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SYFY WIRE Matt Fraction

Exclusive: Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber on finding the 'ending that works' for their Jimmy Olsen comic

By Matthew Jackson

A year ago this week, writer Matt Fraction and artist Steve Lieber embarked upon a wild storytelling adventure that promised to show readers "the bizarre underbelly" of the DC Universe. While Brian Michael Bendis launched ambitious new superhero adventures in the pages of Superman and Action Comics and Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins charted the beats of a conspiracy thriller in the pages of Lois Lane, it fell to Fraction and Lieber to explore the strange life and times of one of the greatest supporting characters in all of comics: Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen. 

The result over the course of the last year is one of the most consistenty entertaining comics on the shelves, a book that manages to be deliriously funny and surprisingly profound in the space of the same issue, and sometimes in the space of the same panel. Through Fraction's joyously madcap writing and Lieber's energetic and hilarious art, Jimmy Olsen became a book that walked a graceful line between two worlds.

It's a comic that exists firmly within DC Comics continuity and also seems to mock the very concept of "Jimmy Olsen continuity" at every turn, a comic that's both quick to dive right to the jokes and eager to play the long game of emotional satisfation, and a comic that works as both a fast-paced amusement and a story that has longterm implications for the future of the Superman titles, the city of Metropolis, and Jimmy's home base, The Daily Planet. 

In anticipation of tomorrow's release of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #12, SYFY WIRE is pleased to offer an exclusive preview of the series finale, as well as commentary from both Fraction and Lieber on how we got here, how their collaboration evolved, and how they feel the Jimmy Olsen ending landed. 

Spoilers ahead for Jimmy Olsen #1-11!

Jimmy Olsen #12 finds the character finally returning to Metropolis at a very precarious time for his beloved Daily Planet and for the Olsen family. The series' central mystery of exactly who was trying to have Jimmy killed all along is largely resolved at this point, but there are still a few mysteries to unravel, a few problems to solve, and a lot more strangeness to be enjoyed. It's the end of a very long road that's seen Jimmy journey from Metropolis to Gotham to the roof of a grocery store in Virginia, and featured encounters with everyone from Metamorpho to angry aliens to Jimmy's intergalactic jewel thief wife (long story) and everyone in between. It's a lot to take in, but as Jimmy himself said in issue #11: "Either I chase down the weirdness or the weirdness chases down me." 

For Fraction, it's that kind of approach to the DC Comics Universe that got him interested in a Jimmy Olsen series in the first place.

"There’s a lot of those kind of moments for me in those last couple issues where characters are kind of just saying and underlining and highlighting the theme one last time, you know? The question that made me interested in doing this was, 'Why him? Why does he get to be Superman’s best friend?' And then the answers intrigued me and, 'Well, wait, why is he like that?' Jimmy, as a character, I find compelling, especially in small doses," Fraction said. "I don't know that it’s the kind of thing that you can build a… Surely you couldn’t get 164 issues out of it [laughs]. I think [Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen Volume 1] ended with issue 163. But yeah, that compelled me and was interesting to me, and what it’s like just to tell the story of the guy who is sort of best equipped to live in the DC Universe and meet it on its own terms, moment to moment, with a kind of, 'Oh, yeah, sure. This is where we are now.' That was really interesting to me, somebody who has that kind of zen presence in the moment, whatever that moment is. I thought, 'Oh, there would be something in that that Superman would love and admire,' you know? Superman is so performative and so, 'Who am I? Where am I? Who’s watching me?' To find somebody who doesn’t just go with the breeze, but is the breeze. I think the book is the thesis statement for the book, but yeah, [that quote is] definitely part of it. You don’t get to follow Superman with a camera all day long without weird stuff happening. So, after a while, it just becomes a lifestyle choice."

To tell the story of the guy who is best equipped to live in the DC Universe, Fraction teamed up with Lieber, who's gained a lot of acclaim for work on superhero comedy books like Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Their collaboration built across the series until it reached a comedic climax with the 11th issue, in which Jimmy calls in just about every favor he possibly can to get everyone from the Scrubb (the aliens from Superman vs. Muhammad Ali) to Swamp Thing to the Phillie Phanatic (yes, really) to battle an alien bachelor and his army of rollling automatons in a fight with weapons including banana peels and pies to the face.

"Well, everything that works about the book is Steve," Fraction said. "Steve is so fantastic. I came into it as a fan and as a friend. I had worked with him a little bit before, but not a lot, not enough to really get a feeling for who Steve was and how he worked. So, I think over the course of the book I just got better… I hope I got better at writing for him, and was able to write more and more and more into his strengths. And I think kind of the big pie fight issue scaled up, both as a response to quarantine, but also knowing who Steve was and how he works, and just kind of, 'Oh, I can write the end of Blazing Saddles and Steve will absolutely draw the end of Blazing Saddles.' So, emotionally, I needed to go full Blazing Saddles in response to the horrors of COVID, and I just creatively knew that Steve could handle it. Like I said, all of the stuff was heading in that direction, but the scope of it, the scale of it, the idea that it’s not just Jimmy and the gang versus the, you know, rogue space bachelor, but we’re going to bring all of the background characters back. Literally they're throwing pies and slipping on banana peels. That happened because Steve could make it work as perfectly, as beautifully as he did. So, [the book] would have been similar without him, but it would have been far more mediocre without him. It would not exist in its form. It would not work without him."

For Lieber, who was asked to draw characters ranging from the Porcadillo to Batman to fighter pilots from Gorilla City, the success of the series was more about the intricacy of Fraction's scripts.

"I have worked with a lot of different writers in a lot of different ways, and most of the comedy I have done has been scripts that left big holes for me to just improv jokes," Lieber said. "With this, with the Jimmy scripts, every beat was precisely calculated by Matt. I always had the freedom to change things, to mess with the rhythm, but it was never necessary. What was in the script was always the best way to make that joke land. The combination of that with genuine feeling and heart in every scene, on every page, it took nothing but an interest in seeing it put together to make it happen. I didn’t feel like I ever had to fix anything. I never had to make anything work. Everything was there. It was a really remarkable experience as an illustrator."

Though Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen packs plenty of laughs into its wild 12-issue run, and certainly could have coasted by as "the funny Superman comic" at a time when other books in the DC Universe are heading in more dramatic directions, the series wraps up in a way that satisfies not just narratively, but emotionally. There's a thread of heart running through it that resolves in surprising ways in issue #12, something Fraction hopes will reach both casual readers and devoted, frequent visitors to Metropolis. 

"I think it works in the context of this book. If you never read another Superman comic, it feels like an ending that works," Fraction said. "You don’t need to [go on]. And if you were already a Superman superfan, it can go forward as long as it needs to go forward, you know what I mean? This is all stuff drawn with a stick in the sand on a shoreline before high tide. The water is going to come in and wash everything away sooner or later, but yeah. It felt true to the spirit of the book, true to the tone of the book. It also felt like, 'Oh, this is actual good, not-joke story.' All of the jokes worked because I think there is at least some modicum of a story happening here."

Speaking of the jokes, Lieber managed to sum up the way the series' humor works in tandem with its storytelling — and how it all works to one emotional end — rather nicely, by comparing it to another recent and very acclaimed genre comedy. 

"It was initially tricky for me because I had only started doing humor in 2013, with Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Through that and Quantum and Woody and The Fix, all [were] humor books, but all were kind of based upon, 'Wow, these are really sh***y people. Isn't that funny?' And I knew I could do It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I wasn’t sure if I could do The Good Place," Lieber said. "It was something that I realized about halfway through the series, is that this is an entirely different sort of humor. This is based upon an appreciation of people rather than the laugh being the kind of chimpanzee scream of horror at how terrible human beings can be."

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #12 hits comic shops Tuesday. Check back Wednesday for more from our chat with Fraction and Lieber, including a spoilery discussion of the series' ending.