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.
Omega the Unknown volume 1, #10
Cover Date: October 1977
Release Date: June 14, 1977
Writers: Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inker: Jim Mooney
Colorist: Phil Rachelson
Letterer: Howard Bender
Omega the Unknown volume 2, #10
Cover Date: September 2008
Release Date: July 16, 2008
Writers: Jonathan Lethem w/ Karl Rusnak
Penciler: Farel Dalrymple
Inker: Farel Dalrymple
Colorist: Paul Hornschemeier
Letterer: Farel Dalrymple
Dave Cockrum’s cover for Omega the Unknown vol. 1, #10 (with inks by Pablo Martin) is nothing special. Some generic purple monster with a cock’s comb is strangling the caped man in a pretty unexceptional desert scene. There is also nothing to note that this is the series’ final issue. The call-out boxes explain to us (thanks to that era’s lack of concern with the supercilious obsession with so-called spoilers) that this demon thing won’t be killing the hero, but that he does die in the “electrifying climax.” The cover visuals don’t do anything to live up to the promise of those words. Speaking of words, a third call-out once again advertises that this is a comic written by the author of Howard the Duck, leaving Mary Skrenes and Jim Mooney forgotten. It is an ignominious end for the series, cover-wise.
Farel Dalrymple’s cover for the 2008 version of Omega the Unknown #10, on the other hand, is probably the best of the series. It depicts countless varieties of alien “Omegas” gathered to watch a giant television broadcasting the caped man dragging an emaciated arm out of a smoking hole. In the background is an alien cityscape. The colors are bright. The details are eye-catching. I love it…but… well, it doesn’t really have much to do with the ending of the series. In fact, it has nothing to do with it. The ending is much more bizarre, but in a kind of a more mundane way than what is depicted here. I might have appreciated this cover even more if it had done more to incorporate some of the weirdness within.
Omega the Unknown volume 1, #10 opens with a splash of James-Michael Starling, the caped man, and company at John Nedley’s funeral. It is the same image used in issue #8 of the 2007-08 version in memoriam of Jim Mooney. While John did not die in the hospital like his counterpart from the Aughts did, the narration explains that on his first day back to school a random kick to the rear knocked loose some heretofore undiscovered internal injury—perhaps a blood clot?—that made him keel over dead in the hall. The scene is a sad one. So sad, that even Omega the Unknown, dressed in his navy blue wool suit, but still wearing his omega-shaped tiara is not an absurd enough sight to undermine it. After the funeral, James-Michael announces to his buddy Dian his intention to “remove [him]self from an intolerable environment.” In other words, he plans to run away, and Dian decides to join him. Soon they are on a bus headed back to the mountains of Pennsylvania and the home JMS left way back in Omega the Unknown #1. If this sounds familiar, it is because Lethem and Resnak riffed on this plot element in issue #5 of their series. Similar to the events of the later volume, Dian stumbles upon inert duplicate versions of the boy’s robot parents. Unlike the Lethem version, however, this is the cliffhanger for the James-Michael aspect of this issue and thus the series. Despite being a startling and compelling development readers would have to wait two years for a chance to find out what happened next and what it means. Then again, the 2007-08 version of Omega the Unknown doesn’t do much to explain what is up with Titus Alexander Island’s robot parents or clear up the role of the “Omegas” with any specificity either…so even the framework of a defined series length didn’t lead to my having any more of an understanding of what the fuck is going on.
Back in Hell’s Kitchen, while Ruth, Amber, and Richard Rory discuss what to do about James-Michael’s absence. Ruth freaks out about the kid being out there alone after dark (perhaps forgetting when her callous attitude drove him out of the apartment late one night back in issue #6). Amber has the best approach, wait patiently for JMS to call since he is “nothing if not responsible.”
Meanwhile, the caped man brings Gramps with him to Las Vegas, where he uses his powers to somehow fix games, so he and the old man start winning tons of money (but knowing enough to not win too much in any one place as to not draw too much attention). All in all, they end up with 55 grand after their first day of gambling (that’s over a quarter million in 2018 dollars). How does Omega pull off this trick of beating the house? There is no real explanation, just some nonsense about “the tarot card principle applied deliberately” and “the psyche acting upon the falling dice.” He talks a lot—way too much—in this issue. Before this non-explanation can finish, however, there is a knock on their hotel room door. A woman comes calling with a bottle of champagne. She claims to have observed their winning and has come to join the celebration. Yet, before our hero or Gramps can respond, two thin tendrils of flesh shoot out from her forehead and wrap around their necks. They pass out and soon her servant, Dibbuk (the cock’s comb demon from the cover) arrives, crashing through the window to carry off the money. It seems that this woman is not a woman at all (the head tendrils might have been a hint) and for a second the monster does not recognize her. This is important because later, when Omega awakens and goes after her—spotting the woman that came into the room driving off in a car—it becomes clear to the readers that this is not the same person. He had no way of knowing that the person who stole his money, someone named “Ruby Thursday,” had only taken the shape of this woman. Ruby Thursday first appeared in another Gerber-penned comic, Defenders #32 (February 1976), but her appearance here was the first time I had ever seen her, nor do we see her in her default “gumball head” form. Omega’s attack causes the innocent woman to crash her car and as he pulls her from the burning wreckage, demanding to know where the money is and threatening her, the police arrive. They try to subdue him and he easily flings them around, so then the cops open fire. The final panel of the final issue of Omega the Unknown depicts the caped man lying dead on the streets of Las Vegas, a note from “Steve, Mary, and Jim” that the story would be “concluded in a future issue of The Defenders.”
Of course, looking back we know now that that conclusion would not only not come for many years, but Gerber, Skrenes, and Mooney would have nothing to do with it. For a long time, any fans of Omega the Unknown would never get the satisfying ending they wanted (and I don’t know that even if they were still reading comics when those issues of Defenders did finally arrive, that the end was in anyway “satisfying”).
What is interesting here is how Gerber and Skrenes are pushing at what is acceptable for a superhero to do and remain a hero in the context of the genre’s ideological underpinnings. Sure, soon after this time, plenty of anti-heroes grow in popularity, but even the Punisher (who first appeared in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man a few years before this) maintains an ideological framework in line with the narrow and Manichean view of crime through which superheroes traditionally operate and that is leveraged to justify wanton violence and violating rights. The caped man, however, is cheating to raise money and earlier was willing to not get involved in fighting supercrooks because he didn’t see the point. Omega the Unknown may not be very likeable, but I do like that he challenges the accepted notions of superheroes in a way that is not merely pursuing the coolness of the rebel badass pose like a Wolverine or Ghost Rider but much more fundamentally because he maintains the trappings of the traditional Superman-like superhero while remaining inscrutable.
But what does he want all these ill-gotten gains for? Well, the narration that accompanies his angry pursuit of Ruby Thursday suggests that the money is for “an act of mercy” or “rescue operation.” It goes on to explain, “The boy — James-Michael — must be evacuated from Hell’s Kitchen immediately. Before his mind, his burgeoning emotions fall prey to its poisons.” If Gerber’s writing on Howard the Duck is anything to go by, I imagine this is meant to be a comment on the role of environment in shaping one’s sense of ethics and values. That’s great, but I can’t help but think of all the other kids stuck in Hell’s Kitchen, who don’t have a handsome superhero alien to finance their “escape.” Not only kids like James-Michael’s friend Dian, but unnamed black and brown kids who in this kind of framing are among the things to be escaped from. In other words, even as Omega the Unknown challenges some assumptions of the genre it recapitulates the most common framework for imagining and understanding urban spaces and erasing or dehumanizing those who are tacitly valued less than white protagonists, which it always centers.
There has only been one named black character in the ten issues of the original series, Thomas “Tank” Tyson, who we saw get angry at John Nedley’s fate back in issue #5 and that the narration suggested might have been responsible for the bully Nick also ending up in the hospital, but there hasn’t been sign of him since. He was not even at Nedley’s funeral in the opening splash page.
Despite these problems, this is the kind of stuff I am much more interested in—James-Michael and his alien benefactor navigating urban life—than any tied off loose ends detailing the caped man’s mission, origins, or his connection to the boy. It is for this reason that I wish the series could have continued, had a chance to evolve and really explore the weirdness superhero comics and simultaneously (and most likely inadvertently) demonstrate their limits in a way that serves as a lens for the whole genre.
The letters in this final issue of Omega the Unknown are mostly complaints about it being cancelled and the editor responds by explaining that Gerber. Skrenes and Mooney aren’t happy about it either. He also goes on to promise a wrap up in a future issue of The Defenders that will be scripted by Gerber and Skrenes (no promises about the “very busy” Jim Mooney). Another reader, Sue Phillips of Atlanta. GA had not seemed to have heard news of cancellation, and writes in to explain that even though she doesn’t know what the heck is going on, she loves the book and its “puzzles” and wants to encourage them to keep it up. Well, that makes two of us, Sue, but life is full of disappointments. The final letter (the longest) is from to a guy writing in from Camden, NJ to try to explain some of those puzzles by way of claiming Omega the Unknown is a parody of or riff on of Superman. He claims that the caped man must be James-Michael’s father. Imagine Jor-El making his way to Earth after Krypton was destroyed, after having sent Kal-El years earlier in the care of robot foster parents… I like the idea, but I don’t buy it…
In 2008, the more final ending of Omega the Unknown is not very much more satisfying. It seems to suggest that the influence of the robot plague will continue to spread, even as Titus Alexander Island seems to abandon the mission of Omegas and returns to the life of a precocious young student immersing himself in the field of robotics.
The issue opens with 10 pages of silent panels and, save for word balloons in two panels, it remains that way throughout. This puts the focus on Dalrymple’s visual storytelling, and despite my occasional criticism of what looked like overly rushed and sloppy art on his part in some issues, in issue #10 we see some of the best overall visuals since the first issue. It all looks as great as the great cover.
The opening pages depict the scene at the 2U Quik warehouse after the omega-shaped implosion that ended the previous issue. Against the backdrop of tabloid TV news reportage about the Mink being missing, Omega being a suspect for the explosion, the discovery of a “mechanical man” at the scene, and asking questions about the connection between Alex and the caped man, we see the caped man himself, having pulled himself naked and steaming from the omega-shaped hole left where the warehouse use to be. As the silent panels continue, we see him weakened and emaciated, stumbling through the streets and befriended by a tap-dancing street person who brings him to live among a homeless community and eventually down to the tunnels beneath the city in which the “Mole People” have long lived according to New York City legend. (And when I say “mole people” I don’t mean the moloids from Fantastic Four comics, I mean homeless people who dwell under the city). This view of what happens to the former hero transitions to scenes of food carts making contact with Reverend Upchurch’s food truck in order to get the inoculating salt that wards off the robot infection. As a business man eat a New York City dirty-water dog, we see Omega symbols emanating from it.
But as I suggested above, this doesn’t mean the threat is over. Even as we see a widening circle of people eating the inoculating salt-covered food, we also see the 2U Quick robot deliverymen bringing more infected stuff to people. Among those being delivered to is a black character with a characteristic 1970s superhero afro and the star of a comic book: The Superlative Hurler. We see the supposed Hurler receive an action figure of himself, and much like what happened to the Mink and Fonzie, it gets stuck to his hand. We must assume that he will be infected and become a new generation of robot-villain to be handled by a new generation of Omega the Unknown? We’ll never know.
The silent panels continue. The Mink Men putting the Mink to rest in a grave next to his hand (its own gravestone reading “His Hand 2007 – 2007. Went solo. Ran amok. Had it coming,”) is followed by a 12-panel grid depicting the robotics professor we saw infected back in issue #2 in a reverse trajectory. He arrives back at home, showers, grooms himself, goes to bed next to his wife, and the next morning at the breakfast table she speaks the first words of this issue “You seem much more like yourself.” He responds, “Yes. Quite” and those are the final words of the issue as the pages that follow are all without dialog or captions.
And maybe the world around these events is returning to something more like its usual self, which suggests the assimilation into a robot collective has always been a part of that world.
More silent panels continue, now turning to Alex, Amandla, and Fenton returning to the scene of the implosion. They flee some cops who spot them (I guess the authorities want to question Alex about his role in all these shenanigans) and end up at the reservoir—presumably where John Nedley shot himself after being bullied by Roofee and his crew. Here, Alex ties up the Omega tome in his superhero costume and tosses both into the water. Walking back past the same cops they saw before, the police no longer seem to recognize him. The three walk to a soda shop (not unlike the one that James-Michael and Amber frequent in the original volume) and enjoy some drinks (but we do see Fenton surreptitiously add some of the miracle salt to a nearby customer’s meal). Eventually they drop Amandla back at school, where we see Roofee—apparently fully recovered from his beating in issue #4—pausing to stare at Alex. But the story moves on: Amandla is left behind to deal with the dangers and obstacles of life as usual. Alex and Fenton make their way to Columbia where they walk in on Clare Weiss the social worker getting frisky with Dean Quiller. And finally, Fenton leaves Alex at the robotics department with a kiss on the cheek that leaves him stunned. Crawling under the police tape, we last see the mysterious boy working on building a robot of his own. It looks like he is rebuilding his mother.
But this is not the end…not yet. The final pages of the final issue of this series depict the Mink’s old friend—the one who was once homeless, ate an infected robot finger, and then infiltrated the Mink’s organization as one those roboticized folks—return to his homeless life by going down into the “Mole People” tunnels beneath the subway. We see him donning an old Mink costume and making his way to an enormous recreation of the “Mink of the People” Hollywood Squares-like set to take his place in center square. This set is made of cinder blocks, plywood, abandoned furniture and other scraps. Omega, who has deteriorated even further since we last saw him, is now living his life in a wheelchair, living in a box, and drinking cheap liquor that brings him flashes reminiscent of Gary Panter’s art for the Omega comic that opened issue #7 and that call back to the caped man’s sip of alcohol in the original series. Now essentially a “wino” of the type issue #2 of the original series imagined Bruce Banner to be, he is wheeled to that re-created Mink of the People set and given a square beside the faux-Mink (which reminds me of a mustachioed Adam West on Hollywood Squares post his time as TV’s Batman). This grand cosmic battle has been reduced to a kitschy game show where the celebrity participants play caricatures of themselves. In Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple’s Omega the Unknown the history of the superhero and the adolescent play out as both tragedy and farce simultaneously.
The actual final panels depict an increasing close up of the black pupil of one of the caped man’s vacant eyes, until after a panel of total blackness the figure of the Nowhere Man appears in it. He holds up his jar and there in the bottom are the words “The End.”
The Eschatology of Omega
And so, they both end…Yes, we have one more installment of this series to go in which I will cover the issues of The Defenders in which the loose ends of the original series will be taken up, but as far as actual issues of Omega the Unknown both series are done.
If for a moment I can imagine what it was like to be a reader and fan of the original Omega the Unknown and read that final issue without knowing for sure that there would ever be anymore to the story, I am actually not too upset about the cliffhanger ending. It feels perfectly in line with the series penchant to flout conventions and explain next to nothing and allows us to flounder and just enjoy the confusion. I prefer an open-ended ending that makes me wonder “what could this possibly mean?” to a hurried attempt to make everything fit and “make sense.” It was for that reason that I was unsatisfied with the ending of TV’s Lost, not because it failed to answer questions, but because it tried to do it at all.
And that is why I like the ending of the 2007-08 version of Omega the Unknown. Rather than develop a definitive final battle, the story collapses the notion of “sides” altogether and accepts the reality of swarms of ongoing conflict. Any sense of resolution comes from the pacing and structure of Dalrymple’s art as those silent panels wrap-up the story, since the plot does not resolve as much as it transforms into the everyday. It will go on, it is just that we as readers won’t ever know what will happen next. What does it mean that Titus Alexander Island abandons his destiny? What does it mean that the robots are only defeated in part and continue spreading their infectious nanites? Was being Omega just a phase for the boy and now he has turned to something more constructive? Are even the noble remnants of a long dead far-flung cosmic civilization doomed to become a parody of themselves on a TV game show? Superheroes don’t die. They become televised bourgeoisie jokey sexual innuendo framed by literal garbage.
The one element of the Lethem/Rusnak/Dalrymple version that still bugs me, however, is the fate of Amandla. As things return to “normal,” we see that normal for her means returning to a school that falls short of her capabilities and that we have seen is a perilous site. The absence of “race” (or what is actually the presence of whiteness) as the organizing worldview of superhero comics is obvious to me in Omega the Unknown volume one, but it feels like an egregious absence in volume two. This is the kind of thing that Lethem is more than qualified to address (given his careful and occasionally raw attention to it in books like Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude), but aside from including more characters of color than the original series does (something that should not be hard given the thirty years between the two volumes), there is nothing here to invite readers to consider more deeply who the narrative itself chooses to be special, who gets to taste of another life and then have the people around them work to free them from the environment which countless other children, mostly poor children of color, have to deal with? As a comic that got hella meta at times, I would have liked the more contemporary version to explore (at least in part) that which remains invisible in the genre, whiteness and its role in hero-making. Perhaps I am too attached to the idea of Lethem’s Omega the Unknown as an adjunct to The Fortress of Solitude and its own problematizing of its chosen point-of-view character, but since the series is mentioned in the novel, I don’t think it was too much to expect.
In the final installment I plan to cover at least two issues of The Defenders (though there are two others leading up to them that introduce elements of the story, so I may mention them, too) and the backmatter in the hardcover collection of the second volume. I am also doing a little bit of scholarly reading about the latter volume so I can come to my final conclusions, but as it stands now I still like both series quite a bit, and the melancholy I feel at their ending is not only a response to an unexpected ending but I think the proper response to ending period.