In the pantheon of comic book greats, there are few names as legendary and monolithic as Jack “The King” Kirby. Breaking into the industry in the ‘30’s, Kirby would work alongside creators like Joe Simon, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and more, revolutionizing the superhero genre and ushering in the “Marvel Age” of comics. While his work at Marvel saw the creation of countless iconic characters, and garnered record sales and critical acclaim, Kirby’s lack of creative control and authorship credits soured his relationship with the company. Kirby would ultimately leave for DC Comics in 1970, with the publisher heralding his arrival in ads across their line. It’s here that Kirby would finally debut a saga he’d been forming for years, with its first steps arriving in an unlikely, but fitting place…Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. No, seriously.
Kirby’s reasons for taking over the title vary from source to source, but his influence on the title is undeniable, as is the impact of what would immediately follow. Yet, despite the massive marks made on DC and its Universe, Kirby’s time on Jimmy Olsen has gone fairly unnoticed in the 51 years since its publication. Which is why, to start this year, I’m revisiting this psychedelic odyssey of a series, how Jack Kirby used it to bring a fresh take to one of DC’s oldest characters, and how it changed the future of the DC Universe.
KIRBY IS HERE!
Making the jump to DC after two years of negotiations, Kirby’s terms were clear: he didn’t just want to create new characters, but entire worlds of them, all built around a mythic odyssey he’d begun forming while working on titles like Thor. These stories would be the throughline for the creator’s time at DC, but the publisher had some caveats of their own. Namely, they needed assurance that the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Avengers could still make comics that sold well. The details of the arrangement have never been made public, but the prevailing theory is that part of Kirby’s contract called for him to work on at least one existing title for DC. There had been talk of turning the entire Superman line over to the creator, but in the end, out of compassion for his fellow artists, Kirby opted for one of the company’s lowest-selling books, a title without any permanent creative team: Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
Jimmy Olsen, both the title, and character, had an interesting history before Kirby. Jimmy’s uncredited appearances can be traced all the way back to the golden age, where he allegedly appears as an unnamed office boy with no concept of personal boundaries. However, the character rose to popularity through the Adventures of Superman radio show, where he became the wide-eyed audience surrogate and sidekick to the Man of Steel. Naturally, this led to more of a presence for the character in comic books, and by 1954 Jimmy had landed in a spin-off of his own.
(By Curt Swan and Stan Kaye)
A lot of these stories fell in line with the broader slapstick tone of the Silver Age, following Jimmy as he transformed into a giant turtle boy, got thrown back to Krypton’s destruction, and dealt with various intelligent gorillas. As you do. It’s not that the stories weren’t fun, but compared to the rest of DC’s output they seemed tame; safe. But when Kirby would arrive on the title with issue #133, he’d set Jimmy and his entire supporting cast on a radical new path.
From his first pages, Kirby works to reshape Jimmy from passive goofball to overeager cub reporter and man of action. Whereas the previous format would see Jimmy stumble into different situations to return to normal every issue, Kirby introduces a subtle arc to flesh out the character, having him struggling to prove himself to his veteran colleagues. To aid him on his journey, Kirby also re-introduced his old creations like the Guardian, now a clone of the original (why not), and The Newsboy Legion, made up of children trying to live up to the original ‘40’s team.
This struggle for independence and identity ends up putting the kids at odds with the book’s many authority figures, including Superman. Having spent the Silver Age as a clean-cut, family-friendly icon, Superman is revamped into more of a stern, judgmental parent in Kirby’s book, often trying to keep the unruly gang out of more serious matters. But while Kirby ultimately subverts this through the run, having Superman grow more accepting of Jimmy and his friends, he also doubles down on shaping establishment figures into villains, namely through Jimmy’s boss and the new owner of the daily planet, Morgan Edge. In sharp contrast to Jimmy and his new group of counter-culture rebels, Edge is envisioned as the ultimate corporate shill, used by Kirby to explore organized crime’s new foothold in corporate America. Edge’s acquisition of the Daily Planet is what sets Jimmy on his path, but Kirby’s roster only continues to grow over the series, steadily reframing the mogul as a small piece of a much larger authoritarian machine, one that Kirby would expand on over his tenure at DC comics. Kirby did more than make these characters compelling; he made them the cornerstone of a grander cosmic epic that would reshape the entire DC Universe.
A NEW WORLD
Across his run, Jack Kirby did more than modernize Jimmy Olsen and his supporting cast. Rather, he used the title as a springboard to create an entirely new vision for the publisher’s fictional world, launching inventive new ideas and making the old of the DC Universe feel new again. Not surprisingly, Kirby focuses this new paradigm through Jimmy’s story, pitting the hopeful up-and-coming reporter against his corrupt elders and lending a real sense of danger to the story. This journey from goofy sidekick to rebellious idealist drives much of the action in Kirby’s run, putting Jimmy at odds with all sorts of authority figures, including his best friend, as the title’s new tagline proudly proclaims. From the first hints of a narrative in issue #133, Kirby made sure readers knew that nothing would ever be the same. The DC Universe was about to grow into something cosmic and uncharted, something he’d explore through his title character.
Character wasn’t the only focus of Kirby’s story; he wanted to revitalize the fictional worlds his characters lived in, sending Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion on a cosmic road trip to the strangest corners of the DC Universe in their space-age rig, the Whiz Wagon (don’t laugh.) This odyssey puts the crew face-to-face with all manner of monster, alien, and secretive conspiracy, but Kirby also uses these high-concept ideas to give new life to forgotten tidbits of DC Lore. Resurrecting golden-age characters like the original Guardian and Newsboy Legion, as well as revamping the Daily Planet and other classic locales, Kirby crafts these disparate pieces into a single bigger, weirder world, brimming with adventure and earth-shattering secrets. But even these developments would pale in comparison to the real legacy of Kirby’s time on the title; a legacy that would influence the rest of his time at DC.
(Original art by Jack Kirby)
Since arriving at the company, the author had been laying the groundwork for what would become the Fourth World Saga, a titanic space opera following an all-new pantheon of gods. Kirby had already started on the other Fourth World titles like The New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People by the time Superman’s Pal was added to his workload, with executives thinking an existing title might prove Kirby’s selling power and familiarize him to new audiences. Instead, Kirby would stealthily make Jimmy’s adventures the prologue to Fourth World, dropping the character and his pals into the heart of a villainous plot by Darkseid (who Kirby also introduced in the book.) In fact, many of the central themes and elements of Fourth World emerge in Superman’s Pal, with Kirby building the story around generational struggles, the war between idealism and corruption, and a scope that fills every reader with awe and imagination. Broader creative control also allowed for more experimentation in Superman’s Pal, with Kirby packing each issue with impossible machinery, exaggerated, cartoony characters and mind-bending collages meant to evoke the subconscious and unknown.
(By Jack Kirby)
While Kirby would form these techniques working on titles like Fantastic Four, he would expand on them even further through Superman’s Pal, melding together a style that would become iconic in the Fourth World, and influence generations of comics and creators after. Sadly, Kirby’s time on the title, as well as the entire Fourth World Saga, was not meant to last.
A COMPLICATED LEGACY
Today, the Fourth World is seen as a revolution in comics, and one of the strongest examples of an auteur work in the medium. But when these stories first debuted? In Jimmy Olsen? They were weird, and I mean weird. Fans had spent years poring over Kirby’s collaborations in his work at Marvel, but his freedom from editorial input had produced something more imaginative, ambitious, and in the eyes of DC Comics, worrying. Kirby’s assistant and biographer Mark Evanier recounted how the publisher’s policies weren’t in sync with Kirby’s creative vision, made worse by the fact that he was working from California, and unable to pick up on last-minute changes before it was too late.
“DC was then very into cultivating a ‘DC look’… taking a certain pride in the fact that the art in their books didn’t resemble the…artwork in the Marvel titles,” recounts Evanier.
“So along comes Jack Kirby and what he does, almost by definition, is a “Marvel version” of the jewel in the DC crown, Superman…and to some in the office, that just didn’t look right. That meant bringing the characters more in line with accepted company interpretations, which were largely in the style of Curt Swan. Jack wasn’t happy and a lot of readers weren’t, either.”
(Original art by Jack Kirby)
Countless examples of Kirby’s work were re-drawn to make characters like Superman appear more “classically heroic,” leading to an uncanny feeling when hopping between characters. DC’s demand for quick turnarounds also led to Vince Coletta becoming Kirby’s primary inker, which ended up sabotaging the detail in his pencils even further.
Even Kirby’s groundbreaking work on the Fourth World, the reason why he took over on Superman’s Pal, ultimately fell through due to poor sales, and in 1975, the author would leave DC, and his magnum opus, behind.
“‘One of the worst days of my life,’ was how he described…the call axing the first two,” states Evanier.
“For the time being, his Fourth World would be an unfinished symphony, a novel without its final chapters.”
Jack Kirby’s work left behind a complicated legacy at DC, and in many ways, his time on Jimmy Olsen is the perfect example of that legacy. The title’s stories are equal parts innovative and opaque, with the author introducing incredible ideas only to bury them under an unfocused ongoing story. But while Superman’s Pal remains mostly ignored, it’s the ideas and characters introduced in the book that have left an enduring mark on DC and its fictional universe. In spite of their initial cancellation, the Fourth World and its predecessor would gain a legendary reputation among the comics community, with critics and creators alike praising the imagination of the author’s stories, and shaping countless homages, both dramatic and comedic, of their own. Jimmy Olsen is far from perfect, but it’s Kirby’s creativity and promise of what was to come that would leave Jimmy Olsen, and the DC Universe, forever changed.
1. Evanier, M., & Gaiman, N. (2017). Kirby: King of comics. Abrams ComicArts.
2. Evanier, M. (n.d.). Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby. News From Me. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.newsfromme.com/2003/04/23/jimmy-olsen-adventures-by-jack-kirby/