Superman Comic Books
Jack Kirby, Jimmy Olsen, and the Silver Age SupermanBy T. Kyle King
Virtually every fan of superhero comics is familiar with the Silver Age, and the vast majority of readers have strong opinions about that innovative and often wacky era. After the Comics Code Authority was established in 1954 to respond to Fredric Wertham's assault on the excesses of crime, horror, and romance comics, superheroes experienced a resurgence in print, beginning with the introduction of the new Flash in 1956 and blooming with the dawn of the Marvel Age in 1961.
Deserved praise for the Silver Age was offered by Brian Cronin, who recognized that, by limiting artistic options, the Code compelled creativity, much as budgetary restrictions demand cleverness from filmmakers. Cronin correctly credits comics creators for "the crazy inventiveness that went into these comics when it was necessary to give the superheroes busy work when they couldn't be shown fighting violent super criminals instead." Nowhere was that Silver Age sensibility more evident than in the pages of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
The redheaded young reporter debuted, then flourished, in other media outside of comic books, initially appearing in the Adventures of Superman radio program in 1940 and attaining greater popularity when played by actor Jack Larson on the 1950s television show of the same name. The character's on-screen success prompted DC Comics to give Olsen his own title beginning in 1954, the year U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency prompted publishers to create a self-policing content code. The series ran for 163 issues over almost 20 years.
Initially shackled by the need to follow the lead of the low-budget Superman television production, DC was able to unleash the creators of its comics involving the Man of Steel after the live-action series went off the air in 1958. Within the strictures of the Code, ingenuity and inspiration were given freer rein under the guiding hand of editor Mort Weisinger, and, as Glen Weldon approvingly observed, "writers and artists embraced what they were doing with an unself-conscious and profoundly imaginative glee."
The Silver Age then began truly to come into its own for the Last Son of Krypton, with Jimmy Olsen being among the biggest beneficiaries of this blossoming. ComicsAlliance's Chris Sims stated the case plainly when he wrote: "In a lot of ways, Jimmy Olsen is the Silver Age, all of its excesses and strange rules and metaphors and inspirations brought together in a perfect snapshot of the time." Consequently, Sims dates the end of the Silver Age from the start of Jack Kirby's run as writer and penciller for Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen in October 1970.
That demarcation, however, represents less an alteration of the destination than an adjustment to the direction by which it was approached. As Sims himself admits, the new author/artist's takeover of the title didn't mean the stories "were any less crazy - just that they were crazy in an entirely different way." Moreover, though Kirby used Jimmy Olsen as a vehicle for introducing new ideas by making Superman's Pal the starting point for the Fourth World saga, he began by reviving old ideas, bringing back the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian from the Star-Spangled Comics of the 1940s.
At the dawn of the Bronze Age, therefore, Kirby reworked familiar totems to make them weighty rather than whimsical, sublime instead of silly, and epic as well as absurd. The loopiness was retained yet imbued with a mythological dimension. For instance, Superman's 1968 comic book crossover with Jerry Lewis intrinsically is of a piece with Don Rickles's Jimmy Olsen cameo three years later, with the former depicting slapstick hijinks involving the blue suit and the latter playing for laughs the insult comedian's overreaction to otherworldly events.
By the same token, it is not difficult to see the airy "balloon beasts" of the futuristic Action Comics #300 made more substantial, both literally and metaphorically, in the form of Transilvane, whereas Kirby's adolescent super-race of "Hairies" capped off with high-tech hippies DC's decade-long progression through '60s youth culture, which previously had seen the Man of Steel tangling with tough teens in 1962's Superman #151 and Jimmy Olsen famously bringing Beatlemania to Old Testament Judea in Superman's Pal #79.
The cover of Kirby's fourth issue of Superman's Pal depicted a giant green Jimmy Olsen in a novel twist on the shopworn tradition of transformations by the redheaded reporter that previously had seen him turned into a giant green turtle man. Accordingly, the reader chuckles knowingly, but is not fooled, when, in that selfsame edition of his title, Jimmy tells Superman, "I'm just not ready to come face to face with campy bug-eyed monsters!"
Thus, in many respects, the Bronze Age was merely the continuation of the Silver Age by other means; had DC intended to authorize a wholesale overhaul, after all, the publisher wouldn't have commissioned Murphy Anderson and Al Plastino to re-draw Superman's face in Jimmy Olsen using the accepted house style. Unsurprisingly, the final issue of Kirby's brief run on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen "proved to be a refreshing combination of both the old and new Olsen styles".
Kirby managed to bridge this gap between eras by bringing to superheroes a sensibility from other, more serious comic book genres. With collaborator Joe Simon, Kirby had created the romance comics concept and formed Mainline Publications, which produced the Western and war comics Bullseye and Foxhole, respectively. As Kirby confessed in his first issue of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, his background included stints generating My Date for teenagers, turning out Justice Traps the Guilty for crime readers, and "dabbl[ing] in witchcraft with Black Magic."
Perhaps most notably, the giant monster stories Kirby had been drawing for Tales of Suspense were imported into the superhero arena through 1961's Fantastic Four. Accustomed already to offering audiences more mature material in other comic genres, Kirby was able to add sophisticated layers underneath Silver Age superficiality, figuratively building new spires extending skyward by fortifying the existing foundations below the surface as he erected the Wild Area, Habitat, and the Zoomway in the vicinity of familiar Metropolis.
Nevertheless, Kirby was influenced by more than just his experience in different types of comic books, and there likewise was more to the Superman family bequeathed to Kirby in the aftermath of Weisinger's guidance than only obligatory oddness. In addition to the studied strangeness of stories by Otto Binder (who launched Jimmy Olsen's solo title), Weisinger's editorial oversight also provided "Brainiac, Bizarro, the full terror of kryptonite, [and] a gorgeous sprawl of Superman mythology" including the "survivor's guilt" that confirms author Larry Tye's observation that, "[w]hen a name ends in 'man,' the bearer is Jewish, a superhero or both."
That Binder, Weisinger, and Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, then recently returned to DC from the industry equivalent of exile, were ethnically Jewish is no coincidence; as noted by such observers as Danny Fingeroth and Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, the response of worldwide Jewry to postwar revelations about the extent of the Holocaust's horrors profoundly affected the Last Son of Krypton. Kal-El's status as the final survivor of his people formed the basis for such stories as Superman #141's "Superman's Return to Krypton" and the mythology-enriching and tragedy-deepening introduction of the bottle city of Kandor, confirming that the Silver Age already was delivering gravitas and pathos well before Kirby joined the DC masthead.
Kirby, too, was Jewish, though he had his name legally changed from Jacob Kurtzberg after using Anglicized pseudonyms from an early age. As importantly, he also was a World War II veteran, having drawn the dangerous duty of serving as an advance army scout sent ahead of his fellow soldiers to draw reconnaissance maps for use by the troops who came in behind him (many of whom read comic books as easily portable distractions while wearing olive drab overseas). This experience likely made much more of an impression on Kirby than did the military service of such fellow comic book professionals as Weisinger, whose wartime years were spent stateside writing scripts for army radio programs.
Hence, Kirby's background gave him the same cultural heritage on which Binder, Siegel, and Weisinger drew at their best, while his harder-edged experiences in uniform and in non-superhero genres enabled him to perform the delicate balancing act of staying true to the bigness and boldness of Silver Age ideas while deepening and enriching their symbolic significance. Maintaining that equilibrium was a daunting task, which since Kirby's day has seldom been sustained for any duration longer than the time it took for Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman to finish its publication run.
Unfortunately, after Kirby, the pendulum he held in harmony swung too wildly in the opposite direction following its release from Silver Age campiness and constraints. Brutality and vulgarity became cheap narrative shortcuts for faking adult-oriented and edgy storytelling, prompting such necessarily Superman-centric rebuttals as Alex Ross's and Mark Waid's Kingdom Come and Action Comics #775's "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?"
There are welcome signs, though, of a return to more suitably Silver Age-style storytelling. One of the defining conceits of the Silver Age, the so-called "imaginary story", has undergone a revival of sorts in such non-continuity books as the recent (albeit sadly short-lived) Adventures of Superman, which featured lighthearted tales in which Clark Kent served as a babysitter and Superman overheard two boys playing at being a superhero and a supervillain.
This departure from the confines of continuity allows artists the breathing room that produced the best work of the Silver Age, enabling creators to get superheroes and their supporting cast down to their essentials. Morrison expressly undertook this precise objective in All-Star Superman, and the best Adventures of Superman tales used this approach to turn offbeat stories into lessons about quintessence, as evidenced by Jeff Lemire's "Fortress" and Josh Elder's "Dear Superman".
For all the stylistic differences between the Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages of Comic Books, then, the Superman family of titles retains a distinctive thread that runs throughout. Whether Jerry Siegel is sending Kal-El back to Krypton to deepen the sadness of the coming cataclysm, Jack Kirby is using Jimmy Olsen to launch a fundamental explication of the nature of good and evil, or Grant Morrison is revealing Superman's basic nature by examining the last days of the Man of Steel, the building blocks still stay the same, and there remains room enough for wild inventiveness to coexist with poignant profundity. By remembering the first principles of the Last Son of Krypton, comics creators can continue mining the most precious metals of every animated age.
T. Kyle King