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Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen: Matt Fraction & Steve Lieber on paying off a DC Comics gag 70 years in the making
This week, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen came in for a landing with a twelfth issue packed with jokes, reunions, and a big surprise reveal that changes the status quo of Metropolis and The Daily Planet in a massive way. What started in the first issue as a story about Jimmy getting out of town because someone was trying to kill him evolved over the course of the last year into a DC Universe-spanning mystery that, jokes and all, has major implications for certain key corners of the DC Comics landscape going forward. SYFY WIRE sat down (virtually, of course) with Jimmy Olsen writer Matt Fraction and artist Steve Lieber to talk about the big finale reveal and how it came together.
**SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers ahead for Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #12**
For much of Jimmy Olsen's run, perhaps the biggest mystery running through the series was who exactly was trying to have Jimmy killed the whole time. That particular mystery was resolved by Issue #11, with the reveal that Jimmy's brother Julian was trying to off him so he could gain control of the last remaining share of the Olsen family trust — which Jimmy had never bothered to use and possibly didn't even know about.
While the first part of Issue #12 followed Jimmy and Janie Olsen as they tried to chase down their brother (with a little help from The Porcadillo, of course), the back half was mostly devoted to the apparent doom of Jimmy's beloved Daily Planet. Plagued by scandal and without a publisher (see recent issues of Action Comics for more on those developments), it seemed like the Planet might finally go under, particularly since a big part of Jimmy Olsen's focus was the admission that Jimmy was the only real moneymaker the paper had left. Thankfully, that mystery Olsen family DNA ping from Issue #11 came in handy, with the reveal that the "phantom Olsen" in Metropolis is none other than Lex Luthor.
That's right, thanks to a secret connection decades earlier, longtime Metropolitan rivals the Olsens and the Luthors are actually related, and that means Jimmy Olsen has access to Lex Luthor's vast fortune. Because there's nothing he'd rather do than be a newsman, that also means the series ends with Luthor secretly funding The Daily Planet, and Jimmy Olsen becoming the publisher. After years of working under Perry White, Jimmy is finally his own "Chief."
According to Fraction, the idea to genetically link Luthor and Olsen was baked into the story from the beginning, as evidenced by the frequent flashbacks to the rivalry between their respective ancestors in the early days of Metropolis. The idea to make Jimmy publisher came later, through chats with fellow Superman family writers Brian Michael Bendis (Superman and Action Comics) and Greg Rucka (Lois Lane).
"The exact specifics of Jimmy becoming publisher of The Daily Planet kind of came out of… I kind of pitched it. Me and Brian Bendis and Greg Rucka would get together, back when people could do things like get together, and sit around a fire pit and shoot the s*** about all things Superman," Fraction tells SYFY WIRE. "I pitched it there as a solution. We knew where and what Brian was doing, and I was sort of being explicit in Jimmy about the financial realities that the Planet was facing. The thought was, 'It would be nice if this actually went somewhere, if this paid off.' It’s funny to think that Jimmy Olsen is the only thing that makes money for the newspaper, because I think it would be true, but also, 'How can this advance not just this book, but how can we build into the Superman mythos?'
"For me, the Planet is Perry White, and it doesn’t take Perry off the board," Fraction continues, "but just the idea that it’s Jimmy cutting the paychecks and the irony of it being Luthor having to keep it open, it just felt so perfect. I pitched it to everyone else, and they agreed, and it dovetailed in with how Brian was resolving that story. The timing was right and the feel was right. So, that specifically came, I think I was maybe doing Issue #4 or #5 when that specifically came about. It would have [always] ended with him and Superman on the Planet talking one last time. It would have ended as it did, but the specifics of him being publisher kind of came up through the Metropolis City Council meetings that we used to have."
For Fraction, the ending was the result of planning sessions with his collaborators as part of a broader plan for the future of Superman comics, but for Lieber, it also just worked as a very good joke.
"Jimmy being Perry’s boss feels like the payoff of a gag that has been in set-up for 70 years," Lieber says. "There’s 70 years of 'Don’t call me ‘chief’!'"
The Luthor/Olsen connection, and Jimmy's subsequent use of it to twist Lex's arm into funding The Daily Planet while also admitting to being behind other devious plots from throughout the series, arrives at a time when a lot of major reveals are unfolding in the pages of the Superman books. Over in the main titles, Bendis recently wrote Superman revealing his secret identity to the world, while in Lois Lane, Rucka was dealing with the multiversal fallout of events like Rebirth and how it's impacted numerous characters. Because of its position as the more comedic book in the Superman Family, it might have been hard to see the big Jimmy Olsen reveal coming, and it might still be hard to see it as anything more than a fun, twisty resolution that will soon get brushed under the rug. For Fraction, though it came at the end of his time with Jimmy Olsen, the big reveal in Issue #12 was about finding an amusing ending in line with the book's tone that also could be a part of bigger narratives going forward.
"We were talking a lot about coordination and how and when everything was going to happen, and how to lay out things from Clark Kent’s reveal to Lois’s deal, what she was given from Lex, what her big story is, the reveal of [Daily Planet publisher Ms. Leone] and all that kind of stuff, and how that was going to cascade into this real crisis moment for the Planet — and I had the fix, you know? Like, 'Here’s how we get out,'" Fraction says. "I think it works in the context of this book. If you never read another Superman comic, it feels like an ending that works. You don’t need to. 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?"
Finding a conclusion that worked "in the context of this book" is a fine line to walk for a comic like Jimmy Olsen, a series that's featured everything from the return of the Jimmy Olsen Official Fan Club, to the aliens from Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, to Batman putting a fake arrow on his head and declaring himself "hilarious." It's a book that's remarkably quick-witted on a panel-by-panel level, but looking back on it in the context of this paradigm-shifting ending it all also seems to make perfect sense on a grand, DC Comics scale. According to Fraction, though he was aware of the fine line the story was attempting to walk, he was also always focused on the emotional core of the book, and its place as a bright spot in an often dark superhero continuity.
"For me, the jokes are the smoke bombs that let you do the real storytelling. You can distract. It’s the spoonful of sugar, as it were. I also don’t think the jokes work unless there’s an underpinning, unless there’s something serious to it," he says. "There has got to be some kind of gravity — and not enormity, but gravity. So, yeah, it’s hard to be funny, and I think comic book funny is rarely funny. It’s comic book funny, which is a very qualified kind of funny. Just as a storyteller, the challenge for me was like, 'If it ever just feels like I’m doing jokes, then I’ve screwed up,' right? It’s the story of a friendship. It’s the story about a guy who wants to literally be anyone else but himself. All of that is what compelled me to do it in the first place. That was the Christmas tree; the jokes are kind of the ornaments. And the thing about the jokes is they're kind of not really jokes. There’s precedent for almost everything in the book, you know? And I think the DC Universe is in a very dark, very grim, very horror movie kind of place of blood and thunder right now, and there was nothing like that really around, you know? So it felt like, if nothing else, this is a dollop of crunchy amongst a lot of chewy, or something. It just felt like this is a contrapuntally placed thing to the rest of where the universe is. So, that was fun, and that gave it a kind of energy that I don't think we would have had, had this book happened at a different time."
So, with that approach to jokes that also managed to hold weight in the wider DC Universe, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen has come to a close, and it's done so with story elements in place that various creators could pick up and run with at any time. We still don't know what the wider story might be beyond this reveal, but for the moment, Fraction and Lieber have taken a step back from the Superman family. But does that mean they're done for good?
"If Matt’s writing it, absolutely," Lieber says, when asked if he'd come back for more Jimmy Olsen. "I wouldn’t want to just revisit a character because I have drawn the character before. There would have to be another story worth telling."
For Fraction, though, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen is better off as a 12-issue mic drop for now.
"I would rather do something new with Steve," Fraction says. "Yeah, I don't think so. This feels like a pretty complete thought. And never say never, you know? But let’s find somewhere else to go. Let’s find something else to say about something else."