Superman 1.83: Superman’s Pal

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.

Tomorrow:
Donner and the Salkinds
take the fight to Warner Bros…
1.84: Overtime


Footnote:

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.

Tomorrow:
Donner and the Salkinds
take the fight to Warner Bros…
1.84: Overtime

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

20 thoughts on “Superman 1.83: Superman’s Pal

    1. Considering how reckless people like Lois and Jimmy got it’s amazing they’re still alive. At least Lois was a grown woman, but Jimmy should be a freshman in high school! The biggest mystery never solved in Superman World was why the truant officer or Child Welfare never showed up.

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  1. I believe this is what the young people call a “shout out.” A certain segment of fans expects to see Olsen, so they get a brief look at Olsen. With all the reboots and remakes these days, you can probably think of a few characters who got carried over from the original but don’t seem to serve any purpose.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The Superman tv show characters have largely stuck in my mind. I think it helped to start watching at age 5 and also that there were only 3 stations on tv!
    Thanks for answering my question about the influence the tv show had on the comics. The comics seem to have been a bit slow in adapting the radio show components but they got there eventually. The writer of the radio show is George Putnam Ludlam. He does not have a Wikipedia page and I haven’t found anything else about him.

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    1. Yeah, when I saw your question the other day about the TV show’s influence, I knew that you were going to get an answer soon. 🙂 The radio show was on for eleven years, so there were a lot of writers that contributed. One of them was George Lowther, who does have a Wikipedia page.

      For folks who are interested in the radio show and TV show, there’s a fantastic book called Flights of Fantasy: The Unauthorized But True Story of Radio & TV’s Adventures of Superman by Michael J. Hayde. It’s very well researched, and tells the whole story of how the shows developed.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Toward the end of the Superman TV series, we’re told that Jimmy Olsen is 22. If time passed normally in the TV Super-verse, that would mean Olsen was 16 in Season 1.

    IRL, Jack Larson aged from 24 to 30 during the series’ run.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fun fact: In “Lois and Clark” in the 1990s, there was an episode where Jimmy was rapidly aged to an old man by a mad scientist. Jack Larson played the aged Jimmy.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I watched The Adventures of Superman every afternoon when I came home from Kindergarten, so the opening notes of the main title still give me a thrill. When I started reading comics a couple years later, the contrast with the show made me a DC fan. Budgetary and technical restraints of the period confined George Reeves’ Superman to a fairly modest range of suit-wearing antagonists, but a comic book page has an unlimited special-effects budget, and so even the 1970s Superman titles blew my mind.

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  5. I caught reruns of the Superman TV show in the late 70’s after school. Some channels also showed reruns on Saturday morning. The more I watched it, the more I loved it. I especially recall one ep with Jack Larson in a swimsuit – something about him finding a note in a bottle. My gaydar went off the charts — Jack Larson was a dreamboat.

    There’s also at least one episode where Superman is carrying Jimmy Olsen while flying, and Jim has his arms around Superman’s neck, and they are looking at each other and smiling. The erotic undertones were leaping off the small screen.

    To later learn that Jack Larson was himself gay, and openly so, was just icing on the cake.
    Young Jack Larson was definitely cute in every sense of the word. His life partner was one very lucky man!

    The greatest part of the Superman TV show reruns was any scene with a shirtless JImmy with that wonderful tuft of chest hair between his pecs. I watched the show because I was crushing on Jack Larson…

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    1. And don’t forget “Panic in the Sky,” when Superman is walloped by colliding with the non-kryptonite asteroid headed for Earth. He loses his memory, but finds his Clark clothes and ID. He has the shower scene (shot from neck up, so you see no bare chest or even shoulders), a woozy Clark passes out. Cut to next scene–Clark in pajamas, in bed, and Jimmy telling Lois how he had found him, out cold, and how amazing it was that Clark fell through the glass shower door without getting a single scratch. But raising the mental image of Jimmy finding the naked, unconscious Clark, and getting him into pajamas and bed.

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  6. Jimmy Olsen is the jack of all trades character, a kind of Phantom Zone morphed into a bow tie wearing puppy person. He’s a teenager with a job who never has to go to school (lucky duck!) and hangs out with, and is listened to by, adults in charge of the business he works in. It’s wish fulfillment for kids from seven to seventy, all right.

    At the same time, he has no apparent home or romantic life, at all, so he’s there to be the X character for any random story at any time. He’s been kidnapped, dangled over high places, perched on the edge of volcanos, and turned into a giant turtle person in a Speedo. Nobody ever says say, isn’t everybody at the Daily Planet and Superman in particular horribly negligent and even abusive in not doing anything towards getting this kid in school or having any friends? Does he even get paid?

    But it doesn’t matter. Jimmy isn’t a person. He’s an avatar, a golly-gee suit to be donned by any reader or viewer so they can go along for the ride.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “At the same time, he has no apparent home or romantic life…” There was an attempt to set him up with Lois Lane’s blonde sister, Lucy, but that never really went anywhere. I seem to recall that his father was some sort of an explorer…or maybe that was Lana Lang’s father?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I seem to remember an episode that began with Jimmy’s mother phoning Clark Kent because Jimmy’s not home yet and it’s getting dark. But that was in the first season, and the backstory hadn’t been set yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks! My library has it so that’s helpful.
    I was wondering if Ludlam wrote every episode. He’s mentioned on various sites as creator of Perry White, Kryptonite, and Jimmy Olsen. No personal info. I’m looking forward to finding out more.

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  8. “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”

    Sounds like he was just an ordinary kid with a rich fantasy life… the Secret Life of Jimmy Olsen…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The movie serial was the first to age Jimmy and turn him into a photographer who often accompanied Lois on assignments. The TV show kept Jimmy as a photog, but presented him as younger. The second episode of the show, “The Haunted Lighthouse,” the first after the origin story episode, was Jimmy-centric, and a lot like a Hardy Boys mystery–except Jimmy as alone till he called Clark for help.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The biggest problem with the Superman TV show is that the Superman radio show and the Batman TV show both exist, and they’re both delightful.

    The Superman radio show is 11 minutes plus ads of pure conversation-based thrills. By the time it gets going, it’s over and you move on to the next one. It’s addictive and delicious, like an entire bag of pretzels.

    Batman is one of the most audacious things ever to air on network TV – those bold colors look great, the main cast strikes the perfect tone of “This is silly, but we’re having so much fun pretending it all matters,” the guest stars are genuinely impressive.

    Superman the TV show is just kind of a weak substitute for either of those things, so it never made much of an impression on me.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I have to respectfully disagree about the ’50s TV series. I remember when Jack Larson used to host an annual marathon of Adventures of Superman episodes on local channel 9 in NY and teenaged me–not knowing for sure he was gay–thought he was adorable.
    The show was silly fun…they recycled the same action shots in most episodes but the interplay with Lois, Clark, Jimmy, Mr. White and Inspector Henderson was usually breezy enough to keep the characters likable. I bought all the seasons on DVD years ago. Setting aside the question of what really happened to George Reeves, the show is escapist fun and a necessary step on the way to TV’s ’60s Batman!

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  12. Lake Meade was recently named the most deadly park because apparently menthane builds up under the water. Apparently it comes up in big bubbles pushes the water away and the boat drops well below the surface. People die. It’s a good place for Superman to be needed.

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