over to him. She says that "You must be Jimmy's brother" and gives him Jimmy's camera, suggesting he might one day follow in his brother's footsteps. The implication here is this young boy is destined to be the Jimmy Olsen who ends up as Superman's pal. That would make the man who stood with him at the casket the boys' father and the woman perhaps the boys' mother (though it's entirely possible the woman was simply offering her condolences and was not the Olsen boys' mother). The scene also infers Chloe knew Jimmy, er, Henry, had a younger brother but appeared to be meeting him for the first time which appears to be contrary to what she'd previously been told.
The subtle setup of the young boy as the 'real' Jimmy Olsen placates fans who felt that casting Ashmore as Jimmy made the cub photographer a veritable contemporary of Lois and Clark. At San Diego Comic-Con 2009, the "Smallville" writers acknowledged they decided to kill off Jimmy and establish a new younger-than-Lois-and-Clark Jimmy more in line with the comics, which is still the Superman they hope to end up with when "Smallville" ends. No resurrection is planned for Ashmore's character.
But the retroactive introduction of the real Jimmy Olsen's now deceased older brother Henry James begs two questions. First, did "Smallville" make a major gaffe by including Jimmy's father (and maybe his mother too) when Henry James had previously told Chloe two different conflicting stories about his parents? Second, is there any history in the comics, films, or elsewhere for Jimmy Olsen having any siblings deceased or living?
On "Smallville", very little is known about Jimmy's family history and what is known is seemingly twice-contradicted. When Chloe interned at the Daily Planet, she met Henry James who was also interning there. It's implied she lost her virginity to him (although it's also implied in a fourth season episode - after Chloe's internship - that Chloe, Lana, and Lois were still virgins).
Henry James first joined "Smallville" as the flesh and blood Ashmore in season six premiere, 2006's "Zod". When the audience meets Henry James, he's only referred to as Jimmy or James (though mainly he's the only one who uses James). It seems pretty self-evident that everyone - including Ashmore and the writers - treated Ashmore's character as the genuine Jimmy for most of his run on the show.
When Jimmy first joined the show, some fans complained that Jimmy on "Smallville" - Henry James that is - was too close in age to Lois (Erica Durance) and Clark (Tom Welling). The big-brother relationship between Clark / Superman and Jimmy had always been defined by Jimmy's youth and inexperience next to Lois and Clark. In time, Henry James grew beyond a cub photographer's experiences but he was still years from taking on an official friendship with the costumed Superman. The character evolved into someone very different than the inexperienced Jimmy Olsen that Superman befriends.
The 'out' written into the eighth season finale was to kill Henry James and reveal his name at the funeral as Henry James, creating a what-the-f moment for the comic book fans. A moment later, when Chloe gives Jimmy's little brother the camera, it's clearly implied the young boy is Henry's brother, likely named James Bartholomew Olsen - though never referred to by name.
If I wrote for "Smallville", I would have made the little boy's name Bartholomew James Olsen so that the implication is all the Olsen boys have the same middle name and so a second Jimmy Olsen would seem more natural. Or better yet, I'd have made him Jimmy's cousin or nephew also named Jimmy. It is a bit grisly for one brother to use his dead brother's name when he's working with his dead brother's friends.
Delaying the real Jimmy from being cub photographer age for another few years gives "Smallville" more time to play around with the will-he-flight-and-tight-or-won't-he a little longer as well as giving the show more wiggle room for when Perry White becomes the Daily Planet's Editor in Chief and/or Managing Editor. Perry White met Clark way back in season three's "Perry". When last we saw Mr. White, he was literally on the road to growing into the man who would run the Daily Planet. Michael McKean, the real-life husband of Annette O'Toole, a.k.a. Ma Kent, played Perry in his only "Smallville" appearance to date.
The problem with the cursory treatment of Henry James' family in the funeral scene at the end of season eight's finale, "Doomsday", is that it creates a mystery about who Henry James ever was. Henry James lied at least once to Chloe about his past. Henry James said his father was an investment banker and once claimed to have spent Thanksgiving with his mother. However, Henry James later told Chloe that was a lie. In "Committed", Henry James told Chloe that the truth was his father was an alcoholic mechanic from Oklahoma and that he'd never known his mother. He told Chloe that he recreated his identity to fit into the big city. However, the funeral scene seems to point to a different family for Jimmy entirely than either of the ones he told Chloe about.
So what do we know about this kid Jimmy Olsen who showed up claiming to be Henry James' brother? Not much. We know his brother Henry James is dead. We know his brother used his middle name as his first name. We know Jimmy and Henry James were siblings and that there appeared to be no other brothers or sisters in the Olsen family. We know that their father was most likely the man standing next to little Jimmy at the casket. We know that man was wearing some pretty high-fashion expensive funeral attire one wouldn't normally associate with alcoholic mechanics from Oklahoma.
Did Henry James lie to Chloe twice? Is the Dad at the funeral the n'eer do well described by Henry James? Wouldn't Jimmy have told Chloe about his brother when he told her twice about his family? If not, when did Chloe discover prior to the funeral that Henry James had a little brother?
It's a somewhat clumsy retro-fix to the now-acknowledged-as-a-mistake casting of Ashmore as Superman's future pal, Jimmy Olsen, instead of a young kid. When plot is dictated by casting fixes, you end up with contrivances like this. Think the infamous dream season of nighttime soap opera "Dallas" where actor Patrick Duffy ("The Man from Atlantis") left the show then returned a year later and the season where his character Bobby had died was retroactively made a season-long dream.
So onto the question of whether any other Jimmy Olsen - in comics, radio, film, or TV - has a brother. The idea that Jimmy Olsen has a brother appears to be a new one. Whether Jimmy had a brother or not, poor Jimmy has never had it easy when it came to his family life. Jimmy gets more than a pal in Superman. He gets the first real family Jimmy's ever had in the form of Perry White, Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman.
Jimmy Olsen first appeared on the "Adventures of Superman" radio show on April 15, 1940 during the Jimmy-centric story arc "Donelli's Protection Racket". It was in this first storyline that audiences also met Jimmy's mother, who owned a candy store on Spruce Street. Jimmy's mother also turned up - usually worried over her son's disappearance - during 1946's "The Talking Cat"; 1947's "The Ruler of Darkness"; and 1950's "The Story of Marina Baum". In this last story, Jimmy's mother doesn't approve of the religion of Jimmy's new girlfriend; though she does come around by the end of the story (and just in time for Thanksgiving dinner at the Olsens). Jimmy's Mom is also referred to in other radio show story arcs like "The Hate Mongers Organization" from 1946.
Radio audiences first learned about Jimmy Olsen's late father in the 1948 story arc "The Secret of the Genie". In this arc, it is revealed that Jimmy's father grew up in Pine Valley, Vermont and that Jimmy had an Uncle Lem (his father's brother) who died and left him $10,000. Uncle Lem's nephew on his mother's side is Abner Quinn who appears not to be legally related to Jimmy. In addition to Uncle Lem, there have been a handful of references to Jimmy's family relations other than his parents (excluding future related Olsen descendants like the Earth-1 Superwoman), but none of them have included a brother or sister.
First up there's Jimmy's Aunt Louisa. Aunt Louisa, played by actress Effie Laird (in an uncredited role), appears in the second episode of TV's "Adventures of Superman" starring George Reeves. On this show, of course, actor Jack Larson played Jimmy Olsen. The episode, "The Haunted Lighthouse", is one of the darkest in tone and more adult episodes of the series. In the episode, Jimmy visits his Aunt Louisa on her island home and discovers a smuggling ring.
"The Haunted Lighthouse" is adapted from the "Lighthouse Point Smugglers" story arc from the "Adventures of Superman Radio Show". The July 22, 1940 to August 2, 1940 story arc introduced Aunt Louisa and gave her the surname Horn. Aunt Louisa's nephew, Christopher Horn, is also referred to in the radio story but, given that Horn is Aunt Louisa's married name, it appears Christopher Horn is related on Aunt Louisa's dead husband's side, and thus not related to Jimmy.
Then there's the first relative of Jimmy's introduced in the comics other than his parents - his cousin Jerry Olsen. Jerry is a successful rock and roll singer. He appears once in 1958's "The Rock-and-Roll Superman" from Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #32.
Then there are the two Jimmy relatives who hail from the Chris Reeve film franchise's continuity. In 1983's "Superman III", Jimmy talks about his Aunt Ellen and Uncle Al (though neither are seen). While riding a bus to Smallville, Jimmy (actor Marc McClure, who played Jimmy in the "Superman" movies starring Chris Reeve, and "Supergirl") regales Clark with family stories. He's droning on about his father's half-sister Aunt Ellen whose stuffing his Uncle Al won't eat. Before Jimmy can share more family information, he and Clark are detoured from their trip when a large chemical plant goes up in flames.
Jimmy Olsen made the trip from radio to comic books in 1941's Superman #13. In the comic books, there have been a few retellings of Jimmy Olsen's family history. None of those retellings specifically involved Jimmy having any siblings but it's also never said he doesn't have a sibling - with one multiple Earth exception.
The Golden Age Superman who first appeared in Action Comics #1 and fought World War II as a member of the Justice Society and All-Star Squadron met his Jimmy Olsen when Jimmy was the Daily Planet's office boy. The Earth-2 Jimmy grew up and ultimately ran the Daily Planet. In Superman Family #186 (1977), the Earth-2 Jimmy Olsen has an incurable illness that requires a genetically compatible donor. The Golden Age Superman of Earth-2 travels to Earth-1 to borrow the Earth-1 Jimmy Olsen who is essentially a genetic twin of the Earth-2 Jimmy Olsen. As Kal-L, the Earth-2 Superman, first consults with the doctors monitoring Earth-2 Jimmy's condition, one of the doctors reminds Superman that Jimmy is an "only child". Jimmy Olsen on Earth-2 had no brothers or sisters.
We know by the existence of characters on Earth-2 who never appeared on Earth-1 prior to the first Crisis on Infinite Earths, that there have often been significant variations between the two Earths. For instance, entirely different people are Green Lantern and Flash on Earths-1 and -2, respectively. In addition, Clark Kent's parents were completely different people on Earth-2 (Sara and Eben Kent) than the people they were on Earth-1 (Martha and Jonathan). Jimmy on Earth-1 isn't necessarily an only child just because the Earth-2 Jimmy is an only child. Nonetheless, it's certainly compelling evidence toward that conclusion.
On pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Earth-1, Jimmy Olsen was declared an orphan in the first issue of Superman Family, issue 164, from 1974. The Superman Family title had continued the numbering of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. The first comic book appearance of Jimmy's parents-Doctor Mark Olsen, an archaeologist, and his wife‹takes place in "The Wizard City", from Adventure Comics # 216 (1955). In this story and 1959's Superman #131, Jimmy was a toddler, and Superman was still Superboy.
In 1958's "The Son of Superman", from Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #30, it's stated that Jimmy is an orphan though there are no details about what happened to his parents. However, in 1964's Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #75 story "The Mystery of Convict 313", readers are told Jimmy's parents died in a train wreck when he was about 10 years old. The story also has Jimmy explain that, after the wreck, he was raised by relatives though this is contradicted by "No Father for Jimmy" from 1970's Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #128 where it's stated that 10-year old Jimmy was taken in by a couple who moved to a remote mountain area.
Jimmy is reunited with his presumed dead but actually long-missing father in 1970's Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #128's "No Father for Jimmy". Jimmy finds out in Superman Family #164 that his Dad, Mark, has built a refuge for troubled youth called "Olsentown". When Mark Olsen tells his son about it, he says "It's my way of making it up to you, son! When I disappeared during your childhood, you were raised as an orphan ... without a home. So helping these boys is the least I can do!" Does this mean Jimmy had no siblings?
The definition of an orphan is a child who has been separated from or lost both parents through death, disappearance, abandonment, or desertion. This means someone can be an orphan and have siblings. However, I've not found any reference to Jimmy either having or not having siblings in Earth-1 continuity.
During the "Man of Steel" years, Jimmy's parents are mother Sarah Olsen and father James Jacob Olsen. Jimmy's father, also known as Jake Olsen, is an M.I.A. soldier lost in Southeast Asia by the time we meet Jimmy. It's revealed later that Jimmy's Dad may have been involved in Project Cadmus.
Post-Crisis readers meet Jimmy Olsen's Mom, Sarah Olsen, in Superman (2d vol.) #15 though her chronological first appearance takes place in The World of Metropolis #4 which examines Jimmy's background. Clark meets Jimmy's mother in 1988's Superman (2d vol.) #17. There is no mention of Jimmy having any siblings during this time. In World of Metropolis, there's a brief never-mentioned-or-seen-again reference to Jimmy's aunt and uncle, Lynn and Fred. Sarah Olsen only appears in the chronicles a handful of times.
Around this same time, Jimmy Olsen's father shows up on ABC's 1992-97 series "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman". Jimmy's father is a spy and he comes back into Jimmy's life in 1996 season three episode "The Dad Who Came in From the Cold". On "Lois & Clark", Jimmy's Dad is named Jack Olsen (played by James Read). Jimmy's unnamed mother on "L&C" is, according to Jimmy in the second season premiere "Madame Ex", overweight and allergic to chocolate. She also has a birthday coming up and Jimmy wants to get a book by the ex-Mrs. Lex autographed for her.
In the Countdown to Final Crisis crossover issue Superman (2d vol.) #665, writer Kurt Busiek looks at Jimmy Olsen's roots. In Busiek's "The Superman Family - Jimmy: A Countdown Dossier Special", Jimmy Olsen is an orphan after his parents disappear. It's inferred that Jimmy's Mom ended up in Gorilla City in Africa. Jimmy's father placed Jimmy in the care of an elderly woman but she was later murdered by The Ten for protection money leaving Jimmy on his own. Jimmy eventually meets Clark and Perry and, by story's end, gets a job at the Daily Planet. Unfortunately for Busiek and Jimmy Olsen, this story's continued relevance is highly questionable.
While Jimmy's past was being revisited in the main Superman book, DC was already in the process of reframing Superman continuity for 2009 and beyond. Jimmy was a major player in Countdown to Final Crisis. As part of that storyline, DC had Jimmy developing super powers, becoming the heroic costumed hero Mr. Action, discovering that Clark Kent is Superman, and fighting Darkseid while encased in meta-turtle armor.
Due to virtually resounding negative fan reaction, DC has quietly distanced itself from Jimmy's involvement in Countdown. It has been universally ignored by writers of the main Superman titles that Jimmy ever knew Clark's secret. No DC writers have followed up on any of the things Jimmy allegedly did during Countdown. That likely makes this Jimmy Olsen crossover story non-canonical.
DC is continuing to redefine Superman's new status quo both in the current Superman books and in the upcoming Superman: Secret Origin miniseries. Jimmy Olsen in the comics is currently a cub (reporter) without a tale. His background and family history have yet to be explored.
"Smallville" isn't necessarily inconsistent with the comic books in giving Jimmy Olsen a deceased older brother who used to work at the Daily Planet. The current comic book Jimmy's family history is a Tabula Rasa. Older incarnations of Superman's pal have surprisingly left much of Jimmy's family tree unexplored. In terms of family, Jimmy's friendship with Superman seems to be a surrogate substitute for an absent father. But, with the exception of Earth-2 continuity, that doesn't mean Jimmy didn't have or couldn't have had a brother or sister. With "Smallville" about to enter its ninth season, it remains to be seen if the 'real' Jimmy Olsen (i.e., Henry James's little brother) will appear again or if the conflicting Olsen family histories will ever be reconciled.
[Special thanks to James Lantz, who reviews the Superman radio show on Superman Homepage; and to Steve Younis, for his research assistance.]