The Wages of Wise Guy-ery

Bloggified by Jake on Friday, January 20, 2006

I've debated back and forth whether this is in keeping with "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows Week." Somehow, tearing apart some piece of crap Bendis wrote in between ruining legends like the Avengers and pissing on his own creations like Alias and Powers--ah, I promised no bad vibes this week! This is so difficult.

What I meant to say was that heavily criticizing a bad comic that came out within the last few years is a little different from heavily criticizing a bad comic that came out thirty years ago. They're both bad, but one actually tried to be good. Criticism of Warren Ellis or Brian Bendis or Grant Morrison comes from a place of disappointment, knowing they can write good comics but didn't; criticism of Silver Age comics comes from a place of disbelief, knowing no one ever could have possibly thought the plots being passed off made any sense at all. Hence, I decided this constitutes "good natured ribbing" and thus does not violate the spirit of the week.

I've never really "gotten" the appeal of Silver Age comics. It seems like something you had to live through to really understand, kind of like how people from the Midwest actually find Garrison Keillor funny. Forget about continuity problems from title to title or even from one issue to the next. The stories often struggled to maintain continuity from page one to page six.

Silver Age covers are also infamous for depicting things that didn't really happen between the pages, such as having Superman melting Batman with his heat vision on the cover while inside the book Batman might mention to Supes how the weather in Gotham is so hot he's practically melting. The point was to drive up sales, and in the case of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #127, I got hooked just like so many ten year olds of yesteryear.

I first came across this comic when I was 15, working at Atomic Comics, filing away back issues. So many comics covers from that era regularly showed Superman leaving people to die, ignoring pleas for help, aiding and abetting criminals, or murdering his closest friends, so it was easy to become calloused to the earth shattering promises made each month. This book, however, went a different direction and it was two words that grabbed me:

"Wise guy."

Why was Superman being so petty? What did Superman consider being a wise guy? Sarcasm? Practical jokes? My friend Jim speculated he meant Jimmy had gotten mixed up with the mob. Even so, how was living in a rundown apartment just desserts for whatever wrongs he'd committed? Shouldn't the punishment fit the crime? I became obsessed to a point of refusing to actually read the book because I knew the story inside could never match up to what I had built in my head to be the most non-sensical story ever told this side of the Bible. Finally, the pressure was too much and I broke down and bought the book... and was horrified to find I'd been duped.

Jimmy was neither sarcastic nor a mob patsy. Not one action within the pages could be considered "wise guy-esque."

Instead, Jimmy is doing a photo exposé on the slums of Metropolis. Stepping up to the front door, he breaks the front stoop. Once inside, he meets Terry, who kills a rat with a pop bottle and nearly clocks Jimmy with the shrapnel. She takes him on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the tenements including an apartment with a ceiling that leaks in about fifty places inhabited by a black woman (making for an awkward "I'd better re-read that last line" moment when Jimmy says, "It's an indoor Niagara"), a shut-in who pays kids to do his shopping for him then raises up the groceries up to his window in a basket tied to a frayed string (because the kids can't walk up a flight of stairs?) that snaps, and Mr. Collins.Apparently, Mr. Collins is too poor to afford a blanket, but can pay for a doctor who makes house calls. Also, I can see homeless people not having a blanket and resorting to covering up in newspapers, but what person who lives in an apartment or house doesn't own at least one blanket? Even when the heater is working, don't you sleep under a blanket? And what kind of doctor regularly treats a patient in his home, sees him sleeping under old copies of the Daily Planet, and doesn't bring him a blanket, even if he has to steal one from the hospital laundry room? I'm sure that doctor has an entire linen closet full of old bedcovering, but he can't spare any for a dying old man. I bet his dog sleeps on an old down comforter that his wife replaced when the feathers started bunching up, yet he lets Mr. Collins accumulate bed sores under weeks old newsprint. You're a cold motherfucker, Doc.

While the building owner's goons watch Jimmy snaps plenty of photos. He puts together a tell-all story for the Planet that has Clark Kent thinking Jimmy might be in line for a Pulitzer, but Perry White has to kill the story when two of his biggest advertisers threaten to pull their ads if he runs the exposé. Jimmy vows to uncover the secret slumlord known as Mr. Squeeze by moving into one of the slums and writing an "Black Like Me"-style autobiographical account.

Obviously, since Mr. Squeeze's thugs would recognize Jimmy around Terry's place, he has to go to a different part of town to find a place owned by the same bonding company. He moves in and within about eight minutes completely trashes the place. A draft is coming in the window, so he shuts it and winds up smashing the glass. In trying to get a rusty latch open on the kitchen cupboard, Jimmy knocks over the cabinet, smashes all the dishes, and damages the stove, possibly creating a gas leak.

If this isn't enough excitement, he hears screams for help from across the alley."I didn't realize Terry's apartment was back to back with mine. I knew there was a reason I brought my binoculars." So when Jimmy had to go to another part of town to avoid being recognized by Mr. Squeeze's hired guns, he went next door. I'm not sure who's stupider in this case, Jimmy or the hired guns.

Also, can anyone explain a situation where--even if you've been screaming for help--you wouldn't be surprised to see the coffee boy from the local newspaper climbing through your fourth story bathroom window?

The next day, Jimmy invites Terry over to his apartment, where in twenty-four hours time, he's managed to nearly complete his novel. Sensing she's both impressed and vulnerable, Olsen moves in for the kill, offering her a romantic meal.
Elsewhere: "I have only minutes to dig a series of trenches that will redirect the floodwaters from the overflowing river away from this Pakistani village or the crops will be destroyed and thousands will die, with those surviving the flood starving slowly and envying those who were drown--oh, Jimmy needs something..."Superman is invulnerable to bullets, knives, bricks, nuclear explosions, and even when he dies, he comes back a few months later. I just love the idea that he's worried about germs from a couple of bugs. I wish that shot of Superman shooting his hands with heat vision could become a regular thing. Super-OCD!

Further, what's with the "you didn't tell me where you were going" crap? They fight like an old married couple. I half expect Jimmy to say, "Fine! Be that way! Maybe Captain Marvel would like to help me track down a slumlord."

Actually, Jimmy doesn't have to do much tracking. As Superman leaves, the gust of wind left in his wake sucks Jimmy's manuscript out the window and into the landlord's hands. He calls Mr. Squeeze, who sends his gorillas around to rough up Jimmy and bring him in for a meeting.So on the Jimmy Olsen Scale of Importance, being beaten senseless by organized crime bruisers, kidnapped, and locked in a basement with a vicious dog while a criminal who's lived outside the reach of the law is upstairs ranks somewhere below having your tuna sandwich and chocolate chip cookie scampered upon by roaches.

The main thing we learn about the slumlord is he takes symbolism way too seriously.This is such a traumatic event, Terry has to bring Jimmy an old, used wig and style it for him before he'll quit sulking and leave his bedroom. Once he's properly coifed, however, it's time to dish out a little revenge.

Mr. Squeeze is having a birthday party, which gets interupted by Jimmy and the rest of the tenement gang, who unleash upon the festivities hundreds of rats and cockroaches they've evidently taken the time to trap in little carboard boxes. The slumlord denies owning shoddily-kept hovels and kidnapping Superman's pal, but once Jimmy calls Supes to the scene, the evidence becomes damning.Okay, Gus Grissom. Superman whisks the bad guys off to jail, which has make for a very awkward birthday party. I mean, do you still eat the cake if the birthday boy has just been carried off to prison by a superhero? It's just going to go to waste if you don't, right?

In the end, with Mr. Squeeze behind bars, Superman uses his superspeed to rebuild the entire tenement district, which begs the question why didn't he do it before? A man was sleeping under newspapers and a woman and her child were nearly drowning in their living room, yet nothing motivates Superman, probably because those people didn't consult him before they began living in poverty.

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