It’s the one title on my “Best of 2020” list that I haven’t written or talked about yet, so it’s time to give it its due. Honestly, letting “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen” sit on my review pile for so long was downright disrespectful on my part. It isn’t just that the adventurous photographer for the Daily Planet has starred in a maxiseries that’s genuinely good. No, it’s that Matt Fraction has delivered his most purely entertaining series since, well… “Hawkeye.”
It’s not that he hasn’t done good work since then, but there’s a reason that I eventually decided to sell off the five volumes of “Sex Criminals” that were in my library. Fraction has been a wildly inconsistent writer in the time that I’ve been reading him. His work on “Uncanny X-Men” and especially “Invincible Iron Man” were full of impressive highs and painful lows. It’s only been on titles like this, which center around C-list characters that don’t have a particularly large fanbase, that he’s been able to let his freak flag fly to its fullest… furl!
Which is how we get a story about Jimmy Olsen trying to solve his own murder. Which happened after the latest round of massive property damage he inflicted on Metropolis. This time it involved a S.T.A.R. Labs spacediving experiment that had the reporter turning into a giant Gargantua-esque kaiju and smashing one of the city’s biggest monuments on the way down. After being saved by Superman, of course.
The thing about this monument is that it was the latest focal point in a long-running feud between two of Metropolis’ biggest families: The Olsens and the Luthors. While Luthor’s family built the monument, he now wants to tear it down in order to build a new mass transit system for the city. Jimmy’s responsible, wealth-obsessed brother Julian was determined not to let that happen. Not just to protect part of the city’s history, but just as much to spite Luthor as well.
What does this have to do with someone shooting Jimmy’s super-secret assassination decoy body, which convinces him to decamp to Gotham for safety? A whole lot, actually. The series may start off by throwing a lot of seemingly unconnected scenes and characters at the reader, and it initially seems like it’s just the writer amusing himself now that he’s able to play in DC’s toybox. Except that’s not quite the case. Fraction has a plan. A demented one that starts when the Alexanders and the Olssons first came to Metropolis in the 1800’s and stretches all the way to the present when Luthor opens a long-dormant time capsule.
But who am I kidding, “Superman’s Pal” is also very much about Fraction amusing himself with all of the craziness afforded to him by the DC Universe. From Superman revealing his super-secret powers, to Batman’s delusion that he can be funny too, no cow is sacred here. Which is why we also get to see Jimmy teaming up with blood-barfing Red Lantern kitty Dex-Starr, having to deal with a marriage in Gorilla City to an interdimensional jewel thief, the hapless debut of the spine-tingling Porcadillo, to a cross-dressing Jimmy re-enacting the “kiss of death” scene from “The Godfather, Part II” there is no end to the craziness this series has to offer.
You know what else? Artist Steve Lieber kills it on every page. Whatever he’s asked to draw here, he delivers in spades. There’s a two-page spread early on which shows the artist’s range as we get a glimpse of Jimmy’s previous adventures. They involve him beating on Brainiac with a hammer while shirtless, ripping the skin off of a Luthor-bot as they fall through the atmosphere, having ingested some boar DNA to win a pie-eating contest, soaping down with Pink Kryptonite, and even a panel of him coming back battered from a warzone with Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Lieber makes all of these scenes look like they belong in the same world, and this is just the first issue.
I could go on describing all of the zany bits that the artist renders with zest. Though I do want to address why I waited until now to mention his contribution. You see, Fraction’s unreliability meant that there was always the chance this maxiseries could have tanked big time. So the fact that he was able to deliver an entertainingly zany and twisted storyline to the end was a genuine accomplishment. Lieber, on the other hand, is someone who I had complete faith in being able to deliver quality work. He’s always done good work since the days of “Whiteout,” though his facility with comedy has only become apparent with “The Superior Foes of Spider-Man,” “The Fix,” and now this. If Fraction’s story needed to be carried over the finish line, then Lieber was the kind of artist who’d be able to do it.
Yet it didn’t need to be, and the writer and artist wound up working in perfect sync throughout this storyline. Now I can imagine the issues that people might have with this storyline: The narrative can be all over the place at times. You don’t like it when superhero comics are silly, and anyone reminding you about DC’s crazy Silver Age really gets your hackles up. You wanted this story to matter (more than it already) does to the DCU at large. I get all of these reasons. For me, though, “Superman’s Pal” is a gloriously unrestrained tribute to the insane fun that superhero comics can offer. If I’m going to be upset about one thing regarding this series, it’s that both creators are likely to treat it as a one-time DCU mic-drop before going on to do other things.
Now that I think about it, I probably should’ve placed this higher on the list…