Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from a writer who is new to The Middle Spaces but whose contribution is in line with the site’s mission of applying a critical lens to comics by examining how Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen helps us to consider the role of disability in framing and defining superheroic embodiment and who is allowed to benefit from those transformations and non-normativity.
Tropes of mutation, transfiguration, and nonhuman parentage give shape to the heroes and villains of Marvel and DC alike. The production of superhero bodies nearly always involves an act of transformation—magical, biological, or sartorial—either at a character’s origin or at the moment they are called to action. Superheroes are exceptional not just for their physical might in itself, but for how these changes—the “what does not kill him” of Nietzsche’s ubermensch—enhance rather than hinder their agency.
Unavoidably, these bodies come into being as part of a morbid double act, finding their superiority in the negation, sometimes even removal, of ordinary “inferior” bodies, often coinciding with the moment of transformation. In order to render his own position as a superhuman coherent Cyborg must inhabit a world with real amputees, just as Wolverine needs real PTSD sufferers, a less capable, ostensibly less advanced population, Homo inferior to Magneto’s Homo superior. As such, those whom superhumans exceed are not “normal” (read: able-bodied) humans after all, but the disabled and the non-normative who, dominant society would have it, lie at the opposite end of the bell curve of superheroic capacity. “The superhero genre,” José Alaniz writes in Death, Disability, and the Superhero (2014), “serve[s] as a disability- and death-denying representational practice which privileges the healthy, hyper-powered, and immortal body over the diseased, debilitated, and defunct body” (6). These weaker bodies can be the hero’s friends and supporting cast, they can be the bystanders the heroes save—they can, as scholar Ramzi Fawaz has observed in his work on Silver Age heroes, even be the heroes’ human alter egos themselves.
This dynamic is especially prominent in Marvel’s invariably imperfect alter egos. Donald Blake, for example, is the disabled American doctor created by Odin as the host body for Thor’s dormant consciousness at the moment he is banished to Midgard. In August 1962’s Journey into Mystery #83 Blake finds himself trapped in a cave by a sudden attack of Saturnian stone creatures, leading to him striking his “useless” cane against a rock. In a flash of lightning, the walking stick unexpectedly becomes the enchanted hammer Mjolnir, while the debilitated human body of Donald Blake is transfigured into the mighty Aesir body of Thor, god of thunder.
Alaniz generalizes this process to include the vanishing of all supposed weaker alter egos “into” the superhero identity. “The weak Clark Kent ‘disappears’ when he becomes Superman, Billy Batson vaporizes to make room for Captain Marvel” (36). Similarly, Daredevil’s elaborate acrobatic ability conceals the fact of Matt Murdock’s blindness during most of his early adventures, and the non-ambulatory Professor X is conveniently given psychic abilities that often let him fight battles at a distance (sometimes as an imagined able-bodied “astral” form) while he remains concealed within the X-Mansion.
Few titles illustrate the human/superhuman binary as well—or as frequently—as Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, a series that ran for almost twenty years from 1954 to 1973. The book is remembered today largely for Jack Kirby’s run as writer-artist (1970-72), introducing many popular characters and concepts of his Fourth World “metaseries,” but the earlier, more episodic issues told a slew of illuminating (if repetitive and, often, formulaic) stories about the dynamics of superhuman embodiment. The title’s early years extend back to the period before DC consistently credited its creators in print, but Curt Swan, the quintessential artist of Silver Age Superman, penciled 113 of its 163 issues (or about 80% of the non-Kirby material), and writers on the book included Superman Family veterans Otto Binder and Robert Bernstein, soon-to-be DC staple Leo Dorfman, and even Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel.
Despite the diversity of its talent, the series shows a remarkable consistency in its stories over its lengthy run, Kirby’s later otherworldly additions notwithstanding. Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter for the Daily Planet, stands at the center of Archie-style romantic misadventures, alien kidnapping plots, slumlord fraud schemes, and stories that combine these and other familiar mid-century genre tropes in a variety of permutations. A common thread among many of the ‘50s and ‘60s issues is the plot element of Jimmy becoming transformed, whether as the target of villainous machinations or through being caught in the crossfire in conflicts involving his titular “pal.”
Spanning the entirety of DC’s Silver Age, Superman’s Pal often borrowed as much from contemporary sitcoms as from the other comic books of the Superman Family. Stories like “Jimmy Olsen: Freak!” (#59, March 1962)—written by Siegel and penciled by John Forte—put the eponymous journalist at the center of convoluted, Dobie Gillis-style comedies of errors. In this issue, Jimmy is selected for the harem of Princess Ilona, a devoted Superman fangirl from the Sunev galaxy, who has been watching the pair’s adventures from afar. Enthralled by the powerful (not to mention beautiful) princess, and wooed with the abilities of flight and transmutation, Olsen is content to while his time away as a docile harem husband—until Ilona’s husbands jealously intervene. Fearing the gradual loss of Ilona’s affections to the puny earthman, they utilize their own husband-powers to transform Jimmy into something like a spherical, mule-eared Cousin It. Luckily, as ever, Superman arrives in true deus ex fashion to extirpate Jimmy from the awkward situation.
In this way, the story follows a typical formula of the metamorphoses Jimmy undergoes throughout the long run of the series: Jimmy will often be granted an exceptional physical trait or superhuman ability through apparently benevolent—or at least beguiling—means. This drama will often overlap with leads Jimmy and/or Clark are following for the Daily Planet, and, especially in the early ‘60s, usually involved an appearance from Jimmy’s own girlfriend, Lucy Lane (Lois’ sister, utterly forgotten by Jimmy after Ilona’s kiss). This transformation, like many others, displaces Jimmy from his normative relationship (with Lucy) and subjects him to further ridicule and physical violence (in this case, at the hands of the male harem).
There are also numerous stories where Jimmy’s transformation is decidedly not a beneficial one from the very beginning. In “The Wolf Man of Metropolis!” from issue #44 (April 1960; Jack Schiff and Curt Swan), Jimmy and Lois unearth an ancient potion, its label warning that whoever consumes it will be cursed to become a wolf each night until granted the “willing” kiss of a beautiful girl. Having a masquerade ball coming up, and as fond of kisses as Lucy has chided him for being, Jimmy (of course) decides to down the potion. The only hang-up? His wolf-man “costume” is too convincing, and it strikes fear into every beautiful girl he can find, his own girlfriend included. This kind of tension is examined in Ramzi Fawaz’s The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. The book builds on work by disability theorist Robert McRuer in examining the importance of a heterosexual able-bodiedness to midcentury notions of American citizenship. Fawaz takes Marvel’s Fantastic Four as a queer, as well as physically deviant, challenge to such values of sexual, bodily, and political integrity. As Fawaz writes of the FF, Jimmy’s “apparent distance from the ‘normal’ human body [is] interpreted as a material expression of [his] inability to perform the proper functions of able-bodied heterosexuality” (67). Like the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm, whose monstrous appearance makes him unlovable to everyone except the blind Alicia Masters, Jimmy’s lupine transformation calls his performance of heterosexual norms into question, even as those norms (a “willing” kiss—from a girl) are presented as the way out of this bind.
Superman, of course, saves Jimmy from a life as a werewolf by arranging for Supergirl to kiss him and undo the effects of the curse (the magic in question being evidently pickier about gender than about species). But in keeping with the cyclical and recurring nature of Jimmy’s transformations, he merely tucks the wolf potion away in the back of a cabinet, only to return to it eight issues later when Mr. Mxyzptlk enthralls Jimmy into transforming himself yet again as part of the imp’s scheme to win the heart of Lucy Lane.
McRuer explores similar conjunctions of sexual and bodily normativity in “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence,” writing that “compulsory heterosexuality is contingent on compulsory able-bodiedness and vice versa” (89). The comical scene of Jimmy unable to find a girl willing to kiss him and release the curse, and the harem’s transformation of him into an “unlovable freak” are realistic outcomes for ordinary humans experiencing the kind of physical transformation that ennobles and empowers the superhero. Nebbishy reporter Clark Kent, though he appears human, has Kryptonian blood running through his veins. Bullets cannot hurt him, and if Clark is ever regarded as insufficiently masculine and virile, Superman certainly is not.
Jimmy’s Wolf-Man body again returns (twice) in Siegel and Swan’s “The World of Doomed Olsens!” (#72, April 1960), a story that opens with Jimmy flaunting his variety of metamorphic powers on the TV program Meet the Celebrities, utilizing his Elastic Lad and Wolf-Man serums to momentarily wow an ogling crowd (though how Jimmy easily manages to transform back into his normal human form without another “willing kiss of a beautiful woman” is left unexplained).
As the story moves on to the main action, the villainous Collector (no, not Benicio del Toro) arrives to crash the show’s taping. He introduces himself as an aggrieved citizen of the other-dimensional world “Gion-El,” recently devastated by the high-frequency radio pulses emitted by Jimmy’s Superman-summoning signal-watch. The Collector is aided in tormenting Olsen by what appear to be golem-like recreations of five of Jimmy’s more notable transformations: the Wolf-Man, Elastic Lad, the Human Porcupine, the giant Turtle Man, and Fat Boy (an obese but durable transformation similar in ability to the X-Men villain Blob), who take turns tickling, restraining, and otherwise tormenting Jimmy. As the final punishment, the Collector vows to transform Olsen into a new, hideous form—a transformation he calls “the Jimmy Olsen doom.”
But by the end of the story, the illusion is broken. The Collector of Gion-El turns out to be Mon-El of Daxam, and the “freakish imitations” (Jimmy’s term) are five other members of the Legion of Super-Heroes in disguise.
Returning with the Legion to their future clubhouse, Jimmy learns that the day’s events have earned him an honorary place in their ranks. Joined again by his pal Superman, Jimmy is told that the seeming attack by his other selves was really a contrived “super-initiation test,” one which he passes not by besting them in combat (he’s too weak to overcome their combined might, even with the at-will transformations he inexplicably displays in this story) but by discerning their real (heroic) identities. “Real” superheroes, at minimum, make enhanced capability out of physical difference, while ordinary humans like Jimmy remain subject to the regime of disability, sexually ostracized on account of what amounts to hypertrichosis, or made into a spectacle for his broad range of deviant bodies. Even here, where he can (without explanation) manifest his Wolf-Man form as a temporary enhancement rather than a disfiguring curse, his power falls short of superhero caliber. Olsen, paradoxically, winds up being recognized as a hero precisely for recognizing the difference between himself and the 30th century’s “real” heroes.
Despite Jimmy Olsen often physically transforming in ways similar to superheroes, he consistently lacks the ability to reap the benefits of bodily otherness. Superman nearly always must arrive to save the day and to banish the undesirable effects of Jimmy’s newfound embodiment. These bodily metamorphoses, even when they grant power, do not enable him to get himself out of the trouble they bring. Where superheroes are able to traverse the terrain of bodily difference without becoming subject to debility, Jimmy is a “normal” human—and for him, bodily difference is social deviance, bringing vulnerability rather than power.
If not disabled, the transformed Jimmy is nearly always regarded as bearing the stigma of otherness. If not explicitly queer, many of the transformations either explicitly seek to interdict his sexuality (the malicious metamorphosis inflicted on him by the husband-harem) or do so as a side effect (the Wolf-Man serum rendering Jimmy undesirable). Where the traditional superhero plot reinforces its protagonists’ able-bodiedness through depicting physical triumphs over powerful opponents, and their heterosexuality through the depiction of a consistent love interests, Jimmy is both incapable of extirpating himself from most of the perils he encounters over the course of the series, and seems to engage with his girlfriend only insofar as she presents a target for Jimmy’s/Superman’s enemies, or (as in “Jimmy Olsen: Freak!”) an obstacle to other, fleeting Superman’s Pal thus eludes classification as a compendium of “superhero stories,” despite its guest-starring hosts of DC’s metahuman characters, because its protagonist fails at every turn to be “flexible” enough to endure the moments of crisis with which superheroes must contend.
For the early-twentieth-century American imagination that produced the superhero, one’s “fitness” is determined in part by the ability to endure and thrive under changing and uncertain conditions—what anthropologist Emily Martin calls the construction of “flexible bodies.” McRuer, following Martin, writes in his book Crip Theory (2006) that
the bodies experiencing [transformation] must be flexible enough to make it through a moment of crisis. Flexible, in this first sense, is virtually synonymous with both heterosexual and able-bodied[.] … Second, and more important, other bodies must function flexibly and objectively as sites on which the epiphanic moment can be staged. The bodies, in this second sense, are invariably queer and disabled—and they, too, are visually represented as such[.] (16)
Ironically for a character known sometimes as Elastic Lad, Jimmy fails repeatedly to be “flexible” enough to cope on his own with moments of narrative crisis. He is instead an exemplar of McRuer’s second category of “other bodies,” providing a foil against which Superman establishes his genetic advantage by rescuing him from physical peril or by undoing a harmful transformation. Interestingly, this is a role female bodies commonly fulfill in superhero narratives, women “damseled” away to establish the emotional depth, physical resources, and determination—but most of all, the physical superiority—of male heroes. Fitting not only into the matrix of disability by his physical transformation, the conventions of the superhero genre invite us to read Jimmy as queer, or even genderqueer, in the narrative role he often fulfills within what is ostensibly his own book.
Elastic Lad, among Jimmy’s various transformations, is perhaps the only major exception to the rule of Jimmy as naïve, easily beguiled and distressed “damsel.” It is as Elastic Lad that he is inducted into the Legion, but the designation never quite sticks. His superhuman stretchiness returns to the series at the writers’ convenience in later issues but is omitted or forgotten just as easily. Even within his own title, it is clear Jimmy is no superhero, and despite his recurring flirtations with otherworldly bodies (continuing now with the 2019 maxi-series version of Superman’s Pal), he remains the Daily Planet’s eternally fresh-faced photographer and cub reporter, both less successful and more human than his senior partner Clark Kent.
The eugenic line separating Superman from Jimmy Olsen is, in part, one drawn by the capacity to gain rather than lose agency as a result of transformation. The superhero genre thus re-figures bodily vulnerability as advantage but only for the privileged, superhuman few. The two journalists lie at opposite extremes on the spectrum of bodily “flexibility,” with Clark’s recurring transformations into Superman rendering him sufficient for nearly any task, while his sidekick’s poorly repressed and ever-returning transformations render him (at least in the world of Superman’s Pal) debilitated or shunned as the story demands.
Some modern superhero stories have attempted, consciously or not, to refuse what Alaniz describes as the “vanishing” of impaired and lesser bodies. Though since erased from canon, Barbara Gordon’s revamp as Oracle granted her a host of new technical abilities as the resident hacker and de facto dispatcher for the Bat-Family without obviating her physical impairment. While not a superhero per se, Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor is now accompanied by the companion Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), whose motor coordination disorder dyspraxia is little impediment to the help he renders in their time-traveling adventures. More recently, Nigerian-American science fiction author Nnedi Okorafor (who is herself partially paralyzed and identifies as a “rudimentary cyborg”) contributed to Marvel’s non-canon 2017 Venomverse: War Stories anthology with the short comic “Blessing in Disguise.” Illustrated by Tana Ford, the story follows a teenage Nigerian wheelchair user who crucially intervenes in a fight between T’Challa and Rhino, soon taking on the mantle of Black Panther herself without leaving her manual wheelchair.
As these contemporary forays into representing disabled superheroes show, the empowerment of othered bodies need not be represented through the displacement of non-normative bodies. Jimmy’s transformations (and his inevitable returns to “normal”) have remained a recurring aspect of the character long past the conclusion of his Silver Age title. Though his too-human body consistently eludes full reclassification as super, so too does it resist the vanishing that often comes with such a move. As Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber’s revamp of the Superman’s Pal brand continues, it will be interesting to see what light the reporter’s metamorphoses continue to cast on Olsen as a hero in his own right.
Evan Henry is a longtime pop culture journalist and current graduate student in English at the University of Virginia. He has contributed to a wide variety of outlets, including the Virginia Literary Review, Broken Frontier, Black Ship Books, and We Are the Mutants. Find him on Twitter @evanbhenry.