Alpha & Omega #2: If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Welcome to Alpha & Omega! The blog series where we take a look at one issue each of the two Omega the Unknown comic book series—the original from 1976-77 and the re-imagining from 2007-08. In the spirit of the (now-discontinued) If It WAUGHs Like a Duck series, each post seeks to both put the issues in context of their times, but mostly in conversation with each other.

Omega the Unknown volume 1, #2

Cover Date: May 1976
Release Date: February 17, 1976
Writers: Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inker: Jim Mooney
Colorist: Phil Rachelson
Letterer:  Irving Watanabe

Omega the Unknown volume 2, #2

Cover Date: January 2008
Release Date: November 7, 2007
Writers: Jonathan Lethem w/ Karl Rusnak
Penciler: Farel Dalrymple
Inker: Farel Dalrymple
Colorist: Paul Hornschemeier
Letterer:  Farel Dalrymple

The Covers

Farel Dalrymple’s cover for his Omega the Unknown #2 is definitely better than his first, and I like it better than Rich Buckler’s cover for the 1976 version. As much as I love the Hulk, having the comic center on his presence, especially after only one issue, seems like too transparent a demand of marketing. Still. I appreciate the tension between the bombast of the cover image and the more thoughtful interiors. Sure, Omega and the Hulk do battle, but ultimately, the conflict is on the periphery of our focus: James-Michael Starling. The Dalrymple cover highlights thoughtfulness by putting Titus Alexander Island in the foreground, staring at his hands, while Omega and the Mink do battle outside the window behind him. This image is a better representation of what goes on within, and is a cleaner, simpler cover that evokes the comic’s themes.

Then again, maybe comparing these covers is not fair, seeing as in 1976 Omega the Unknown was competing on the newsstand or candy store shelf, while in 2007 the series had a much more niche appeal and could afford to utilize more abstract covers that were unlikely to draw in the impulse buyer.

The Comics

While the first issue of the 2007 series by Lethem, Resnak and Dalrymple echoed the structure of the original version by Gerber, Skrenes, and Mooney pretty directly, the second issue seems to put more distance between the parallels—avoiding direct riffs on specific panels—though the parallels remain apparent. The 1976 issue of Omega the Unknown #2 opens with lovely splash depicting where we left James-Michael, his palms burning with omega symbols as Dr. Barrow looks on skeptical that the are not self-inflicted. The image evokes a séance, what with the rising smoke and the hovering image of the events of the previous issue above them. It is a gorgeous and almost creepy opening to an issue that spends two full pages establishing the doctor’s sinister demeanor. While he thinks to himself that JMS’s emotional response to his parents’ demise is odd (yes, there is an actual thought bubble), this insight is redundant, because he expresses as much to James-Michael himself without evincing much empathy of his own. Their talk ends with the doctor having an orderly “Lob him into bed” with a sense of violent disregard for his actual welfare. There is an echo between Dr. Barrow’s awareness of JMS’s underdeveloped emotional intelligence, and his own seeming lack of concern about the boy as a person The doctor only seems to care about investigating the “mysteries” of James-Michael, and his own reputation as a doctor and researcher.

Regardless of the doctor’s attitude, the rest of the issue mostly focuses of James-Michael Starling’s arrival in Hell’s Kitchen of the 1970s, moving in with Ruth and Amber. Sure, there are other bits—like Omega running into a silhouetted Electro (any fan of Spider-Man would immediately recognize his taste in haberdashery), or his breaking up a pawn shop robbery and then being taken under the wing of the elderly owner—but the interesting stuff is our introduction to the urban blight of New York City through the eyes of JMS, and thus through the eyes of people who actually lived in that part of New York (or parts like it) at the time. (Steve Gerber was living in Hell’s Kitchen, not sure about Skrenes or Mooney). I have to admit to being a little bit bothered by the unilaterally negative perspective on New York City of the time. I was around five years old when these comics were coming out, so my perspective on the city was certainly skewed, but it was a place where regular people lived. It wasn’t just crime and garbage and noise, even if we all had to deal with that stuff.

Two panels from Omega the Unknown, vol. 1, #2 that demonstrate how 1970s NYC is represented in these comics.

James-Michael definitely doesn’t like it, and for a kid who is well-read, he struggles to understand the complexities of human interaction and social realities of poverty and urban living. From the moment of his arrival, he complains about the noise of the subway, and is astonished about the presence of beggars and public drunks. The comic book is also pretty explicit in its racialized view of the city in a way that does jibe with how poor and working-class brown and black people were seen (and are still seen) in New York City.  Amber is catcalled by two young Puerto Rican guys, and it is the only time we see a Latino character or hear any Spanish, despite the city being so diverse and Spanish-speaking people holding all kinds of jobs and having all kinds of interests. Ruth even chastises Amber for “encourag[ing] them,” which is an echo of a scene from Howard the Duck vol. 1 #15 involving Beverly Switzler, and thus leads me to think this was a pet issue for Gerber—that is, that women should be flattered and “not sweat the small stuff.”

That “wino” is Bruce Banner (aka the Incredible Hulk)!

Regardless, Gerber and Skrenes set the scene of 1970s Hell’s Kitchen with relentless detail. They arrive to find someone has taken a shit in the vestibule of the building, and Ruth immediately gets to spraying the fearless cockroaches that inhabit the tiny apartment. Bars cover the windows—which is a detail I remember from my own childhood—and the apartment itself is not very big. Even the letters page reinforces this view of Hell’s Kitchen at the time. There are no letters to be printed yet on the “Omega Mail” page, but instead Mary Skrenes prints a dialog between her and an unnamed Marvel employee who objects to Hell’s Kitchen being where JMS will end up, and expresses severe doubts about how much Skrenes actually contributes to the writing of the comic book. Whoever this guy is (or is meant to represent, as I am inclined to read him as an apocryphal figure), he adopts a sexist, mansplaining attitude that is not only not extinct in comics today, but is not uncommon.  This guy Skrenes quotes asks, “Are you out of your mind puttin’ a kid like that in Hell’s Kitchen?! Do you know what kinda people hang out down there?” He goes on to describe the place as full of “sleazy bookstores and movie houses” and “degenerates cruis[ing] the streets 24 hours a day.” He says the kids there are “off the leash and tough” and says James-Michael would have no one to be friends with. The dialogue ends with Skrenes describing the working process she goes through with Steve Gerber—plotting over McDonald’s burgers, Skrenes laying out panels and typing in descriptions, shaping them until they are close to what she likes, and Gerber finishing up any last edits—and the guy she’s talking to takes that to mean that Gerber is really doing the work. Skrenes then explains they exchanged “indelicate verbiage.” In a note following this, editor Marv Wolfman makes an ineffectual joke about the guy being “Sanchez from the mailroom.” I have no idea if that is a real person (I don’t think it is), but I nevertheless bristle at the fact that twice when Hispanophone people are depicted or mentioned in this comic (and such folks rarely appear in any comics of the time), it is in a negative way. Despite the fact that Hell’s Kitchen was predominantly white even in its most blighted times, the narrative of dangerous New York is always entangled with the image of dangerous and/or rude black and brown people filling in the gaps made by white flight. I don’t see the diatribe attributed to “Sanchez” or the depiction in the comic itself offering much different from that. To be clear, I am not trying to claim that New York was not riddled with crime and grime in that era, but narratives of the city focus on a particular way of framing that time as one dangerous to white people (like characters in Omega the Unknown), when it was dangerous for everyone.

If it weren’t for Omega prone in the bottom left corner, this panel could be from almost any Marvel comic.

Still, for all this talk about how dangerous Hell’s Kitchen is, the only violence we see in this version of it, is Electro showing up to steal the robot Omega is carrying away from the hospital where it attacked JMS in the previous issue. Later, one of the “winos” that Amber points out to the boy on their way to get his first egg cream (I haven’t had an egg cream in decades!) turns out to actually be Bruce Banner. When he is about to get rolled by local toughs, he transforms into the Hulk. In one way, having shirtless Banner, in tattered purple pants, semi-conscious on the sidewalk is a great image. New York City (especially in the 1970s) is the kind of place where Banner could blend in while in that condition. Most people would leave him alone. The idea that a local bum could actually be someone important who is down on his luck and has a dark secret fits Omega the Unknown’s take on the setting, cleaving to a sense of realism. On the other hand, to have the Hulk suddenly jumping around (having wandered over after the events of Defenders #35), and having Omega fight him, lurches the comic book into the mishegas of the Marvel Universe and its explicatory editorial footnotes. Omega dumps a whole truckload of cars on the emerald behemoth, but it hardly slows him down. Before the fight can finish, however, Electro returns hanging from a helicopter, zaps the Hulk enough to distract him, and kidnaps Omega. It turns out he can’t figure out how to get the robot he stole earlier to work and hopes to force the silent hero to fix it.

Have I mentioned that Omega the Unknown has still not said a word? Omega’s silence seems to work in his favor. When the old man takes him in, he projects his needs onto the stalwart hero, giving Omega work and assuaging his own loneliness in the process. It makes me wonder if Gerber and/or Skrenes were influenced by Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in which John Singer, a deaf-mute, becomes  the silent confidant of several people in his new community.

Omega is taken in by a lonely and elderly pawnbroker.

While Omega is doing his lonely hunting, James-Michael is having his own existential struggle. He is written (perhaps unintentionally) with a perfectly incoherent mix of precocity and arrested development not uncommon to many nerdy adolescent boys. He evinces the dull edge of an intellect that is supposedly unspoiled by the world’s messy imperfections, but still deeply embedded in impenetrable ideologies of race and gender. If the internet had existed in 1976, I can imagine James-Michael being one of those hyper-rational nerds arguing on forums about how their justifications for not liking women writers was just “logic,” while at the same time harboring deeply vulnerable feelings about his own lack of acceptance.  Hmmm, maybe I am making this kid sound like an asshole, but I am not trying to, but when you read a 12-year old boy questioning his guardian’s behavior with the line “I don’t know why an obviously intelligent woman finds it necessary to panic over…” you have to be happy that he’s interrupted. You also have to wonder if the gender bias obvious to his characterization was purposefully instilled in him by his robot parents, or if that is simply the result of even marginal exposure to American culture.

James-Michael Starling is still suffering due to his mysterious connection to Omega.

Despite his protests, James-Michael actually does keep giving Ruth reason to panic. He keeps having “attacks,” which are a direct result of his connection with Omega. When the silent hero’s arm is grazed by a robber’s bullet, JMS awakens in pain. As soon as Omega arrives to fight the Hulk, JMS starts to hear “the voices” his robot mother warned him about as her head melted in the first issue. When Omega is zapped by Electro and carried off, JMS falls into a coma from experiencing deep shock. It is there that Omega the Unknown vol. 1 #2 ends.

Strangely, 2007 Titus Alexander Island (or Alex) doesn’t have access to the internet. The internet has not even been mentioned, which I never considered before thinking about JMS as a potential nerd-bro, but that seems odd given the realities of home-schooling a brilliant 14-year old in the 21st century. Maybe the robot parents had other methods, but even if they avoided the internet for a reason, it seems like the internet would be something Alex would soon encounter out in the world beyond what he has known.

Instead, the issue, still paralleling the 1976 series, focuses on the boy’s encounter with his new neighborhood. In this case it is not Hell’s Kitchen, however (too gentrified by 2007 to serve the “bad neighborhood” narrative), but Inwood, a small predominantly Dominican neighborhood at the very northern tip of Manhattan. Lethem and Rusnak even invent local Sammy Sosa High School as a signal about who lives there, which I guess is preferable to the catcalling Puerto Ricans and winos. They mostly leave it to Dalrymple’s art to provide the vision of the neighborhood. The art depicts the closely-packed tenement buildings of uptown, or looks down at their irregular rooftops. It gives us storefront churches and food trucks. It may linger on the graffiti and garbage of Edie’s building’s “neglected” hallway, but it does not make urban crisis the focus. That does not mean, however, that the comic book always has a softer touch in referencing a racialized framework for evaluating the neighborhood. For example, when they drive by Sammy Sosa High School in a taxi, Dalrymple draws the dark faces of students outside the glass, yelling and banging on the window Alex cringes in fear. Still, at least this is not the only representation of urban youth Dalrymple gives us. The opening panels depicting Omega in a trainyard deconstructing the robots from his fight at the hospital to better trace them, includes lovingly rendered images of kids painting old school subway art, including a top-to-bottom whole car piece depicting Omega himself. Lethem’s brother is actually a fairly well-known graffiti artist from back in the day, and graf also plays a large role in the narrative of The Fortress of Solitude. It was nice to see this echo here, but as we shall see when we discuss the Mink, it also connects Omega and his heroism to a marginalized culture, as opposed to his publicity hound opponent. Not only do the people who know your name in the graffiti world have to be paying attention to that invisible but ubiquitous world, but they don’t even know who you really are. You gain notoriety, but remain unknown.

Alex’s reaction to the kids at Sammy Sosa High School.

Alex strikes me as more withdrawn than James-Michael, or at least he does not speak with the same confidence as JMS. Even without thought bubbles, the art and dialog captures a sense of his interior life and uncertainty. The cover depicts him in the window as the Mink and Omega fight outside, and the issue spends several panels on that scene. At first Omega only is only fighting the robots that seem to be closing in on Edie’s apartment, but this is only visible through the window behind Alex. While this is happening, Alex and Edie talk about the former’s seeming lack of emotions about the loss of his parents (a conversation that echoes the one with Dr. Barrow in 1976). How Alex talks about the loss, however, rather than suggest some kind of affective disorder, shows a boy realizing he never really knew his parents after all. Outside, events clearly related to his robotic parents are taking place, but he’d rather ignore them, going so far as to close the shades. Moments later, his palms burn with the Omega symbol again, as his hero-self blasts the robots outside.

The perspective switches to street level as the Mink jumps in once Omega has defeated them. He drives off Omega and ends up with a sample robot., and we don’t get to see Alex again until after it is over. He is depicted peeking through the shades as the Mink gives a press conference rather than pursue Omega. He suggests to the press—J. Jonah Jameson-like—that despite all evidence, the robots and the “blue guy” are in cahoots. This the last time we see Alex in this issue until the very end when we see him and Edie walking together as a small part of an establishing shot near the high school, showing the robots continuing to surveil.

Instead, the story then follows Omega after his escape from the Mink, save for an aside with a robotics professor delivered a mysterious book, and the final panel, which depicts the Mink contemplating his captured automaton. There is nothing new to say about the Mink. He continues to be a creep and an asshole. The cop on his payroll is still spying on Edie (he’s the one that calls in the Mink when he spots both the robots and Omega closing in on her Inwood apartment), and when the Mink does battle with Omega wearing some ridiculous power armor, he stumbles over his rehearsed banter, and expresses disappointment that “the mute ones” don’t give him anything to work with for the cameras.

Omega the Unknown is in many ways the opposite of the Mink. Despite also wearing a flashy costume, he is silent and contemplative, while the Mink is braggadocious and all about image. Omega inhabits the margins, while the Mink must always be in the spotlight. There is an earnestness to Omega’s silent mien, while the Mink is always looking for shady dealings to profit from. We don’t even see Omega the Unknown stopping a crime like he does at the pawnshop in the first volume. Instead, he is taken in by a storefront preacher who runs a food truck by day. Soon Omega is sweeping the church and wearing a cook’s paper hat while working the fryer. In 1976, we do see Omega in the guise of a construction worker, but don’t see exactly how he got that work. In 2007, the compassion of a local—perhaps too willing to project ethics onto the silent hero—brings the character into the community to participate and contribute. Yet, I am also wary of the possibility that the creators are also projecting the stereotypical qualities of the understanding magical negro—who takes in and supports the white character— onto the black preacher. I guess it remains to be seen if minister Upward T. Bell will be more than a caricature.

Three pages of this panel format and subtle differences are the strongest part of Omega the Unknown vol. 2, #2.

At the risk of making this installment too long, I also want to bring up the aside involving the professor of robotics. In three straight pages broken down into three rows of four panels, Dalrymple renders a compelling and compact thread of the story. Omega the Unknown follows a delivery truck for a FedEx-type company called “2U Quik.” Earlier we see the zombie-like driver in a traffic scene, but here the focus on the delivery of a book entitled Robotics: What Comes Next, which the unnamed and unsuspecting professor begins to read. The repetition of the panel size and the slight changes to shading, coloring, and detail, work to evoke both the creepiness of what is happening and the passage of time. In panel after panel we see the professor reading and reading, punctuated only by his occasional mumbling of “fascinating.” We see him ignore the lunch on his desk. We see him reading the book propped up on his chest all through the night as he lies in bed. When he wakes up the book is attached to his chest, and seems to be slowly integrating into his body. His wife says she’ll call the doctor, but the prof seems unperturbed. He puts his clothes on over the book, and goes through his day lecturing and grading and meeting with students like normal. By that evening, all of the book, save the spine, has disappeared into his chest. His wife tells him she’s made an appointment for him to see the doctor, but he replies “that won’t be necessary.” There is clearly something weird going on here, and the part of the 2007 version of Omega the Unknown that feels the most original and intriguing. It is here that the comic book distinguishes itself as more than just a riff, and the art and sharp writing are what accomplishes that.

The Eschatology of Omega

While there were elements of the 2007 Omega the Unknown that I really loved in issue #2, especially those three pages focusing on the robotics professor, I think I still liked the 1976 version better. Yes, I had lots of complaints about it, but as a single issue it was just structured much better than its re-imagining (which is kind of surprising). The more recent issue ends rather abruptly, and without much of a cliffhanger, which is quite different from the original issue’s ending. I think I was also disappointed by the shift away from Titus Alexander Island in the second half of volume 2, #2. The Gerber/Skrenes/Mooney issue just does a better job of integrating its threads (which I guess makes sense, given the trio’s experience writing comics relative to Lethem and Rusnak’s—Dalrymple is another story).

I am on the fence about the original Omega’s intersection with the Marvel Universe. The choice of Electro is certainly very strange (the use of the Hulk is better), but part of me worries about the demands of continuity and a shared universe on such a unique book. On the other hand, with judicious use of the familiar setting and characters, Omega the Unknown could uniquely play with the genre and its connection to adolescence (through the figure of James Michael Starling). I guess only my continued reading will see what the writers and artists were able to achieve in such a short time. The Lethem/Rusnak/Dalrymple version remains free of Marvel Universe entanglements, though there is a brief mention of the Daily Bugle. Still, while unlike the original comic, the re-imagining does not seem to have the Marvel characters to play with, it nevertheless comments on the superhero genre through the Mink, whose failed banter pokes fun at comic book tropes, and at one point the cynical “hero” is depicted hosting his own version of Hollywood Squares called “Mink of the People.”

The more recent book is the quieter book, and I appreciate that, but I am still trying to figure out what, if anything, that means for what it might be trying to accomplish. The original Omega the Unknown benefits from being part of the broader tapestry of a serial of indeterminate length, as most mainstream comics were assumed to be back then. Even if I know it eventually ends, I can keep in mind that it was not meant to end then, so it can read it with a greater generosity. The newer version is limited from the outset, so with every step it builds towards something that will be evaluated by that ending—even if it shouldn’t necessarily be evaluated that way. As I’ve said many times, endings are overvalued.

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7 thoughts on “Alpha & Omega #2: If You Can’t Stand the Heat

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