I made Casanova and I’m telling you, I could never match the psycho-sexual Jungian underpinnings of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen as presented by Mort Weisinger. By wife-beating, child-hater Mort Weisinger. – Matt Fraction
I must confess at this juncture:
I’ve never particularly been a Jimmy Olsen fan.
Now, now, put your pitchforks down, folks. I like the goofy ginger as much as the next person, always have. But he was never a character I was particularly obsessed with or enthralled by. You get me? He was fun. He was cute. He was charming. And you know what? That was enough. I didn’t think he necessarily needed to be more.
Perhaps part of it comes from an intrinsic bias.
For those of you unaware, Jimmy Olsen is a character who originates from the Superman Radio Show. A stock character for the most part, he was given new life when he was penned in the comics by former iconic Captain Marvel creator Otto Binder. Binder, who’d been hired by DC after their decimation of Fawcett Comics, would go on to be a defining voice for all of DC comics, but especially the realm of Superman.
He essentially ported over as much as was humanly possible from those Golden Age Captain Marvel stories, so Superman himself was no longer the furious Socialist Crusader (although, to be entirely fair, by the time Binder was a key voice there, he hadn’t been for some time) but closer to the weird fantastically fairy-tale mythology of The Big Red Cheese. Supergirl was introduced, because Otto Binder could no longer write Mary Marvel, Superboy stories got told in the place of Captain Marvel Jr. ones, and Brainiac soon followed instead of Mr. Mind from those Fawcett books. The Superman Family was born, as Krypto and other folks came aboard, akin to The Marvel Family.
Clearly, the entire mythology was under remodeling, so that meant Jimmy got a makeover. Given Binder could no longer do Tawky Tawny, the talking-tiger pal of Billy Batson, he instead took the stock Jimmy and…effectively turned him into what Tawny had been for those books, minus the bizarre tiger-man part.
Now, you can clearly see why I might find a man who isn’t a talking-tiger man with impeccable fashion sense, an excellent vocabulary, wonderful manners, boasting a terrific cane to be… not as enticing. That said, he was a human version of Tawny, and one of the all-time great supporting characters is nothing to scoff at. That alone makes him better than most! Tawny sets the bar high, as you can clearly tell from the imagery above.
Jimmy’s always been fun. He’s consistently enjoyable, I like him, but I’m never moved to tears, or sitting down and contemplating the man, given the stories told with him haven’t quite made me feel such an impulse. He’s a terribly overlooked character, which feels highly bizarre to say for the guy who had his own solo ongoing title for years, for whom JACK KIRBY of all people created stories. He was Kirby’s real sole existing DC home, nowhere else. He got that special honor, nobody else.
But nevertheless, for all of that, he’s never had quite the home run he deserves.
Until now, of course.
First advertised like this, Superman’s Peal Jimmy Olsen immediately made an impression on me.
It was to be Matt Fraction’s first DC work. He brought on Steve Lieber, the comedic genius making books like Superior Foes Of Spider-Man and The Fix actually work, landing the delivery of each beat. Nathan Fairbairn, one of the best, most vibrant and versatile colorists, would be joining the team as well. And, as ever, the extraordinarily prolific Clayton Cowles would come on-board to letter the book, finishing up the all-star roster.
It was, by all means, exciting. I mean, how could it not be?! It was Jimmy Olsen finally getting something. It was Matt Fraction’s first DC gig and, in the most ballsy move possible, he’d chosen to emulate Jack Kirby, THE legendary Marvel alumni to move into DC, by taking on the underestimated icon of the Super-mythology. And it was a classical 12-issue maxi-series from DC Comics, the grand, coveted prestige format that spawned some of the most iconic texts at the publisher (and in the medium). There was something terribly funny about the whole affair. And clearly, Fraction saw the humor of it, much like all of us. That was the appeal.
You knew this book was going to be funny. You expected it. That was obvious. What wasn’t obvious was how that humor would be utilized, what it came to mean and be, and how the book would fundamentally re-shape the way you forever saw this goofy ginger of Metropolis.
People think Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is one of the funniest things DC’s published in ages. And they’re right. But they’re also wrong, because what that thought omits is fairly significant: Jimmy Olsen is the defining superhero text of the 2010s. It’s a book that perfectly encapsulates an era in much the same way masterworks like Watchmen did the 1980s. It’s a work as clever, as brilliant, and as interesting as anything the realm of superhero fiction has ever produced, and it’s no mere silly ‘comedy book’.
And that’s what I wanna talk about today, because we live in a time wherein it’s hard to see the full extent of genius unless it’s ‘genius’ in recognizably familiar ways: namely the ways we have codified since 1986, from the 9-panel grids, a veneer of self-seriousness, ‘darkness’, bloody murder, ‘mature’ subjects, deadly stakes, and tortured protagonists faced with ‘deep’ moral quandaries. Not that any of those are bad… they’re just one way to make comics. There’s a narrow lane of what people consider to be ‘truly’ meaningful, deep comics worth analyzing and dissecting a certain way, while even good works the same people enjoy, which don’t fit said criteria, never get such attention. ‘It’s a lot of fun!’ people say about those works, as they write another paper on Watchmen. ‘Fun’ often seems detached from the idea of Real, Important, Meaningful works. Then again, fun is quite a poor and limiting descriptor.
What Makes Jimmy Olsen Special?
So what is it about Jimmy Olsen that makes it so praise-worthy exactly? What is it that has me dishing out all this extraordinarily hyperbolic nonsense that you’re surely rolling your eyes at? Well, to begin with, Jimmy Olsen’s just a plainly good exploration of its lead. At the very heart of Fraction/Lieber/Fairbairn/Cowles’ (FLFC, if you will!) work is The Most Interesting Man Of The DC Universe. He’s seen it all, he’s done it all, he’s been there, he’s fought with that, he’s lain with them, there’s nowhere in the multiverse Jimmy Olsen’s shenanigans haven’t somehow penetrated. And living up to the aforementioned label, his own family itself is granted a newly minted retroactive backstory (and massive expansion!) that spans generations, and goes back to the very root of Metropolis itself.
That’s the thing about this book. It’s secretly The Life and Times Of The Olsens. It’s about The Olsen Family, the old money, and their relationship with their bitter old rivals, The Luthor Family. It’s about the very history and foundations of Metropolis. It’s a book that sketches out the history of a place and people, with select nuggets and details, giving you a sense, rather than dumping every extravagant detail on you. It’s about the DC Universe, and a joy ride through all of its most unexpected corners, both old and new. If you’re doing The Most Interesting Man Of The DC Universe, you kind of have to define the DCU itself, at least the DCU as you see it, and what said man would be like, why he would be the way he is, and what that title would mean and entail. And that’s precisely what this whole affair is about.
But the thing about the FLFC (Hey, run with it!) take on the DC Universe? It’s not a static thing. It’s not one thing. It’s not just a fixed, consistent vision. It’s not Frank Quitely-esque refined architecture that lays out everything in clean fashion, as both God and Moebius intended. It isn’t out to present a ‘definitive’ vision of the DCU as though it were an Alex Ross comic from the 1990s. It’s not looking for those defining shots, which you can put in your art-book to say ‘This is how the DCU looks!’, the stuff you can make posters of. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have those kinds of shots, the made-to-love visions of iconic DC places, the stuff you can make posters of, but that’s not really the point.
The real aim is for you to know how the DC Universe feels. And it isn’t this ordered, clean world. It’s absolute, utter, unhinged, impossible, nonsensical, indiscernible, deeply stupid chaos. It defies explanation, it’s completely absurd, something’s constantly happening, and in this wild mayhem, in this ever-swirling toilet of cartoonish weirdness, there’s Jimmy Olsen. Or wait, I mean Timmy Olsen. No, sorry, I’m an idiot, it’s Jaime Olsen.
You get the idea! No matter the name, regardless of the fame, Olsen’s always there!
The DC Universe is a realm of Gorilla Cities, Olsen Fanclubs, Arm-Fall Off Boys, spurned alien kings who just desire sacred matrimony, multiverse-hopping thieves fleeing said matrimony, and a bald man named Lex Luthor. It makes no sense, and yet it makes total sense. And it’s in this specific setting and context that Jimmy is defined, as the leading man who’s constantly caught in the tangle of all these strange scenarios. The man who cannot escape trouble, and is practically a magnet for it.
And all of this is reflected in the actual telling of the story itself, as the work isn’t just uniform 20-page stories, but a series of short stories, varying from 1 pagers to 9-pagers, showcasing different things, always cutting away, to show us another web of some other mad mess that seemingly could never quite make sense, and yet somehow does. Its stories are vignettes that span a universe. All of which is to say, in a quite mad manner, Jimmy Olsen is the most absurdly DCU-specific Slice Of Life comic ever conceived. It’s all the absurd days in the life of Jimmy, and the madness they entail, played as normalcy for him. He’s used to it. The details might change, but mess is mess, and believe me, this man is used to mess.
Now, all of this, as can be clearly observed above, is terribly entertaining. But then again, plenty of comics are terribly entertaining. What makes this one deserving of all the copious amounts of excessive praise I shamelessly dished out there at the start? Good question. While I’ve given you the basic pitch, the sense of the fundamental appeal of Jimmy Olsen, to discuss its brilliance requires a wider perspective. It’s a book with a lot going on, beyond all I’ve described above, and when I first finished it, I was fascinated. I had to read through all of Fraction’s other work of the period, just to see if any of it was quite like this, and to get a sense of what it is exactly that he was doing in the moment, on a wider scale.
The compulsion proved to be the most rewarding thing possible. I was obsessed. I was truly, terribly obsessed, and to an overwhelming degree. But nevertheless, it was worth it, as what I discovered fascinated me even further.
There are two other works within this current phase of Matt Fraction: November, which came out not long after Jimmy Olsen, and Adventureman, which came almost a year later. These three marked a big comics return for Fraction, after having been dormant for a while, and the start of a brand new phase. And what I found, as I went through page after page across all three of these quite deliberate works, fit between his regular actual day-job as a Hollywood screenwriter for Legendary Pictures, was that these made for a weird synchronistic trilogy of sorts, albeit about vastly different things… which are kind of about the same things.
The American Fiction Trilogy
Realizing the connections I found in the works made it appropriate that I title them “the American fiction trilogy,” because here’s the thing, there’s a pattern here. Now, as for what I am about to say, let me preface it with this: It could be intended, extremely deliberate, or it may not at all be intended in the slightest. Doesn’t matter. I’m not discussing what was intended, as much as what I saw when I looked upon them, and what my reading was. Having said that, let’s lay it all out on the table.
Fundamentally, all three of these works, these three texts of this current Matt Fraction, are about wrestling with deeply, deeply American fictions.
The first ought to be obvious, it’s American Superheroes, the most American thing of all. The second is Noir, which, again, is deeply American (we’ll get into this in a bit). The third is The Pulps, the antecedents to the superheroes, the inhabitants of the pulp magazines, and as you would expect, American as all hell.
All three of these works leap into spaces with a lot of problems, and pose the question, ‘Well, how can we do this classic thing, but for the now, without all the painfully problematic parts that plague them?’ It’s a natural question to ask about modernization, but the three of them so directly twist and play with elements and motifs of the genre, the things they’re riffing on and playing with, that they become loud statements on the genre. These are all defining statements on the spaces they’re inhabiting. With Jimmy Olsen, it’s very specifically the 1950s era of (DC) superhero comics, while November is the Noirs of the 1940s era prior, and Adventureman is the pulps of the 1930s.
And the ways they are, what they’re doing, is of particular interest to me.
November and The Noirs
“I think the dark outlook is an American one.” – Billy Wilder
‘Noir’ means ‘Black’ in French, and is the descriptor by the French for a certain type of American film that they observed was prominent during the 1940s, when a huge number of American films were released in bulk in France, and many got to see a lot of them back-to-back, at once. Films released far apart were viewed one after another, and the disparate works became a collective pattern in the eyes of some, as these stories of murder and violence, built on the backs of hardboiled crime-fiction, were very specific to American storytellers. Film Noir drew on certain German Expressionist filming techniques, sure, from Dutch Angles to the surrealist elements, but on the whole, it’s something wholly new. Its ties to (and influences from Expressionism) are certainly massive and evident, but the end result is distinct enough and specific to America, especially in regards to cultural relevance, that I think it is absolutely American. Although it’s a term that didn’t take proper hold until the 1970’s, ‘Film Noir’ is an ubiquitous descriptor that’s brought in discussions of many iconic works.
Whether it be The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, or whatever else, Noir was a distinctly American product, set against the backdrop of a world wrecked by The Great Depression, depicting a post-civilian life after a World War that devastated so many, wherein tortured men wander about a crime-ridden world, encountering Femme Fatales, who more often than not manipulate and end up betraying the man. There’s revenge, there’s corruption, there’s betrayal, and turmoil. You know what Noir is even if you can’t conjure up the perfect definition for it. You’ve seen the misty alleyways of darkness, the man smoking a cigar, with a coat and a hat, the seductress whose motives are uncertain, and a mystery or murder that needs solving.
As Charles Scruggs put it:
The enigma of the femme fatale in film noir is a case in point, for she is a figure from the past that mirrors present concerns. Pragmatic, sexy, smart, and independent -this “dark” lady is nevertheless imprisoned by Hollywood’s conventions, those that in turn reflect the society at large.
Which is to illustrate that Noir is a complex thing. It’s fascinating, and a wonderful form, but so much of that, so many of the classics that fill that well, are works which can be unbearable like this. Not that violence or terrible people doing terrible things is impossible to handle (If I can sit through Don Draper’s relentless misogyny for 7 Seasons, I can sit through this) but that at some point, it’s tiresome. In that sense, it’s quite a bit like the Spy genre. The realm of espionage traditionally leans conservative, not because those making espionage fiction are, but the well-worn trappings of the fiction are, when left unexamined and simply mimicked.
The fictions can very easily be about a cabal of operatives desperately ensuring the maintenance of the status quo for an imperialist government unless you do the work to make it something else. And James Bond is also, of course, a Grade-A scumbag and misogynist, despite the films toning him down and casting terrific performers to make him go down easier. That said, the realm of spy fiction, for all its issues, does tend to have more of a variety in the women you see, relative to classical noir. Regardless though, the space needs more new perspectives and takes, ones that are actively more critical and considered in their choices.
“November is the most formal piece of work I’ve ever done. I don’t think I have a novel in me, but I have this. All the tools and thoughts I’ve got about how comics work and what comics can do have gone into this.”
Instead of doing the simple set-up/build/pay-off across 3 panels per tier as in the 3×4, you get 3 tiers, wherein you’re delivering 3 collective sequences/mini-units of story, making up the larger unit of the comic that is the page. It’s a useful format, and one where a single moment can be extended into two beats, where contrasts and mirroring are all the more effective. Take a look at the last tier in the above page, with the all-black panels of text, the alpha and the omega of the tier, while the one moment and beat, the girl flying the kite, is broken up into two panels. The general flow and rhythm of story and the storytelling shifts when you’re strongly adhering to such a strict and specific grid.
It’s a lot of work, and it’s a pain in the ass, quite frankly. Yet, somehow, Charretier’s managed to stick to it and commit to it for four 70-page books, which is impressive. And the execution of it, with Nathan Fairbairn’s color-work, is exquisite. Contrast is key in noir, whether it’s black and white, or anything else, as are mirrors, which play into part of its surrealist imagery, and that’s what I’m most reminded of when I look at this choice of layout for November. They’re like mirrors, reflecting constantly, each panel another, constantly, bearing an equivalent.
But beyond that, the 12-panel grid feels almost like a timer to me, just ticking and ticking away until the inevitable, until revelations and horror explode. And after all, November is a work centered around a very short amount of time, built around one single night, one key event, which 3 queer women (and some others) respond to, which unites them.
However, the thing I’d also point to is how often and frequently the book uses its 3-tier structure to blend all the panels into one larger panel across all tiers, achieving a 3-panel grid, or the Darwyn Cooke favorite as I like to call it. And the 3-panel grid’s relationship to the 9-panel grid is well known, as a lot of 9-panel grid works also pull this same trick frequently. The 3-panel grid is effectively a simplified version of the 9-panel grid. It’s just bigger, wider, with a much more cinematic quality to it. And it’s worth keeping in mind that given its vertical panels and 3-tiers, in a sense, the 4×3 version of the 12-panel grid is effectively a 9-panel grid with an extra panel added onto each tier respectively. Another extra beat.
Setting aside all of that though, there’s a lot going on in November, from Hollingsworth’s colorwork, which sets a very specific, moody and muted palette, wherein striking colors are used to convey strong emotions in a world that otherwise feels dim, to Ankeny’s lettering, which is a tricky cursive, akin to scribbled notes in a journal.
It’s also very much a story you could only really do in comics, given how time works and operates in comics, and it’s not a film, so there is no movement. It’s not images at a time, it’s the larger unit that is the page, entirely about the interaction between numerous images at once: the parallels, the contrasts, the subtle mergers and loud juxtapositions, all of them. It’s the relationship between imagery that November revels in, as it portrays the same basic event through numerous perspectives, and reinforces its own iconography, and accomplishes something specific to the comic form.
From its centering of women who’re victims in the traditional narratives of the genre to all the formal rules and ambitions of the text, which operate like clockwork of chaos, November clearly has a lot going for it. It’s a smart take and bold approach to noir. And more than anything, it’s about de-problematizing the worst instincts in noir by making specific choices, as well as shifting perspectives entirely to decide whose stories it is we’re actually telling. It’s about a statement on a fundamentally American genre and space. It’s a key part of Fraction’s current phase of work, examining key American narratives.
But here’s the thing: It’s not working for me.
The November Struggles
The tricky thing about criticism like this, wherein one puts two works together to talk about them, is that it can easily devolve into ‘This Thing Bad, This Thing Good’, which is certainly a temptation. (And this isn’t to imply that if you do compare two things, you must find some positives or worthwhile/redeeming qualities in both. That’s ridiculous, because frankly some things have no redeeming qualities.) What takes more effort is really digging into and engaging with the work, in terms of what it is trying to be, what it actually is, and digging into the how/why of its end result.
So yes, I’ve laid out November for you above, all that it is, all that is meant to work about it, what’s beautiful, glorious and astonishing about it. Now to lay out why I remain unmoved. To start with, it’s too decompressed and light for my taste. It feels like I’m getting incomplete chapters of a singular whole. It’s not filling the way I’d like it to be. And fundamentally? It’s an incomplete story as of right now. And that’s never gonna be truly satisfying, so I will certainly have to revisit it when done, especially when its key statement is clearer, beyond its inversions and twists on the genre. But as of right now, the work remains something I deeply wish I loved, yet do not. The structural games and plotting are fun and interesting. But, for all the dazzlingly spectacular characters presented by Charretier/Hollingsworth, I find myself unmoved, as it feels like at times they’re serving this formal ambition more than the ambition is serving them and their story.
I’ve seen some praise the work for its depiction of corrupt cops, as the serialized work began publishing from the end of December 2019 onwards, and its second volume saw publication close to the height of the BLM protests months prior, but given ‘corrupt cops’ is such a standard element of so much noir, I’m reluctant to grant the text any praise on such grounds.
The other key thing for me is the work of Ankeny, a terrific cartoonist in his own right. While I understand the intent, and can respect the work and effort put in, I find his very deliberate cursive lettering a struggle to read. Clearly, it’s trying to be something analog, something physical, crafted rather than produced. Imperfect, messy, to give the work a human touch as opposed to a clean sheen of total artifice. But it doesn’t click for me. It takes a bit to parse, and it just makes the book a pain to read, as opposed to being stylized and easy to read. Most folks I’ve recommended the book to have gone ‘Oh god, those letters.’ And unlike many folks I know, I quite dig cursive lettering, so long as it balances style and flair with actual readability/legibility that doesn’t rapidly slow down reading too much, wherein it can be exhaustive.
So while Jimmy Olsen was, for my money, a slam dunk from the get-go, a compressed explosion of flavor, November is a bit more of a struggle to really deliver on the intentions and ambitions in play.
But lest we forget, the noirs are hardly the only American fiction!