Monday, May 22, 2017

Jimmy Olsen, Elastic Lad

Jimmy Olsen. Office boy. Cub reporter. Photographer. Superman's Pal. Man of Action. Honorary member of the Legion of Superheroes. Created at a time when youthful companions were common in superhero comics, Jimmy has never been just a sidekick. Rather than merely accompanying Superman on adventures, Jimmy has been both coworker and friend to Clark Kent. He is a member of that supporting cast at the Daily Planet that has followed Superman into cartoons, television shows, and films. In many ways, he may seem an anachronism to modern comic readers, even silly. But while he remains an important part of the Superman world, it is hard for modern readers to understand how important a character he used to be in his own right.

The first appearance of James Bartholomew Olsen is a matter open to some debate.  Action Comics #6, which featured a very young blonde-haired office boy working at the daily planet, is often listed as his first appearance. But that young boy is not named and, other than a bow-tie, he bares almost no resemblance to the character we would later come to know as Jimmy Olsen. 

 (Jackson Beck, Joan Alexander, and Bud Collyer)

The name Jimmy Olsen was actually first used in the Adventures of Superman radio show on April 5, 1940. For most of the series, he was voiced by Jackie Kelk but Jack Grimes took over after the case was replaced for the final year. Shortly thereafter, the character appeared by name in the story of Superman versus the Archer in Superman #13 (November-December 1941).  Admittedly, that Jimmy Olsen did bear a strong resemblance to the young office boy seen in Action Comics #6.

Jimmy Olsen did not exactly set the world of comics on fire at first and only appeared a handful of times in the Golden Age.  He did continue to appear in the radio show, and also in the two Superman movie serials that were released in 1948 and 1950, where he was played by Tommy Bond.  But still, that was not enough to return the character to the comics. No, his resurgence there is owed entirely to the Adventures of Superman tv show. Played by Jack Larson, the character became an important part of a popular show, and soon reappeared in the comics after a 10-year absence. 

(Come on, you all know these guys)

In fact, the character became so popular thanks to the tv show that he soon received his own self-titled comic, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.  Under the guiding hand of writer Otto Binder, Jimmy often found himself gaining super powers or undergoing bizarre transformations, or both.  In the heyday of that title, Jimmy grew four extra arms, switched minds with a gorilla, gained super-speed, developed the super-brain of a man of the far future, and transformed into a wolf-man. And that is just a sample of Jimmy's adventures. These stories were of the same creative and whimsical bent as those Otto Binder wrote while working on the Captain Marvel family for Fawcett.

It was in one of these Otto Binder written stories where Jimmy Olsen first took the identify of Elastic Lad, future Legionnaire.  In Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #31 (September 1958), Superman brought back a chest that he found floating in space, which contained a bottle of green liquid.  Jimmy accidentally broke the bottle and spilled the contents on himself.  He soon discovered that he had gained the ability to stretch.  Thinking he had become a freak, Jimmy ran away to join a circus, where he was given a green costume and the name Elastic Lad.

Jimmy was later tricked by a criminal into stealing some Kryptonite.  Superman discovered what happened but was weakened by the Kryptonite when he attempted to intervene.  As Elastic Lad, Jimmy came to the rescue and saved Superman.  But the exposure to Kryptonite robbed Jimmy of his powers.

Like most of Jimmy’s transformation stories, this is written as a one-off and the reader is left with no expectation that Elastic Lad will return.  But thanks to a special serum created by his friend and frequent guest-star Professor Potter, Jimmy was later able to temporarily regain his stretching ability.  He went on to have a number of adventurers as Elastic Lad although now wearing a purple costume instead of the original green.

In Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #72 (October 1963), Jimmy was invited on a television show to demonstrate some of his fantastic transformations. Jimmy's performance was interrupted by the arrival of the Collector, an alien who accused Jimmy of committing heinous crimes against the people of his world. The Collector took Jimmy back to his homeworld of  Gion-El, where he tried to taunt and intimidate Jimmy using duplicates of his other personas. 

Eventually, Jimmy grew frustrated and tossed a microphone he was wearing at the Collector. The villain ducked, and that gave Jimmy the clue he needed to figure out that the Collector was really Mon-El in disguise. It turned out that the microphone was partially made out of lead so seeing the Collector shun it allowed Jimmy to finally put things together. He also realized that his various duplicates were other Legionnaires in disguise and that it was their special abilities that allowed them to appear as Jimmy's bizarre personas. 

Superman arrived and took Jimmy back to Legion headquarters in the 30th Century. In classic Silver Age-style, it was revealed that the entire adventure was a super-initiation test, and since Jimmy passed with flying colors, he was going to be made an honorary Legionnaire. Jimmy expressed surprise at being granted membership since he did not meet the criteria of having super-powers. But he was assured by Cosmic Boy that he Elastic Lad!

The bulk of Elastic Lad's adventures occurred in the Silver Age, although he did have a handful of appearances in the Bronze Age as well.  His last in-continuity pre-Crisis appearance was in DC Comics Presents #93 (May 1986) where he found himself a victim of mind control alongside other stretchy heroes Plastic Man and Elongated Man. Okay, technically this occurred after the Crisis, but it was published just before the John Byrne revamp and clearly takes place in the pre-Crisis timeline. 

Elastic Lad also made an appearance in the second half of Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow Action Comics #583 (September 1986). His fate in that tale is among one of the more controversial aspects of the story to fans of the pre-Crisis Superman universe. Jimmy would get an Elastic Lad story in the post-Crisis universe, but this was a very different take on the character, closer in tone to a horror story than the whimsical Silver Age tales. While post-Crisis Jimmy would become aware of the Legion, that version of the character was sadly never granted honorary membership in the team. Well, "sadly" in my view but I imagine opinions vary greatly on that notion.

I will soon begin covering Jimmy's adventures as Elastic Lad, both alone and with the Legion. Some might argue that Elastic Lad's solo stories are a bit too far removed from the Legion of Superheroes to warrant discussion here. After all, the character barely appeared with the Legion and his membership did not survive the Crisis on Infinite Earths. But at the end of the day, Elastic Lad was a member, and if the Legion was impressed enough by Jimmy to grant Elastic Lad honorary membership, I think his adventures are deserving of attention.


  1. Are you going to do the Insect Queen stories after, or interweave them?

  2. I would love to cover her too but have to make sure no one else has reserved her.

    1. There aren't a lot of Insect Queen stories, are there? You're welcome to them!

  3. Jimmy always seemed an odd fit for the Legion. He was part of Superman's cast, while the Legion was part of Superboy's.

    Nevertheless, Elastic Lad was a more logical fit for the Legion than Pete Ross, even if Pete did prove his mettle on more than one occasion (Mordru, I'm looking at you!)

    1. I agree, Jimmy never really fit with the Legion imo. He certainly didn't fit in as well as young Pete and young Lana.

    2. Mike, you're welcome to review all the Pete Ross Legion stories, too.:-)

    3. Hey, I'll take that bullet, gladly :)

    4. There may be more relevant Pete Ross stories than Insect Queen ones, since you'd want pretty much anything involved in the entire Jonathan Ross arc...

  4. I never really cared for Jimmy being Elastic Lad either but always thought why couldn't Bouncing Boy just be able to stretch as well as inflate ?

    He'd have been more valuable.

    Also, I simply found the DC Legion stories of my youth in the 1960's that had Jimmy Olesen were just plain lame !

    Thankfully Olesen wasn't included in the Jeff Johns reboot several years back.