By Osvaldo Oyola
In the conversation between Jonathan Lethem and his collaborator Karl Rusnak about the original Omega the Unknown series (included in the volume collecting their 2007-08 re-imagining with artist Farel Dalrymple), Lethem calls Omega the Unknown #1 the best comic he had ever read up to that point. I’d go a step further and say it remains, for me, one of the best single issues of a comic (and certainly among the best first issues) I have ever had the pleasure of reading and re-reading. When I was a kid, I would often find it and other random issues of the cancelled series (which ended after issue #10) for sale at the flea markets and garage sales that were my primary mode for adding old comics to my collection, as it was widely considered worthless, a flop. It’s an oddity from a time when Marvel was greenlighting anything to see what would stick. To call it a cult favorite now would be overstating its popularity, but it deserves at least that cultish acknowledgement.
I’ve written a lot about both versions of Omega the Unknown at The Middle Spaces, having done a monthly reading series on both volumes in conversation entitled, “Alpha & Omega.” And while both series are uneven, my mind always returns to the first issue of the original and how it held out a promise about a take on superhero comics that we may not have even seen fulfilled in the 40 years since it appeared on the stands.
Written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, in Omega the Unknown, Skrenes seems to temper the worst anti-pretentious pretensions and reckless plotting found in some of Gerber’s more lauded, but often overrated work, like Howard the Duck. Yet, it still retains just enough of Gerber’s crotchety social commentary wrapped in goofy psychedelia to keep its edge and Jim Mooney’s art brings that sensibility to the visuals (with the help of Petra Goldberg’s colors in the first issue), while maintaining the dingy patina of the 1970s.
What is wonderful about Omega the Unknown #1 is how it simultaneously embraces superhero comics as a kid or young adult genre while making its central mystery one concerned with the essential unknowability of what is means to grow up and be an adult. We meet James-Michael Starling, a precocious but socially isolated home-schooled kid, with his life on the verge of dramatic change. His parents are moving him from their rural Pennsylvania mountain home to New York City so that his education might include socialization in a cosmopolitan place—a change he fears as many 12-year old kids might fear new social environments.
However, this pending change in environment ends up revealing another a lot less expected change nested within it. When an accident on the car ride to the City reveals his parents are robots – their dismembered plastic corpses melting in the resulting fireball – James-Michael is thrown from the wreckage and into the wreckage of what his life will become. Before passing out, the burning head of what he thought was his mother warns him, “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 a powerful and whacked out scene that ends with James-Michael collapsing in shock.
It is that very promise of confusion that makes Omega the Unknown so rich. It does not promise a simple code of good guys and bad guys; people we can trust and people up to no good. It does not hold adulthood up as some definitive state to be reached when everything makes sense and we can neatly slip on the role like Dick Grayson finally filling out Bruce Wayne’s Batman suit. Rather, it promises that the journey into adulthood is an extension of that confusion, a journey towards a way of being where we can always know more, but never quite enough to avoid the tumult of emotions associated with lived experience.
But the comic goes further: simultaneously we are introduced to a character whom Lethem’s comic-collecting protagonist in his 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude calls “Black Bolt mated with Superman.” Last survivor of a “superior” alien race, he wears a blue costume with red tracksuit piping and a cape and has a head of dark locks held in place by an Omega-shaped headband. He is handsome, but apparently mute. Mute in word and thought because this comic, like most today, eschews the thought-bubbles common to the time, preferring captions that approach the psyches of our two protagonists from the outside, often appearing as overwrought questions and bombastic descriptions that serve markers of our own guesses, and thus they remain always deniable.
The captions transition between our cryptic heroes’ psyches suggesting a connection between boy and man—who have never met—that the end of the issue makes explicit. Eventually the caped man (don’t ever call him “Omega”, because Gerber and Skrenes never do) will stumble around Hell’s Kitchen like he’s in a superheroic reimagining of Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, locals projecting their desires onto him just like we as readers want to project the arc of the superhero on his story. But in this issue we only see him fleeing the purple killer robots that presumably destroyed his homeworld and heading to Earth.
The comic goes further still in establishing instability of James-Michael Starling’s new reality. He awakens from a coma in a hospital for special cases. Does his doctor have some nefarious plans for him? What will we learn about the milquetoast young nurse recently-arrived from out-of-town who takes an interest in JMS and ends up taking him in as a ward? What about her street-smart roommate Amber with whom she shares a roach-infested Hell’s Kitchen apartment? There is so much going on, so much set up in the first issue that we can easily imagine it the beginning of a long and successful serial that plays with, challenges, and explodes the conventions of the superhero genre by adopting a form of young adult literature depressing realism when it isn’t dealing with cosmic destiny. Heck, in this first issue it is not even clear if this takes place in the Marvel Universe! The Spider-Man comics we see on James-Michael’s hospital bed on the comic’s cover even seem to suggest that Omega the Unknown somehow inhabits some hybrid or liminal space between our worlds.
The mystery of the connection between James-Michael and the caped man which drives the rest of the short-lived series is only established near the end of the first issue. One of the killer robots that destroyed the caped man’s homeworld arrives at the hospital hunting him, but confuses James-Michael for the would-be superhero. The mute hero arrives, but when he is not up to the task of saving the boy, it is James-Michael who manifests bouts of energy from his palms and destroys the robot. In this moment, the narration confirms the slippage between the alien and the young boy’s consciousnesses that the captions have only suggested at page-turn transitions before. Their connection is not based on an aspiration for the young to become the older – this is not Billy Batson becoming the Big Red Cheese – but is a connection observed through pain and loss, through being parts of an unknowable whole.
In the final panels, the caped man having fled with the robot corpse, James-Michael is confronted by the sketchy doctor, who suggests that the boy has had an outburst and harmed himself. Caped men? Killer robots? Who could believe these events? What else but self-harm can explain the two perfect symbols — the Greek letter Omega — burned onto the boy’s palms? What could it all mean? We may never know.
The Omega the Unknown series had no closure worth speaking of. Years after it was cancelled, some other writer would be given the task of tying it up in a couple of issues of The Defenders, but even that writer will tell you, it is better to just skip it. Instead, what is perhaps my favorite part of Omega the Unknown #1 is that in this age of completism and short series, reboots and binge-reading it can remain unknown and incomplete. It leaves us on the cusp of a promise like growing up does the child, who in becoming an adult can never know that experience as it was imagined from youth.
Omega the Unknown #1
Written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes
Drawn by Jim Mooney
Coloured by Petra Goldberg
Lettered by John Costanza
Osvaldo Oyola teaches at New York University and serves on the executive board for the International Comics Art Forum. His blog, The Middle Spaces publishes work on comics, music and culture. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his novelist wife and two cats named for Katie and Francie Nolan from ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’.
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