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.
Omega the Unknown volume 1, #9
Cover Date: July 1977
Release Date: April 19, 1977
Writers: Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inker: Jim Mooney
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer: Susan Fox
Omega the Unknown volume 2, #9
Cover Date: August 2008
Release Date: June 4, 2008
Writers: Jonathan Lethem w/ Karl Rusnak
Penciler: Farel Dalrymple
Inker: Farel Dalrymple
Colorist: Paul Hornschemeier
Letterer: Farel Dalrymple
The first thing I noticed about the cover to the 1977 issue of Omega the Unknown #9 (aside from the iconic statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center) was the callout advertising the return of Steve Gerber and trying to use the popularity of Howard the Duck as a selling point for this work. It’s cool that editorial was trying to leverage Gerber’s popularity on another book to drum up interest in Omega the Unknown but leaving out Mary Skrenes as co-writer seems like a slight to me, and might even be an early example of pandering to a crowd they imagine might be turned off by a woman writer. The rest of the cover is not particularly noteworthy, except for the aforementioned statue. I like when Marvel Comics incorporate actual NYC landmarks into their books. The cover to Omega the Unknown volume 2, #9 depicts the Mink in the grasp of the weird robot thing that used to be his own hand and surrounded by a mob of robots and infected service workers. It is a good cover but would be better if the pathos it evoked was echoed in the comic itself, but as you shall see, it falls short of earning any accolades for the Mink’s plight.
Right away we can tell that Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes are back on the job because the narration is back to normal. No more references to the man in blue as “Omega.” Instead, the opening panels depict “the caped man” straining to escape the rubble of the warehouse that collapsed atop him at the end of the previous issue, while James-Michael Starling suffers another of his parallel fits back at Amber and Ruth’s apartment. Meanwhile, an anxious and jerky Richard Rory looks on too concerned with the threat of Foolkiller to care about the poor kid’s plight, and Amber lets him know she doesn’t appreciate his self-centeredness.
Speaking of Foolkiller, we first see him in this issue as a distant figure responsible for disintegrating a grocer and a knife-wielding shoplifter who were fighting on the street. Omega the Unknown notes the figure but decides to do nothing. As the narration tells us, he is too tired to get involved and feeling particularly ambivalent to superheroing’s expectations after his battle with Nitro in the last issue and how the Hell’s Kitchen crowd on Ninth Avenue berates him for being a shitty superhero, referencing his aborted battle with Blockbuster in issue #7. However, Gramps is back! He arrives in time to see the grapplers blasted to atoms and, filled with a desire for vengeance after Mamie’s death in issue #6, he approves. Poor Gramps! I appreciate that he looks after Omega (or tries to at least, offering to see to his wounds and stitch his torn costume), but this turn in his personality towards an indiscriminate thirst for the blood of criminals with “rotted, filthy, degenerate minds” makes me sad.
Even weirder than Gramps’s turn towards the vengeful is Omega’s sudden turn towards monetary concerns. He insists Gramps lend him all his savings—$300! That’s $1235.42 in 2018 dollars—without explaining what he needs it for and heads to the shopping district. The narration informs us he has found what he is looking for when he spots a fancy “navy blue 100% worsted Edwardian suit” in a store window. Before he can even get in the store, however, Blockbuster comes blasting out of a different store window. At first, Omega plans to ignore his former sparring partner, but the store owner offers a thousand buck reward to whoever can stop the supervillain, and the newly money-oriented hero decides that he has “a thousand good reasons to involve himself.” As they fight, the narration notes the irony that both men are fighting for “the accumulation of material wealth,” as Blockbuster explains that he is still trying to raise money to rescue his son from foster care. It seems like Gerber and Skrenes are working at forcing readers to consider the differences between those superhero comics present as heroes and villains, or really, the lack thereof. As the narration explains, “Mere circumstance, not principle, has cast [Blockbuster and Omega] as adversaries…And raw might, not the vagaries of justice shall determine who profits from their struggle.”
After being severely beaten and abandoned at the Rockefeller Center ice-skating rink, Omega returns to Hell’s Kitchen to find Blockbuster about to kill Gramps, who just happened to stumble upon the villain hiding in a back alley. Still beat up and exhausted, Omega is able to save Gramps, but is about to be killed himself, when “ZHAMM!” Blockbuster is disintegrated into a blast of Kirby krackle. The Foolkiller strikes again!
Blockbuster’s final words are about how he will snap Omega’s neck to prove that that blue-suited hero had given his best shot and failed and Foolkiller calls from off panel, “Pathetic isn’t it how they’re always proving something! Their strength, their cunning, how much they can drink! But never a poetic thought or word or deed!” He blasts the wayward father (making an orphan in the process), the Foolkiller’s pronouncements make him sound like a warrior against toxic masculinity (if only that were actually the case!). He then warns Omega from a rooftop that while he performed “very poetically” (not sure how, actually), the verdict is still out on him, and he might fall prey to Foolkiller. “The choice is yours:” he says in the final panel as he flees. “Live a poem or die a fool!”
What the heck is this guy going on about? What does “liv[ing] a poem” even mean? Perhaps if I had read the issues of Man-Thing in which Foolkiller was first introduced I might have a better sense of it, but I haven’t, and to be honest I am annoyed to find Omega the Unknown so embroiled in continuity from another series, even if it is also penned by Gerber. My research into the character tells me that he was originally some guy named Ross G. Everbest, who decided that anti-war protesters were “fools” and had an evangelist bent. He was killed in Man-Thing volume 1, #4 (April 1974), but as we discover earlier in this issue, the Foolkiller who has followed Richard Rory to New York is actually his former cellmate who had heard the story of the original one and even where to find the original’s costume and weapons from Rich. This new guy, Greg P. Salinger, decided to take up the Foolkiller’s mission, but “secularizing it.” So rather than killing “infidels,” he has adopted what an old lit professor of mine, William Spanos, would have called “Natural Supernaturalism”—that is using the term from A.H. Abrams famous book adapted by Edward Said, as a critique of using the notion of the sacred to reinforce secular ideas about the power of the state. In other words, Greg is replacing one arbitrary religious system for determining who is worthy and who is sinful with a secular one built on the notion that there is something inherently sacred about poetry. Madness. But still, an interesting development.
The only other event within the narrative of Omega the Unknown volume 1, #9 worth noting is the explicit reference to race coming out the mouth of a Puerto Rican stereotype. In what seems like an indulgent scene involving Amber wrapped in nothing by a bath towel, the super, drawn by Mooney to be something of a wide-faced caricature of a Mexican, arrives to announce there will be no hot water for the time being. I get that Gerber and Skrenes are riffing on the experience of living in Hell’s Kitchen in this era, but the exaggerated written out accent and the visual othering rubs me the wrong way. The only thing going for the depiction of the super is his snarky comment about the number of people they have crammed into the apartment as he leaves, saying, “He don’ like crazy people chickee — even if the are white.” Regardless, this comic has yet to present even one positive representation of a non-white person.
Outside of the narrative of the comic, readers disagreed on the letters page about Scott Edelman filling in for Gerber and Skrenes on issue #7. Gareth Lind from Toronto, Canada complains (like I did) about the lack of “beautiful narration” and “shrouds of mystery.” Don Ecsedy of Sebastopol, California, on the other hand, liked that the “shrouds of mystery” were pierced through a bit under Edelman’s brief tenure and is under the impression that the new writer would be sticking around. The editor replies by explaining that most responses to the fill-in issue were split along those lines, but not quite evenly. Most readers, he claims, praised Edelman’s writing and the continued presence of Mooney on art. He even quotes Mary Skrenes’ alleged reaction, “appreciation for the time, effort and thought Scott and Jim obviously put into the work.” Even if this is true (thought it seems at odds with her view on the fill-in writers she gave looking back on that era), it is just about the most neutral evaluation you could imagine. Appreciation of effort is not the same as saying it was good or that you liked it. The letters page ends with Steve Gerber responding to a letter accusing the series’ “realism” as actually being a form of pessimism. In his response, Gerber indulges in his usual logorrhea, adopting a rhetorical approach that allows him to disparage a different medium altogether—television—for its mediocrity and to talk in a way that reinforces my view that his voice is almost indistinguishable from that of Howard the Duck. What is most interesting to me, however, is that even in writing this response, he does not refer to the titular hero as “Omega” but as “the caped man.” I feel vindicated that to call the character “Omega” within the narrative is to not understand something basic about the comic—exploring a sense of unknowability through consideration of the liminality of knowing. Shit, I may be suffering from some logorrhea of my own. Heh.
In 2008, Omega the Unknown volume 2, #9 opens with Titus Alexander Island back at Edie’s place trying out his new Omega costume in the mirror. Soon after, we see him mobbed by The Mink’s fuchsia-garbed henchmen and a documentary crew from the Hagiography Channel “doing a commissioned portrait of a week in the life of the Mink” as he tries to head out to where he can do the most good in the fight against the robot blight. The documentarian frames her questions for Alex from what is clearly the Mink’s prospective on what is happening. “Is it really the case that you Omegas are an ancient galactic cult? And that you’ve made Earth your battleground in a grudge match with your interstellar rivals?” Suddenly, the Mink’s sketchy behavior towards Omega, the kid, and the late Silliman Renfrew (that we were informed about last issue) makes sense. Yes, the MInk is a selfish boorish ass, but he is also (perhaps intelligently) unwilling to take sides in the Omega vs. robot conflict just because one side happens to look like what we recognize as a “superhero.” Of course, the fact that he refers to the “Omegas” as Alex’s “team” and “franchise” also suggests that he feels threatened by the potential arrival of a competitor in the superheroing department. Later, on a helicopter trip to the 2U Quik warehouse, where Alex and Amandla are fighting the robot forces, the Mink even makes a reference to Yojimbo in explaining his strategy to Edie—let the two opposing sides defeat each other and clean up the remaining mess. Already ambivalent about having the Mink for a boyfriend, Edie takes this moment to break up with him.
Here we see what a piece of shit the Mink really is because what he is most upset about is that she broke up with him on his helicopter, which is in his words is like “break[ing] up with a guy who’s holding a gun to your head, or wearing a bomb!” In other words, Edie doesn’t “regard [him] as a dangerous person in the least” (emphasis his) and it is this lack of fear that hurts his feelings most. He’d rather be feared than loved. This makes sense to me, given what we have seen of the Mink so far, but what comes next less so. Spotting Alex and Amandla on the roof of the warehouse battling the ambulatory giant hand that once belonged to him and that killed his father, the Mink jumps into the fray and ends up sacrificing himself to destroy that hand when it looks like it will triumph. He pulls a grenade from its belt and blasts the both of them (Alex shielding Amandla with his newly discovered invulnerability, though given the fact that he survived that parent-melting car crash way back in issue #1 might have been a clue to this power). Immediately after, the Mink’s helicopter saves Alex and Amandla from being overwhelmed by the now countless robotized delivery people and fast food workers, and Edie seems oddly calm about the death of the guy who was her boyfriend until only moments before. The characterizations of Alex and Amandla make sense to me, but Edie (like Ruth in the original run) is hard to fathom. Furthermore, the Mink’s sacrifice comes out of left field. It doesn’t match what we’ve come to know about him, what he had just been explaining about his Yojimbo strategy, nor does the break-up with the affectless Edie or desire for vengeance over the death of his father seem like sufficient motivation for a suicidal change of heart.
Meanwhile, the original man in blue has left the safety of Reverend Upchurch’s place and made his way to the 2U Quik warehouse as well. He is desperately fighting dozens of the robots to get Alex and Amandla but is never spotted before they get away. Crashing through the roof, he lands amid a tangle of robots in the garage, where the Overthinker—who has been narrating this part of the story—exists as a hood ornament on one of the delivery trucks. Until this point, the strange head with disembodied hands has been commenting on the action in broad and abstract ways, weighing “the baroque flourish” of an “individuated consciousness” against “franchises — or fungi” as a way to organize life. But suddenly, the Overthinker’s meta-role as narrator and Greek chorus is set on a collision course with the narrative itself, as Omega notices him in hood ornament form and the O-thinker freaks out because they “dwell in incompatible realms.” By way of desperate explanation, he exclaims, “You’re a creature of matter, while I am comprised of Doesn’t-Matter.” When Omega grabs hold of the Overthink ornament, this play on the ideas of matter and anti-matter manifests in an omega-shaped blast from the exploding warehouse that Dalrymple draws in the background in the final panel depicting countless 2U Quik robot zombies driving a line of delivery trucks away from the scene of the fracas.
I’m not sure that the meta-narrative play on the part of Lethem, Rusnak and Dalrymple really works here. I want to like it, but it feels forced, abrupt, arbitrary in ways that don’t delight as much as they evoke a “meh, okay…”
I am interested in, however, the way in which Alex, in the words of Ruth, adopts an “air of authority.” The deference to Alex by the “Mink Men” suggests that even as he has become the next in line to become an Omega (in places he is drawn nearly indistinguishable from the adult Omega, though only in panels marred by Dalrymple’s occasional sloppy rushed-looking work), he is also becoming the “new Mink.” We’ll see if I am right in my estimation about this. Could it be that the lesson of this new version of Omega the Unknown is that growing up is to both see through the colorful simplistic visions of the world that stuff like superheroes would sometimes have us believe is reality, while also coming to grips with the fact that we all become that which we most despise? Maybe. Or maybe that is my own cynicism talking.
The fact is, as much as adulthood sucks, you could not pay me enough to go back to being a kid.
The Eschatology of Omega
I feel at a loss with both these comics. As you might be able to tell, while I liked certain elements, the story-telling approach and the turn in Omega’s interest towards money in the 1977 version is baffling. In the 2008 version, the characterization of the Mink seemed like a big unearned turn that soured any patience a reader might have had for the repellant character. Edie also remains an enigma. Both series seem to have dropped the plot element involving the doctor and the clinic he works at (and its investors), though volume one does include a panel of Ruth phoning Dr. Barrow when JMS is having another one of his episodes.
I long for that one perfect issue of each right in the middle of each run that seemed to put them in delightful sync for a moment.
But here we are, the penultimate issue of the series, and both seem to be about where I’d imagine they’d be. Omega the Unknown volume 2, #9 is at a very obvious climax in terms of Titus Alexander Island fulfilling his destiny and becoming whatever it is his robot parents intended him to be. On the other hand, the robot infection itself seems nowhere close to being handled, though a development in the b-plot involving Fenton and the Columbia crew developing more of the inoculating salt seems like it might serve as a quick end. I assume that the first volume of Omega the Unknown is going to end on a cliffhanger—in the middle of some two-issue arc that is never quite completed, but has its loose ends tied up somehow by someone else in the pages of Defenders. As such, there is no sense that anything is drawing to a close or changing. Instead, the developments in Omega’s behavior seem like odd arbitrary turns without much meaning.
We shall soon see how it all pans out.