Jack Kirby’s Fourth World: Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen

When I first heard that Jack Kirby had done a stint on Jimmy Olsen, my reaction was akin to what it would be if I’d discovered that Alan Moore had done a run on Jughead in the early 90’s.  Basically, something like, “What the–?!?!?!”  Or in other words, “That’s crazy!”  Well, it turns out that I’m right.  Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen is absolutely out-of-this-world insane.  Now, of course, we’re talking about Jimmy Olsen here, whose title was always insane, it seems like.  So maybe Kirby was just doing what he needed to to keep up.

The stories in Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen (he wrote and drew 15 issues) are only tangentially related to the main plot of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World epic.  There is no direct dealing with Darkseid’s pursuit of the Anti-Life Equation, and the war between New Genesis and Apokolips only gets a brief reference late in the game – but it is obvious that the big baddie is up to no good and using various agents on earth to cause trouble.  Essentially, he comes across as the head of an inter-galactic organized crime ring.  Seen in the larger context established by the New Gods, this would appear to be a little side project Darkseid’s got going on, perhaps just to keep Superman busy.

And that’s sort of how the whole title feels.  Jimmy Olsen wasn’t part of Kirby’s initial plan—rather it was something he took on simply as an assignment.  The impression one gets is that he let his imagination go wild to create the whole Fourth World saga, and that every wacky idea that he couldn’t fit in there he used for Jimmy Olsen instead.  So the result is that you get things like the the Habitat (a city made of trees) which is hidden in the Wild Area (a wilderness, apparently in the middle of the United States), inhabited by the Outsiders (a gang of societal drop outs who ride motorcycles) which gives access to the Zoomway (a spaced out series of highways hidden from normal view) upon which live the Hairies (genetically bred youthful super-geniuses) in their Mountain of Judgement (a converted missile carrier that races the Zoomway) whom Morgan Edge (the new owner of the Daily Planet) is trying to kill by sending the Newsboy Legion (a team of youthful adventurers) who unknowingly carry a bomb in their Whiz Wagon (a souped-up sci-fi race car) because Edge really works with Intergang (a crime ring backed by Apokolips)…

And that’s just the first two issues.  After that we get the Project (a secret government installation full of cloning experiments), the Evil Factory (Darkseid’s equivalent of the same thing, literally hidden under a rock in Scotland), the Guardian (a Captain America-like street-level her with a shield), Dubbilex and other “D.N.Aliens” created by the Project, including a microdot full of Jimmy Olsen clones, and a miniature world whose evolution has been shaped by old monster movies.  Oh, and Don Rickles as himself.

Actually, it’s Don Rickles in a dual role as himself and a member of Galaxy Broadcasting’s research team who has become so annoying to his boss that he tries to have him killed.

See, you just can’t explain this stuff without sounding like a lunatic.

When I was reading Superman in the 1990’s, a lot of elements from this run made a return appearance, and a lot of it was harder to swallow there.  My young adult steeped-in-naturalism sensibilities found the idea of young Scrapper (part of the Newsboy Legion) carrying around a “Scrapper Trooper” (a miniaturized clone of himself bred to be a soldier) in his pocket for emergencies to be stretching my suspension of disbelief.

But there’s something about Kirby’s approach to the same idea that makes it part of the charm. Although he is fills his panels with all of these crazy ideas, they don’t actually feel nearly as overwhelming when you are reading them as when you are reading about them.

Part of this is Kirby’s ability to pace a story.  He makes liberal use of full page spreads (and even the occasional two page spread) which not only help the vision feel epic but also keep the reader from getting bogged down in the world’s minutia.  Depending on the taste of the reader, you can get lost in the visuals or you can breeze through the tale fairly quickly.  And yet you always feel like you’ve gotten an impressive amount of story for your buck.  That’s no mean feat in the comic book world.

A couple of interesting details:  I only recently found out that the Morgan Edge that appears in these stories is later (post-Kirby) revealed to be a clone created by the Evil Factory.  It was a clarifying discovery – I couldn’t understand how this guy could be the same dude (an attempted murderer who seems happy to have Metropolis destroyed in a nuclear explosion) as the one who went on to appear for the rest of Superman’s pre-Crisis life (whom Superman once chided for wasting water).  Now I know.  It makes me curious to see the Jimmy Olsen stories that followed the Kirby’s.  How many of his ideas were retained?  How often did his creations show up, and how were they depicted?  I’d buy that Showcase Presents.

Also, in one of these stories, Kirby is credited by many sources as debuting the character Dabney Donovan – an insane geneticist who created the D.N.Aliens and the Evil Factory.  However, unless I am really missing something, Donovan never appears in that story, or in any other in these volumes.  The characters spend their time looking for him but not locating him.  Yet Kirby is acknowledged as the character’s creator.  Are there any other examples where a writer or artist is credited for creating a character they seem to have never written or drawn?

Anyway, Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen – it may or may not be the least interesting of his Fourth World epic, but that still puts it a far cry ahead of a lot of other stuff you could be reading.

More about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World:
New Gods

Mister Miracle

The Forever People

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