Friday, August 19, 2011

Forgotten Books: Jack Kirby's Jimmy Olsen - Jack Kirby

(This post originally ran in slightly different form on July 23, 2005)

Back in the fall of 1971, I was a freshman at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, about thirty miles south of Austin. One Friday afternoon I started home after my classes but stopped at Stuckey's in Round Rock, which at that time was about ten or fifteen miles north of Austin (it's town all the way between them now). When I got back in my car to head on home, it wouldn't start. Nothing I could do would make it run. I called my brother-in-law and he agreed to come help me, but it would be about three hours before he could get there. There was a convenience store just up the service road, so I walked over there to wait for help to arrive. The old man who ran the place was very talkative and was glad for me to wait there. There was a stack of comic books on the counter, so I picked up one of them to read. It was SUPERMAN'S PAL, JIMMY OLSEN #139, and when I opened it to the first page, I immediately recognized the artwork of Jack Kirby.

I'd been a Marvel fan since 1963 and was very familiar with Kirby's work, of course. I knew he had left Marvel in 1970 and gone to work for DC, but I had never read any of his comics for them and didn't even know he was writing and drawing JIMMY OLSEN, a book I'd never read. Not surprisingly, I was hooked right away and had to hunt up the back issues that I had missed. I also started reading Kirby's other "Fourth World" series for DC: THE NEW GODS, THE FOREVER PEOPLE, and MISTER MIRACLE. The art was great, the scope of the stories was epic, and the dialogue, while a lot more awkward than what Stan Lee had provided for Kirby over at Marvel, had its own goofy charm.

Recently DC has reprinted Kirby's JIMMY OLSEN run in a couple of nice, full-color trade paperbacks. I've read the first one, and I enjoyed the stories just as much now as I did nearly 35 years ago, maybe even more. I have the second volume and plan to read it soon.

By the way, my brother-in-law did arrive and got me and my junker of a car back home safely. The whole experience prompted me to write a song about it several years later, called "Round Rock Breakdown", one of my very, very rare ventures into songwriting. Don't worry, the song is long gone and I couldn't recreate it. I wouldn't even try.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the review as much for the telling of the breakdown story as for the comic and series, so I especially thank you for that. What kind of car was it, anyway?

I really tried but just could never like the fourth world titles. I read quite a few issues of New Gods and some of the others, but it seems to me by that time Kirby's art had gotten a little over the top, and the stories weak. I was and am a DC fan and was even sorry when they started pulling those characters and story-lines into the other titles as they produced big summer-event crossovers.

I did read some issues of Jimmy Olsen, pre-Kirby, and always thought it a weak sister there merely to sell more comics, which after all was what DC was in business to do. I never minded all the spin-off titles related to Batman or the JLA, but this and Lois Lane just didn't do it for me.

beb said...

Kirby's take on Jimmy Olsen was breath-taking. Where before Olsen were just this hanger-on, now he was a vital action man and with his friends the Newsboy league was looking into a secret government project on genetic manipulation. This was hot stuff.

Obviously not enough people liked what Kirby was doing because the New Gods books were soon cancelled but while they were going they were astonishing stories.

James Reasoner said...

I remember the comic books and the old man who ran the store, but what kind of car I was driving has slipped my memory, probably permanently.

I read and enjoyed all the Fourth World titles, but JIMMY OLSEN was my favorite, possibly because it was the first one I discovered. I really liked the larger issues that sold for a quarter back then and included Golden Age reprints of Simon & Kirby Newsboy Legion stories, along with a new Jimmy Olsen story. One thing that struck me as soon as I began reading the stories that Kirby produced by himself (or almost by himself) was that his dialogue wasn't nearly as good as Stan's. It had a certain goofy charm to it some of the time, but it really clattered and clanked to the ear. I've always thought that the pendulum swung too far in Kirby's direction during the anti-Stan Lee backlash. When I read some of the early Marvel books now I can see how hard Stan had to work with the dialogue just to finesse the stories into making some sort of sense.

Fred Blosser said...

Didn't one of those Kirby issues have Don Rickles or a Rickles lookalike on the cover? I believe it was around the same time that one of the other DC comics -- one of the Neal Adams reboot issues of Green Lantern and Green Arrow, maybe? -- featured a villain who looked like Spiro Agnew. DC was trying to shed its stodgy '60s-era image.

James Reasoner said...

You're right on both counts. There was a Rickles lookalike in two issues of JIMMY OLSEN, and the Agnew-esque villain was in one of the O'Neil/Adams issues of GL/GA, although I don't remember exactly which one it was. Man, that was a great run. The stories don't hold up quite as well as the art does, but it's still good stuff.

Richard Prosch said...

Your story brought back a flood of memories --first seeing the Legion of Super Heroes at the local barber and an entire wall of Playboy cartoons at the implement dealer. I agree that Kirby's art holds up very well indeed. I came across the first of Kirby's OMAC comics recently with a cover where parts of a girl are hanging out of a cement box --very surreal and ahead of its time.