Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #141, September 1971, National Periodical Publications (DC Comics)
writer/artist: Jack Kirby
inker: Vince Colletta
Jack Kirby. Jimmy Olsen. Don Rickles. The holy trinity of comicdom.
When I saw the cover of Jimmy Olsen #141 at the Comic Con last week, I had to have it. Superman and the Guardian cradling a photograph of famous insult comedian Don Rickles? So long, Action Comics #1. Nice knowing you, Amazing Fantasy #15. I’m telling you, I’ve never been more excited by a comic book’s cover before.
Unfortunately, while reading today’s anticipated issue, its cover literally came off in my hand. Thankfully, I only dropped a dollar for the find, and besides, I’m less interested in the quality of a comic than I am its content. Sadly, I’m not sure if this story is any more durable than its binding. The most fascinating aspect of this yarn is its Superman-centric subplot; when we first see Clark in this issue, he’s trapped in a “bizarre space craft” and lost light-years from Earth! Ten rife-with-Rickles pages later (more on that in a moment), a “native to this star system” mysteriously appears to the rescue and introduces himself as Lightray! Anyone familiar with the tapestry Kirby created around the perilous mythology of Apokolips and New Genesis would understand the significance of this scene. I mean, Superman catches his first glimpse of Darkseid’s fire-pit planet in an issue of Jimmy Olsen – worse, an issue of Jimmy Olsen with Don Rickles on the cover! Who’d ‘a thunk an issue thirty-five years old would offer a fresh plot twist like that?
So, yes, Don Rickles. Prior to the comedian’s first appearance, Kirby introduces his “zany look-alike” Goody Rickels, who, like Jimmy, is suffering from a chemical that will consume them in a fireball from the inside out in less than twenty-four hours! (Of course, the Guardian recovers the cure from Intergang boss Mannheim just in time.) This issue offers little explanation of the Don-ppleganger’s origin, if at all unique other than his uncanny resemblance to Rickles, and when the two collide, the meeting’s peculiarity is cut short by the technicalities of the story. If Goody was a mere plot ploy to create this celebrity cameo, the attempt was shallow and would’ve been better served in an even more random context. I’ll take random over awkward any day.
Now, Don Rickles is one of the founding fathers of contemporary stand-up comedy and by far the best insult comedian of all time. This is not my opinion; it’s an established fact. Those early, classic Friars’ Roast specials wouldn’t have been half as memorable without the Rickles. That established, Rickles’ genuine wit is watered down and not well represented through his comic book incarnation. He’s less comedian, more foil, as he recoils from this issue’s events more than he cuts them down to size, which is what a good Rickles appearance should do. I expected Kirby to indulge us in some true self-depreciating humor, perhaps even at Superman’s suspense. In the end, like a bad Scooby-do cartoon, Rickles is begging the cops to drag him away, too. Hey, Don, can I join you?
Comic book connoisseurs would enjoy this issue’s back-ups, introduced by a self-caricature of Kirby and an interesting essay about the Golden Age history of the Newsboy Legion, whose first appearance from an April 1942 issue of Star Spangled Comics follows. The Guardian appears here for the first time, when rookie cop Jim Harper creates the disguise to fight the various thugs threatening his neighborhood. His inaugural war cry, “I probably look like a comic magazine superhero, out to grab crime by the horns,” would’ve annoyed me if it weren’t possibly one of the first statements of self-parody in the history of the superhero genre. Honestly, these features were the most entertaining of this issue. Makes me wonder if the “Jimmy Olsen comic” concept would’ve been better served simply as a series starring young, unlikely heroes, sidekicks, slack-jawed spectators, and rapscallions. I’d call it The Whippersnapper Brigade or something. Damn, I shouldn’t have typed that! If you steal it . . .!
All in all, I’ve always questioned the validity of celebrity cameos in comics. I’ll never forget the issue of Amazing Spider-man featuring ol’ Web-head lifting Jay Leno on a motorcycle over his head for charity. Did Leno benefit from the three panels’ worth of exposure? Did Spidey’s sales soar as a result? Probably not. These obscure links to reality shatter the escapism comics promise to offer. Tony Stark is just as famous as Leno in the Marvel Universe; Spider-man could’ve bench-pressed Wonder Man, for crying out loud. If the real world celebrity has something to contribute to the story – for example, if Don Rickles offered Peter Parker some stand-up training to hone those wisecracking skills – I could see the purpose. To sell comics? Honestly, if a goof like Jimmy Olsen made it to issue #141 without help, he must’ve been doing something right already.