Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen is Comics’ The Good Place

Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen is Comics’ The Good Place

I heard people rave about The Good Place for years before I actually watched the show, mostly because I don’t consider myself to be a sitcom person. I then I read Sam Anderson’s article in The New York Times, “What Makes ‘The Good Place’ so Good?” which convinced me that there was something going on

I heard people rave about The Good Place for years before I actually watched the show, mostly because I don’t consider myself to be a sitcom person. I then I read Sam Anderson’s article in The New York Times, “What Makes ‘The Good Place’ so Good?” which convinced me that there was something going on with this sitcom other than it being funny, and I needed to watch it, so I did, and it was even more mindblowing and amazing than the article had led me to believe.

The thing about The Good Place is, it’s not about the premise, or the first season plot twist that makes it so great. It’s the fact that it’s a sitcom that’s so much more than just a situation comedy. And more to the point, it’s not until you’ve experienced The Good Place that you realize that “this is so good” is a massive understatement, because there’s so much more happening that makes it difficult to explain why it’s so different from other sitcoms. As Anderson states:

“Maybe it’s faint praise to call a show the best sitcom on TV. It’s like calling a vehicle the best horse buggy on the autobahn. Sitcoms no longer sit anywhere near the vital center of American culture. We are not a nation of families squeezing onto couches to watch can’t-miss programming.”

The same could be said of the monthly comic serial. Data continues to prove that the majority of people who read comics aren’t Comic Book Guys pre-ordering single-issue comics three months in advance from a local comic book shop. Why would people want to deal with that logistical nightmare when reading the comic digitally or waiting to read an entire story arc all at once in a collected trade is so much more convenient? Major comics publishers continue to rely heavily on universe/multiverse changing comics “events,” single-issue gimmick comics, reboots (how many #1s can a series have in 2 years? Marvel still hasn’t answered that question), and variant covers to entice readers back to the floppy–but it’s a battle they will inevitably lose.

There’s part of me that is sad for that. The physical experience of reading comics is a fundamental joy that is part of what made me love comics. When I began reading comics, trades or Comixology didn’t exist, and because of that, my comics identity is closely tied to the experience of digging through back issue bins and longboxes and learning how to curate a pull list. Even now I order my comics from a comic book store that mails them to me on a monthly basis since the town I live in doesn’t have a local comic book shop of its own. I have a love and affection for serial narrative, whether it be television or comics, because of the wait, not in spite of it. Sometimes it’s because I want time to process what I’ve just read, but mostly it’s because I enjoy the time spent suffering with others as we all wait together. I love the shared misery that comes from lingering in narrative limbo.

Like many fans out there, Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye is one of my all-time favorites. And if I had to place myself in the Batman vs. Superman spectrum, Superman wins every time. Which is why Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was on my pull list as soon as it was announced, although I didn’t get to read it until much later, when the Superman: Leviathan Rising special and the first two issues had already been released (see the above paragraph about having a delayed pull list delivery schedule).

Jimmy Olsen laying down looking at two rows of various Jimmy Olsen masks and saying "Boy do I have a story to tell you."

As much as I enjoy the narrative limbo, I’m glad that I waited until there were three stories to read before I started reading it, because I wouldn’t have been able to see the larger picture, to sense the overall structure, and to marvel at it if I had been reading it one issue at a time. It’s the same reason why I’m glad I started watching The Good Place after season one ended, because binging makes those larger structural and narrative clues more quickly with their repetition. When you are waiting in between episodes, memory can fade from week to week, and with comics, being monthly, memory fades even more.

That is not to say that the series isn’t a serial, or is only intended to be binged. Rather, what Fraction and Lieber do, in every issue, and what they are doing structurally on a series level isn’t apparent until you get to the end of the second issue, three stories into it. And when you see it, when you get it, and have that Season-One-Good-Place-Plot-Twist moment, that’s when the excitement begins. That’s narrative desire that only a few creators can create that makes them great in comparison to their contemporaries, and Matt Fraction is one of them.

It’s unlikely Fraction would see himself that way, especially as collaborative as he is–and he has been blessed with fantastic artists throughout his career who elevate his concepts to an even higher level. David Aja’s work on Hawkeye has been rightfully cited time and time again for innovating the comics medium at a time when superhero comics had stagnated–the perfect artistic collaborator at the perfect time. And Steve Lieber is proving himself, issue after issue, to be the perfect artist at the perfect time for another series that will also, I have no doubt, come to represent a turning point for comics.

I was blessed with being able to sit down to talk with both Matt and Steve at Rose City Comic Con back in September, and in between the Batman jokes and Deadwood references, I got to begin to see behind the curtain, just a little, and understand why this was the project that brought Matt Fraction back to superhero comics.

***

It’s the final day of Rose City Comic Con, a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Matt Fraction is sitting alone at his table. I’m ten minutes early for our scheduled interview, but there’s no one there, so I go to say hi and introduce myself again and wait for his scheduled table time to be over. Behind him is an old banner that has been scribbled on with silver and black sharpie. “I don’t look like that anymore,” he says, when I ask about it. He tells me that people have started to ask if it’s him. I joke that he’s gone “full Jim Morrison” with the long hair and beard and he smiles, and then says, thoughtfully in a way that I would come to see is just his default state, “I don’t know what it is about going through a con season, and then needing to change your appearance.” His tone quizzical as he works through the process of answering his own question while speaking it. “It must be psychological.”

His daughter, Tallulah, appears at his table dressed as Eleven from Stranger Things along with a friend. She draws on his paper tabletop and mockingly asks for him to sign something because he’s her favorite comics writer. There is fond parental exasperation as Matt says that he was in the middle of talking to someone, and then asks where her brother is. He’s gone wandering, apparently.

2:30 comes around and I tell Matt that we can go whenever he’s ready. He looks thoughtful for a minute, and then decides to use the restroom before we head out to pick up Steve Lieber at the Heliotrope booth. Kelly Sue Deconnick is at the table next door with an increasingly large group of children (including their daughter and her friend), and people with cameras. They’re going to go walk the con floor. Right before they’re ready to head out, a fan with a filebox on a rollercart hurriedly comes up to get a comic signed. He self-consciously fumbles through the box but Kelly Sue assures him they’re in no hurry. She signs it without hesitation and also offers to sign one of the Aquaman lithographs stacked on her table for him as well. Both Matt and Kelly Sue have boxes on their tables for cash donations to the Hero Initiative in lieu of signing fees.

The fan leaves, and Matt returns and mugs it for the camera and the kids and then we’re off, walking the floor. There’s no handlers at Rose City Comic Con, but nobody approaches us as we walk over to the Helioscope booth, between Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press. Steve is drawing and chatting affably with someone, as he has been all weekend. He sees us and grabs his table sign that has a toilet printed on it and adds a post-it note that he’ll be back at 3:30 p.m. Matt stares quizzically. “You’re worth more than telling everyone you’re going to take an hour-long dump,” he comments, laughing, but also clearly, affectionately serious.

The three of us begin to walk away and I mention the page from the Leviathan Rising story that Steve has for sale in his original art stack that reveals the original character Jimmy was going to end up married to–a character they ended up not using when they couldn’t get editorial approval. “I should buy that,” Matt joking–but also likely not joking.

As I lead Steve and Matt through the con floor down, we travel past cosplayers in elaborate costumes. One is an Anna from Frozen, and they both comment on how well it was done. We exit the main room and head down what con-goers have nicknamed “The Secret Hallway” to the room I’ve been told I can use for my interview. It’s locked. After a brief discussion of whether to find someone to unlock it, we end up sitting at a nearby table since the hallway is nearly deserted anyway.

I begin the interview with what I think is a softball question for logistic purposes, asking how the project came about–whether Matt was approached by DC or not, and if he got to pick Steve as his artist.

There’s silence, and Matt folds his hands, then brings them to his lips as he considers his answer. “Give me a second to calibrate how I want to answer this,” he says. Steve and I share a smile, and wait for Matt to speak.

It’s not difficult to see why Fraction would want to phrase his answer in a particular way. This series does, after all, mark his return to the world of superhero comics and his first title for DC after his influential time at Marvel comics. Hawkeye with David Aja changed Hawkeye the character, but also changed Marvel, and changed comics. His inclusion of Kate Bishop in the series as well had far-reaching consequences, leading to Kate’s own solo series, a West Coast Avengers series, and her inclusion in the Hawkeye TV series for Disney +. People are going to ask why. Why now? Why this project?

Hawkeye by Fraction & Aja

Kate Bishop and Clint Barton in Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja (Marvel Comcis)

“The opportunity arose. And it sounded fun,” he says, quickly, decisively. “And I can’t think of–with that approach, stylistically, where every three pages were in another era, or genre, or milieu. I couldn’t think of a finer artist than Steve to do it. And that he was local was even better. Because we could just get together and make each other laugh and puzzle stuff out. But we’d worked together very briefly on a Hawkeye short story, and did that kind of very thing. And it helped because that book, came into existence and got out into the world in like three weeks, and it was kind of only possible because it was drawn by local folks.”

The serendipitous nature of life that has Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber living in the same city, available at the same time to work on a project of this nature, is not lost on Steve. “I recognized very quickly that this, this is going to be one of those once in a career kind of projects,” he adds, after Matt speaks.

The “project,” as such, is not just a reimagining of what a Jimmy Olsen comic could be, in the traditional sense of a reboot, but a challenge to the possibilities of what a comic structured like that could be. In this way, it functions both as a commentary on that old formula, and a revamping of what is a dead and tired comics format.

“The Jimmy Olsen book that people are nostalgic for is actually a pretty turgid read nowadays,” Matt says. “It rarely transcends the promise of its premise. And while there’s a delightful Magritte-level surrealism throughout, it’s a slog. Even at eight pages, it’s a slog. So that was kind of the only thing I was interested in taking from that, is every eight pages, every six pages, every two pages, there’s something different. And it could be Jimmy’s in the Renaissance, and now he’s in space, in one issue, and it’s just kind of the way we roll.”

But it’s not only the settings and the structure that Fraction and Lieber are playing with. It’s not even just comics as a medium. The success of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, depends entirely upon readers of superhero comics who know what it means to be readers of superhero comics. “Knowing too then that would change the way that I would tell the story, that freed us entirely from a local timeline,” Matt says. “And with that idea of, what if every chapter added up to something instead of just being, here’s another thing that Jimmy once almost died from, we kind of gave it a structure and a shape that I hadn’t seen before. And I was interested to write that way. And let’s honor a little bit everything that’s come in DC, or dishonor, as the case may be,” he adds, the last part said with a self-deprecating smile.

Jimmy Running from his many foes, including a gorilla and Perry White

It’s hard to imagine someone looking at this series and thinking that it dishonors DC in some way. This isn’t a Deadpool-style breaking of the 4th wall that is the hallmark of postmodern superhero comics. This is something else entirely, something less in the postmodern mode than embodying the principles of high modernism. This isn’t a satirical turn–it uses the technical possibilities and potentials of the medium of comics itself, and as I mentioned, the knowledge of readers of the medium as well, in a way that self-aware of its absurdity while at the same time, wholeheartedly affectionate. It’s not punching up, like traditional satire, or punching down, like traditional critique. It’s a love tap. And that’s part of what makes it so innovative.

And it wouldn’t be possible without Steve Lieber’s art supporting the text and structure with its unironic, genuine sincerity, even when being asked to draw things like the mayor of Metropolis as a literal dinosaur, or a cat who vomits enough blood to paint the walls of a hotel room. Lieber is, intentionally, the artistic straight man to the narrative’s punchline, and he does it beautifully, affectionately, invisibly–and purposefully. “I try to approach it like the straight man in a comedy duo,” Steve confirms. “My job is to be absolutely invisible. I don’t want to be the guy getting the laughs–I want the material to get the laughs.”

This sincere affection for the absurd is found in Lieber’s design for Jimmy himself as well. “I asked the editor of the book for reference for what is Jimmy looked like now. And they sent me a picture of a long, lean, heroic looking guy about 28 for the big square jaw,” Matt says, incredulously. The Jimmy Olsen in this series–a slight, ginger-haired youth with a bow tie, dress shirt, and sweater vest–resembles that depiction not at all, but is reminiscent of those earlier appearances, which has the effect of having Jimmy feel like a man out of time, even while he’s using the latest technologies and learning what it means to go viral. Ben Oliver’s variant covers, with their Norman Rockwell-esque aesthetic, also plays with this idea of nostalgia and modernity.

Ben Oliver's variant cover for Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #2. DC Comics, August 2019.

Ben Oliver’s variant cover for Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #2. DC Comics, August 2019.

Fraction’s way of reconciling Jimmy’s appearance with the world he inhabits is, in typical Fraction fashion, tied to larger themes not only of Jimmy himself but the world in general. “The idea of Jimmy being sort of being like a riff on like, what, what does the Royal Tenenbaums look like in the world of Metropolis,” he explains. “You know, and Jimmy sort of being the black sheep screw up? I love the old money, new money, because so many decisions that affect the world are made based on what rich people think of other rich people. Like, personally because of where they went to school.”

“I love that as a reason for Jimmy to dress in his canonical outfits. You know?” Steve laughs. “It’s not a person who’s connected to everyday reality. It has a reaction to it to something else. And here is that something else.”

The conversation shifts towards Jimmy’s characterization, and how this portrayal shows us a different side of Jimmy Olsen that hasn’t been seen before–a pathos, I remark, that makes us feel for Jimmy as a person. He’s not just a black sheep of his rich, old Metropolis Money family, but the butt of jokes at the Daily Planet. He’s also the only person in the world that Superman will clown around with on video, and the first guy to volunteer to jump out of a plane for more clicks.

“It’s the thanatos,” Fraction says. “Seriously. It’s the Death Wish. When you’re rich, you don’t think anything can ever happen to you. And some people it turns them into bitter, insane, empathy-free zones of ‘Do As Thou Wilt and Harm All,’ and other people it turns you into compassionate, wide-eyed adventurers who’ll always say yes. And that was cool. There’s no one better to represent the optimism of potential than him. ‘You’re going to me into a giant turtle and push me out a spaceship? That sounds good. And it’s for charity? Win-win.’ That I like. That makes sense to me.”

And knowing that thanatos is really what’s at work here makes other aspects of the narrative more clear in their purpose, especially in the context of the ending to issue three, where Jimmy kills himself (symbolically, while a double is killed, literally) and then heads to Gotham, reinventing himself as Timmy Olsen, who is the opposite of Jimmy in every way. Issue four, the latest release, could be nicknamed “the thanatos issue,” where we see Jimmy spiralling as he attempts to make sense of all that has happened. Jimmy tries desperately to explain his “crazy board” to Lois Lane, and explain how he’s ended up trolling Batman with a prank war that would, if this was a Batman comic, end up with Jimmy dead. But we’re not in a Batman comic. We’re in a Superman comic and Superman comics have rules to follow.

Big bold text of "Who shot the decoy corpse of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen?" with said decoy corpse naked and bleeding with just camera obscuring its nethers

Fraction lays this out this narrative logic for the reader early on. “There’s a bit where Jimmy’s friend doesn’t make it out of the, whatever we call them in for infra-ultraverse or something. And it appears that Lois and Clark are laughing about it, in a kind of callous way in the way they used to do it in the Silver Age,” he says. “And we got a note like, well, they seem like dicks. And I went, no, no, no–they just know it’s not real. He’s gonna be back. Because nobody dies like that. It’s Superman. It’s a Superman comic.”

As a Superman comic, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen just makes you feel good. And as a Superman comic, part of what makes you feel good is knowing that everything is going to turn out okay. It’s that knowledge that makes you, as the reader, able to blindly trust Matt and Steve and know that it’s going to end happily–because it has to. When you know that going in, the question for the reader is not, “how is this going to end?” but “how is this possibly going to end well?” It’s a different type of narrative genre writing in comics that is rarely seen in superhero comics these days. This is basic genre writing, like a mystery, or romance. In a romance novel, you know that the people introduced in the first chapter are going to end up together. The question is how, and there are certain rules that the reader expects the writer to follow in order to make that happen.

It’s difficult enough to write a serial narrative, but Fraction’s choice to treat this Superman comic as a genre, with its own rules and reader expectations, is exponentially harder. The choice also reaffirms what makes Fraction one of the greats, because he understands the pleasure of the journey even when you know your destination, and the appeal of that reassurance. There’s a trust between the writer and the reader, and that allows for a different kind of story to be told.

One of the things that Anderson credits Schur as doing with The Good Place is being able to be both “jester” and “guru.”

“It synthesizes those old contradictory impulses — jester vs. guru — so completely that they cease to be in tension. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, The Good Place is a show about everything — including, and especially, growing and learning. By all rights, it should probably be awful — preachy, awkward, tedious, wooden, labored and out of touch. Instead, it is excellent: a work of popular art that hits on many levels at once.”

By all rights, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen should probably be pretty awful. A solo title about a character that no one other than Superman even cares about? Filled with crack plots and cheap visual jokes? Instead, it is redefining what excellence means, because it, like The Good Place, is working on us on many levels at once. Including the levels that make you cry. It’s only now, in the post-Good Place cultural moment, that we’re capable of understanding that the same media can make you laugh with delight at the silliness, provide the escapism that we so desperately need in our lives, and also take us through the catharsis of bawling our eyes out–and do all that in twenty-two minutes.

Jimmy Olsen giving a campaign speech

What makes The Good Place so good is not because we see ourselves in the characters, but because the characters make us see ourselves. The episodes present the viewer with self-revelatory knowledge that is revolutionary to see on a sitcom precisely because it’s on a sitcom. It’s these same kind of basic human truths that you find in the pages of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, in scenes like the one that happens between Jimmy and Lois, when Jimmy is trying to explain his “crazy board.”

While the scene is about Jimmy, it’s also about life, and how we go through life. Life is filled with unbelievable events that we want to, on some level, see as having been shaped by a force greater than us, (whether that force be divine or a superintelligent supervillain), because why else would things turn out the way they do? And at the same time, life is also complete, random chaos that we have to, on some level, accept has no greater meaning than that which we give it. And when both truths are true, you end up crying on your couch because someone wrote this, and drew this, and gave you these truths in a way that resonates with you down to your soul.

After speaking with Fraction, I know that’s felt on the creator side as well. “I feel like I can dink around a lot, as long as we pay it off in a real and emotional…like, oh that’s a moment of genuine…” Matt trails off, humbly playing off the emotional torture he’s putting us through.

When I told Matt and Steve that Jimmy Olsen was my Good Place in comics, they were surprised and humbly grateful for the compliment. They were also quick to credit the situation rather than themselves. “We’re well-situated in working on something that I don’t think anybody’s coming to with nobody comes to Jimmy Olsen expecting logic,” Steve says. “The publisher isn’t going to have too many expectations. Coming at any of these things from the side gives you so much more freedom than taking a marquis character, where there’s a whole bunch of people whose job is to keep you from doing anything interesting. We’ve got far fewer people whose job it is to keep us from doing anything interesting.”

And there are many interesting things going on, and more revelations yet to come, more narrative threads winding their way through the series that have not yet come to fruition in a meaningful way, and yet readers can be assured that they will be, even if it seems that, in the words of Steve Lieber, the way that the story builds, “it’s a lot like the moment in the Superman movie where he throws the green crystal into the ice flow and the Fortress of Solitude builds out of it. That’s precisely our process.”

“I think there comes a moment,” Matt says. “I think it’ll come for different people at different places, but issue four, somewhere around there, like that first season of The Good Place, there will come a moment where you go back and see things click together. Something happens in the fourth issue, Steve wrote me, like, ‘did you know this was going to happen all along?’ And I was, ‘yes, yes. I promise, it’s all happening.’ It’ll happen for different folks along the way where it’s like, no, this is not just random nonsense, it all tells one story.”

And what is that one story? For all the complexity, it turns out that the answer is very simple.

“Why does he get to be Superman’s pal is the thing I will answer at the end,” Matt says. But to get to the end, to Superman’s pal, you have to go back to the beginning and answer a different question–who is Jimmy Olsen? When Matt describes where he’s starting from, the picture begins to come into focus. “There’s a moment where the camera is to Jimmy what the glasses are to Clark. Oh, it’s the thing you put so you hide your face. We see your pictures, we see what you see, and we see what you do, but we don’t see you,” he says. “That’s the thing that Superman sees in him. He’s the first guy that Superman met that’s like him. ‘Oh, you’re hiding yourself too!’ And Jimmy’s got his own reasons for that. But that thing of like, you do all these things, but when you remove yourself consciously from, you know, the act of observation.” Matt pauses a moment, head tilted thoughtfully, and then continues speaking. “I want to know what this does to your psyche.”

That’s no small feat, because it’s no small amount of work. And of course, that simple answer is also not what it seems–the series itself is also a smoke-and-mirrors distraction for big changes coming to DC’s Superman universe, editorially speaking. “It’s cool because as it builds, the back half especially, where it ends, does one of those things where it sort of asserts itself as a part of the rest of the universe, and changes the Superman corner, as much as the Superman stuff and the Lois stuff is,” Matt says. “Where we land, changes things in a way that reminds you, yeah no this is all one big thing. A crazy day for Lois Lane is different from a crazy day for Superman is different from a crazy day for Jimmy. And by the end of it, they all have crazy days. And the world is different for it. And that’s cool.”

Our thirty minutes are up, and so I thank them again for their time, and all the work they put into it.

“It’s so much work,” Matt grouses, laughing under his breath. “Ugh. There’s got to be something more than this, right?” he jokes.

“Hope I die soon,” Steve deadpans softly, a moment later, and Matt loses it, doubling over with laughter at the table.

“Can that be the headline?” he asks, earnestly. “‘Hope I Die Soon,’ the Team Behind Jimmy Olsen.”

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