Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Omega the Unknown

Marvel Comics, issues #1-6, #9 and #10, 1975 through 1977, 17 or 18 pages each, $ 0.25 or $ 0.30 each

Writers: Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inkers: Jim Mooney, Pablo Marcos, Mike Esposito
Colorists: Petra Goldberg, Phil Rachelson, Hugh Paley, Janice Cohen
Letterers: John Costanza, Irv Watanabe, Ray Holloway, Karen Mantlo, Joe Rosen, Susan Fox, Howard Bender
Cover artists: Ed Hannigan, Joe Sinnott (issue #1)

In Sub-Mariner, Steve Gerber produced largely unremarkable, conventional superhero stories with an occasional flare of social awareness in the prose. In The Defenders, the writer began to construct stories for an existing mainstream superhero series that were at least able to raise the issues he was interested in. With Omega the Unknown, finally, Gerber, along with co-writer Mary Skrenes and artist Jim Mooney, went on to create a wholly new superhero concept to dramatize his ideas. (Issues #7 and #8 are fill-ins by other writers, so I’m not including them here.)

What the creators were attempting with Omega was one of the first deliberate and comprehensive deconstructions of the very nature of the superhero genre. Although the first issue of the series constitutes a conscious blend of various archetypal origin stories, it’s not an origin story itself: It doesn’t tell the audience the origin of the protagonist. Instead, it establishes a whole range of questions and mysteries.

For starters, Omega rejects the usual secret-identity paradigm and splits the two identities up altogether.

On the one hand, there’s James-Michael Starling, an intellectually gifted but emotionally distant 12-year-old who loses his parents in a car crash—and discovers they are secretly androids, robots disguised as humans. On the other hand, there’s “Omega”: a Superman-type character on the surface, clad in red and blue. It’s suggested he is the last survivor of his race, having escaped to Earth chased by evil “metal men” screaming “Kill!” Referred to as “caped man” in subsequent issues, he is mute at first and seems to be a completely blank slate morally and emotionally—or, as Gerber puts it in his editorial in issue #1, “an adult with the emotional maturity of an infant.”

The two characters strongly resemble each other, apart from their apparent age difference, and they also share their detachment from other people and lack of emotional maturity. When James-Michael is taken to a clinic in Manhattan following the accident, the caped man quickly follows, suggesting a “strange link” between them. Contrary to the way some superhero writers still approach their work today, the creators knew what that connection was right from the start, Gerber said in an interview with the Marvel fanzine FOOM, circa 1977:
“We do know, even though we’re probably not going to reveal it for quite awhile, what the relationship between James-Michael and Omega is.”
There is one major difference between the two characters, though: Whereas James-Michael responds to his surroundings eloquently and reasonably, his counterpart’s main mode of interaction are physical fights—within the first three issues, the caped man ends up in violent encounters not just with several of the robots following him, but also with the Hulk and with Spider-Man villain Electro.

In very basic terms, Omega the Unknown is one of the first superhero comics that are about something, rather than about someone. It’s not a vehicle for the latest spandex-clad sensation to punch his way through a random and hopefully endless string of monthly complications, in other words, but the deliberate treatment of a theme. Namely, Omega is a story about puberty—and, more specifically, about the superhero origin story as a metaphor for puberty.

The story’s impetus is laid out in the first three pages:
“Some unforeseen factor interrupts the orderly flow of events, and without warning, a finely tuned organism erupts in discord, violence. The mind searches furiously for a key to it all: What is it? What went wrong? Why? How? The body, meanwhile… does what it must… to survive! 
Escape… is not sought… nor desired… nor even possible. The alteration, subtle at first, then mounting in intensity, growing bolder, more visible, more disruptive as time went on—the alteration was inevitable. For all the chaos, the tumult raging all about this last of his superior breed… could only be the product… of the pain… and the passion… and the fire… to which he alone remains heir. The energy—the creative force—could be disciplined only so strictly, held seething in check only so long, before it burst forth—ravaging, mindless, uncontrollable. 
That’s the answer! So obvious in retrospect! An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow. The element of change, which loomed so terrifying—was in fact the only hope of salvation. To resist, to dam the flow, to go rigid… was to abandon all hope. 
“So that now, in the end, no recourse is left but to scream… and wait for the ordeal to be over.
The text accompanies images showing the caped man’s very literal attempt to “depart” his home planet while under attack from the evil robots, but it’s also an apt description of the turmoil and confusion an adolescent experiences in puberty—and, obviously, like many teenagers, James-Michael has his own “robots” to deal with.

The writers continue to play with the narration commenting on the caped man’s escapades in the same fashion throughout the rest of the series. “And, too, he has found the emotionality of Earthmen a source of fascination,” it says in issue #4, “…for all that had been bred out of his race to help insure that order would be maintained”—his race being superhero characters, presumably.

And in a particularly memorable three-page sequence in issue #10, Jim Mooney’s artwork portrays a perfectly conventional and, on the surface, utterly random brawl between the caped man and a “desert demon” who appears out of nowhere. The narration, however, almost completely ignores what’s shown in the images and talks, in great detail, about the feelings involved in what might be a fight between lovers, friends, or family members:
Humans crawl out of the woodwork, demons pop from solid sandstone…! Ordinarily, of course, the intrusions are less obvious than this one. But it’s in their covert nature that their potency reside [sic]. Their strength is their plasticity. Try it: Attack any intruder into your personal space. You’ll find your blow striking a pillow of good intentions. 
“And, invariably, you’ll learn that pillows have feelings, too! And you’ll shudder as the pillow drives the point home (usually, but not always, verbally)… reviling your aloofness, your insensitivity… your self-centeredness, your tendency to brood…! …you cad! 
“Before you know it, you’re on the defensive…! Your temples throb, your muscles knot… and you reconcile yourself to the fact that, unless your identity is to be gobbled up whole… this intruder has to be dealt with. Decisively. So you retaliate. Mightily. And the old cliche proves true…! It hurts you more than it does them. 
“Your space is your own again. But you’ve been scarred. And the distastefulness of the whole business… still lingers in the wind. You’re tainted, and so is your space. Absolution is required. Back into circulation you go. It’s a ‘no-win’ situation.”
Structurally, the series is not—or, at least, not nearly as much as other genre comic-book series of the time—driven by a largely plot-based formula. Rather, every aspect of the comic—including the plot—is made to resonate with the book’s conceptual umbrella and its finely tuned, finite character arcs. And, as the story goes on, its details accrue meaning towards the theme of growing up and coming to terms with the world.

Gerber elaborates on his and Skrenes’s approach to the series:
“It has a definite direction. It does not have incidents plotted out all the way through issue #100 or anything like that. We know where it’s going […]. In some ways, it’s the most calculated strip I’ve ever done, and largely that’s because of Mary’s predisposition toward structure.”
As the series progresses, the two protagonists—each in their own way—begin to learn and to adapt, very slowly at first, as they are confronted with their new urban environment. They go on to be exposed to interpersonal relationships, death and mortality, the significance of money, poverty and the daily struggle for survival in the city’s streets—and the consequences of violence, the honest, unflinching portrayal of which has become a recurring trademark of Gerber’s work at this point.

Reluctant James-Michael, who was raised, sheltered and home-taught in a remote house in the Pennsylvania mountains, first comes into contact with the outside world when his surrogate parents take him to New York, where he is meant to attend school. James-Michael is less than thrilled with the prospect, but his father encourages him to embrace the idea—“because imagination is fueled by experience, which is precisely what you wish to avoid.

A month after the accident that reveals his parents as humanoid robots (and reduces them to piles of ash before anybody else arrives on the scene, evidently), James-Michael awakens in a neurological clinic in New York City. Although his doctor is fascinated by the boy’s intellect and detachment, the board of directors refuses to keep him as a patient. As a result, James-Michael is taken in by his nurse Ruth and her roommate Amber, a flippant, happy-go-lucky-type character. “Who is she?” the narration teases, “…why does he feel, ever so slightly… aglow?

Again, the choice of characters is no coincidence, according to Gerber:
“Ruth and Amber were specifically introduced to play off each other in a particular way and create a particular kind of confusion in James-Michael.”
In issue #2, when the two women take the boy to their 44th-Street apartment for the first time, James-Michael’s observations hint at the kinds of experiences that lie in store for him. “The noise level is destructive,” he remarks after his first subway ride. When they enter the apartment building, the distinct smell of the place does not elude James-Michael: “Am I mistaken—or is that the odor of human excrement?” Among other glimpses at daily life in Hell’s Kitchen, the sequence also includes a homeless man tap-dancing for change, iron bars on a fourth-floor window and a reference to Ruth’s period: “[…] I don’t think this is the right phase of the moon to point it out,” Amber remarks when James-Michael comments on “the damaging effects of aerosol sprays on the ozone layer […].”

Very clearly, this isn’t the highly romanticized version of New York City that Marvel comics are known for. Rather, it’s Steve Gerber finally zooming in on the aspects of life and society that interest him as a creator. We’re not looking down from the top of the Empire State Building with Prince Namor anymore as he bemoans the bleak existence of “the land-dwellers.” Nor do we get the luxury of being temporarily perplexed, along with the Defenders, by the concerns of mere mortal souls before we get to hurry off to the next costumed brawl.

No, this time, we’re down in the streets, experiencing the reality and the hostility of everyday life on the sidewalk and in the crummy and heatless apartments, along with the regular, run-of-the-mill people who live there—just like the writers themselves did at the time, as Gerber recalls in a 1978 interview with The Comics Journal:
“Mary Skrenes and I were sitting in The Market diner at 44th Street and 11th Avenue in New York […] when some sort of incident took place out on the sidewalk. We couldn’t even see clearly what was happening, but by the time we got up and left our seats to see what sort of insanity was going on out there, a kid came staggering into the diner, his face bloodied, stab wounds all over his body, and collapsed on the floor. We were told by one of the waitresses the next day that he had died.”
Subsequent scenes and issues continue to flesh out the urban environment and the characters that populate it. The tap-dancing bum, for instance, is not just an extra who’s dismissed after his initial walk-on part, but a recurring character who receives more depth as the series goes on.

When he first approaches Amber, the homeless man claims to be a tap-dancer. “Look, I just need thirty-seven more cents an’ I can get my dancin’ shoes outta hock.” Even when Amber bluntly rebuffs his advances, he maintains his playful attitude, although he can’t cover that he’s badly shaking at this point, likely from withdrawal. “I think that man expected to be paid for providing that entertainment,” a confused James-Michael points out, but Amber seems unimpressed. “Can’t live on expectations, punk,” she shrugs.

Several pages later, the same man starts a fight with another “wino” who’s passed on the sidewalk next to a soda fountain (“Up! Now! Outta my bedroom!”). Via the store’s owner, we learn that the tap-dancer is named Zach, and it’s not the first time he’s started a fight. This one ends badly for him, mind you: The “wino” turns out to be Bruce Banner, a. k. a. the Hulk, who, once transformed due to the provocation, proceeds to hurl Zach through the storefront window. Similar to Gerber and Skrenes in the incident recounted above, James-Michael and Amber get to witness the altercation from inside the soda fountain.

This isn’t the last we see of Zach the tap-dancer. In issue #6, he’s passed out in the lobby of Ruth and Amber’s apartment building, and it’s James-Michael—distressed by other events—who vents his anger waking the homeless man up and sweeping him out. When the tap-dancer doesn’t leave James-Michael alone and keeps asking for money despite being repeatedly told off, however, the boy snaps and pushes him—which causes the man to stumble and fall down.

“Y-you didn’t haveta do that,” he says, now finally dropping his playful fa├žade. “My boy was killed in Nam. I’m all alone. I—I—”

James-Michael is visibly shocked by the effect of his violent outburst. “I… apologize,” he says. “I didn’t think I could… hurt you.” He hands the man a coin, which is gratefully accepted, but even as he walks away from the scene, the 12-year-old isn’t sure what to make of the episode, or of his own behavior. “He’ll only put it toward his next bottle of wine. Why did I—? Amber would call me a fool.”

So, in only three brief scenes, a character that would have remained a one-note extra at best in most genre narratives is developed into a three-dimensional, authentic presence and used to elicit a major insight from the protagonist. The tap-dancer goes from a beggar who’s best ignored to a quarrelsome drunkard to a downtrodden human being trying to survive and in need of compassion. Each time, the shift is thoroughly credible.

The result: empathy.

Likewise, within two pages, the creators let their protagonist shift from unreflected anger to guilt and pity to a vague sense of failure in performing to society’s expectations—the “law of the jungle,” as Amber and Ruth call it in issue #2—because he dropped his guard for a moment and showed compassion after recognizing that his actions are capable of hurting another human being. James-Michael goes on to have more, and more poignant, experiences, mainly at the high-school setting where he begins to interact with fellow students and teachers in issue #3—and which, in the end, teaches him the concept of loss.

It ultimately results, as Ruth observes in issue #10, in “a genuine show of emotion—!

Encountering and being taught the capacity for compassion turns out to be another Leitmotif that connects James-Michael’s character arc with that of the caped man.

The caped man’s first brush with compassion occurs in issue #2, where the old owner of a pawn shop patches him up after a fight, takes him in and feeds him. In issue #4, the caped man catches a woman who jumps from the 59th Street Bridge. Pondering what may have caused her to want to end her life, “it occurs to him suddenly that he may have committed a criminal act… by saving her!” The mystery of her motivation triggers his first utterance in the series: “Why…?”

In issue #9, the caped man witnesses the death of a boy who tried to steal food from a fruit stand and then fights a super-villain whose motivation for crime is to be able to care for his child. As a result of these events, the caped man recognizes the meaning and value of money, but his wider motives are only made explicit in issue #10:
“There’s still that ‘act of mercy’ to be performed, a sort of rescue operation, actually. And the only means to effect it—without negating the purpose of his larger mission on Earth—is cold, hard cash. 
“The boy—James-Michael—must be evacuated from Hell’s Kitchen. Immediately. Before his mind, his burgeoning emotions fall prey to its poisons.
But the caped man’s mission fails, ultimately. Trying to obtain the money he thinks he needs to save James-Michael, he is shot by the police in the streets of Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, neither Marvel nor the comics market proved to be quite ready for all that in 1975—Omega the Unknown was cancelled after ten issues. In his 1978 interview with The Comics Journal, Gerber calls the comic “a massive artistic failure and too small a financial success.” He elaborates:
“That strip was an attempt to depict a certain ambiguity about a lot of the characters and a lot of the situations that were occurring—and it fell flat on its face. Everyone, anyway most everyone, interpreted everything we did literally.”
The editorial pages of the comic book, right from the start, strike a rather defensive tone, certainly. Gerber’s editorial in the first issue is centered in Marvel’s—Stan Lee’s—reluctance to publish a series starring a “kid.”
“’Kids don’t like to read about kids,’ I was told. ‘They want a hero they can look up to and identify with at the same time.’ 
“I interpreted that to mean an adult with the emotional maturity of an infant—yet another comic-book staple for the past three or four decades. The clown in longjohns who punches first and asks questions later.”
Issue #2 comes with the transcript of a run-in between Skrenes and a skeptical “Marvel employee” that may, one suspects, not be entirely fictional. And even though most of the reader responses that begin to appear in the book with the third issue are positive, it seems to be an increasing concern among them that Omega may be too idiosyncratic and experimental to last long in the market.
Not all letters are expressions of praise, however.
“[…] Why the psychological dramas? Where are your PhD’s in psycho-analysis? Do you think this sells comics these days, or is it your own ego trip? 
Omega is a sick comic book. No kid of mine will ever read an issue of it, if the first issue is any indication of what Steve and Mary are trying to do. Their style of writing is choppy, trite, melodramatic, and shallow. […] 
“Please save us from comic book writers with delusions of grandeur! We don’t want you to take the medium in this direction. […] Let me read ‘Rose Garden’ or ‘David and Lisa’ for the psychological studies, and Marvel for the escapism!”
I suppose we can’t be sure if this letter from a disgruntled reader, which appears in Omega the Unknown #3, is genuine. But given the material it refers to, it does sound like an authentic gripe some among Marvel’s audience may have had with the material, at least. Although the final issue of the series repeatedly promises that Gerber and Skrenes (and, possibly, Mooney) would get to finish their work in a forthcoming issue of The Defenders, the conclusion that eventually saw print was produced without their involvement.

In the letter column of Omega the Unknown issue #9, Gerber somewhat ambiguously responds to a reader’s accusation of pessimism:
“Perhaps we should state, straightforwardly, that we do not consider Omega the Unknown to be a pessimistic statement at all. Because we don’t. 
“If we were truly promulgating negativism in this magazine, James-Michael would have been dead in issue #2. As it is, the punk’s intelligence, insight, and his willingness to learn from Amber, Ruth, and the denizens of Hell’s Kitchen have kept him alive and mostly unharmed. 
“And one could say the same of the caped man. 
“This is a story about survival in a hostile environment, however, and about how survival is accomplished and enhanced through the necessity of personal growth. 
“Our implicit suggestion? That the world, society, cities, even other human beings constitute a hostile environment. 
“We consider that realism.”
Another implicit suggestion of the material, of course, is that the superhero genre is inherently ill-equipped to contain themes that speak to a grown-up, emotionally mature audience.

In Gerber’s Sub-Mariner, Prince Namor accomplishes what he sets out to do almost by accident, it seems, and despite being who he is, rather than because of it; in The Defenders, the heroes rarely accomplish anything at all; and in the final issue of Omega the Unknown, the superhero utterly fails and quite possibly dies trying to accomplish what he recognizes as his priority: to ascertain James-Michael’s survival by procuring a large enough sum of money for his benefit.

Although the story itself was cut short by the book’s abortion, it certainly seems like Gerber’s conception of the superhero idea came full circle, ultimately. And while the series remains unfinished to this day, there are clues that suggest what the enigmatic connection between James-Michael and Omega may have been.

In issue #10, for instance, the caped man’s intention to help James-Michael by obtaining enough money in Las Vegas to “evacuate” the boy from Hell’s Kitchen only seems to enter his consciousness after James-Michael himself has “borrowed” a sum of money from Amber, so he can take the bus and return to his deserted mountain home along with his friend Dian.

Now, a common suspicion among readers of the series has been that James-Michael will somehow grow up to become the caped man. But I don’t think that’s suggested in the material at all—clearly, James-Michael is the more sophisticated of the two characters, the one whose attempts to adapt to, and learn from, his surroundings are infinitely more successful than the caped man’s. Not to mention that making the caped man an adult representation of James-Michael would be diametrically opposed in spirit to virtually everything Gerber said about Omega in interviews and editorial pages.

What I submit, rather, is that the caped man, being an archetypal superhero figure, represents a constantly evolving representation of James-Michael’s imagination: constantly evolving, because, as James-Michael’s surrogate parent in issue #1 says, “imagination is fueled by experience.” James-Michael grows with his experiences in Hell’s Kitchen. Consequently, so does James-Michael’s imagination. And, consequently, so does the caped man, as an expression of James-Michael’s imagination: He learns about compassion, learns to talk, learns about grief, learns about money as a means of facilitating survival.

So, what Omega the Unknown says, ultimately, is that the true source—and the true breadth—of a superhero’s power is to be found in the imagination of its creator.

Perhaps the one thing that’s meant to be taken literally about the series, after all, is its title: Quite possibly, Omega is Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes’s “last word” on the superhero genre—a dramatized demonstration why the idea of the superhero is, by design, not equipped, not capable of surviving puberty, because doing the kinds of things a grown-up person is required to do to ensure their survival is something that’s hopelessly beyond the grasp of a gaudily dressed superman—in order to survive, superheroes have to be outgrown.

Arguably, it’s all spilled out in issue #6, which provides a slightly—but pointedly—modified version of the sequence in issue #1:
That’s the answer! So obvious in retrospect! An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow. The prospect of change, which loomed so terrifying, was in fact the only hope of salvation. To resist, to dam the flow, to go rigid… was to embrace despair.
“So that now, in the end, the only refuge… lies in dying.
In other words: Having fulfilled his purpose of “protecting” James-Michael during his childhood and through puberty, the caped man now has to die so James-Michael can live. Steve Gerber was a life-long fan of Superman and, to the detriment of his own career, became a passionate and ambitious advocate not just for comics creators’ rights, but also for the creative and artistic merits of their work and their creations. Omega the Unknown, it seems, addresses all those concerns.

Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney created a formally daring, thematically sophisticated work with unusually complex characters, not just for its time, but for superhero comics in general. Its make-up, right up from its inception, is almost shockingly deliberate in the context of 1970s superhero comic books. It’s not hard to see, in retrospect, why the series has become a source of attraction and inspiration for a writer like Jonathan Lethem, who co-wrote a 10-part series titled Omega: The Unknown for Marvel in 2007 and 2008.

Omega the Unknown—the original—is inhibited by many things.

The production values, once again, are often shoddy; the need to include brawls between the book’s hero and Marvel characters like Hulk and Electro does more to dilute the concept than to help it; and while Jim Mooney’s artwork is never less than competent and occasionally shines—such as in the first or final issues, both of which are inked by Mooney himself—it does seem like the artist often wasn’t able to commit as much time and thought to the work as he would have liked, in an ideal world, to make it the best he could.

Nonetheless, the series stands the test of time as one of the first serious attempts at a major comics novel in the North American market. Omega the Unknown succeeds more often than it fails in its high creative ambitions, and it represents, in its way, a re-evaluation of the superhero idea that is at once more grounded in humanity and more sweeping in scope than later, even more deliberate and complex works like Watchmen.


scratchie said...

Nice article. You've managed to find new depth in a series that I've probably read over a hundred times in the last 30+ years.

Ed Catto said...

I remember the Defenders always making me wonder, and then this series made us all just sit up and wonder. Always felt is was hamstrung by pedestrian art...

cease ill said...

That's beautiful, after a fashion. Gerber, who died of the same disease as my father at the same age, has gone on to be a father of sorts to my thoughts on writing, as I have of late visited the energetic world of these inspirations, reconsidered through the prism of life experience---and imminently competent and thoughtful writing such as this.

Fred W. Hill said...

I was in high school myself when this series was published and collected it along with Howard the Duck. Certainly, my high school experience was not nearly as horrid as that of James-Michael's, but I was a lonely introvert and the series really resonated with me and I was saddened when it was cancelled and never properly concluded. Although to my knowledge, neither Gerber nor Skreenes ever gave a full explanation of their intent and how they would have proceeded if the series had lasted, your analysis makes the most sense of their work. Omega the Unknown was a commercial failure, but despite the obligatory attempts to appear more mainstream and the it's status as an incomplete work, I would not rate it as an artistic failure, at least not within the context of the era and medium of its publication. It was an ambitious project that fell short but for all that provided meaningful observations about both the real world that inspired much of its content as well as the superhero genre within which it was mired.