Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Making Jimmy Olsen Cool

So I've been reading the two collections of Jack "King" Kirby's work on "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen," the stories that introduce Kirby's New Gods, Cadmus, and Intergang to the DC universe.

Now, Kirby's not everyone's cup o' tea. F'r instance, the fine folks at The Absorbascon suggested trading the whole cast of New Gods characters to Marvel, where they fit in better. But I really came into the Superman mythos around the time of that character's death, which was in the midst of a long period where Superman stories focused, at least in part, on Kirby's contributions (something that continued in Superboy's title even after the Superman books distanced themselves from it a little). I really enjoy Cadmus and Intergang, when they're done right, and I think the New Gods, in general, rock.

But that doesn't have a whole lot to do with my thoughts on the stories in these collections. It's cool to see where the characters come from, and there's no denying that Kirby's a fine storyteller. There's a hiccup or two ("The Man from Transilvane" is a little goofy, and Goody Rickels shouldn't exist), but the enthusiasm of Kirby's prose and art is so palpable and so different from most other comics (not just modern age, either), it's really quite refreshing. The frequency of crazy ideas presented in Kirby's work is so great that, if you don't accept them outright, you really won't be able to enjoy it. Of course, I think that's a bit of a lampoon of how silly this corner of the DC universe has always been: how often can one kid drink potions that turn him into monsters, only to be saved by Papa Superman, before he learns? Kirby turned that on his head, made Jimmy a competent leader, and made Superman "the man," the old fogey who tries to be cool and fails miserably.

I'll admit, that's an oversimplification. Repeatedly, it's Superman who's on the ball, and Jimmy in the wrong, but here it's no longer Jimmy's boundless stupidity, it's his immaturity, and it's the more immature characters egging him on, while Superman swallows his pride and saves them anyway.

One of the most interesting things about these stories is how they lampoon Kirby's Marvel work. Much has been made of how the wrecked domain of the "old gods" in the New Gods series looks like Kirby's Asgard, or how Funky Flashman is clearly an effigy of Stan Lee, but it's all over the place here.

In the first issue, there's a character with a metal mask that sure looks a lot like Dr. Doom, the Fantastic Four's worst enemy. Jimmy freakin' Olsen knocks him out in one punch. To the jaw. Despite the fact that he's wearing a metal mask. Jimmy took out the F4's archenemy and barely bruised his knuckles. Then they fight a big green hulking monster who wants to smash things, and is a clone of Jimmy Olsen. The monster's finally defeated by a resurrected 1940s hero who carries a shield (and has not one, but five kid sidekicks). They coat Olsen-Hulk in ice so that he certainly looks a lot like the Silver Surfer. Then they meet a mutant telepath...named Dubbilex. Double-X. As opposed to Charles Xavier, who only has one X.

I haven't finished the second book, but I'd be willing to bet that Arin the Armored Man and his mustachioed creator are more than a little reminiscent of Tony Stark and Iron Man.

What does this say about Kirby or Marvel? You got me. I think Kirby was poking fun at his earlier works and getting a feel for how the DCU differs from the Marvel one, but I could be wrong.

But I do notice one cool difference between the universes. In Marvel, mythological heroes are superheroes. Thor, Hercules, and the like. In DC, superheroes are a mythology. Besides the New Gods and the DC Order/Chaos pantheons of heroes and figures, characters have dynasties and mythologies all their own. When Marvel wants a new iconic character, they often turn to mythological heroes. When DC does, they make up their own heroes with connections to mythology. Wonder Woman, Metamorpho, Captain Marvel, Hawkman, etc.

It's the mythological aspect of the DCU that makes sense of the epic scope of some o the characters and casts. Marvel doesn't have sidekicks and multi-generational heroes like the DCU. They simply wouldn't fit in. DC's characters are the mythology and pantheons of their universe. They're revered and they revere each other. You don't see much of that in Marvel.

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