The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics ~ Omega the Unknown: Greatest Comic Book Ever? Part II

Click here to read Part I of David Torsiello’s article on little-known 1970s Marvel title Omega the Unknown.

Omega the Unknown: Greatest Comic Book Ever? Part II
© 2013 Paradox Productions LLC

Ostensibly a super hero comic, one quickly discovers otherwise after reading the first issue of Omega the Unknown. We’re given five pages of Omega, nine of James-Michael, and then four pages at the end with both of them together. So who’s the real star of this book: the super hero or the kid?

The answer is the kid. As Gerber explained in the first-issue text page: “It began as the simplest of ideas: a strip whose protagonist would be a twelve-year-old boy. Why? Because there weren’t any such strips extant, for one thing. And for another, I’d always resented the lousy treatment kids had received in comics over the last three decades.”

When Gerber brought his idea to the editorial powers that be, it was rejected, naturally. The rationale being that kids don’t want to read about kids, they want to read about grown-up super heroes. Most writers would have given up the ghost at this point, but like any true artist, Gerber got creative instead. He turned his idea into a super hero book, but the super hero wouldn’t be the protagonist; the kid would. Together with editors Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, Gerber took the idea to the Man himself, Stan Lee. After some kibitzing, Lee approved the project and even gave the super hero his name: Omega the Unknown. Gerber and Wein then got together with art director John Romita and put together a costume design for Omega.

At this point, all Gerber really had was a twelve-year-old protagonist named James-Michael—a kid with robot parents and some kind of connection to the titular hero, Omega. After sharing a dinner at McDonald’s with fellow writer Mary Skrenes, all the other details were filled in, with Skrenes joining the project as a co-writer. Jim Mooney then signed on as penciller, having worked with Gerber before and enjoying strong creative chemistry with the writer.

After establishing the premise in the first issue, things really get rolling in issue #2. This is where the other main “character” of the series is introduced: Hell’s Kitchen. As James-Michael enters his new neighborhood for the first time, he finds he has to gingerly step over homeless people, watch Amber and Ruth get propositioned by street lotharios, avoid pan-handlers, and then finally arrive home, only to immediately ask, “Am I mistaken or is that the odor of human excrement?” To which Amber responds, “That’s the most convenient part about living in a jungle, right Ruth? You can go anywhere.”

Then after four flights of rickety stairs, James-Michael enters their very small apartment and finds himself greeted by cockroaches and barred windows.

“Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen.” I don’t know that there’s ever been a more perfect title to a comic book story.

Now would seem an appropriate time to reiterate: This strip is weird. And very, very dark. There has never been anything else like it in comics. There’s no other comic series that has ever touched—or even attempted to reach for—the same spots of my soul that this one does. But I realize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. For the sake of complete transparency, let me reveal the two aspects of the strip that speak to me on a very deep, personal level.

First, I’m adopted. And I think this fact probably plays a part in the appeal of super hero comics in general for me. A whole lot of super heroes have origins that begin with losing biological parents. Superman loses his in the explosion of Krypton. Batman loses his to street violence. Spider-Man was raised by his Aunt and Uncle and knows hardly anything about his parents. Omega takes it to another level, though. James-Michael has to face the shock of discovering his parents were robots. His parents aren’t who he thought they were—they’re not even what he thought they were. His whole existence has been turned upside down; he doesn’t know who or what he is anymore.

Now, I grew up knowing I was adopted, but still, it’s the type of thing you may grasp rationally when you first find out, but it doesn’t really hit you emotionally until a later age. (Or at least this is how it was for me.) When it does hit you, it’s a similar kind of shock. It finally sinks in that hey, there are these other people out there who conceived and birthed me, plus all these other potential blood relatives, none of whom I know. It’s an entire world that is a complete mystery to me. How am I supposed to begin to know who I am without solving that mystery first? So I found myself identifying very strongly with James-Michael because of this.

Secondly, I grew up in the ’70s and early ’80s. I remember what the city was like then—and if you’re too young to remember the city pre-Giuliani, I don’t know that there’s any way you can fully appreciate it. I remember stepping over those same homeless people, avoiding those same heroin addicts, pretending not to hear those same street toughs who were looking for any excuse to cut me. I remember being a little kid going to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx—where residents set fire to their tenements on a daily basis—and being terrorized by the squeegee guys literally jumping on the hood of our moving car. (Ever drive through the Wild Safari at Six Flags, with the wild tigers jumping on the car? These squeegee guys were way scarier, let me tell ya.)

Gerber and Skrenes were both living in Hell’s Kitchen at the time they were working on Omega, so they were firsthand experts on the subject. Their success at capturing this environment and bringing it to life on the comics page was astounding. Having strong memories of this place and time, the stories come alive for me in a way that they may not for those who didn’t share the same experience. Certainly no other comic captures this time and place as well; I’d say the one movie that may have done so is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

The first issue of Omega that I actually bought on the newsstand was #4. I can’t remember why I bought it. The name “Omega” probably struck me as alien and intriguing, and I likely thought the character looked cool. (A cool look was all that was required for my thirty cents in those days.) As it turned out, this particular issue had one of the most powerful sequences in the series’ entire run.

It begins with James-Michael’s new school friend, John Nedly, going to the boy’s room and encountering three school thugs. Earlier in this same issue, there was some ominous foreshadowing of this when Nedly himself told James-Michael that “those guys never fight unless they outnumber their marks by at least three to one.” Another new friend, a girl named Dian, added: “The trick is you never let ’em catch you alone—anywhere! ’Cause if you do, sport, they’re just liable to cripple you for life—an’ that’s no joke.” So just seeing Nedly alone against the three thugs, you know something terrible and ugly is about to happen.

The thugs’ leader, Nick, accuses Nedly of having “snitched” on him regarding an earlier incident in the story. The next two panels have no dialogue, just caption narration. One panel shows Nick brandishing brass knuckles while his two cronies pull out a chain and a tire iron. The next is a close-up of Nedley’s face, scared to death and dripping sweat.

At the time I bought this issue, I was still learning to read. But even before I could read, my parents bought me comics just for the pictures. And I will never forget the effect the visuals of those last two panels had on me—particularly the last one. I can’t remember how much of it I was specifically able to read at the time, but I got the message loud and clear from the pictures. It was terrifying. Probably the best work of Mooney’s career. When you do add the captions, however, the power of the sequence waxes even greater:

“John shakes his head vehemently—his mouth is too dry to permit speech—but his soundless denial makes no impression. No point sticking around to get all bloodied up. Why doesn’t he run, he wonders? Oh yeah—his legs have turned to Jello, all wiggly and wobbly and unresponsive to his brain’s commands. That’s why. Well then let’s see—what’s left? Trembling? He’s already doing that. Pleading? Nope, no voice, remember? He’ll just haveta stand here and take it—and hope he doesn’t cry.”

The sequence ends on that panel, the close-up of Nedly. We don’t actually see anything happen to him—but I think that only strengthens the scene, as it invites the reader’s imagination to run wild. I’m not sure Gerber agreed, though. In an interview with FOOM magazine that was published around this same time, he lamented, “You can never go far enough, you can never show how filthy those streets are in Hell’s Kitchen, you can never show the dope dealers in the corridors of the school that James-Michael attends because the code [the Comics Code Authority] won’t allow it; you can’t show what would really happen to somebody if they got beat up as badly as John was beaten up by Nick and his hoods, because even though those kids see it every day, it’s simply not allowed because it’s not ‘within the bounds of good taste.’”

In the letters column of Omega #5, the editor (or quite possibly Gerber himself) repeated this sentiment in response to a criticism that “James-Michael’s plight is totally superficial and unbelievable”: “Steve and Mary both live in Hell’s Kitchen. They know those kids. And believe us, the only unrealistic element in James-Michael’s school situation is the absence of terror and violence which we cannot portray because the Comics Code won’t allow it.”

With all due respect to the late Mr. Gerber, I think he was wrong on this point. About seven years later, Gerber had the opportunity to write for Marvel’s Epic line of comics, which was free of Code restrictions. This project, Void Indigo, was as violent as any comic I’ve ever seen. It had severed limbs, bifurcated bodies, charred flesh, hollowed-out eye sockets, and blood by the bucket load. There was ritual torture, human sacrifice, you name it. So much violence, in fact, that it becomes numbing at some point. So while Void Indigo shows us a lot more surface violence, I believe the violence in Omega, scaled back as it was, has the greater impact on the reader—a clear example of how less can be more.

I’m not going to spoil any specifics for the rest of the series, in deference to those who might wish to read it for themselves. But suffice it to say, there’s a lot of Hell’s Kitchen and a lot of cryptic hinting at who (and what) Omega and James-Michael really are. Some of it is right in front of us from the start, like the kid’s name. The compound first name “James-Michael” (never “Jim” or “Jimmy” or even “J.M.”) hints at the character’s dual nature. The surname “Starling” evokes extra-terrestrial origins. Beyond this, we don’t get many solid clues that would point us in any more specific directions.

On the lighter side, there are all of the Superman callbacks with Omega. From the blue costume and red cape, to the rocket escape from his home planet in the first issue, Gerber’s affection for the man of steel is quite evident. In the final issue, we even see Omega in a Clark Kent-like civilian disguise consisting of a three-piece suit, glasses…and the Omega-themed headband, still worn loud and proud over his brow, as if this wouldn’t be the least bit noticeable.

Then, when all else fails, there’s always some good ol’ super hero action. Over ten issues, we see Omega square off against classic characters like the Hulk, Electro, and Nitro. And for the remaining Gerber aficionados among us, we get the return of old favorites like Richard Rory, the Foolkiller, and Ruby Thursday.

Naturally, the ten-issue series gets my highest recommendation. The only proviso I’ll offer is that you need to enjoy a healthy dose of ambiguity in your fiction. And you have to like open-ended stories, because this one never does get a proper ending. After the sudden cancellation with the tenth issue, Steven Grant tried as best he could to tie up the loose ends in two issues of Defenders, but it didn’t really work. Nothing against Grant, but Omega was the unique vision of Gerber and Skrenes, and no one else’s vision could ever be as satisfying.

If you look on eBay or half.com (or similar sites), you can probably find the collected edition of Omega The Unknown Classic for as little as ten bucks. Not bad considering it carried a $29.99 cover price when first released in 2005. Again, it’s not for everybody. But if you’re interested in reading something uniquely different, they don’t come any more different than Omega the Unknown.

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  1. The Original Curmudgeon Blog | The Crusty Curmudgeon's Comic Classics

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