It’s hard to put in words quite how much the ’70s series Omega the Unknown meant to me. The first issue was released near Christmas of 1975, when I was 9 years old, and I still remember how much this odd comic book shocked and surprised me. Omega told the story of a young boy with the odd name of James-Michael Starling, who lived in the middle of nowhere with his parents, who were revealed as robots partway through the first issue. Meanwhile, a bizarre and colorful hero from another planet, with the ability to shoot power bolts out of scars in his hands that were shaped like the Greek letter omega, was protecting James-Michael. What was the connection between the boy and his hero? Why were the parents robots? The first issue promised so much.
And further issues in the comic’s run were even more amazing. There was the spooky third issue in which the old Spider-Man villain Elektro took a handicapped boy hostage at the Jerry Lewis telethon, and the amazing second issue when Omega essentially decided not to fight the Hulk because it wasn’t important to the hero that they fight. There were the amazing scenes at James-Michael’s middle school, including the beating and near murder of his friend James Nedley, which left deep memories with me. Or the rats that lived in James-Michael’s apartment, or the bizarre street-level villains like the Wrench and El Gato, men who you actually could imagine living outside your window. And of course, in the tenth and final issue, Omega was murdered by a bizarre villainess called Ruby Thursday who had recently come from the equally bizarre pages of co-writer Steve Gerber’s series Defenders.
That tenth issue left a lot of secrets unrevealed, and it’s no lie to say I’ve waited thirty years to read the ending of the original series. I don’t consider the ending that came several years later in the pages of Defenders to be part of the same run. None of the original creators worked on that monstrosity, and I’d prefer to believe that it never existed, thank you very much. Instead, for much of my life I’ve played with the riddles at the heart of the original Omega the Unknown, trying to come up with an ending that worked well for me. It may not have been the perfect ending – it’s damn hard to create perfect endings, after all, but at least there could be some sort of conclusion, even if it was only in my mind. Such was the power of the original Omega the Unknown.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why this comic worked so well, and most of the reasons come from the incredible work of the comic’s creators. Co-writer Steve Gerber was at the top of his game in ’75. He had been a ridiculously productive writer for Marvel for about four years, often writing five comics per month for them. In that era, it was all about producing the pages as long as the comics sold, so Gerber was pretty much left alone by Marvel’s editors to do whatever he wanted. Thus Gerber produced one of the most magical and amazing runs of any writer in Marvel’s history. He somehow turned Man-Thing, which started out as a simple swamp monster strip, into an intensely moving meditation on the complexities of life in Florida in the ’70s. Gerber took the Defenders, which had been a straightforward super-hero strip, and turned it into an amazing exploration of the absurdity and craziness of modern life. (The signature moment of his Defenders run was with a group of cheerleaders with faces painted like clowns, chanting ‘bozos, bozos, we’re all bozos'”) And Gerber’s work on his signature creation, Howard the Duck, is near legendary for its acerbic satire of both Marvel comics and America in the post-Watergate era.
Gerber, in short, was writing so much and so freely that words seemed to be channeled directly from his subconscious onto the printed page. In reading Gerber’s comics we were able to see Gerber himself, through a funhouse mirror. And Omega simply showed another facet of Gerber’s personality.
Gerber himself has admitted that he was always had trouble writing super-hero comics. His half-hearted tenure on Sub-Mariner likely led to the title’s cancellation, while his run on Daredevil was fairly uninspired until the last few issues of his run. Even Gerber’s eight-issue run writing team-up stories of the Thing in Marvel Two-In-One emphasized character over action, and provided an intriguing take on the life of Benjamin J. Grimm.
So Omega, with all its obscurities and complexities, can in some ways be seen as Gerber’s final word on the super-hero. No matter how hard he tried to avoid costumed heroes, they were pretty much inescapable at Marvel, then as well as now. Omega represented Gerber’s chance to create a super-character whom one could imagine in the real world, or at least Gerber’s view of mid-’70s era New York. The fact that the hero rocketed to Earth from his own planet, and that he wore a blue and red costume, just added a touch of irony to the comic.
I haven’t mentioned Gerber’s co-writer and co-creator Mary Skrenes in all this. I’m omitting her simply because I don’t know that much about her. But Gerber has always consistently praised Skrenes for her work on the title, and I’m sure that the original series was as much about her as about him.
Lastly, I have to mention the incredible artwork by Jim Mooney on the original series. Mooney’s professional but not slick artwork was the perfect counterpart for Gerber’s and Skrenes’s stories. Somehow the crappy reproduction of ’70s comics actually accentuated Mooney’s artwork on the original stories, giving the artwork a murky and gritty look that perfectly captured the mood of the stories. Mooney gave the comics a different kind of intensity that was pure magic in the original series.
In short, the original Omega was one of the first real independent-type comics published. How appropriate that a revival and retake on Omega has an equally independent feel to it.
Jonathan Lethem’s new take on Omega the Unknown is one of the oddest comics that Marvel has released in years. It has a thoroughly handmade feel, from the logo that appears thrown off in short order to Farel Dalrymple’s loose art style to the odd events that happen in the story. This really doesn’t feel like a Marvel comic but more like something that Top Shelf or Fantagraphics might have put out: the story isn’t straightforward, little is explained to readers along the way, characters act strangely, and there’s absolutely no way to predict the direction of this series.
It’s spooky how this first issue parallels the first issue of the first series from ’75, and yet how different it is. Some scenes are direct quotes from the original series – I nearly jumped out of my chair when the boy’s father asks “Are you in pain?” or when the doctor’s lines from the final two panels are a direct quote from the original. It’s shocking to see lines that are practically grafted into my brain appear under slightly different circumstances. Lethem does a great job of channeling much of the spirit of the original series. However, in many places he changes the letter of the original series.
For reasons not yet known, James-Michael is now called Alexander. His parents are still robots, but his mother’s final words to the boy have changed from Gerber and Skrenes’s “You’ll be all right, James-Michael. The world may confuse you, but you’ll be all right. Only the voices can harm you. Don’t listen to the voices. It’s dangerous to listen” to “You’ll be all right, Alexander. The world may confuse you, but that’s true of everyone you’ll meet. Just promise me you’ll accept their help. You’ll need it.” This is a significant change, and clearly one that Lethem made intentionally. And I think it may go to the heart of what Lethem may be trying to accomplish in this series.
It feels to me that Lethem is taking pains to make Alexander different from James-Michael by inverting the lives of the two boys. James-M
ichael’s literal reality was that he was somehow connected to the bizarre super-hero while his immediate need was getting along in his world. Alexander, meanwhile, is portrayed differently. There’s talk of his leaving his home schooled environment, of his opening up to others. It’s important for Alexander to become part of the larger world around him, while it was important for James-Michael to be able to find his true self. One is intimately focused inward while the other is focused outward.
Thus the seeming unreality of Lethem’s Omega is contrasted with the seeming reality of Gerber and Skrenes’s creation. The robots that imperil Alexander seem light and cartoonish under the pen of Farel Dalrymple, while Mooney drew his robots as hulking, ponderous and alien. Lethem and Dalrymple present a super-hero who calls himself the Mink and even drives around a truck with his picture on it, while Gerber and Skrenes’s hero never even is given a real name. (He gets the nickname Omega from the Greek letter omega on his costume, but only the Daily Bugle refers to him by that name).
And in fact, the artwork suggests the same dichotomy. Mooney’s artwork was adult, professional and mature, while Dalrymple’s artwork has a much more immature and improvisational feel to it.
It’s impossible to project where the new comic will go in its next nine issues and it’s almost futile to guess. This first issue is a fascinating parallel to the original series, but will each of the ten issues also parallel the Gerber/Skrenes/Mooney run? Will we get the Hulk in issue 2, El Gato in issue 4, and the Wrench in issue 6? Or will Lethem go a different direction and make this series more his own? I know that I’m intrigued and actually kind of touched by the obvious reverence that Lethem has for the original series. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who loves Gerber’s strangest creation. We’ll see where this new series leads, but I can’t help but stay with Lethem and Dalrymple’s take on Omega the Unknown.