It’s a weird time right now, folks. Which makes it an absolutely perfect month for me to write about Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.
Don’t get me wrong. I thought long and hard about focusing on Superman again this month because he stands for exactly the sort of thing people are looking for right now—hope. But the truth is, I think all of you know that already. You certainly don’t need me to write about it. But what you may not realize—at least, if you’re not reading the series—is how well suited Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber’s utterly kooky Jimmy Olsen title is for our times.
Much has been made about how the book adapts the original Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen’s Silver Age shenanigans for the modern day, and that’s true. But to say that’s all the book is doing is to do it a disservice. The current Jimmy Olsen has its finger on today’s pulse, even if its star character looks and sometimes acts like he belongs in a 1950s sitcom. That’s particularly clear in this month’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #9, from the very beginning of the issue.
Jimmy’s story is told through vignettes in Fraction and Lieber’s comic, but this is the first time they’ve ever taken the form of a Peanuts-like comic strip. Peanuts debuted in 1950 and is about as sweetly nostalgic as pop culture gets these days. Yet, Fraction and Lieber are using it as a template to tell a very of-the-moment joke about capitalism while also giving us a clear sense of the dynamic within the Olsen family.
Jimmy Olsen gets really ridiculous, but there are some pretty insightful points being made underneath it all. And in issue #9, one of those points is made by none other than Floyd Belkin. Otherwise known as… Arm-Fall-Off Boy.
It’s hard to think of a DC character more ridiculous than Arm-Fall-Off Boy. This is a character whose entire raison d’être is to serve as a Legion of Super-Heroes reject—someone with an utterly useless power who doesn’t seem to be aware of its pointlessness. And as if Floyd wasn’t already nutty enough, Fraction and Lieber have placed him in a faux-inspirational story about overcoming his inability to ride roller coasters…and they’ve introduced his family. (If Butt-Fall-Off Geema Deb-Deb doesn’t get her own series of backup comics, I’m going to be so very disappointed.) Yet, this whole sequence actually moves Jimmy’s story forward, by revealing how the stress he’s under is starting to impact his work. Perhaps more importantly, though, it suggests that for as much as we love inspirational stories, we’ve taken ones about human persistence and overcoming obstacles well past the point of stupidity.
Jimmy’s framing it as a human tragedy that Arm-Fall-Off Boy can’t ride the roller coasters at a mediocre theme park. However, considering all the stuff happening in the world right now, that’s no one’s definition of a tragedy and it’s not even an interesting human interest story. In fact, this is essentially what Perry White (with some help from I.T. Mike) tells Jimmy exactly one page later.
I mean, I love that Perry makes the “fall-off-butts” reference, but he’s actually saying something pretty damning about the state of modern journalism. The only videos that Jimmy produces that people want to see are the ones where he almost kills himself. It’s hardly anything surprising to say that in the age of 24-hour-news cycles and every outlet fighting for clicks that news has become more sensationalized. The more shocking, bizarre or frightening a story, the better it does, and when every day is a battle for relevance and profitability, it tracks that news outlets would try to make as many of their stories as sensational as possible. But that doesn’t mean it’s right, which ultimately paints a pretty bleak picture for the state of modern news—something alluded to in Perry’s final line on the page.
One of the best things about Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is how casually the series goes around making points like these. It’s not obvious and in-your-face about its messages, but richer meaning can be found in nearly every sequence if you care to look for it. Considering how many sequences each issue contains, that’s saying a lot. (I haven’t even touched on issue #9’s brilliant spy movie satire, uplifting Porcadillo moments and shocking final revelation.) Best of all, it does all this while not losing sight of the person at its center. This is still Jimmy’s story and after nine issues, we’re all invested in seeing how he’s going to get himself out of this mess he’s in and how much crazier things will get before he does.
Which brings me back to my initial point. As I said at the start, it’s a weird and pretty scary time in the world right now, and none of this is to in any way make light of that. But if we look to our entertainment for inspiration, I think it’s worth pointing out that things have been weird and pretty scary for Jimmy Olsen since issue #1. Through curveball after curveball, he’s kept on going, trying to make the best out of the disturbing situation he’s found himself in for months now. For the most part, he’s done all this without any help from his pal Superman or any other super-powered individual—Jimmy’s largely had to rely on himself and his family. He’s had some stumbles, just like anyone would, but when he’s fallen, he’s gotten back up.
I think it’s a welcome and surprisingly relevant message right now. Our challenges at the moment may be far different from the pretty silly ones that Jimmy faces, but that doesn’t mean we can’t face them the same way. If Jimmy can survive being turned into a lizard, getting run out of Gotham by Batman and finding himself the target of spurned alien royalty, maybe we can get through what we’re facing as well. And even better, I’m pretty sure we can do it without any of our butts falling off!
Tim Beedle covers movies, TV and comics for DCComics.com, writes our monthly Superman column, "Super Here For...", and is a regular contributor to the Couch Club, our weekly television column. Look for him on Twitter at @Tim_Beedle.