Review: Superman: 3-2-1 Action! trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

For Countdown readers, Superman: 3-2-1 Action is a must-read. For everyone else, maybe not as much. Kurt Busiek continues his work on Superman here with this handful of tales about Jimmy Olsen that are at times, as with Busiek's new Olsen origin, quite affecting. At other times, however, as with Busiek's current-day story of Superman and Jimmy fighting the new Kryptonite Man, it seems Busiek struggles to rise above the inherit goofiness of Jimmy to make a cogent story, a struggle faced by the writers of Countdown as well.

The premise of 3-2-1 Action, as follows from Countdown, is that Jimmy Olsen's been receiving on-again, off-again powers and resolves to become a super-hero. Long-time Jimmy Olsen fans will recognize his powers as those that Jimmy had in the Silver Age; the super-hero name he takes, Mr. Action, is a similar throwback. Unfortunately, "Mr. Action" just sounds goofy these days, and the costume Jimmy takes is similarly goofy. Whereas in 52 Booster Gold was a funny character dealing with serious situations, in Countdown Jimmy comes off as naive and his adventures do, too, and it makes it hard for the reader to view the storyline with any importance.

Busiek, picking up from this, can't really seem to rise above the immature tone Countdown's laid out for Jimmy. Busiek's writes an interesting origin story for Jimmy, portraying him as a plucky youth akin to his friends in the Newsboy Legion; the main story, however, offers a nerdy, breathless Mr. Action who one imagines wouldn't make it on the page at all if his name weren't Jimmy Olsen. After his first outing as Mr. Action, Jimmy thinks about having defeated an "honest-to-gosh" super-villain and lusts after the "hot girls" who cheer for him -- it's a bit like reading a story about someone's immature little brother. Chuck Austen showed tremendously how Jimmy Olsen could say "gee whiz" and still be cool in Superman: Metropolis by mixing optimism with sophistication; Busiek's Jimmy has none of that sophistication.

I've so far liked Busiek's Superman himself, and there are some nice moments here, especially when Superman drops in on Metro County Hospital having overheard a conversation about the Kryptonite Man with his super-hearing. The biggest revelation in the piece, however -- Jimmy learning Superman's identity -- gets truncated so as to fit within the confines of Countdown. Superman's quick acceptance of Jimmy's knowledge, and his subsequent resolve to petition Jimmy for membership into the Justice League, seem too easy for such a momentous occasion. It all carries the same breezy tone that befits a Jimmy Olsen adventure, but that same lightness makes it hard for me to care about what's going on.

It's even more clear that Jimmy Olsen can be written "right" when you compare the main story of 3-2-1 Action to the Legends of the DCU story reprinted at the end, by Mark Evanier from a plot by Jack Kirby. Granted Evanier's Jimmy is slightly older than the one Busiek has to work with, but he's also cooler, springing to help fellow Metropolians in need without any of the "aw, shucks"-ness of Busiek's Jimmy. Evanier's Jimmy, like Kirby's Jimmy before him, is young and headstrong but has a spine, and this is a Jimmy I can enjoy; smooth, classy art by Steve Rude helps the overall tone (if you haven't read the fantastic Rude-drawn World's Finest Superman/Batman tale, run, don't walk, to get a copy).

In recreating the Superman mythos post-Infinite Crisis, Busiek applies a number of retcons to Jimmy Olsen's history. I appreciate, on one hand, Busiek making Superman more involved in the creation of Jimmy's signal watch; the Byrne version had Jimmy create the watch to summon Superman after a classmate tried to commit suicide, which is meaningful but not necessarily epic. On the other hand, we also get hints of a subplot involving Jimmy's missing parents that is less interesting, I think, than the ties to the Kirby-created Evil Factory that the Super-teams set up post-Crisis on Infinite Earths. It's interesting now to see the Byrne Superman mythos being swept away, with shades of how DC fans felt after the original Crisis.

To be clear, I'm glad I read 3-2-1 Action. As someone who's following Countdown, there's a bit, at least, about Jimmy's new telepathic powers that explains away some confusion from Countdown (though it's hard to say whether the explanation was by design or to resolve an editorial error in Countdown). But if you'd been on the fence about the Jimmy Olsen character, or were looking for a good self-contained Superman story to read, probably this isn't for you.

[Contains full covers, introduction by Kurt Busiek.]

Me not review Superman: Escape from Bizarro World coming up yesterday! (That'll be the end of the Bizarro-speak, I promise!)
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3 comments:

  1. "The biggest revelation in the piece, however -- Jimmy learning Superman's identity -- gets truncated so as to fit within the confines of Countdown."

    Geoff Johns and James Robinson have already said that they're going to pretend this never happened (thank god), so this trade is even more missable.

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  2. I wish we'd get an official explanation for the "forgetting"

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  3. We do deserve an in-continuity explanation (unless, no spoilers please, that's explained at the end of Countdown). It's a shame that just a year or so into the New Earth, there's already Superman retcons, Supergirl retcons, Hawkman retcons ...

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