Alpha & Omega #11: An Evolutionary Dead-End

Welcome to the final installment of Alpha & Omega!, the blog series where we take a look at one issue each of the two versions of the Omega the Unknown comic book—the original from 1976-77 and the reimagining from 2007-08. In this installment, however, we leave the cancelled (in the case of the original) and the completed (in the case of the re-imagining) series behind and dive into the two issues of The Defenders given over to wrapping up the story of James-Michael Starling, the caped man (occasionally called “Omega”), and the robots hunting them down. Originally, these issues were to be written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, but not long after Omega the Unknown volume one was cancelled, Gerber was fired from Marvel Comics altogether, and he never got a chance to wrap it up in the pages of The Defenders as promised. As such, the job fell to Steven Grant, something of a journeyman comic writer who has written a variety of comics over time for both Marvel and DC, including taking over American Flagg after Howard Chaykin left the legendary comic.

Before continuing, I want to thank those who followed along, commented, and shared links on social media. I’ve come to really love these comics more than I already thought I did, so I am happy for more opportunities to talk about them. I am not sure what, if anything, will be the subject of the next reading series like this, but if you have any ideas I’ll be happy to hear them in the comments or on Twitter. All I know is that I will probably take a year’s break before I start another. That being said, while one-time donations are welcome through our ko-fi accountThe Middle Spaces launched a Patreon yesterday and committing to even a small monthly pledge will help to make projects like these from me (and others) more likely.

The Defenders volume 1, #76
Cover Date: October 1979
Release Date: July 24, 1979
Writer: Steven Grant
Penciler: Herb Trimpe
Inker: Steve Mitchell
Colorist: George Roussos
Letterer:  Clem Robbins

The Defenders volume 1, #77
Cover Date: November 1979
Release Date: August 28, 1979
Writer: Steven Grant
Penciler: Herb Trimpe
Inkers: Al Milgrom, Steve. Mitchell, Chic Stone
Colorist: George Roussos
Letterer: Joe Rosen

The Covers

The cover to the Defenders #76 uses a stylized golden Ω-letter to divide up the image into different scenes. We see the Hulk smashing some amorphous silver blob (which actually has nothing to do with the Omega story), we see Ruby Thursday in her default form, along with her servant Dibbuk, standing over the body of Omega laid out on a table, and at the bottom, Valkyrie and Hellcat dodging blasts from flying saucers. The text reads, “At last…the Omega Saga!” highlighting how long fans of Omega the Unknown have had to wait for this. It is not a great cover, but Rich Buckler did a decent job cobbling together something that conveys the sense that this whole conclusion has itself been cobbled together.

The cover for Defenders #77 isn’t much better. James-Michael Starling occupies the center focus of the image, his eyes and hands radiating energy. Behind him the city burns. He looks demon-possessed, evil, dangerous. And unlike the bait-and-switch common to comics of the time—where covers rendered one thing when the opposite would turn out to be true—this one gives away how unsatisfying this conclusion is going to be. At JMS’s feet lay the Defenders and their allies the Wasp and Moondragon (the latter’s head a little more egg-shaped than necessary). The Hulk is only present in a call-out inset into the cover, reminding us that he is featured in a new CBS TV show.

The Issues

Before I read the two issues of The Defenders that serve as the epilogue to the Omega the Unknown narrative I have been writing about for over a year now, I read the two issues that preceded them in order to get a sense what was going on in the title in general—given that it is a comic book focused on a completely different set of characters, of which only the Hulk ever appeared in Omega the Unknown—and because my research informed me that there were a few threads of the Omega story sprinkled in those issues to ease the transition into the two-issue arc focused on James-Michael Starling.

Defenders #74 (August 1979) opens with Foolkiller—the same guy stalking Richard Rory in Omega the Unknown #9—telling a version of his origin story that we’ve heard already. The two civilians he’s talking to—one of them a bearded guy named “Dollar Bill”—have some kind of connection to the Defenders, so they bring Foolkiller along with his “pals Amber and Richie” to the Long Island mansion of Kyle Richmond (aka Nighthawk), which currently serves as the Defenders’ headquarters. Of course, Amber and Richie (Richard Rory) are from Omega the Unknown, but there is no sign of Ruth. When they all arrive at Defenders HQ it becomes clear that Dollar Bill only brought Foolkiller here for the Defenders to defeat (as he is still constantly threatening to disintegrate people for being “fools”). While the Defenders succeed, they nearly burndown the mansion in the process and end up disbanding at the end of Defenders #75.

Gramps identifies “Sam’s” body in Defenders #75 (September 1979)

Ultimately, the Foolkiller story is not very important, but it ends with Richard and Amber asking what’s left of the Defenders—just Hellcat and Valkyrie at this point—to help them find James-Michael Starling. The two women agree. The final three panels of Defenders #75 show Gramps back in Las Vegas down at the morgue identifying Omega’s body as “Sam the last friend I had in the world!”  Poor Gramps. Not only did he lose his only friend, but this is his last appearance. We never see him again, nor does he ever get any kind of closure or explanation about what happened to “Sam.” On the other hand, however, he might better off than readers like me who had to read the nonsense explanation to come.

Before moving on to Defenders #76 and #77, I think it is important to note that despite the two-year gap between when Omega the Unknown ended and when the plot was taken up again, no time has passed in the Omega narrative. Since Omega the Unknown mostly took place in its own little Hell’s Kitchen bubble of the Marvel Universe the time lag is not an issue. In that series there was little sense of how much time was passing between some issues, so even with the appearance of the Hulk in issue #2 (arriving from the pages of Defenders #35, according to an editorial note) there is no sense of temporal disjunction. As writer Steven Grant explains on the letters page of issue #76, he decided it made more sense to do it this way than to say the story in the original series had been progressing for two years and that Amber and Richard and Ruth were only just now starting to look for James-Michael and Dian.

Amber claims to have always felt there was a connection between JMS and the caped man, but this is the first we’ve heard of it (Defenders #76).

Oh, and one other note, Steven Grant didn’t write Defenders #74 and #75, that was Ed Hannigan, who would write most issues of The Defenders for the two years following the two written by Grant. Steve Gerber hadn’t written an issue of Defenders since #41 (November 1976), a year before Omega the Unknown had even ended.

Defenders #76 opens with Ruth, Amber, and Richard Rory on a borrowed Avengers quinjet with the remaining Defenders and with the Wasp (aka Janet Van Dyne). I guess they picked up Ruth along the way because she wasn’t in the two previous issues. We learn that Hellcat used her Avengers connections to get the quinjet, and that the Wasp decided to tag along. The first few pages are dedicated to Ruth recapping the story of James-Michael Starling, Amber adding that she long had a feeling about a connection between JMS and the caped man (calling the latter “Omega,” a mistake writers filling in for Gerber and Skrenes don’t seem to be able to help making). This is the first time such a feeling was mentioned. Basically taking up where Omega the Unknown #10 left off, the comic moves between those searching for JMS, JMS and Dian at his robot parents’ house in the Pennsylvania mountains (where they just discovered his inert replacement parents), and Ruby Thursday with her servant Dibbuk trying to make use of the caped man’s body to access his power.

James-Michael is notably different from how he was characterized in his own series. While in Omega the Unknown he was socially awkward and prone to painful fits of hearing voices, here he is emotionally unstable and angry in a way that doesn’t seem right. The most obvious difference is that we see his thought bubbles, which provides an unnecessary explicit interiority that ironically does more to obscure a sense of his troubled mental state and Philip K. Dick-like experiences than reveal anything significant about them. The things that weigh on him clearly come from the original series­—he worries, having found another copy of his robot parents that he too is a robot, he is confused by the burning Omega-shaped stigmata on his palms, he hears the voices his mother warned him about—but included here they read like the right ingredients in the wrong order and quantity. I guess that is the likely result of Grant being given a project like this to wrap up. Rather than continuing the slow simmer Gerber and Skrenes were developing, everything must be made to fit from the perspective of a plot spaced out over two-issues without much obvious consideration for theme or character. Furthermore, there are several pages in each issue given over to other (former) members of the Defenders, like the Hulk and Dr. Strange dealing with some other threat that looms on the horizon. Thus, every scene feels perfunctory  and designed to explain, which seems wholly counter to the whole point of Omega the Unknown.

James-Michael Starling losing his shit (Defenders #76)

The Omega-hunting robots arrive at the Starling house before the Defenders do and immediately seek to destroy JMS, who, sensing their approach, was trying to flee with Dian, and was thus caught outside. James-Michael uses his Omega blasts to destroy some robots and the surviving ones are alarmed that the boy’s power has “more than doubled” and determine they must “terminate the subject at all costs.” Robot reinforcements arrive. Fortunately, for JMS, the Defenders also arrive before the robots can do much terminating. Unfortunately, however, he is overwhelmed by the sensory experience of the attack and overcome by voices again, suffering another fit. Valkyrie has Dian bring the boy back inside the house for safety.

Meanwhile, the superheroes are not doing a very good job fighting off the robots, and I think the reputation of the Defenders as a rag-tag group of heroes who kind of muddle through their adventures is well-earned here. The three women are outnumbered and struggling. Hellcat even tries to get Richard Rory to use one of the robot’s laser guns and join the fight. Eventually she manages to get back to the quinjet and send out a distress call to “all superheroes” before getting zapped by a robot, which leads to the arrival of Moondragon. Once again, help has come in the nick of time.

Despite her imperious affect, Moondragon does what none of the Defenders thought to do, parley with the robots and try to find out what is going on and why they are attacking James-Michael.

You may ask, who is Moondragon? She is one of my favorite obscure Marvel characters because of her imperiousness and arrogance, qualities that are usually limited to male characters. She is the daughter of Drax the Destroyer (who has a distinctly different look and origin in the comics than he does in the more popular MCU version in Guardians of the Galaxy) and was raised by Thanos’s father Mentor on Titan, trained by space monks to be a powerful telepath, master martial artist, minor telekinetic, and highly skilled geneticist. A great example of her personality is her response to Hellcat when the latter tries to explain what is going on, “No explanation is necessary! As a goddess of the mind, I am already privy to your every thought — the situation is clear to me!”

You gotta love Moondragon.

When Moondragon turns to the attacking robots to demand an explanation, they immediately recognize and respect her authority. They are about to explain why they are after James-Michael when there is a sudden bright light from inside the house. The robots sense that James-Michael (what they call. “the energy”) is gone, so they hurry back to their ship to track it down. It is a clumsy postponing of an explanation until the next issue. Hearing a scream from inside the house, the heroes enter to find that James-Michael has disappeared. In his place lies the corpse of Omega!

When I first read this, I thought that James-Michael had transformed into an adult wearing the Omega suit and it put me in the mind of when Titus Alexander Island dons the suit in Omega the Unknown volume 2, #9. But I was quickly disabused of this when I opened the next issue.

How did the corpse get there? Well, last we saw, Ruby Thursday—a recurring villain from Gerber’s days as main scribe for the Defenders and who robbed Omega and Gramps in Omega the Unknown #10—was getting ready to dissect the body, which her servant Dibbuk stole from the city morgue. Yes, it looks like police bullets accomplished what Electro, the Hulk, El Gato, Blockbuster, and Nitro could not do, kill the caped man. What was not revealed in that final issue but is revealed here (and already well-known to long-time fans of the Defenders), is that Ruby has a shape-changing red bowling ball for a head. Of course, those already a familiar with the character know her head is some kind of polymorphic supercomputer, but that is not explained here. So, any fans of Omega dipping into just these issues just to find out “how it ends” might have been confused. I haven’t spent too much time thinking about Ruby Thursday because I haven’t read too many comics featuring her (and know her best from recent episodes of Titan Up the Defense), but something about her featureless blood-red head and curvaceous woman’s body is really distressing. It makes her very womanliness seems inhuman, like her body is literally objectified in association with the featureless perfectly round head. Trimpe chooses here to give her two red pinpricks of light for eyes hovering at the edge of what would be her face, but as far as I know, that is not how she is typically drawn.

Ruby Thursday is freaky (Defenders #77)

Defenders #77 opens back in Las Vegas where Omega the Unknown #10 left us. Ruby is in a fury over the disappeared body. It just suddenly switched places with James-Michael Starling, and the boy is now her captive (this is never explained, but okay). Sensing the connection between the boy and the caped man, she decides to continue her dissection, but with JMS as a subject, so she can harness their power. In case we needed more evidence that he is not himself, he yells at Ruby defiantly, though he still looks scared when she threatens dissection. Before this can happen, however, one of the hunter robots arrives. Hellcat, Valkyrie, Wasp and Moondragon are here, too, walking down the strip after having followed the robots to Nevada. They just happen to be walking by when one of the robots comes crashing out of a wall, thrown by Ruby Thursday’s demonic servant Dibbuk.

As the Defenders/Avengers alliance joins the battle with Ruby and Dibbuk, Moondragon spots James-Michael slipping away.  She is really the best part of this comic. She acts as if she is above it all and her thoughts are as condescending as her response to anyone who questions her. Her contempt for the recklessness of the Defenders is the most valuable part of this comic. In a way I hear her exasperated attitude with the situation as a response to the very need for this story and the closure it is meant give Omega the Unknown. Her sense of “let’s get this over with already” is reflected in the perfunctory nature of the plot and its complete abandonment of what made the series so compelling. And I guess that makes sense, because this isn’t that series, this is another series, which is apparently about—if the four issues I am reading here are anything to go by—a group of mostly incompetent superheroes.

Before anyone can catch up to him, JMS is out on the strip feeling angry and confused, very different from his cold analytical self (his thought balloons remind us as much by literally having him think these words). Trimpe’s art is done no favors by whichever of the three credited inkers worked on this page, as a JMS who is already barely recognizable looks like any ole dark-haired kid at this point, making him seem even less like himself. It makes me miss Jim Mooney.

Spotting the robots’ ship, James-Michael blasts it out of the sky with his Omega beams, and it smashes into the side of hotel, causing carnage. Gone is the sensitive and thoughtful JMS. All that remains is a tantrum-throwing 12-year old brimming with destructive power.

James-Michael’s raw destructive power.

Meanwhile, despite Ruby Thursday’s strange powers, the Wasp smashes the villain’s head open with one of her bio-disrupter blasts, apparently killing her! Distraught, Dibbuk grabs his master’s body and disappears in a puff of smoke. I felt oddly bad for her when this happened. She is such a weird character, so troubling, that it seems a waste to have this be her end. The three superheroines catch up with James-Michael and he’s gone mad. Lashing out, he blasts at Hellcat, blaming her and the others for taking him away from his parents (I assume he means the replicas he and Dian found back in Pennsylvania). Valkyrie leaps in the way and takes the blast herself and is stunned. Before he can finish off Hellcat, JMS notices one more robot saucer in the sky and when he blasts it, it crashes atop the quinjet, which happens to be where Dian, Amber, and the others were waiting.

Realizing he may have inadvertently killed his only friends, JMS is distressed enough to be distracted, allowing Moondragon to put him into mental contact with the last remaining robot before it is destroyed. It turns out these robots are not robots at all. They are organic beings despite their metallic and mechanical parts. They have consciousness. They can feel pain and die. It is then that we get the flashback meant to explain all the remaining questions about James-Michael Starling, his parents, “Omega,” the robots and their connection.

The living robots are of a race of aliens who had “reached the end of evolution” (a common superhero comic book bullshit concept that reveals a lack of understanding of how evolution works). In order to stave off extinction, they design biological creatures able to adapt to new environments. The idea being that these beings will be inserted on other worlds to live among analogous creatures gathering “information,” which is then passed on to the next model of biological creature who is sent to live among other analogous creatures. This will somehow save them, though it is not clear how. We see the robots discussing the plan in front of a screen showing a line of being starting with the robots and ending with James-Michael Starling. Between them are three humanoids of vague distinction, except for the one closest to JMS, who is of course the caped man. One robot conveniently explains to the other (and thus to us and to James Michael, who is seeing this through the mind-link created by Moondragon) that in order for this artificial evolution to function, the beings they’ve created must think themselves an actual part of the world they have been inserted into.

The living robots explain the origins of Omega and James-Michael Starling.

This apparently worked for the first two iterations, but when the man sometimes called Omega was inserted into a world that looks suspiciously like Superman’s Krypton—populated by a race of technologically advanced people that the robots think are particularly suited to teach him “morality and nobility”—it all goes wrong. Omega grows up to be an honored part of their advanced warrior caste and as such has taken a vow of silence (a throwaway detail apparently meant to explain his reticence to speak for most of the 10 issues of his series). He is elected by his people to be the recipient of a new power they’ve developed that taps into the world’s energy, not knowing it would not only destroy their own world, but that when Omega’s information was passed on to the final being in the chain the robots created, James-Michael would also come to possess the power and destroy the Earth as well. Upon discovering this series of events were imminent, the robots rush there in hopes of stopping the transfer of power.

“We must destroy them both” doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.

As you might be able to guess, the robots did not arrive in time to stop this from happening and worse yet, the people of faux-Krypton interpret the arriving ships as an attack. Omega uses his new-found power at his people’s behest, inadvertently burning everything on the surface of the planet and destroying many robots in the process. He is the planet’s only survivor and awakens from his stupor to find himself chained up by the remaining robots and thinks them responsible for the planetary destruction. He hears them planning to destroy him and James-Michael (already implanted on Earth). This knowledge somehow makes him aware of his connection to this other being and decides it must be protected from the apparently killer robots and that he’d get his revenge at a later date. This brings us back to Omega the Unknown #1.  The caped man breaks free of his bonds, commandeers a ship and flees to Earth, following his new instinct and not realizing he is bringing destructive power with him. And so, the robots were the “good guys” all along, seeking to keep their creation from destroying yet another planet. Omega was a misguided “hero” locked into his warrior identity and James-Michael the final vessel for a generations long experiment with the capacity to destroy everything he cared about.

Presumably, James-Michael’s robot parents were supposed to ease him into human society and have him learn some important lessons by bringing him to New York when the unforeseen car accident put a wrinkle in the plan. But the reverie does not explain what his mother meant by not listening to the voices in the first issue, or what the voices really are. It also does not explain why the robot who came after James-Michael expecting to find the caped man in the first issue of Omega the Unknown was confused to see him and didn’t understand why he was “smaller. . . more compact.” It does not explain the behavior of the Omega-hunting robot that Electro used to help rob the telethon in issue #3.

But none of this matters. This conclusion to the Omega story does not fail because of minor inconsistencies between issues, but because it applies the logic of the superhero genre to a series that was trying to resist and confound that logic. It was creating a kind of emotional resonance that surpassed the facile turns of plot that are common to superhero stuff. This is certainly what Letham and Rusnak and Dalrymple were trying to do in their homage. Looking back on the 10 issues of that latter series after having read these issues of Defenders I am a lot more forgiving of them and think that for whatever its flaws, the second series succeeded in evoking a tone that is in line with the original. It understands the original series more than what Grant has concocted here (with a bit of plotting help from Mark Gruenwald, according to an editorial note).

The backstory presented here makes the caped man into a tragic hero with the requisite dramatic irony of causing the destruction of the very thing he was trying to save. It elides, however, so much of what made Omega the Unknown compelling, the strange and unsuperheroic things he did, like letting Blockbuster go, refusing to give righteous speeches, or using his powers to run the tables in Vegas.

Anyway, I guess I should finish the summary.

James-Michael’s “noble” sacrifice.

After seeing this story play out in his mind, James-Michael is angrier than ever and in denial of this truth, threatening to destroy everything to keep from being tortured anymore. Which torture he is talking about is not clear, but I guess he just means the distress of being alive, that generalized angst that emerges from the adolescent realization of just how endlessly shitty life can be. Fortunately, for the Defenders and the Earth, in that moment an injured Dian comes crawling out of the wreckage of the quinjet, begging him not to kill her. As suddenly as the taciturn boy turned maniac, he changes again. Realizing he does not want to be responsible for his friend’s death, he turns his power on himself and disintegrates before Dian’s eyes. Omnipotent adolescent angst is resolved through noble suicide, not a very thoughtful message for a genre ostensibly aimed at young adults.

And that’s it. The Omega Saga is over and everyone who insisted there be an “ending” should all feel terrible for whatever degree they were responsible for making it happen without Gerber or Skrenes (or Mooney).

At least Moondragon gets the last word, but even that pleasure is a mitigated by the comic book’s need for closure. She takes the Defenders to task for interfering and claiming the robots only meant to capture and cure James-Michael. This is news to me and looking back there is nothing in the robots’ actions or the story to suggest this would have been the case. On the contrary, they explicitly say “destroy” and “terminate” when referring to James-Michael in both of these issues. The Defenders may have played a role in helping the robot race to die out, failed to rescue James-Michael from death or prevent the destruction of downtown Las Vegas, but they didn’t keep a better resolution from happening by their action. As such, Moondragon has cause enough to make them feel guilty without adding this last-minute reason. Adding insult to injury, Moondragon’s final words are an effort to ennoble James-Michael’s final actions to destroy himself to save his friends. This is an even deeper disappointment. It adds a very shallow moral lesson to what was a rich and complex story. Still, Moondragon’s disgust is delicious, and I can’t help but feel that her accusation encompasses the very person writing it. In other words, that to play any role in this grave mistake is damning. It fails the flawed, but ambitious and provocative, source material. The Defenders in this moment serve as a surrogate for the Marvel Bullpen.

Moondragon gets the last word on the matter (Defenders #77)

My deep and inevitable disappointment with this conclusion makes me regret not having taken the time to find the issues of the Defenders in which letters responding to it might have appeared so that I can get a sense of what both fans of Omega the Unknown and those readers unfamiliar with it might have thought of the end to the story. It would have also been nice for the letters page in either issue to be given over to those who wrote in about the final issues of Omega the Unknown. Defenders #77 doesn’t have a letters page at all, so including it would not have displaced letters about this actual series. They could have gotten rid of the Bullpen Bulletins page or ran fewer ads.

After everything that has happened, we get no response to James-Michael’s death from his foster mothers or Dian or Richard Rory, and ultimately that is the greatest disappointment: Omega the Unknown just gets wrapped up into run-of-the-mill superhero comic book mishegas, and there is no effort to evoke the emotional resonance of the series. Such a thing might happen in the issue that follows, but I haven’t read it. From reading a summary of Defenders #78 online it seems that even if this is addressed it did not merit mention.

The Eschatology of Omega

In preparing for this final installment of Alpha & Omega I went back and re-read all the issues of both series. For the 2007-08 re-imagining I took the opportunity to read them in the collected hardcover edition, which is quite lovely. Farel Dalrymple contributed a bunch of art for inside back covers. The collection also clarifies things the individual issues did not in terms of the production of the comic. For example, it credits Gary Panter for the art for the Omega-drawn comic in issue #7 and colorist Paul Hornschemeier for the art for The Mink comic featured in issue #6.

The cover to the Omega the Unknown collected edition.

The best part of the collection (aside from making the series available to those who missed it the individual issues) is the backmatter which includes Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak in conversation about the original series and the ways in which they riffed on it for their own version. For example, I found it interesting that Electro’s appearance in Omega the Unknown #2 and #3 were the inspiration for the Mink, “a gabby boastful foe.” I also found it affirming to read Lethem explain that one of the things he liked about the original series was that both the caped man and James-Michael Starling were hard to like, “I just always dug characters who were imperious jerks and everyone else gets the best lines. I like the tension it sets up in the reader’s learning to identify with them.” This reminds me of Dylan Ebdus in The Fortress of Solitude and how whatever nostalgic patina through which the reader views Dylan’s childhood experiences when the book is written in the third-person are destroyed when we shift to the first-person point of view in his adulthood and we can see what a jerk he can really be. Being in Dylan’s head lets us see he has internalized his experiences into a kind of weaponized victimhood. In this way, Omega the Unknown subverts one of the most commonly cited pleasures of superhero comic books, placing ourselves into these idealized forms. It forces the reader to imagine themselves a mute copy of a copy of something that doesn’t even exist anyway.

Even more interesting to me was the two writers speculating on the influence of deadlines and editorially-mandated compromise on the original series. Lethem calls the work Gerber and Skrenes fill-ins so “generic” that even the “generic virtues” that the series sometimes played with were not well-delivered. Both writers call the first and final issues of the original Omega the Unknown the “purest” of the series. The first was allowed to promise the strange and the last was a kind of “kiss off” (what with Omega’s death in Vegas at the hands of the police after using his powers to win a bundle), both able to imply stories “too awesome…and too grim ever to be completed on the terms of comics circa 1976.” Lethem adds, “This level of work would remain only a promise until something like Watchmen.”

What I did not like about this backmatter was the total erasure of Farel Dalrymple’s voice. I would have liked for him to take part of the conversation with the other creators. In an interview for an article on CBR back when Omega the Unknown vol. 2, #2 was just hitting stores, Dalrymple talked a little about how he had been unfamiliar with Omega the Unknown before being asked to draw this series by Lethem, and how while he studied Jim Mooney’s art to make sure he included some visual consistency, basically he just drew how he draws. The article also made clear how important setting is to Lethem, as Dalrymple explained that he and the writer walked around Inwood and Washington Heights discussing the neighborhoods and taking pictures, to makes sure the proper visual elements were included.

Unfortunately, Dalrymple’s contribution was mostly erased in the little scholarly work on Omega the Unknown that I was able to find. Almost nothing has been written on the original series, but I have found a handful of mentions of the Lethem/Rusnak/Dalrymple version. The most notable is David Coughlan’s “Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and Omega: The Unknown, a Comic Book Series” from a 2011 issue of College Literature. Coughlan’s view of the newer series is built around the notion of the uncertainty of origin and ownership that pervades both the property (something Gerber struggled with Marvel over in terms of copyright) and the story itself, what with Omega and James-Michael being iterations of a previously existing race of beings and then the Lethem version being an iteration of that. The 2007-08 Omega the Unknown then is a copy without an original, disconnected at both ends of its narrative, a play on a story that in itself is a play on the superhero ur-story. Perhaps that letter writer in issue #10 claiming that Gerber and Skrenes were riffing on Superman was more correct than I was willing to give him credit for. It is just that the riff is not as reductive as the reader suggested. Omega the Unknown is equally a riff on Shazam! and on Spider-Man. Coughlan goes further to use the franchise theme present in the latter version to consider the pervasive force of a franchise as an acceptable kind of assimilation into a lifestyle of consumption and repetition As Alex himself explains in issue #3 when answering a question on colonialism in class, “the more persuasive form of invasion is conducted by the subliminal seductions of commercial and mercantile culture.”  I didn’t spend much time in the Alpha & Omega series examining the recurring discussion and appearance of franchises but thinking about it in conversation with that opening splash and superhero franchises themselves makes Coughlan’s exploration of iteration one worth returning to and building on.

Fenton explains “franchise theory” to Titus Alexander Island (in Omega the Unknown vol. 2, #7)

Regardless, both series seem concerned with repetition in multivalent ways: the repetition of the superhero story form of the time, the repetition of comics within comics, the expected repetition of certain demonstrably false social customs as a sign of collegiality, the repetition of violence penetrating various strata of society, the repetition that defines recognizable identity, the repetition of the body and its cells as it grows from child to adult, the repetition that both creates and destroys romance, and on and on. Repetition is both the content and form of life, giving it identifiable meaning, even as it threatens to undermine value with each iteration.

If repeated repetition in serial comics bends towards absurdity, then it is uniquely qualified to express and represent the sensation of everyday life arriving at something akin to the nausea of Sartre’s novel of the same name without causing it. It is an echo that can remind us that we feel it already and somehow allows us to bear it.

I’m glad I did this series. In some ways, it has become its own exercise in repetition. With each installment I felt like I needed to return to the previous issues and re-think them. An obsessive version of this project would have had me reading and re-reading the series algorithmically, adding another issue with each read through to write a post addressing everything so far in equal measure. In that formulation I would have read the first issues 10 times by the time this ended. If that sounds absurd, it is because it is, but the absurd is not always without value. This is all to say that despite writing in the neighborhood of 35,000 words on two versions of Omega the Unknown, these 11 installments still feel incomplete, like the notes for a book that will never exist. Nevertheless, if all that came out all these months of work is that I have a deeper appreciation for both these series then I think it would have been worth it, but I do hope it inspires others to pick up these comics and read them for themselves and hopefully write about them. I know I look forward to coming back to them in a year and reading them all again in one or two sittings. I can’t yet say if I’ll come back and re-read these installments of Alpha & Omega afterwards, but I hope some of you will.

The endpages for the Omega the Unknown collected edition (2008) by Farel Dalrymple.

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18 thoughts on “Alpha & Omega #11: An Evolutionary Dead-End

  1. If you think it was rushed & overheated – it was – imagine what it would’ve been had I not be able to talk them into giving me two issues rather than the one they originally slotted…

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    • Hi Steven! Thanks for commenting with a generous and clarifying response despite my criticism! I can imagine it would have felt even more perfunctory if it had all be wrapped up in a single issue.

      I’d be curious if you could shed some light on why you were chosen to do this concluding story. Did you have any particular insight on Mary Skrenes and Steve Gerber’s plans for Omega the Unknown? Did you get to consult with them before you wrote this story?

      Thanks again!

      • OO

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  2. Sure. I was chosen because I happened to be in the office at the right time, & looking for work. Ed & Al were both feeling oppressed because no matter what they did the only letters they got on the book were from people demanding to know where the long-promised (by Gerber, not Marvel; Steve promised it before he had his falling out with the company over Howard The Duck) “conclusion” to Omega The Unknown was, & Ed didn’t want anything to do with it. I’d already written a Defenders fill-in for Al & he was comfortable enough with my work to suggest I be given the assignment. So I got asked, I needed the money (rents in NYC & all that) & getting work at the time was like getting sex at the time: if you turned it down when offered, those people stopped asking. So I took the gig. Honestly, it was very early in my career & I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I took the Omega run home to read overnight, then went back the next day & told Al there are so many loose ends in that thing that nobody could possibly wrap it up in one issue. I was hoping for three, but Ed was willing to give up two as long as it meant Omega was completely dead & gone by the end of it with no chance anyone could start pressuring him to bring the character back. (You may have noticed the first thing Ed did when returning to the book was a page where Moondragon gives Omega’s body a Viking funeral in the sun, which disintegrates it entirely.) That was the mission statement, & I was told I could use any characters I wanted except the Hulk had to be in there. That was pretty much all the direction I got. Nobody at Marvel really cared much about the character, because the book sold very poorly when it was being published (it wasn’t cancelled at #10 by accident) & it was the same 17 people writing in every month demanding the promise be fulfilled. (I used to put together letter pages for them back then too. Marvel got virtually no letters on anything except X-Men.) Not only was no pressure put on me to adhere to what Steve & Mary had done, going my own way was very much encouraged.

    I had no contact with Steve or Mary; like I said, he was estranged from the company at the time, & likely wouldn’t have been eager to help anyway. It was several decades before Steve & I met, but we became pretty good friends. He didn’t hold a grudge about it. No, I had no idea (well, I had some from the context, but not more than anyone else) what they’d planned to do with the character; Steve took that secret to his grave & Mary has never told anyone that I’m aware of. (I can tell you what he had planned for the Killer Elf in Defenders, though.) At the time, it seemed to me all the solutions the series pointed to – Starling is Omega’s younger self; Starling is Omega’s brother or son, etc. – were too obvious to be interesting. Steve was known for off-the-wall, so I went with the most off-the-wall I could come up with. Looking back, it was probably not the right choice; I should’ve erred on the side of clarity. Sorry about that.

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    • Steven, thanks very much for providing some additional background on how the Omega conclusion came about.

      Otherwise: “I can tell you what he had planned for the Killer Elf in Defenders, though.”
      I can’t speak for Osvaldo, but, um, yes, please.

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    • Again thanks so much for your generous response. I can imagine that trying to wrap up such an enigmatic and non-standard series with an iconoclastic creator and a small but loyal fanbase must have been difficult but more than anything I understand that need for a job and to do what is asked of you to impress the boss and get more work later.

      No need to apologize. As you said, you were just starting out and it was a mess of a thing to work with, plus as I suggest in my post, I doubt any “wrap-up” would have been satisfactory, probably not even if Gerber and Skrenes did it – that is just the nature of those things.

      Now I am wondering if many of those letters asking for a wrap up were printed in Defenders. As someone who does archival research on comics I would love to look thorough those letters published or unpublished (I know that Chris Claremont’s papers which he donated to Columbia University’s comic archive have a bunch of unpublished letters and I bemoan that there is no access to that stuff for everything Marvel ever printed, even if I know that’s impossible).

      One other note, I was going to say that the editor of Omega the Unknown #10 promised the wrap-up on the letters page of that issue, but looking it up the editor was Steve Gerber himself! So by the power invested in himself he made the promise for Marvel. ;)

      Thanks again.

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  3. Hey Osvaldo, just wanted to drop you a line to let you know I enjoyed reading your series, even if I ended up not leaving any comments after that first post (and I have to admit, a few times I didn’t get around to reading them as soon as they went live, and ended up reading two or three at a time).
    I found your thoughts on the later, Lethem/Rusnak/Dalrymple series quite fascinating and even illuminating, in that it gave me some new perspectives on it; however, you haven’t succeeded in getting me interested in re-reading it – your reviews also reminded me how much, in the end, it just rubbed me the wrong way.
    However, on the original series, I found that some of your thoughts echo my own, but as with the newer one, you’ve given me a new appreciation of some things I hadn’t really noticed. And as I said in my first comment on your first post, I’m still itching to pull out my tpb and give it another read – I haven’t yet, and it’s just my crippling pile of as-yet unread books laying all around that house that’s keeping me from doing so. Even in the case of comics, I often feel a little guilty re-reading something when there’s so much stuff I have cracked open yet after buying it – and right at this moment, for example, I’m reading a short story collection by Joyce Carol Oates I checked out of the library, again neglecting my books at home (including another collection by Oates).

    As to the wrap-up in Defenders you covered in this post, yep, can’t disagree with you on any essential point. I actually bought these two issues off the racks back in 1979, as I had just started reading Defenders sort of semi-regularly a little before that (I think #69 was my first issue). The first one confused the hell out of me because at that point I’d never read Omega, and I got the second one just because I hoped it would clear up my confusion, and it didn’t. My main takeaway – and I hope Mr. Grant won’t take offense – was how basically forgettable the story was/is. If you’d asked me a few months later how the Omega saga concluded, I would have scratched my head and said ‘I don’t remember.’ Same thing about 10 years ago when I bought the Omega tpb and read it all the way through – until I read your summary above, I’d completely forgotten most of the details, i.e., the hows and whys and even the fact that James-Michael took his own life (I just vaguely remembered that both he and Omega were dead by the end).
    Anyway, since Skrenes and Gerber vowed they’d take their conclusion to the story to their graves (and latter remained true to his word), I guess the original Omega will stand as one of the great tantalizing unresolved mysteries of comics.

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    • Thanks for reading, Edo and I while I am disappointed that I could not get you to give the OtU re-imagining another chance (I actually know someone who is teaching it these semester – though along with only the first issue of the original series), I am glad that you got something out of it in terms of thinking about the original series.

      While I did not buy these Defenders issues of the newsstand, I owned the #76 for years (after finding it for 25 cents at a yard sale), but I never read it! I would just flip through it and think that when I completed my collection of the original series (of which I only had three or four) I would get back to it. This never happened and I ended up selling it off with the majority of my comics collection in the 90s. I only recently re-purchased it and the one that followed.

      In the end (as I suggest above), I think ending as and remaining a mystery is for the best when it comes to this series. The word “unknown” is in the title and once it becomes “known” something is lost. If the series is meant to be a reflection on adolescence (which I think it is) then much like growing up, most of the time we do not suddenly discover the knowledge that explains life, as much as that knowledge accretes but never quite coheres, and we deal piecemeal with an unknown/unknowable whole.

      Oh, and let me know if you have suggestions for my next reading series!

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    • “Oh, and let me know if you have suggestions for my next reading series!”
      Dude! Team America! (…I hope you don’t need some kind of emoji here to know I’m kidding…)

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  4. There was no plan for the Killer Elf. Steve intended to have him pop up & murder a random person here or there, & never encounter the Defenders or intersect with their storylines. Just one of those Gerber things he did to entertain himself, like having a talking duck in a sports jacket walk out of a swamp…

    One thing I should mention about Ed: I’ve no idea what he thought of the Omega character or series, but he was of the opinion that whoever wrapped up the Omega storyline if they weren’t Steve Gerber was just asking for trouble, & he really didn’t want to be that person. As 40 years later it still comes up, I have no good counterargument for his logic…

    My best suggestion for deciphering what Steve had planned for Omega is to remember his absolute favorite character was the ’50s TV Superman, & Omega paralleled Superman in a number of ways (& wasn’t the first “alternate Superman” he did at Marvel)… but that’s just supposition, so take it as meant, not as gospel…

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    • Steven, thanks again for the information. I kind of figured that Gerber probably didn’t have any larger real plans for the Elf. I have to say, though, that I found the way that the writers who followed Gerber (Slifer and Kraft) resolved the Elf ‘problem,’ i.e., having him get run over by a truck, was hilarious.

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  5. Having written a couple issues of Team America too, my suggestion on that would be: don’t. It ain’t worth it. If you really want to go that route (no pun intended), try US-1.

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    • Ha! I had no idea, but I do have a full run. So, still not ruling it out. :)

      I got rid of my U.S.1 comics a few years ago when a Tyco enthusiast super-collector offered me a good price for them.

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    • “Having written a couple issues of Team America too, my suggestion on that would be: don’t. It ain’t worth it.” He speaks wisely, Osvaldo.
      Also: why do you have the full run? I’m still trying to figure out what possessed me, as a 14/15 yr-old, to dutifully get each issue every month (I wasn’t into motorcycles or racing, and wasn’t really even enjoying the stories – again, sorry, Mr. Grant…).

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    • I got my hands on about 6 of them (including the issue of Captain America they first appeared in) in a box of comics I inherited from a friend that had not been opened since 1989. I tried to sell them, but no one wanted them.

      So then, after hearing the episodes of Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men where Team America’s appearances in New Mutants were explained I decided “If you can’t beat ’em. .” and found the missing issues for spare change.

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    • “I tried to sell them, but no one wanted them.” No surprise there.
      The appearances in Captain America and New Mutants are probably the best stories featuring Team America that I’ve read, although that’s a pretty low bar.
      Additionally, the explanation that they were actually mutants who can project the Marauder persona onto anybody in the vicinity pretty much took away the only thing the characters and the series had going for them: the mildly intriguing mystery of who the Marauder was and why he/she appeared when needed, deus ex machina style.

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  6. It is exactly the weird and even poor choices that makes me interested in these comics. I read plenty of comics for “pure” enjoyment, but I read many more because good or bad there is something compelling about them to explore. But you know that about me already. ;)

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