Alpha & Omega #3: School of Hard Knocks

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 reimagining 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, #3
Cover Date: July 1976
Release Date: April 20, 1976
Writers: Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inker: Jim Mooney
Colorist: Hubert Paley
Letterer:  Irving Watanabe

Omega the Unknown, volume 2, #3
Cover Date: February 2008
Release Date: December 5, 2007
Writers: Jonathan Lethem w/ Karl Rusnak
Penciler: Farel Dalrymple
Inker: Farel Dalrymple
Colorist: Paul Hornschemeier
Letterer:  Farel Dalrymple

The Covers

The cover for Omega the Unknown vol. 1, #3 is a sentimental favorite. It was one of the few issues of this series I owned back in the day. I picked it up for loose change at a flea market or yard sale in the early 80s. I have a memory of seeing it in the collections of peers, frequently offered for trade, and sometimes grudgingly accepted after the hard sell and in combination with a more appealing comic.  Clearly, Electro is the most striking figure on the cover in order to link the comic to the greater Marvel universe and leverage any appeal the villain might have as a result of being an Amazing Spider-Man regular, but taken in light of how the series knowingly plays with the genre, the bombast and the word balloons seem like a perfect fit.

The Dalrymple’s cover for vol. 2, #3 is underwhelming. It seems more like a sketch than a well-rendered cover, which is a shame. I think a series like this would have potentially done much better with covers designed with more movement and color in order to stand out on the shelf. I think the lack of background or context does what is present a disservice.

The Comics

So much happens in both these issues that it is going to be impossible to cover it all in this post. Both feel cramped with events, new settings, new characters, characterization, and some repetition. The 2007 version of Omega the Unknown is back to emulating the original, though the structural echoes are not as profound as in the first issue. Both issues involve their young protagonist navigating public middle school in New York City after a lifetime of being homeschooled, a doctor interested in the boy as a kind of test subject, an antagonist trying to figure out the connection between Omega and the robots, and only diverge where the earlier issue focuses on supervillain shenanigans, while the latter gives us more of a glimpse of seedy and corrupt local politics.

Both, I think, are my favorites of each of the series so far.

In 1976, James Michael Starling is leaving another visit to the hospital (after his run-in with the Hulk). Dr. Barrow, who despite still having his thuggish orderly around, seems a little less sinister, though he remains prone to think the boy’s fits are psychosomatic. The adults in James Michael’s life are trying to construct a sense of normalcy around him, as if that might make the boy “normal,” but little seems normal to an adolescent, and to JMS least of all. He is so estranged from the world and immersed in the odd situation of being a medical subject and the ward of two single young women, that the idea that he would somehow magically begin to behave like whatever they expect a precocious pre-teen to act like comes off as naive. And that is not even accounting for the fact that he exists in the Marvel universe. (Amber even makes her living selling photos of superheroes to J. Jonah Jameson over at the Daily Bugle.) There is no disengaging his young life from the essential weirdness of everything around him.

Sometimes I think that is what adolescence is, the process of growing accustomed to the accepted weirdness of life until it is naturalized through the slow absorption of adulthood’s secrets (which mostly amount to varying degrees of disillusion and self-delusion).

A startled teacher gives James-Michael a smack as soon as the poor boy arrives in class.

The rest of the comic juxtaposes JMS’s limited choices and his experience at school against the stupid plots of superhero stories. Upon arriving in his first class he is slapped by his homeroom teacher who is so in fear of his life that he lashes out when a student is suddenly in his personal space. Not too long after, James Michael is the victim of more violence, when he is punched in the face by resident bully, Nick. The strange thing is that JMS accepts the violence from his teacher a lot more readily than he does from Nick. He just can’t grasp why Nick would hit him. “What motive would he have [for hitting me]?” he asks, not long before the bully and his friends demand 50 cents for passage out of school. “I am astonished. That — person hit me –without any provocation!” James-Michael objects, expressing frustration about what to do about it. Amber replies, “Have you considered – hitting back?” I was about to write, “It works for superheroes,” but given the cyclical nature of violence in the genre, I reconsidered how efficacious it might actually be.

James-Michael takes a punch from a school bully.

Omega the Unknown does a great job of depicting the tension between intelligence performed with a form of precocious detachment and the social and emotional intelligence required to navigate the capriciousness of the world as we experience it. JMS sees no reason why he should seek another exit from school when his new friends spot Nick waiting for him at the front of school, when logic dictates that there is no reason why he should change his plan to meet Amber out front. In JMS’s mind the bully has no personal reason for wanting to hurt him. He is unable to grasp that the bully’s reasons for violence are not personal or rational, they are structural. Nick is reinforcing a hierarchy where he can exercise some small bit of power over someone else in an environment where a disproportionate sense of his actual power causes those duty-bound to teach him and look out for him are ready to lash out him violently instead.

As I look at this comic and the disparity between how JMS reactions to his teacher’s smack and Nick’s punch, I wonder to what degree this is informed by Gerber and Skrenes willingness to accept the narrative of the dangerous and violent urban public schools, while leveraging their own experience of the confusing social hierarchies among children. While these days suburban schools worry about the danger an individual disgruntled shooter might pose, urban schools like the one JMS goes to are often viewed as dangerous because of some undifferentiated view of poor black and brown students. Maybe I’m like James-Michael, looking for reasons, when I should just be accepting the confusing emotional truth of his situation, but I can’t help but speculate how that common attitude towards NYC public schools in the 70s shapes these scenes. Heck, it still shapes the story 30 years later. (Something I touch on in my post from last year, “Marvel Five-in-One: Prominent, Notorious and Invisible Black Lives of the Marvel Universe.”)

In 2007, Titus Alexander Island is dealing with his own concerns about unmerited violence against him. However, unlike the uneven and tone-deaf way with which race is alternately mocked or ignored in Bronze Age comics, Lethem is unafraid to examine the contradictory nature of race and ironic reversals possible in segregated urban setting of New York City public schools. The tensions in Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude are informed to a great degree by Dylan Ebdus’s presence in Gowanus (what realtor’s like to call “Boerum Hill”) as a first-generation child of gentrification’s white wedge. As such, he finds himself in the positional situation of being a minority white student in a predominantly black and brown environment, where the contradictions—between his parents’ “race-blind” utopianism, the actual racial hierarchy of such a school’s social universe, the way the teachers and administration still favor white children, and his own desire to be down—threaten his sense of place and ownership an identity. As such, when Dylan gets his hands on the first issue of Omega the Unknown in 1976 (“an instant collector’s item”), he hides the comic under his coat and prepares spare change for bullies to win safe passage home. Lethem makes sure that the readers see the parallel between his protagonist and the “bullied, orphaned kid who’s going to public junior high in Hell’s Kitchen,” while pointing out that Dylan himself refuses to see it, as that’d mean reflecting on what felt unbroachable: the confusing power dynamics of race, class and space. In Lethem’s version of Omega the Unknown, Alex’s outsider status is even more explicit. The embarrassing lack of “street smarts,” that Dylan finds unforgivable in JMS, is highlighted. There is even a clever joke about S.E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish­—a common middle school read—in the issue.  Alex’s new friend at school, Amandla jokes that the book is all he’ll find in the school library, clearly too unsophisticated for a student of Alex’s intellect, but upon further reflection she suggests that it might actually teach him a thing or two about the volatile interactions of teens. Amandla is an African-American classmate (her name means “power” in Zulu and Xhosa), whose intellect makes her something of an outsider herself. She fulfills the same basic role as Dian, a white tomboy in a ballcap introduced in the same way in volume one.

In the 1970s volume of Omega the Unknown, James-Michael, his new friends, the bullies, are all white. I have written before about the contradiction of superhero comics in the 70s and 80s, where the increased visibility of dark complected characters runs into the obstacle of generally liberal-minded attitudes of comics creator, who don’t want to necessarily associate blackness with criminality, but are still peddling simplistic social narratives of crime that are typically racialized. This representation through erasure (which I discussed when looking at the 80s “The Death of Jean DeWolf arc in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man) actually reinforces racialized attitudes about urban blight and white flight, while conveniently providing plausible deniability. In the 80s, difference was often encoded by making street thugs look like punk rockers, in this case Jim Mooney draws JMS’s antagonists like the villains from a Depression Era Our Gang short—not all that different from the skid row roughs that tried to roll Bruce Banner in the last issue.

In 2007, the bullies are Afro-Latino, and led by a kid called Roofee. They pick on the only other white kid around, and refer to Amandla, mockingly, as “Black Power” (presumably because of her name). My hope is that Amandla alone won’t be the writers’ method of balancing out the depiction of Roofee and his boys, but since nearly everyone else is white, I don’t have high hopes. Sure, Dr. Desani is south Asian, and we see Omega continuing to work the fryer in Reverend Bell’s food truck, but I have my qualms with their depiction in this comic series as well.

Dr. Desani mentioned the possibility of Alex being on the autistic spectrum, and Clare Weiss points out about him what I suggested about Dr. Barrow in the last installment.

While on the subject of Dr. Desani, while I was cautious to not describe Alex (or James-Michael) and his seeming lack of appropriate affect as autistic—because what do I know about diagnosing people’s developmental disorders except for whatever insufficient media-informed layman’s knowledge I have absorbed?—the doctor actually suggests as much about the adolescent. He explains to Clare Weiss, the social worker, about Alex: “Lack of affect leans to Asperger’s Syndrome – a high-functioning form of autism,” but thankfully adds, “Not that I’d want to make a snap diagnosis on the basis of affect.” (If only more people were as thoughtful in throwing around clinical terms to describe others). However, he adds “you must admit, he can seem a trifle robotic,” which seems like a wink given the revelation of Alex’s robot parentage in the first issue, and the ongoing robotization of characters like the professor in issue #2. In this issue, a corrupt City Councilman ends up infected by whatever robot virus the delivery men of 2U Quik are bringing around town, in this case through a gigantic gold nameplate on a chain.

By the way, the council man is referred to as both Edgardo and “Fonzie” (that’s what’s on the nameplate) suggesting he is named for former Mets second baseman, Edgardo Alfonzo, which makes sense given Lethem is a huge Mets fan and even co-wrote a book under a pseudonym regarding the 2005 season—entitled Believeniks!

Fonzie’s new gold chain and nameplate is sinking into his flesh.

As I wrote earlier, there is a lot going on in both these comics, too much to go into it all. Take for example the 2007 issue: The Mink is running the robots he captured in the last issue through some kind maze in his headquarters to learn about their behavior. Omega only eats birds he kills and plucks himself, and develops some kind of antidote or vaccine to the robot virus overnight in the food truck. Alex visits the main branch of the New York Public Library, and the skeezy cop on the Mink’s payroll is still following him. An old high school friend of the Mink, now homeless, eats a robot-infected finger hidden in a burger at a fast food joint. The issue ends with the cliffhanger of the Mink showing up in his civilian garb to take Edie on a date! And throughout it all, we see the first clear evidence that a weird sculpture in the park across from where Edie lives—a man’s bald head and just two hands—is animate. It has made background appearances in the two previous issues, but in this one we see it fuck with the bullies who a moment before had spray painted glasses and a mustache on it. No one seems to notice that is alive, however. I have no idea what that’s about. Lethem and Rusnick (with Dalrymple’s help) are cramming every page with information, so it is a detail that gets kind of lost in the shuffle.

James-Michael Starling’s day at school is juxtaposed to Omega’s effort to free himself from Electro’s chains.

Omega the Unknown vol. 1, #3 is equally packed. In addition to the doctor’s visit, school, and the bullying, Elektro uses the revived Omega-hunting robot to try and rob a telethon. While the robot says little, but “KILL!” The Spider-Man villain convinces it to help him in return for sufficient charge to go its own way and a promise to let it kill Omega afterwards (and it is for this reason that Electro keeps the mute hero alive). There is no explanation given as to why Electro needs the robot’s help, except the tradition of guest appearances in a shared setting. Of course, Omega manages to break free amid overwrought prose in caption boxes in panels depicting both his struggle and James-Michael’s efforts to navigate school. As one box reads, “Survival under shifting circumstances entails – demands – a capacity for learning, adaptation, growth,” after explaining that “Passive acceptance has proved itself inadequate to deal with this new world.” In other words, Gerber and Skrenes are making clear parallels between the cipher of a heroic figure and the suffering and anomic adolescent.

Poster Boy Freddie is the hero!

Speaking of suffering, after Omega destroys Electro’s robotic ally, the supervillain threatens to fry the telethon poster boy, Freddie—dressed up in a suit and a tie and using old-fashioned crutches to get around—if the hero comes any closer. However, it is the disabled boy who helps defeat Electro when the villain is otherwise occupied in a deadlock of powers erupting from his and Omega’s hands. I was reading this comic around the time of the death of Jerry Lewis and the scene made me think of him. While many think of him as a goofball comedian or some kind of quirky directorial genius, I always think of him as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy telethons of the 70s and 80s, and the controversy that surrounded his attitudes towards disability in the disabled community. Freddie’s simple action—being brave enough to wallop Electro in the shin with a crutch and distract the voltaic villain—is couched in terms that speak out against the kind of pity Lewis’s 21+ hour shows were built around: “For a year now he’s served as a professional object of pity…listening to speeches about his courage from people who would never hope to understand – and who, in fact, desperately hope to never have to. Now he decides, he’s had enough. Exploit, pity, and objectify him, will they?” For a moment, Gerber, Skrenes and Mooney give Freddie (and someone like him, who might be reading) a chance to be more than an object of pity or someone to be rescued. He is admired for a legible form of bravery that speaks to his character, and not an assumed result of his disability. It is a nice moment, and the issue’s concluding panel showing James-Michael’s shocked face—the narration explaining that he now hears the thousands of voices in his head with a new clarity—connects his plight to that of Freddie the poster boy—a new universe opens to him, not only despite his disability, but also because of it.

Roofee and his crew hanging by the animated statue.

A new universe is also opening up to fans of Marvel Comics through Omega the Unknown, as volume 1, issue #3 includes its first letters page. There are only three published letters, and two are quite positive, if a bit puzzled, about the unusual approach to a superhero story. One letter however, objects vociferously to the “psychological drama” and calls Omega the Unknown “a sick comic book.” The writer goes on to explain that he seeks out Marvel Comics for “escapism,” not writers’ “delusions of grandeur” or to have “psychological ploys…injected into the medium.” The complaint is not only misguided, but it reminds me of more contemporary complaints about the direction of Marvel Comics in regard to political content. Some people just want a superhero punch-up with a minimum requirement of thinking. The thing is, there are plenty of comics that offer just that, so I am not sure why some people insist that all comics must be that way. It reminds me of the recent grognardish grumbling about Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by dudes on Twitter, that upset a bunch of people recently.

The Eschatology of Omega

Each of these comic books are delightfully charming in their own way, but the 1976 version especially so. I know I have not spent much time on the art in these issues, but that is a side-effect of how seamlessly both capture some ineffable quality of the comic’s quixotic appeal, despite being so different from each other.  Mooney’s pencils and inks are on point, and Paley’s colors (especially in the panel where Electro and Omega are in their power blast stalemate) really accentuate the line work. Dalrymple has created his own quirky world through a style that has a very cartoon-y feel, while simultaneously evoking the slick griminess of urban life.

Nevertheless, I feel trepidatious as we enter the middle issues of the run, knowing that the original volume will not have a chance to really develop. I am not ready for this comic to stop being a joy to read.  The second volume, on the other hand, I imagine must soon increase the degree of rising action towards a climax. Or maybe not. There is a laconic vibe to the pacing in Lethem, Rusnak and Dalrymple’s version that means I would not be surprised if the series confounded the narrative expectations of serial pacing. Regardless, I am looking forward to reading more, and I hope that real life circumstances don’t conspire to delay the next installment of Alpha & Omega as happened with this one.

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7 thoughts on “Alpha & Omega #3: School of Hard Knocks

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