Alpha & Omega #6: Pulling Back the Curtain

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. With this installment we are more than halfway through this project, but the comics keep getting better and better.

Omega the Unknown volume 1, #6
Cover Date: January 1977
Release Date: October 19, 1976
Writers: Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inker: Mike Esposito
Colorist: Hugh Paley
Letterers:  Joe Rosen

Omega the Unknown volume 2, #6
Cover Date: May 2008
Release Date: March 5, 2008
Writers: Jonathan Lethem w/ Karl Rusnak
Penciler: Farel Dalrymple
Inker: Farel Dalrymple
Colorist: Paul Hornschemeier
Letterer:  Farel Dalrymple

The Covers

The cover to the 1977 issue is by John Romita, Sr. and on the surface reflects the common tropes of the Bronze Age cover—the action scene, the triumphing villain, the word balloons, the lines of force and power highlighted with some Kirby-krackle. But, if you take this cover at face value you are losing something. I think it also winks a bit at those conventions. The overall-wearing villain called “The Wrench” is over-obviously fighting with one, but what he is saying—“I may seem like just another muscle-bound bum to you–“—suggests that what we’ll find inside is different from what the cover’s composition seems to indicate. The “you” in that balloon is ostensibly addressing Omega himself, but I think it also addresses the reader, suggesting that we may think twice about what this comic book has to offer. The absurdity of name and “The Power of the Wrench!” is just a degree beyond the silliness we might find its comics contemporaries—like the cover of Fantastic Four #178 featuring an incarnation of the Frightful Four that includes a villain simply called The Brute. By being only slightly over the top in regards to Marvel covers of the day, it simultaneously demonstrates its dedication to the tropes of the Bronze Age and takes the piss out of them.

The cover to the 2008 issue by Farel Dalrymple has incredible detail work, but still has a kind of messy and dull aura that turns me off. I fear I may not have a developed enough artistic sensibility to articulate what it is about these covers that leave me so unimpressed despite Dalrymple’s obvious skill. Worst of all, the cover has nothing to do with the most compelling part of the comic book’s contents.

The Issues

While the cover to Omega the Unknown vol. 1, #6 is not as familiar to me as the cover to, for example, #3, I must have owned this issue as a kid because its contents are very familiar. So familiar, in fact, that reading this issue felt like reading the Platonic ideal of an issue of Omega the Unknown. Nearly every element was not only charming, but it felt as if cut from a much longer cloth, distilling the essence of a series that feels like it should have lasted so much longer than it actually did. Amazingly, the more recent version of Omega the Unknown #6 (from 2008), evoked a similar feeling. Reading each of these issues felt simultaneously singular in its pleasures, and yet, somehow able to embody the whole narrative, including its implicit unknowability as an ongoing and incomplete serial. It brought me back to the feeling I tried to describe when I wrote “The Pleasure of the Comic Book Serial” early last year. Or at least as close to it as I assume I will ever get again.

Omega’s imprisonment interspersed with panels from the Mink comic book.

What struck me about Omega the Unknown vol. 2, #6 is that while in many places Dalrymple continues with his rushed indie comics look to his art, this issue of the comic opens up in its artistic approach in ways that it hasn’t before. It plays with the form by calling attention to its status as a comic in two distinct instances, one involving Omega, and the other Titus Alexander Island.

A prisoner of the Mink and his cronies, Omega does not give in to any form of “enhanced interrogation.” Unlike his original Marvel Universe counterpart, this Omega remains mute and reveals nothing about his origins or his connection to the infectious robot plague. However, while leaving the alien superhero to stew, the Mink leaves behind some Mink comic books for him to read. They are cheeky faux Golden Age books, and Lethem and Dalrymple intersperse panels from them with the panels of the comic we hold in our hands in a traditional 9-panel grid, and colorist Paul Hornschemeier makes sure to add a color separation effect to these panels to give them that vintage cheap comics feel. At the end of the issue we see Omega drawing his own comics, quite a sharp turn towards the meta. As this is a kind of cliffhanger, I don’t know yet what will come of this, but I imagine that in seeing how the Mink uses comics to burnish his image, Omega the Unknown is creating something to grant him the mythology that’d make him a more successful superhero in his struggle against the robot infestation and the Mink’s work to co-opt and profit from it.

Frances Fenton, the GA and former child prodigy enlisted to show Alex around Columbia University.

Simultaneously, Titus Alexander Island’s part of the plot involves him being lucky enough to escape his New York City public school and attend classes at Columbia University. Amid a montage of scenes of his being given a tour of the place by another former child prodigy—now a Graduate Assistant—we get a glimpse of Alex’s sketchbook as a two-page spread in the comic itself. Again, the images from a book within the narrative are entangled with the sequential images of the material comic we hold. As the page turns, it is, if but for a moment, as if we are actually holding his sketchbook, and it is delightful. The sketches are an amalgam of his technical sketches exploring the field of robotics and the lasting impressions of his trauma. There are schematics of his parents’ robot bodies, a close up of his mother’s robot head with word balloons reminding him to “Accept their help,” and doodles of Amandla, Hugh (who we find out has died of his self-inflicted gunshot), the Mink, and Edie.

Speaking of Amandla, I found that I was deeply affected by the fact that Alex, the precocious white boy from the suburbs, gets to escape the toxic environment of his public school, while his friend Amandla, also bright and definitely long in need of special attention and more resources remains trapped there. The comic does subtly suggest there is something off about this disparity. Amandla responds to the news of this opportunity by saying “lucky you” to Alex, clearly expressing some resentment. Yet, Alex’s escape is not total. His conversation with the GA—Frances Fenton­—alludes to the potential alienation felt by an adolescent in an environment meant for more socially and physically developed young people, and worse yet, the robotics class is taught by the professor we saw infected by a robotics book back in issue #2. There he is in his turtleneck and sports coat, seemingly distracted, and passing the infectious book on to Alex to absorb (perhaps, quite literally).

The Overthinker gives us glimpses on the various characters we’ve been introduced to so far. [Click to see larger version]

At comic’s end, the issue reinforces the meta-turn of its narrative by having the Overthinker—the living statue we first got to meet officially in issue #4—directly address the reader once again. His disembodied hands open and close theater curtains on various scenes, reinforcing a sense of separation between reader and story, as if to warn us not to identify too closely. We move from Alex demurring when Amandla asks for more information about what happened upstate in the previous issue, to the four-armed robot formerly known as Councilman Alfonzo flipping burgers, to the mutant overgrown hand that once belonged to the Mink working out to bulk up, to finally a couple of Mink’s goons watching Omega through the monitors and discovering his comic drawing prison project. What do all these things mean? I don’t know yet, but I am sufficiently compelled to want to read on ASAP.

Before moving on to the 1977 issue of Omega the Unknown #6, I want address what is on the actual final page of the 2008 version: a memorial to Steve Gerber, who passed away at age 60 the month before this comic came out. It features a line drawing of the writer behind a typewriter on a white background. On each shoulder his two best known creations, Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown (in color). Coming upon the memorial saddened me unduly. I mean, I’ve read this series twice before (even if I don’t remember it very well) so I must have seen it before, and I’ve known of Gerber’s death since it happened, so it’s not like it was a shock to me that way. No, it was that seeing his image in this comic that to some degree represents how the industry treated him and continued to milk his creations felt really shitty to me. And to add insult to injury, Howard the Duck is drawn with pants! This may seem like a small thing, but if I remember correctly Howard being drawn with pants was one of the points Gerber did not want to acquiesce to when Disney threatened a lawsuit over the character’s similarity to Donald Duck.

Anyway, despite the fact that by their very willingness to undertake this project Lethem and Dalrymple (and Rusnak) were flouting Gerber and Skrenes wishes, at least they acknowledged the man’s contribution. Based on my inquiries and investigations, a memorial for Gerber did not appear in any other Marvel comic that month despite his contribution to successful titles like Man-Thing and the Defenders. I did, however, discover that a tribute was included in some DC comics of that month and year­—a short piece by then executive editor Dan DiDio in their DC Nation feature. [Thanks to @WhatWereComics on Twitter and Tony Rose on the University of Florida Comics Studies listserv for their help in tracking this info down].

Speaking of Steve Gerber (and Mary Skrenes), let’s spend some time with the 1977 issue, because I loved it (though, as I alluded to above, explaining what made it so delightful of a visceral comic book reading experience might be impossible). I am not a big fan of dream sequences in comics—which this issue opens with—because they frequently feel like a ham-handed attempt at foreshadowing. In this case, however, the dream works to further conflate the inner life of our mostly mute superhero, Omega (thankfully, he once again does not speak in this issue) and James-Michael Starling. In it we see all of the people JMS has come to care about—Ruth, Amber, Dian, Nedley—all get shot down by the robot hunters seeking out Omega, while the hero is unable to help them. When James-Michael awakes with a fright, we have a call back to the first issue, but this time it is Ruth coming into his room and asking, “Are you in pain, James-Michael?” But it is there that the comparison stops, because Ruth becomes suddenly petulant and resentful of caring for the boy and lashes out at him sarcastically. Her behavior doesn’t seem to make very much sense—though I guess she could just be bitter that she’s home while Amber is out on a date—but the lack of sense is not a problem for the narrative. If James-Michael is our point of view character, then both his adolescence and his unusual affect mean his interpretation of Ruth’s behavior would leave him as confused as we are as readers.

Sick burn Ruth, but maybe remember this 12-year old has been put under your care by the state, and you have a responsibility to not be a petty asshole.

Upset by Ruth’s behavior, JMS heads out into a Friday night in Hell’s Kitchen. It is here that the comic becomes delightfully familiar, reminiscent of what I remember Omega the Unknown being like from my childhood. James-Michael has a run-in with a creepy wino he finds asleep in his building’s vestibule, in a scene that reminds me of scary encounters from my own NYC childhood. We see Omega hanging out with Gramps and his girlfriend Mamie at Rudy’s Bar (a real Hell’s Kitchen dive bar that is still around) and having a drink that seems to set his mind on fire. Mamie playfully flirts with Omega. Some local gal asks him for a dance, but Gramps interrupts to have Omega accompany him to walk Mamie home. The fact that Omega is doing this normal neighborhood stuff in his superhero suit, with Gramps telling everyone his name is Sam, is surreal and charming. It feels nearly as absurd as the world of the old Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comics, except it is set in the gritty backdrop of blighted 1970s New York City. At Mamie’s stoop, Gramps makes plans for the three of them to hit the Roseland Ballroom the next time. Unfortunately, Gerber and Skrenes don’t let us enjoy this trio’s next taste of the nightlife, because the villain of the month kills Mamie with a knock to her head from a wrench.

Omega the Unknown drinks an unknown drink.

I liked that less.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, JMS witnesses a hooker roughed up by her pimp, and is then chastised when she objects to his intervening. He has an encounter at an arcade with young hoodlums (all white), in a scene that Lethem and Rusnak riffed on in the 2007 version of issue #4. He is rescued from his predicament by Amber, who arriving home from her date, found that JMS had left and went back out to look for him. Unfortunately, for her and her ward, they run into the Wrench in a back alley on the way home and things turn ugly. Omega the Unknown arrives to save the day, but a gunshot takes him out. Amber tries to sacrifice herself to give JMS a chance to run, but the boy doesn’t run. He has been paralyzed by the voices in his head from the moment Omega was shot. Amber is about to get brained by the Wrench’s wrench, when suddenly James-Michael’s hands erupt with the omega energy, smiting the villain. “No!” James-Michael cries, and then he falls to his knees, whimpering “no” once again.

Gerber and Skrenes’s captions are great throughout this scene, working to both give us insight into the sudden ejaculation of power and leave an element of mystery about its source. The Wrench (who the writers might have meant to call The Handyman, based on the narration) is filled with pain over the loss of his mother (Ethel, Mamie’s best friend); pain he cannot fix. As such, he lashes out, misunderstood by the people around him. There is a suggestion that there is some similarity or connection between Kurt the Handyman and James-Michael, but the extent of it is undisclosed. Is it just a coincidental echo, or something more profound? Either way, both are parent-less man-children dealing with new found power over life and death. In Lethem’s Omega, Alex has manifested the omega power thrice already, but this the first time James-Michael has done so since the first issue, and once again no one is around or conscious to witness it.

Jim Mooney’s art is clean, lovely, and delightful, and contributes to the charm and pathos of this issue. I think Mike Esposito’s inks really help out as well, and despite the limited palette of comics of the time, the colorist, Hugh Paley, does a great job with the emphasis of certain yellows, blues and greens.

The Eschatology of Omega

Reading both of these individual comics books was a joyful experience and made me think that there is a chance that Omega the Unknown in both its incarnations are among the best comics I’ve read…certainly, at the very least, some of the best comics of the era that produced the original series. As a letter writer in the 1977 issue suggests, Omega the Unknown is “different,” and it is that difference, the discomfiting sense of how it abrades against a superheroic world and captures the disjointed and wavering adolescent understanding of life that makes it special. Another reader writes in to counter a letter from an earlier issue calling it a “sick” comic book, appreciating that difference, even as he recognizes that it might lead to the comic’s cancellation. And, since we are more than halfway through the truncated run, he is right on that score. When I read an issue like this I can’t help but wonder what Omega the Unknown might have become if it lasted longer and had benefited from a long serial run. I embrace its absurdity, even as I appreciate Lethem’s attempt to embed that absurdity into a realistic, if sometimes hyperbolic, reality.

At this moment I know that as soon as I am done with this project and this experiment in reading month-by-month (in actuality, the original series was bi-monthly), I will be reading both series through in one sitting for each to see what I’ve gained from this punctuated reading of these fantastic comics.

A spread from Alex’s sketchbook. [Click to enlarge]

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5 thoughts on “Alpha & Omega #6: Pulling Back the Curtain

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