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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE EVERLASTING FIRST, Part 10b: My First Exposures To Some Singers And Superheroes

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock 'n' roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it's the subsequent visits--the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time--that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

Beginning with this week's installments, all chapters in The Everlasting First will be split into two separate entries, dividing the music and comic-book stories into independent posts. This is for the convenience of those music fans who don't want to read the comic-book stories, and the comics fans who wanna skip the music. 




Among the many well-known members of Superman's supporting cast, from Lois Lane to Ma and Pa Kent, Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen is by far the most significant to be introduced outside of the comics themselves. Our Jimmy first appeared by name on Superman's radio show in 1940, and was almost immediately incorporated into the Superman comics, making his four-color debut in Superman # 13 in 1941. (According to Wikipedia, an "unnamed office boy" depicted in a 1938 issue of Action Comics is considered to be young Olsen in his first-ever appearance; I guess I'll concede the possibility, but it still seems retroactive to me.) The Wiki entry goes on to say that Olsen was rarely used in comics in the '40s, and didn't really become a notable comic-book presence until the '50s.

But Jimmy was indeed a presence on the radio series, and in two Columbia movie serials (1948's Superman and 1950's Atom Man Versus Superman) starring Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent, Noel Neill as Lois Lane, and Tommy Bond as everyone's favorite cub reporter. (Alyn was only billed as playing Kent, incidentally; the credits implied that Superman portrayed himself.) Jimmy didn't appear in the 1951 Superman And The Mole Men feature film, which introduced George Reeves as the new Superman, with Phyllis Coates replacing Noel Neill as Lois. But the movie led directly to the TV series The Adventures Of Superman, with actor Jack Larson taking on the role of Superman's pal.

I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to credit Jack Larson as the individual most responsible for turning Jimmy Olsen into a household name. Larson's unerring portrayal of the bumbling but kind-hearted cub reporter was immensely popular, and the on-screen chemistry between Reeves, Larson, Coates (and later a returning Noel Neill), and John Hamilton's Perry White defined the dynamics of Superman and The Daily Planet for more than a generation. When Reeves' death in 1959 brought the series to an end, there was reportedly talk of starting a new Jimmy Olsen show starring Larson, which would utilize stock footage of Reeves as Superman alongside new footage of Larson. Larson is said to have rejected the idea as ghoulish and repugnant, and he refused to have anything to do with it. The proposed project faded as quickly as a Kryptonian villain sentenced to the Phantom Zone.

In 1954, someone at DC Comics (probably either Whitney Ellsworth or Mort Weisinger, but I'm just guessing) realized that the Jimmy Olsen character was popular enough to sell some comic books, perhaps even as the star of his own title. With Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen # 1 in 1954, young James Bartholomew Olsen became the first Superman supporting character to have his own comic book, albeit one with all of the rest of The Daily Planet's regulars assembled, as well. (By contrast, Lois Lane didn't get her own title, Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane, until 1958, and she needed to prove herself before that with a pair of successful try-out appearances in the audition comic Showcase in '57. As one of Olsen's future crime-fighting partners might have said: Holy Double Standard!)

I was born in 1960, so all of the above was mere preamble for precious little me. The Adventures Of Superman was in active and aggressive reruns in the early '60s, so that served as my introduction to the mythos of Metropolis, including Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy was also a supporting character in the first comic book I can remember, 80 Page Giant # 14, a 1965 collection of Lois Lane reprints. I have no idea what was my first issue of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, but I certainly read a few of 'em in throughout the '60s, including many of the '50s stories that DC was fond of repackaging and reprinting.

Like his TV counterpart, the Jimmy Olsen of the comics was brash, foolhardy, trouble-prone, egotistical, intrepid, alternately courageous and frightened, ambitious, impetuous, resourceful, and lovable. He had a signal watch that enabled him to call for Superman's help whenever he needed it, which was often. His attempts at investigative reporting found him masquerading as a gangster's moll, a Texas oilman, and a hit man; scientific experiments gone wrong transformed into a giant turtle-boy, a wolf-man, and a human porcupine (among many other weird identities). Olsen also got directly into the crime-fighting gig himself on several occasions. He acquired stretching super-powers, and became Elastic Lad (making him DC's first stretchable hero, slightly before The Elongated Man, and years before DC's revival of the '40s hero Plastic Man). He joined his pal Superman in The Bottle City Of Kandor, a miniaturized Kryptonian city that survived the planet's destruction; Superman had no super-powers in Kandor, so he and Jimmy donned costumes and masks to fight crime as Nightwing and Flamebird, Kandor's counterpart to Batman and Robin.

And speaking of Batman, Jimmy also teamed up with Robin in a series of adventures. In Silver Age continuity, Jimmy knew Batman and Robin's secret identities, but never knew that Superman was Clark Kent. Superman's best pal? Sure....

But my favorite comic-book incarnation of Jimmy Olsen was that brief period when legendary artist Jack Kirby took over the character, from 1970 to 1972. As one would expect from King Kirby, this was an explosion of creativity and ingenuity, and elements from this series influence DC continuity to this day.

No. No I'm NOT going to say "Golly, Mr. Kent!" Are you some kind of idiot, fanboy?
Today, Jimmy Olsen's highest-profile incarnation is as a supporting on the current Supergirl TV series. He's a different Olsen than we're used to. Many have objected to the idea of the traditionally red-haired, nerdy white kid Jimmy played as a confident, hunky hero by black, bald actor Mehcad Brooks, but Brooks is so good in the role: more dynamic, more authoritative, more capable of ass-kickin' (especially in his guise as Kirby creation The Guardian), but still the good guy who's also Superman's best friend. The casting and characterization change isn't substantively different from Margot Kidder's chain-smoking Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve Super-films, nor Bela Lugosi's clean-shaven titular vampire in Dracula, nor dark-haired actor Grant Gustin as the heretofore blond Barry Allen on The Flash, nor even the quintessentially British setting of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity switching to Chicago for its film version. Adapting source material from one medium to another requires creative license, and results are more important than slavish adherence to orthodoxy. Supergirl has been cool so far, and Brooks' performance is a big part of that success.

Still, I have to admit that my image of Superman's pal remains formed by Jack Larson, Mort Weisinger, and Jack Kirby. I can accept new interpretations while retaining my affection for what I've always known. Jeepers, Miss Lane--what more can I do?

Quick Takes For J:


Oh, yeah: Cesar Romero, his moustache stubbornly showing through his pasty white makeup on TV's Batman in 1966. I'm not sure exactly which was my first episode of Batman, though I know I didn't see the pilot episodes until they were re-run later in the first season. It's possible, and maybe probable, that I was watching the show by the time The Joker made his grinning, ghastly debut in the third week's two-parter, "The Joker Is Wild"/"Batman Is Riled," on January 26th and 27th, 1966. (We used to watch Batman on a station from nearby Utica, NY, which aired the episodes on Mondays and Tuesdays instead of Wednesdays and Thursdays, so I may have seen these episodes on the 24th and 25th, before the rest of my kindergarten class saw 'em on Syracuse's Channel 9.) My first exposure to The Joker in comics form was a Kelloggs' Pop Tarts mini-comic; my second may have been a reprint of "The Crazy Crime Clown!" in a Signet Books Batman paperback. Much later, I read The Joker's first appearance, from 1940's Batman # 1, when it was reprinted in the book Batman From The '30s To The '70s. The murderous Joker depicted in this '40s story was dramatically different from the clownish criminal I knew, and the original interpretation of the character would return with a vicious vengeance in "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge!" by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams in Batman # 251 (September 1973).


My mid-'70s fascination with paperback reprints of 1930s Doc Savage pulp adventures led me to The Shadow, and to The Avenger, a lesser-known pulp hero also credited to Doc Savage's presumed creator, Kenneth Robeson. Robeson was a house name at Doc's publishing company Street & Smith, a pseudonym used by any writer working on Doc Savage's adventures, including Lester Dent, the writer recognized as Doc's main scribe. Dent, along with The Shadow's creator Walter Gibson, are said to have been involved with The Avenger's creation in an advisory capacity, but the origin and subsequent stories in The Avenger were mostly written by Paul Ernst, writing as Robeson. The Avenger's stories were exciting--even better than Doc Savage, as I recall--featuring the exploits of Richard Benson, a hero with the ability to change his appearance. In the wake of a devastating tragedy, Benson transformed from a wealthy prick into The Avenger, and formed Justice, Inc., his own little crime-fighting combo. Unique among pulp series of the day, Justice, Inc. included a black couple--Josh and Rosabel Newton--who were portrayed as intelligent, courageous, capable members of The Avengers' team, rather than as the derogatory racial stereotypes prevalent at the time. In the '70s, DC Comics licensed The Avenger for a comic book series; to avoid confusion with rival Marvel Comics' superhero book The Avengers, DC released these new Avenger adventures under the title Justice, Inc.


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