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.
Update (6/1/2018): I somehow missed that that the opening pages to the 2008 version of Omega the Unknown #7 were drawn by Gary Panter (there were no artist credits in the comic itself, nor did the Marvel wiki or its own site list him as working on the issue). I am embarrassed by this oversight and have added a note about it below. Thanks to Philippe LeBlanc for pointing it out at The Beat.
Omega the Unknown volume 1, #7
Cover Date: March 1977
Release Date: December 14, 1976
Writer: Scott Edelman
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inker: Jim Mooney
Colorist: Hugh Paley
Letterers: Joe Rosen
Omega the Unknown volume 2, #7
Cover Date: June 2008
Release Date: April 2, 2008
Writers: Jonathan Lethem w/ Karl Rusnak
Penciler: Farel Dalrymple
Inker: Farel Dalrymple
Colorist: Paul Hornschemeier
Letterer: Farel Dalrymple
There is nothing too special about the cover to Omega the Unknown volume 1, #7. Sure, Dave Cockrum drew it, but not really his best work. Gary Panter’s cover for the 2008 equivalent is a stark departure from his previous covers as neither Alex, nor Omega, appear on it. Instead, it features giant versions of the robots depicted in the comic Omega draws while imprisoned by the Mink. They tower over panicking crowds of what look suspiciously like the aliens that appeared in Fantastic Four #24 way back in 1963. The robots are raining destruction on the aliens’ city, shooting beams from the palms of their hands. Stylistically, it has a raw and “indie” look that pulls the simultaneously thoughtful and absurd superhero book into that rarely adjoining and always nebulous genre.
It is immediately clear to any careful reader of the original Omega the Unknown series, despite the continuity of Jim Mooney’s wonderful art, that something is off with this issue. The dialog seems about right, but the narration is wrong. Scott Edelman took over writing duties for Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes for an issue because of Gerber’s typical inability to meet deadlines what with all the other books he was writing and editing. It is a shame that just when the comic was hitting its delightful stride it would be tripped up by the logistics of corporate comics deadlines and editorial demands. In other words, Marvel wasn’t willing to let the book disappear from the stands for a couple of extra months for the sake of the integrity of the project. Unfortunate, but understandable, especially for a bi-monthly book.
From the very first caption the narration is off, like an attempt to ape the tone of the book based on a description rather than actually reading the source material. For one thing, for the first (and hopefully last) time the narration in this issue calls our interstellar hero “Omega!” Now, I may use that name here as a placeholder or quick reference, but never in the first six issues of this comic has anyone, not even the narrators, called him “Omega” or “Omega the Unknown.” Even Gramps calls him “Sam” and that seems right for the book. Gerber and Skrenes come up with all sorts of ways to refer to him, but to reduce his mystery to a name that is framed as just another superhero is a severe misreading of the book. Edelman even has other characters refer to him as Omega. It’s wrong. Gerber and Skrenes usually write the captions with a detached intensity that seems to address the reader directly—as if we are on the periphery of this strange Hell’s Kitchen community. Edelman’s try is a poor imitation.
The other thing that reduces the sense of mystery—by inadvertently lampshading the narrative necessity for explanations to remain elusive—is that after James-Michael Starling zaps The Wrench (seemingly to death—see previous issue), Omega awakens and flies off with the kid to evade the coming police. They leave Amber unconscious in the alley. The taciturn blue-garbed hero only speaks one word to JMS, “secret,” and the narration leads us to believe he is referring to James-Michael’s powers. Any questions the boy himself might have about his connection to Omega the Unknown or what was up with the hunter robots or his robot parents remain unasked and unanswered. Our two protagonists just go their separate ways. It undermines the tension the regular writers have carefully built.
And yet, despite failing to pay careful attention to the narration style and some of the less obvious conceits of the comic (like its refusal to name its hero), there are elements in this issue that I really like. I wonder if they are a result of a conversation with Gerber and Skrenes about the direction of the book, consultation with the editor (Archie Goodwin), or just luck, but some of this issue does seem in line with where Omega the Unknown was headed. The first is Gramps’ real despair over the loss last issue of his bae, Mamie. He is beside himself with grief so palpable that I almost forgot I was reading a superhero comic for a second. When Omega speaks to Gramps for the first time to comfort him, the old man is flabbergasted. In that moment, Omega is called away and Gramps is left disbelieving, calling after the hero, “You can’t speak!” It reads as almost another betrayal for the old man who was unwittingly playing out the role of a character in Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
The other fascinating aspect of this story is the villain of the month, Blockbuster. On his own he is totally boring and forgettable, but his motivation makes for results more complex than the typical superhero clobberjob of the time. He wants to steal enough money to get his kid out of foster care. Out on parole after serving time for crimes that a handy editorial note let’s us know happened in Captain America #121, the state has deemed the supervillain unfit to care for the boy in the absence of his mother (who I assume is dead). While the motivation might be a little more maudlin than even other comic books of the time, it is not that far out of the ordinary for the type of villain who goes to extremes for understandable reasons. What makes the encounter with Omega has with Blockbuster so amazing is that after making sure he’s drawn the villain away from civilians that might get hurt during their fight, the mostly mute hero lets Blockbuster go! When he realizes that the villain just wants money, he decides that “logic dictates” that he let the man go and not exacerbate the conflict and risk someone getting hurt.
I love this. I have often thought that given superpowers I wouldn’t care about bank robberies or thefts and the like. As long as no one was hurt, they could take whatever they wanted. Banks are fucking crooks themselves anyway.
While the conflict ends with the narration making the superficial observation that Omega and his foe have similarities in that they care for son-like figures, this strikes me as more of Edelman not getting this book at all. Omega is not a father-figure to JMS. He is not even avuncular! Omega is the future ghost of James-Michael’s own adulthood. He is another self, separated by the prism of pubescence and its mysteries. If looked at from the perspective of a father-son dynamic the way the narration describes a second interaction between Omega and James-Michael gives these mysteries unnecessarily incestuous overtones. While the gathered crowd jeers that Omega has let Blockbuster go, their words have no meaning to him but noise “for he is lost in twin pools of flashing blue,” staring into JMS’s eyes. The queer subtext of how the intense acknowledgement is described makes more sense as JMS considering the erotic potential of his future self—the virile silent and handsome figure of the male superhero. Omega’s body language in the first panel just reinforces it, hand on his hip, smoky glare… Rawr! The panel shows James-Michael’s face, returning his look and described as, “Eyes widening unconsciously revealing strange, new emotions which the lips are not ready to voice.” And then, “Omega feels J.M.’s desire as if it were his own” (all emphasis in the original text). There is definitely something queer going on here and reading this scene makes me wish Jonathan Lethem, for his own take on Omega the Unknown, had picked up on and played with making this subtext more text and less sub: the queer energies of pubescence as superpower.
I’m curious to see how this change in writer plays out in the next issue when there is another guest writer before Gerber and Skrenes get to come back. Jim Mooney’s art gives the story some important visual consistency, so I don’t want to downplay his role in the storytelling. A great deal of what makes this issue cohere is Mooney’s attention to his characters and the action. Hugh Paley’s colors also pop even over 40 years later on newsprint!
The other thing of note in this issue is that Kurt Busiek has a letter printed on the letters page (click here to read it). He explains that while most people write in either to praise or condemn the book, none give suggestions as to what to change. So, he decides to do just that and ends up giving some bad advice that essentially asks for Omega to be drawn more into the Marvel universe by using more talkative and exciting guest characters that are more “normal” to serve as a backdrop for Omega’s strangeness. I see where he is coming from, but Omega’s strangeness is best noted against the delightful possibilities of the neighborhood (like we saw last issue). At its best, Omega the Unknown should be defamiliarizing, using its hero’s strangeness to highlight our own. In Busiek’s defense he was only 16 years old when he wrote this letter, so given that fact, his reasoning for his suggestion is pretty well thought out.
Shifting to 2008, Omega the Unknown volume 2, #7 also gives voice to a name for Omega. Well, kind of…The issue opens with six straight pages of Omega’s comic—the one we saw him making last issue—so once again what the comic the reader holds becomes the comic in the narrative. These pages are not drawn by Farel Dalrymple, but by “punk rock comics legend” Gary Panter. I like it. The style is deceptively raw, but actually quite detailed. The comic is called “Omega the Unknown,” thus it is a name within the narrative, even if it is not necessarily his name, as he continues to be referred to as “blue guy” a lot of the time. Later in the issue, a killer robot of the type we saw hunting Omega early in the series, being built in the robotics class up at Columbia University, coughs out “O.. O.. O.. MEG.. A…” and wilds out saying “must kill blue guy” when it sights Titus Alexander Island, calling back to the confusion in the very first issue. Alex’s professor flips out and flees when he discovers that Alex was able to read the robotics textbook without literally absorbing it (as happened to the prof in issue #2, and presumably to all his students off-panel) and thus being absorbed by it.Omega’s prison comic tells a story that starts out simple but ends up a little difficult to figure out. It tells of an alien race going from planet to planet destroying everyone, until people on an Earth-like planet discover the approaching menace and imbue someone with the powers of Omega to fight them off and he seems to succeed. However, this is where the story gets hard to follow (the comic has no words). We see Omega shaking hands with what seems like one of the people who invented that Omega technology, but this representative is evil looking and seems to be infected with the nanobots. The infected Omega (this one with pointed ears like the alien race that seemed to invent his powers) begins to melt, his flesh giving way to a screaming skull beneath. The final splash cuts to a ring of Omegas of a variety of alien races shooting their hand blasts at a cluster of robots in the center. There is a happy kumbaya feeling to the final panel, but the ones before it—the handshake highlighted with a raw red crayon scrawl—that gets me. It freaks me out. It makes me wonder what the fuck is really going on. It is one of those moments when a comic can make you feel stupid and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The rest of the issue is all over the place. Omega gets thrown into Mink’s maze and that is the last we see of him in the issue. The Mink then takes Edie, along with Alex and Amandla out for a “double date” to see a terrible movie. He proceeds to be the awful boor he always is, and even brags that he has Omega locked up in his maze, cocksure that eventually he will get Alex to open up to him about their connection, when in reality Alex has about as much of a clue as we do as readers. When the Mink is called away to deal with the Councilman Alfonzo abomination running rampant over the city, Amandla takes charge and convinces Alex that now is the time to go save Omega from the labyrinth. They recruit grad student prodigy Fenton along the way, as earlier in the issue Alex confided in her about the whacked-out robotics professor and his infected students building more killer robots. At this point the comic turns into an adventure story, and Fenton’s youthful enthusiasm for sneaking into a superhero headquarters—“My brother used to read Mink’s comics”—doing stuff that “no one else at Columbia would do” and bemoaning the fun stuff she must have missed out on by skipping high school reinforces that adventuresome spirit. Heck, Amandla even produces a map of the Mink’s HQ that she acquired from her uncle who worked on the construction crew that built it (a fact she mentioned in passing back in issue #3). Shades of Treasure Island. The issue ends with the three of them about to enter the maze to rescue Omega when they stumble upon a confounding find: another Omega! This one has red hair and a beard and is built rather thick around the middle. He is in some kind of hibernation chamber like Chuck Heston at the beginning of Planet of the Apes.
Compelling! Clearly the Mink knows more than his bumbling self-aggrandizing persona suggests. That final panel is well-rendered, even if, as usual, Farel Dalrymple’s work is uneven throughout the issue. While some of it just wonderful cartooning (especially his version of Omega’s comic), the panels featuring Fonzie on the loose are a dark mess of thick lines and mud-like sloppy coloring by Paul Hornschemeier.
The Eschatology of Omega
Neither comic reached the distilled purity of the last set of issues, which is a shame, but I guess might also be too much to ask. However, the 2008 issue is going strong, despite some sagging in the story when it spends too much time with the former Councilman turned mobile amalgamation of robots and fast food stations. Back in 1976 the change in writer is a bad sign that is easy to read in retrospect. And yet, the fact that there are some interesting elements that emerge from Edelman’s writing suggests that the series could survive with different writers, assuming they built on the mysteries, not try to solve them or force it into a too-typical superhero comic framework. I have to admit, the more I think of the pregnant queerness of that one moment between James-Michael Starling and Omega the more I like it—proving that a writer and artist can come up with compelling ideas inadvertently.
The pacing of each issue has diverged wildly. In 2008 we seem to be hurtling towards some kind of resolution. Answers will inevitably be found or invented, even if more questions emerge as a result. In other words, I imagine that when Alex and Omega have a chance to share an intense moment of staring into each other’s’ eyes it is bound to actually be significant to the plot, and not conveniently passed on from as happened under Edelman’s watch. In the 1970s, Omega the Unknown is a series meant to last indefinitely as all series were imagined to ideally run in that era’s mindset. As such, the pacing is localized to one or two issues at a time. In the case of fill-in issues (and I assume this will be true next month as well) the sense of treading water is even more accentuated given the editorial mandate to not change too much and just write an adventure (at least according to the fill-in writers when interviewed about it years later). Gerber seemed to have accepted the fill-ins as necessary evils that resulted from his overscheduling, but Mary Skrenes seems to still resent the fact that it happened. Not sure why she couldn’t have written the comic herself without Gerber if he was so busy. Maybe she was busy, too.
Nevertheless, both approaches are rapidly arriving at the same thing: an end to the series.