Reading “The Superman / Jimmy Olsen War!”

I never thought I would be happy to move on from a Lois Lane centered story to a Jimmy Olsen one, but here we are.

The last couple issues of All-Star Superman were not good.  I don’t remember the last time I read them, but I had either forgotten or been unaware of the gross amount of sexism baked into the two party story about Lois’s birthday celebration with Superman.  This issue pivots away from Lois for a very light, bubblegum issue about Jimmy Olsen’s misadventures.  Morrison and Quitely imagine Jimmy as something of a perpetual thrill seeker whose penchant for risk taking gets him into regular trouble, justifying his need for an indestructible super watch that he can use to call Superman for help any time.  It’s a solid enough characterization; we don’t need much more to get the story rolling here.

The issue centers around Jimmy’s latest thrill seeking venture to spend a day in charge of PROJECT, the extra-governmental outfit that piloted the expedition to the sun in the series’s first issue (apparently Jimmy’s column on his various unique experiences is popular enough worldwide that this arrangement wasn’t a hard one to swing; I suspect Morrison vastly underestimated the state of print newspapers even ten years ago when this comic was first published).  While acting as PROJECT’s director, Jimmy oversees the excavation of a new kind of kryptonite from the Underverse (an ultra dense, high gravity level of reality beneath our own, apparently) which nearly gets him killed.  Superman arrives to save Jimmy, and together they discover that the newly christened black kryptonite has the effect of reversing Superman’s personality so that he becomes petty, craven, vindictive, and just all around evil.  Superman rushes off to Earth to wreak havoc, and so Jimmy’s left trying to figure out how to stop the strongest being in the solar system without killing or permanently trapping him in the Phantom Zone.

The solution that Jimmy come upon is a combination of two iconic features of the Superman mythos: Jimmy’s habit of getting temporarily turned into weird things during the Silver Age, and the Doomsday story from the early ’90s that ended with Superman’s death.  Using a special serum from PROJECT, Jimmy transforms himself into a supersoldier that resembles the original Doomsday in order to fight Superman to a standstill until the effects of the black kryptonite wear off.  Jimmy’s successful, and he changes back after Superman is safely back in his right mind, but the public comes to believe that their fight involved Superman saving Metropolis from the creature.

Like with the previous issues, this one is filled with callbacks to weird and wacky elements of Superman’s past (the story is bookended by Jimmy’s romantic troubles with the rarely mentioned in contemporary continuity character Lucy Lane, Lois’s little sister).  Jimmy Olsen is something of an afterthought in the Superman story these days (I’m aware of his introduction and swift death in Batman v Superman; I still haven’t seen it), but he was a prominent part of the franchise back in the ’50s.  Like Lois Lane, Jimmy had his own ongoing series during the Silver Age where he got up to all kinds of hijinks that needed Superman to swoop in and sort things out.  The gonzo weirdness that Morrison revels in here is typical of his take on superheroes, but when he moves away from a story “centered” on Lois and just explores the characters of Jimmy and Superman he becomes eminently readable again.

In the larger story that’s being told in All-Star Superman, this is probably the first issue that really digs into some of the bigger questions about Superman’s role in the world.  Jimmy can’t imagine using a solution that would effectively remove Superman from the universe, but Superman’s already preparing for just that eventuality.  We get no reminder that he’s dying here, but it’s obvious that Jimmy at least thinks Superman’s absence is a price so high that he’d rather risk himself than go with the safe bet to protect Earth.  Of course, an inverted Superman is a significant risk, so you have to wonder just how reckless this course of action is for Jimmy.

Jimmy takes the bro code very seriously. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

The fact that Superman, when he’s turned evil by the black kryptonite, is such a major threat highlights one of the underlying themes of this series: Superman has exceptionally great responsibility, and he’s keenly aware of it.  We’ll see as we move into the second half of this series that he’s largely preoccupied with minimizing the impact of his impending death; he doesn’t want to be a keystone that disappears without warning and leaves so many things to collapse (kind of the opposite of what Jon Osterman does in Watchmen).  It’s a positive reflection on Superman’s character that he is both ultimately reliable and aware of the need for contingencies when his reliability ultimately fails.  Thankfully, we’ll see more of this in the future and less of the terrible depiction that Lois (and pretty much all the female characters in this book) gets.

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