Wednesday 4 June 2008

Showcase Presents Superman Family, Vol. 2, Otto Binder and Others

During the fifties the Superman comics were so successful that spin-offs were launched to meet demand. Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane went on to rack up over a hundred issues each, before the titles were merged into Superman Family, the title DC has used for these books collecting the two titles. The first volume was almost all Jimmy Olsen, his comic having launched earlier, but in this one Lois Lane issues enter the mix.

Reading this book, it’s surprising that Jimmy Olsen has never had his own tv series. The structure of the Jimmy Olsen stories in this huge collection is remarkably similar to that of programmes like Sabrina the Teenage Witch or The Wizards of Waverley Place: Jimmy wants to get ahead in some way (usually he’s after a scoop, or sometimes a pay rise), takes an unnecessary risk or makes an error of judgment, and then runs into trouble, often undergoing a startling transformation of some kind, before either learning his lesson, or finally making the right decision. One difference here, of course, is that while Sabrina or, say, Hannah Montana (someone who shares Superman’s secret identity woes and pleasures) are usually the authors of their own misfortune, here Lois and Jimmy are the ones causing trouble – for Superman – which often casts them in an interesting dual role, as both hero and villain in the same story.

(If my knowledge of current children’s television seems oddly extensive, put it down to how difficult it is to find anything for my little daughter to watch that doesn’t put me in danger of falling asleep at the childcare wheel! Undemanding tweenie sitcoms are better than the alternative!)

In Sabrina and Waverley Place magic tends to play a karmic role, punishing vanity and rewarding selflessness, providing the virtuous lessons deemed necessary for children’s entertainment. In Jimmy Olsen’s adventures, that role is taken on by Superman, who seems to spend as much time teaching Jimmy (and Lois) lessons as he does saving them from danger. He’s a kind of karmic avenger! (On the other hand, if he is as Grant Morrison has said, a typical dad from the 1950s, he could less charitably be seen as a patriarch just doing his best to keep everyone in their right and proper place!)

Anyway, if Krypto can get his own cartoon, I think Jimmy and his many alter-egos deserve a run on Nickolodeon. Almost any one of these stories would form the basis of a wonderful tv episode (see below for one horrifying exception). In many ways they are magnificent. There are few limits on the imagination of the writers – the status quo must be restored within eight pages, but on pages two to seven anything can happen, and often does, usually at the same time as something else that’s equally remarkable! Jimmy himself is cheerful and irrepressible, always ready to be the guinea pig in any scientific experiment, ready to try every strange potion he’s offered by his friend Professor Potter, and always looking for the upside of the disasters that regularly befall him.

One thing that’s very striking about these stories is the lack of supervillains (partly because Superman is so diligent in making sure that no one else can get any powers, or loses them quickly if they do). It’s refreshing to read stories about Superman that don’t just involve him trading mighty punches with flying alien trolls and the like. Most stories revolve around petty gangsters who attempt to kill Superman or disable him long enough to rob a bank or two. The tension almost always stems from the constant rule bounding Superman’s behaviour – he must save the day and restore the clockwork of his life without giving away his secret identity.

The downside of this is that as a result he can be rather a wriggling, shifty and devious Superman, always looking for a way to worm out of awkward situations through sophistry, semantics, technicalities and flat-out lies! Anything to avoid giving the game away.

This is particularly the case in the Lois Lane stories. (If I haven’t said as much about those so far, it’s because they can be a bit dull in comparison to the wild imagination on display in the Olsen tales.) Superman’s stubborn refusal to countenance marriage with Lois, while still wanting to keep her on the hook, always seems odd, despite his protestations that it’s for her own good, especially given the lengths to which he goes to avoid marriage, and the callousness with which he repeatedly ruins her dreams. Should we read him as closeted and gay, keeping Lois around as a beard? Or as an ageing playboy, with Lois as his respectable, chaste girlfriend? I don’t really think he’s either – he’s an eight-year-old boy. He doesn’t want to spend all day around girls, but he still wants them to think he’s the coolest boy in town.

When it comes to showing Superman at his worst, though, one Jimmy Olsen story here really stands out: “The Son of Superman”, by Otto Binder. In it, we learn that Jimmy is an orphan. Out of the blue (literally – he flies down from the sky to make the announcement), Superman offers to adopt Jimmy. The court approves the adoption, and the two of them begin to share a house. At this point Superman starts to be very unpleasant to his new son – for example he incinerates Jimmy’s father’s day gift with his x-ray vision. In the end, a sobbing, heartbroken Jimmy asks the judge to rescind the adoption order, to which Superman says, “If Jimmy wants to call it quits, that goes double for me.” Afterwards, Superman reveals that he was being deliberately rude to drive Jimmy away, because of a misunderstood prediction by his super-computer. Everything sorted out, Superman says he feels terrible that the judge won’t reinstate the adoption order, but they can still be pals…

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could at all admire the cold and cruel Superman of that story! He’s like someone who takes a puppy home at Christmas, finds the poop and hairs a bit inconvenient, and chucks the poor thing in the river!

Luckily the charmlessness of that tale is very much the exception to the rule. In general, Superman’s foibles in these stories are comical, more than anything else, and if they date the stories a bit, that only increases the period appeal. Taken as a whole, this is one of the most charming and delightful collections of comics it is possible to read.

Showcase Presents Superman Family, Vol. 2, Otto Binder and Others, DC, tpb, 520pp.

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