The comic book medium has had lots of highs in its nearly 100-year history. We’ve had Maus, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Sandman, and much, much more.
But if I had to choose one comic book to send to Mars as the true pinnacle of the comic art form, I’d pick the adventures of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane.
Superman was so darned popular in the 1950s and 1960s that even second-bananas got their spin-off titles. Hence we have Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, which both managed respectable 100+ issue runs up into the 1970s.
For me, these comics are the pure crack cocaine all other comics aspire to. They’re the pop-art manic energy of Jack Kirby wrapped in suburban clothing, they’re everything Grant Morrison has homaged throughout his career.
The insanely goofy adventures of Lois and Jimmy typically follow one pattern – hapless Jimmy and Lois get into far-out trouble, and their pal Superman has to rescue them. But in this simple pattern a world of utter insanity is kept. Jimmy Olsen becomes a werewolf, a giant Turtle-Man, a human flamethrower, a Bizarro version of himself. Lois Lane becomes a witch, a mermaid, even a black woman in a misguided attempt at relevance in the early 1970s.
I’d argue these lowly spin-off comics in some ways serve Superman even better than his own solo adventures did – there’s rarely a fistfight or a cosmic clash, and instead the world’s most powerful superhero is often pictured as a kind of benign goofball god constantly at the beck and call of his irritating friends.
There’s something very primal about these adventures, which all take place in a Daily Planet newspaper that seems to have about five staff, where human bodies are twisted like putty and genies, aliens and magic potions are around every corner, but everything will be back to normal by the end of the story.
These comics are a product of their time – Lois is too often portrayed as a scheming meddler with marriage to a man (usually Superman) the only thing on her mind; but by the same token Jimmy Olsen is a gibbering goon who’s constantly getting himself into trouble as well. Yet I’d take a single Jimmy Olsen comic with their endless invention and amiable good cheer over a dozen of comic books’ latest attempts to strip-mine their past and reinvent the wheel.
You’ll never, ever see a Jimmy Olsen movie that captures a tenth of the insanity and colour of these comics. And that’s why they’re quite possibly the peak of the comic book form.