You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who truly didn't like Jimmy Olsen. He's one of the oldest characters in superhero comics — having debuted 70 years ago on the Adventures of Superman radio show — and Superman's pal, for gosh sakes.
But few like Jimmy Olsen quite as much as writer Nick Spencer, a man who dared to wear a bow tie in public at Comic-Con International: San Diego this year, in tribute to the character. Just a little more than a year after breaking into comics with Image's Existence 2.0, Spencer's landed what he calls a dream gig — writing the Jimmy Olsen co-feature in Action Comics, starting with issue #893 out on Sept. 29 (though the first part of the Jimmy Olsen back-ups is online for free, as you read this, on the DC Comics and Comixology apps).
Teaming with artist R.B. Silva (Secret Six, War Machine), Spencer's bringing the same high concepts and snappy dialogue that's driven the first issue of Morning Glories, his Image Comics ongoing, to something like it's 58th printing (fourth, technically) to a Jimmy Olsen-starred comic that pays tribute to the wacky, "turning into a turtle," Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen past, while firmly moving forward. To amp up the degree of difficulty, the co-feature also takes on the task of introducing Smallville's Chloe Sullivan — one of the most uniquely beloved television characters in recent genre fiction history — to the DC Universe.
Newsarama talked with Spencer about writing the two famous supporting players, his own similarities to Jimmy, and the character's checkered past in other media.
Chloe Sullivan's comic book look.
Newsarama: Nick, let's get the timeline straight. Even though it was announced before, this assignment actually came after T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, correct?
Nick Spencer: Yeah. I was already working on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents when my editor, Wil Moss, dropped me a line saying they were looking for a new co-feature for Action Comics. He mentioned a couple potential leads, and one of them was Jimmy. And that was pretty much all I needed to hear. I remember he said I didn’t need to send in much, just a paragraph or two — and I think I ended up sending in like three pages. No one at DC had any idea that I was such a big fan of the character.
Nrama: You're clearly a big Jimmy Olsen fan — what is it about the character that has appealed to you for so many years?
Spencer: I am a huge Jimmy Olsen fan. They gave me my dream gig, almost entirely inadvertently, it’s great.
I’ve talked a lot about how I like Jimmy because he’s just a normal guy with an abnormal thirst for excitement, how he lives amidst all the power and magic of the DCU without letting it scare him or overwhelm him, and then makes himself a huge part of it all by sheer force of will — but really, I think it goes farther than that. I love Jimmy because I think he’s the defining symbol of how much fun comics can be. When I see people refer to Jimmy as ‘corny’ or ‘cheesy’ I instantly am filled with an overwhelming sense of pity for that person, because it tells me their inner seven year old has died. Those classic Jimmy Olsen comics are the ultimate testament to the silliness, insanity, and just pure joy that this medium can offer. And in a cynical age like this, I’d say Jimmy is needed now more than ever.
I don’t think I’ve really stressed this enough in the past talking about this story — I want people to have fun reading this. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve written a lot of serious books, darker books, so I don’t mean to sound like I’m criticizing stuff like that, I’m not at all — but when I looked at what Jimmy brought to the DCU, I just felt like capturing that brightness, that craziness, that anything-can-happen vibe was the most important thing we could possibly do. When people are done reading these, I just want them to have the same kind of smile I had on my face when I was a kid reading those Superman’s Pal back issues.
Now how we get there is pretty different — comics have changed a lot since Jimmy’s heyday, and so have the readers and their sensibilities. Most of us aren’t little kids anymore, and I don’t really want to just write nostalgic homages to anything. But Jimmy was used a lot in the silver age as that character young readers could connect with and see themselves as. So I thought about what that would mean today, the idea of putting someone into Metropolis that the average modern-day reader could connect with and feel that same kinship towards. And that informed a lot of this interpretation of Jimmy and the fun we have with him.
Front cover of Action Comics #893.
Nrama: You were wearing a bow tie this year in San Diego, which sets you up for this question — do you see anything of yourself in Jimmy Olsen? Or at least, your take on Jimmy Olsen?
Spencer: I probably let more of myself in the door than with any other character I’ve ever written, definitely. There’s stuff about Jimmy that really hits home for me. I’ve always been very big on trying to live life to it’s fullest, trying to seize the moment and make whatever dreams you have a reality, and to me, that’s what Jimmy is all about as a character. But I also think it just comes down to his personality — he lets stuff go to his head, he has all these problems with the women in his life, he can’t stay out of trouble … yeah, let’s just say I don’t have to look very far to find inspiration here!
Nrama: James Robinson did some notable work with Jimmy Olsen comics recently. How much have those stories informed what you're doing?
Spencer: Definitely, those were some of the first books I looked at, just to take a close look at where the character was these days. It was cool to see a new take on some of the Project Cadmus stuff, too. I think our story here is a lot lighter, but it definitely tries to honor that stuff, too.
Nrama: One thing you've expressed interest in for these back-ups is getting Jimmy Olsen out of his "comfort zones." Where around the DC Universe can we expect to see him?
Spencer: It’s less about changing location and more about changing what he does while he’s there, really — Metropolis itself is actually a very big part of the story. But I think most of the time we see Jimmy doing one of three things while he’s there: getting transformed into something crazy, getting saved by Superman, or chasing a story for the Daily Planet. So one of the first things I said was, ‘how can we tell a story that feels like a classic Jimmy Olsen adventure, but in a way that feels new and different? How can we keep that vibe and honor those stories, but without just treading old, well-covered ground?’ And it was pretty clear that the best thing we could do there is not go down any of those three roads here, and try instead to push him in some different directions.
Nrama: It seems we still don't know, likely intentionally so, what exactly is driving the action in the Jimmy Olsen feature. What can you say about the plot?
Spencer: Well, where we start, things aren’t going so great for Jimmy. With Superman being away from Metropolis, he’s taken to living life a little... differently now that he knows the Man of Steel won’t be there to save him anytime he goes chasing danger. He’s in a bit of a rut, and then something happens that shakes things up in a big way. And what that is, you gotta wait and see.
Nrama: Paul Cornell has talked about his Lex Luthor front-ups in Action Comics being finite, with a specific end in mind for the story. Is the same the case for the Jimmy Olsen feature, or is it open-ended?
Spencer: I want to write Jimmy for a long, long time — so while this particular arc has a defined ending, there’s nothing to stop us from doing more if readers like it, and even better, I think we’ll have built a strong foundation for future stories.
Nrama: Given Jimmy's importance to the Superman side of the DC Universe, how much coordinating with the other writers is involved in crafting the second features?
Spencer: Oh, not too much. I’ve kind of got Jimmy off doing his own thing, though we’re always looking for some fun ways to tie it all in with stuff going on elsewhere! I do think some of R.B. Silva’s amazing redesign work on Jimmy himself will probably reverberate through his future appearances elsewhere in the DCU, and then obviously, we’re introducing a pretty important new character to Metropolis in the one and only Chloe Sullivan.
Nrama: Jimmy Olsen has to be one of the top 10 comic book character that's been adapted into other forms of media. Other than the comic books, what's your favorite version of Jimmy Olsen?
Spencer: Jimmy’s had a pretty rough go of it outside the comics, I think! But I did like Aaron Ashmore’s take on him on SMALLVILLE. That would probably be my favorite — and yes, I’m well aware that’s not our Jimmy technically speaking, but hey, in a spiritual sense and all that!
Nrama: Chloe Sullivan. Her fans are a pretty dedicated bunch; they even pitched in to buy ad time here in LA last spring to air a commercial they made about how great they think she is. How nervous are you about getting the character "right"?
Spencer: Extremely. It’s terrifying! But exciting at the same time. I’m very proud of the fact that we pulled this off — and all credit goes to everyone at DC for making it possible — I really consider it to be my first positive contribution to the DCU, getting a great character like Chloe in the door here. At the same time, obviously, there are a lot of changes due to continuity and what not, but I’m trying to stay as true to the spirit of the character as I can: she’s the same strong-willed, funny, and fearless girl people know and love from the show. She’s from Smallville, and calling back to the earlier seasons, she’s a reporter. She and Jimmy have some history, too.
The one thing I do keep cautioning her fans about is that, here, she’s a supporting character in a 10 page co-feature that’s got a lot going on, and it’s going to take us some time to really get to her story and see why she is where she is when we start. But if they do stick around, I really believe they’ll like where we’re going — I’m already bugging my editors to let me do more with her down the road, too, so fingers crossed there. And no matter what, she’s here now, in the DCU, and hopefully she’ll have a long, bright future in comics!
Nrama: A couple years ago, reports surfaced that Kurt Busiek planned to introduce the character into the DCU during his run on Superman, but that was eventually nixed. Did you get any opposition at all when you first brought up the idea of introducing Chloe into the DCU?
Spencer: None! And a lot of the credit for that goes to Wil Moss, who I can’t say enough good things about. He really embraced the idea and spared me any of the behind-the-scenes stuff that may have come up. I knew about the previous attempt, so when I proposed this I tried not to get my hopes up — but then thankfully, it all came together. Pretty nice when that happens!
Nrama: So at what point did you realize Chloe was a good fit for the story you were telling?
Spencer: Pretty early on. I knew I wanted a female character for Jimmy to interact with. I knew I wanted her to be a reporter. And then I knew I wanted her to be clever and dogged and more than capable of challenging Jimmy. And then I realized I was subconsciously writing Chloe. So for a couple days I was working on this Chloe-esque character before I finally worked up the nerve to just ask if I could use the real thing. So really, it always was her, it was just a question of if I’d be allowed to use the name.
Nrama: For someone that's only been in the business for a little longer than a year, how awesome is it to be working on the longest-running comic book in history?
Spencer: It’s a huge honor. That was one of the very first things I realized about this assignment, and I take it very seriously. No matter what else happens in my career, there are going to be issues of Action Comics that I wrote part of. That’s insane. The kid in me simply can’t believe it.
But beyond that, one of the coolest parts of the gig is getting to do it at the same time Paul Cornell is writing the main story here. And not just because he’s absolutely one of my favorite writers in the world! But what he’s doing with Lex there, I think our stories will sit well next to each other in many ways. A story like Jimmy’s here, with all it’s humor and fun, it would’ve stood out like a sore thumb going after some previous runs, just by virtue of the differing tones — but Paul is really embracing the fun in his stuff too, so hopefully his fans will dig this as well, and they’ll be the perfect complements to one another.