And we take you now to scenic Hoover Dam, where perpetual cub reporter Jimmy Olsen is taking photographs of Hoover Dam, which you’d figure has already been pretty comprehensively photographed. It’s not much of a scoop, for a young man trying to make his way in the photojournalism racket, but he got a free airplane ride, and it’s just nice to get out in the fresh air.
Storywise, there isn’t a lot of justification for depositing Jimmy on top of this particular explodable landmark, but this is the part of the movie where they want to get as many peril monkeys on the board as they can. We’ve also got Lois having a scenic conversation with a scenic Native American gentleman, en route to the explodable gas station.
The real question is why we even have a Jimmy Olsen in this movie in the first place, if he’s not going to be involved in the plot in any way. This question also applies to Superman II, Superman III, Supergirl and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In fact, Jimmy Olsen is the only character to appear in all five of the Salkind Superman films, and he doesn’t have a single discernible plot point in any of them.
This goes back to Siegel and Shuster’s basic disinterest in cultivating a supporting cast for Superman. In June 1938, they created the unbeatable combination of Clark Kent and Lois Lane for Action Comics #1, and after that, they figured they could get by with a revolving door of racketeers and mad scientists.
It was the 1940 radio show that generated the rest of the cast, because they had twelve minutes of radio time a day to fill up, and Clark needed people to talk to. In the second episode, the show introduced the grouchy and crusading editor-in-chief Perry White, and two months later, in April 1940, they introduced Jimmy Olsen.
Jimmy was a fourteen-year-old copy boy, who asked Clark for help when Jimmy’s mother, who owned a candy store, was being hassled by thugs for protection money. As Superman, Clark cleaned up the protection racket and put them out of business, earning Jimmy’s lifelong admiration and friendship.
The three steps to getting the audience to like a new character is to make a joke, make a friend, and make a plot point happen, and Jimmy scored right away. It was really his friendship with Clark that made him stand out — Clark and Lois’ relationship was still fairly distant at that point, but Jimmy and Clark fell into a natural uncle-nephew relationship that made both characters more appealing.
As soon as the protection racket story finished, Jimmy jumped straight into another adventure with Clark, tagging along on a trip to investigate a series of mysterious airline crashes. Their plane was sabotaged and the pilot knocked unconcious while they were flying to the airfield, and Jimmy got to fly the plane for a minute — an obvious moment of wish-fulfillment for the kids at home. They reached the height of 1940s juvenile wish-fulfillment later on in the year, when Jimmy went on a cowboy adventure and got adopted as a member of the Comanche tribe. The kid was unstoppable.
Jimmy was introduced in the comic books at the end of 1941 in Superman #13, but the tone of the comic book was much different, and the character didn’t fit in very well.
The radio show used a lot of kid-friendly adventure story material — cowboys, deserted islands and treasure hunts — with lots of time for friendly conversations with Jimmy. But the Superman comics in the early 40s were more frantic and frightening, and mostly involved Superman crashing through walls, punching people and running away, as gangsters shot at him with machine guns.
They knew that Jimmy was popular on the radio show, so they tried to include him in a few stories, but the comic was just too violent for a fourteen-year-old character to participate in. The above panel is from a 1944 issue of World’s Finest, and Jimmy’s only contribution to the story is to bandage a reporter’s arm when he gets shot by a sniper through the window of his Daily Planet office.
After that, the character basically disappeared from the comics completely. He was still an important character on the radio show up through 1949, but as far as the comics were concerned, he didn’t exist.
It was actually the 1952 TV show that turned Jimmy Olsen into a permanent member of the Superman cast. As with the radio show, the TV show needed a set number of main characters that the audience could focus on, and it was helpful to have a young character that the kids could identify with. So they carried over the four main characters from the radio show, and they cast Jack Larson as Jimmy, a good-looking kid with a permanent goofy grin.
The TV version of Jimmy was essentially the opposite of his radio characterization. On the radio, Jimmy was a precocious kid, but on TV, he was a young adult ding-dong — a comic-relief archetype who catches on slow, and has a childlike view of the world. Jimmy was a good all-purpose sidekick: he could tag along with Clark on adventures, or participate in Lois’ schemes to unmask Superman. He could also be relied on to ask the right questions, so that another character could explain a plot point to the slower-thinking members of the audience.
Now, I’m going to go ahead and admit that I have never been able to work up a lot of interest in the Superman TV show. I never saw it when I was a kid, but I’ve been watching it on and off as I’ve been working on the blog, and it just doesn’t make an impression on me, one way or the other. The only thing that sticks with me is that Jimmy is cute. It seems like he should be annoying, as ding-dong characters often are, but he’s like a little puppy, and he’s fun to watch.
And that’s what brought Jimmy Olsen back to the comics, this time for keeps. In the 1940s, the radio show and the comic books were completely separate; the people working on them had no meaningful contact with each other. But the TV show was produced by Whitney Ellsworth, an editorial director from DC Comics, and the two versions were much more in synch. It was clear that Jimmy was popular during the TV show’s first season, and they gave him a bigger role in season 2 — and a bigger role in the comics, at the same time.
Jimmy was reintroduced in the comics in a January 1954 story in Superman #86, “Jimmy Olsen… Editor!” In the story, it’s “Boys’ Day” in Metropolis, and kids are allowed to take over important positions for the day: a boy mayor, a boy police chief… and Jimmy Olsen is the boy editor-in-chief at the Daily Planet, where he manages to solve the biggest mystery in Metropolis. This was produced to tie in with a TV episode called “Jimmy Olsen, Boy Editor”, which aired in February 1954.
And by September 1954, Jimmy was popular enough to get his own comic spinoff, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. This was a character who hadn’t been in the comic at all for ten years, and all of a sudden, he was more popular than Lois Lane, who didn’t get her own spinoff book until 1958.
The reason why this worked is that Superman’s Pal brought Jimmy Olsen back to his wish-fulfillment roots, and made him even more of a reader’s fantasy figure. In the radio show, Jimmy was Clark Kent’s sidekick, which meant that he got to participate in lots of exciting adventures… but in the new comic, Jimmy was actually Superman’s best friend, which is much cooler.
The above panel from issue #2 says it all. The narrator says that “cub reporter Jimmy Olsen often gets fresh proof that he is Superman’s pal”, and we see Superman personally delivering a twisted-up handgun directly to Jimmy’s desk at the Planet, for Jimmy to add to his obsessive Superman souvenir collection.
And even more exciting than that, Jimmy also had a secret Superman signal watch that he could use whenever he was in trouble, which transmitted an ultrasonic sound that only Superman could hear. So he was free to be as reckless as he wanted, knowing that an extraterrestrial space angel would show up whenever he needed a favor.
It got weird after a while, obviously, because everything got weird in the Silver Age, and Superman’s Pal became known for temporarily transforming Jimmy in dozens of odd ways — he became a giant turtle man, a wolfman, a human porcupine, a human octopus, a human flamethrower, a human Geiger counter, and a cosmic brain of the future. There was old Jimmy, and fat Jimmy, and invisible Jimmy, and super-speed Jimmy. Sometimes he was a stretchy superhero who called himself Elastic Lad, who became an honorary member of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the far future, and sometimes he went into the bottle city of Kandor with Superman to become a caped crusader team called Nightwing and Flamebird.
As peculiar as all of that became, it’s remarkable that they kept finding new things for Jimmy Olsen to do. The book ran for 163 issues, finally wrapping up in March 1974, and even then, they continued doing Jimmy stories in the Superman Family title.
So that’s why we’ve got this weird kid who pops up occasionally in Superman: The Movie to do something cute. He actually gets more screen time than he was originally supposed to; he hardly has any lines in the shooting script, outside of “Gosh, Miss Lane, how do you get all the great stories?” and “It’s over! You did it, Superman!” I think Donner recognized that Marc McClure was adorable, and gave him more stuff to do.
But as cute as he is, the Jimmy Olsen of Superman: The Movie is clearly diminished. He’s not a sidekick, and he doesn’t have a signal watch. He’s not even one of the major comic relief characters. This is a vestigial Jimmy Olsen, who appears on the screen purely because people expected him to be in the movie somewhere.
And now he’s stranded on the Hoover Dam, taking pictures of things that don’t need their pictures taken, waiting for a calamity to strike. It’s not much, compared to what he once was, but at least it’s something. Jimmy Olsen endures.
Donner and the Salkinds
take the fight to Warner Bros…
While I’m here, I’d like to put in a good word for Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen?, a 12-issue series by Matt Fraction published in 2020 that is beautiful and inventive and hilarious. It is by far the best comic that I read this year, and it made me love Jimmy Olsen even more than I already did.
Donner and the Salkinds
take the fight to Warner Bros…
— Danny Horn