This issue of SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN was I believe the oldest book that I got in my Windfall Comics purchase of about 150 prime Silver Age comic books for $50.00 in 1988. It’s really a pre-Silver Age 1950s issue in tone and spirit, and a good example of the kinds of stories the Superman titles were running in that period post-Comics Code and before editor Mort Weisinger began to expand the Man of Steel’s mythology Doing super hero comic books under the Code was tough, especially at that moment, where the concern about violence and anything inappropriate was at its utmost. As a result, most super heroes could hardly throw a punch in their stories, and instead had to be confounded my mysteries or challenges of a different sort.
The Superman titles of this period followed a regimented format. Except in the rarest of occasions (Mort had begun to experiment with longer “3-Part Novels” that would take up an entire issue) a reader got three stories for his dime. In this instance, all of them were focused upon Jimmy Olsen–there were no back-ups or secondary characters on display here. It’s perhaps hard to believe that Jimmy Olsen could sustain a series, but in this period, it was one of the best-selling titles in the field, no doubt buoyed by the continuing performance of Jack Larson as the character on the still-running live action ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series. Pretty much all kids knew who Jimmy Olsen was at that time, and giving the incident-prone reporter his own magazine was a clever way to add another Superman book to the line without the worry of oversaturation of the character. In JIMMY OLSEN, Superman was an omnipresent secondary character, but not the lead.
The opening story in the issue was written by Otto Binder and illustrated by Curt Swan. Swan would go on to become the primary SUPERMAN artist over teh course of the next two decades, but at this point, he was earning his spurs on the character in secondary assignments like JIMMY OLSEN. The primary Superman artist at this time was still Wayne Boring, whose work defined the Man of Steel for a generation. Binder had been the primary author of over 50% of the canon of rival character Captain Marvel during the Big Red Cheese’s heyday, and in coming over to DC he brought a little bit of the whimsey and sense of anything goes with him that characterized Marvel’s adventures and made them so well-remembered. In this particular tale, an accident with his Signal Watch seemingly gives Jimmy the ability to summon not Superman but rather an all-powerful genie with it. But crooks want to swipe teh watch and use the genie’s power for themselves. Of course, Superman is posing at teh genie, and this has all been a far-too-elaborate ruse to draw the crooks out so that the Man of Tomorrow can capture them. There isn’t a lick of violence in this story, what carries it is the imaginative ways Jimmy employs the genie’s power and the emotional truth of a friend, in this case Superman, being cast aside in favor of another newfound figure. Weisinger’s Superman stories almost always revolved around a simple, childlike emotional core such as this one, and it was the real secret as to why his material connected so strongly with a youthful audience. Interestingly, the final panel of this story previews a tale that will turn up in the next issue, in which Jimmy is transformed into a gorilla. This wasn’t typical practice, I don’t believe, so it’s fascinating that this choice was made in this fashion.
DC still approached most of their comic books like magazines, and so there were assorted single page features sprinkled in-between the main stories. So next in the book is this one-page gag cartoon strip from Henry Boltinoff. Boltinoff, the brother of longtime DC editor Murray Boltinoff, produced hundreds of these sorts of strips over a period of more than a decade. They didn’t amount to much individually, but taken all together, they represent a significant body of work. Also in this portion of the issue was another invitation from Superman to his readers to spend a day out in Palisades amusement park in New Jersey. The Metropolis Marvel shilled for that amusement park for a very long time, and ultimately, the park eventually featured a strange-looking wax statue showcasing Superman battling a giant Cyclops–a feature that would be touted in later ads. The thing wasn’t much to look at, to be honest.
The second Olsen story in this issue was produced by the exact same creative team as the first, Otto Binder and Curt Swan. Like the first one, it was inked by Ray Burnley, the brother of stories DC artist Jack Burnley. He provided a nice finish to Swan’s pencils, but somehow sucked some of the life out of them–Swan’s work would gain more vitality and vibrancy as the 50s gave way to the 1960s. This particular entry was a daffy story that opens with Jimmy attempting to infiltrate a meeting of the Club of Bearded Men–apparently, nothing sells newspapers like beards. His bearded disguise fails to gain him entry, but the leader of teh club tricks Jimmy into taking a special super beard-growth tonic which causes his whiskers to sprout at a super-rapid rate.
The Club is seeking to popularize beards in Metropolis and are hoping to employ Jimmy to help them do this. The cub reporter has a number of close shaves (Ha.) that his Rip Van Winkle-eqsue whiskers get him both into and out of. In the end, feeling that Jimmy has disgraced the noble beard, the Club members make up a huge batch of their growth formula, intending to dump it in the water supply. Jimmy fails to stop them, but fortunately these bearded clods have accidentally brewed up a bunch of the antidote instead, and Jimmy uses it to get rid of his unwanted facial hair. Superman turns up at this point to destroy their equipment, thus preventing them from trying this again. The whole affair is unrelenting absurd, in the manner of a Captain Marvel story–but it’s also entertaining if you’re in a particular mindset. Again here, there isn’t even a shadow of violence to be found in this story–it’s clean-shaven.
Next up comes another single-page filler strip, this one an entry in editor/writer Jack Schiff’s public service series. It’s a simple and straightforward message about the evils of prejudice aimed at a young audience. DC ran these pages in all of their books for a very long time, not for any profit but in order to make a positive contribution to the world (and perhaps to get some of the anti-comic book crusaders off their backs a little bit.) This one was illustrated by Ruben Moreira. After this, Weisinger hadn’t yet instated letters pages in his titles in 1957, so there was a single page text feature to fulfill second class postal regulations. The one in this issue was an essay on what a kid who wanted to play baseball professionally would need to do.
As was often the case, the final story in this issue was the cover-feature. As with the other two stories in teh issue, it was also the work of Otto Binder, Curt Swan and Ray Burnley. It’s another thoroughly bloodless story, one that very well may have been inspired by Phil Silvers’ television program YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH. In the story, Jimmy goes undercover in the army as a Private as research for a feature. He operates under the cover identity of Jimmy Hudson, a fact known only to Superman and the commanding General. But hearing the name Jimmy Hudson, the Bilko-esque Sergeant Blye of the base connects it with the famous General Hudson, and seeing an opportunity to grift his men out of some money. He connives to let slip that Jimmy is the son of this great war hero, then bets his men that Hudson will wash out as a Private recruit, despite his strong pedigree.
The Sergeant sabotages Jimmy’s efforts at every turn: putting blanks into his rifle, giving him an impossible number of potatoes to peel, loading his pack down with twice the required weight, etc. But Superman becomes aware of the scheme, and uses his super-powers to assist his Pal from a distance, allowing Jimmy to come out ahead in every challenge and for the Sergeant to lose his bets. In the end, though, clumsy Jimmy winds up trapped in a runaway guided missile, and Blye alerts Superman to the danger, even though this means exposing his own plot in teh shenanigans. Superman rescues Jimmy, gives all of the soldiers back their money since he tilted the games in Olsen’s favor, and is buoyed by the fact that Sergeant Blye has learned his lesson about gambling and trying to take off his own men. It’s a straightforward moral, aimed at young readers, and executed with professionalism. But looking at this book, it’s easy to see why the Julie Schwartz-led reinvention of earlier super heroes would have caught on, seeming so much more modern and streamlined and fast-moving. And also why the earliest Marvel hero stories caught fire. Nobody in a Marvel book ever hesitated to throw a punch.