Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

23 June 2009

Omega the Unknown Classic

Collects: Omega the Unknown #1-10, Defenders #76-7 (1976-9)

Released: December 2005 (Marvel)

Format: 224 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785120094

What is this?: Reluctant superhero has strange connection to orphan boy, who’s trying to survive in Hell’s Kitchen with the worst foster parents ever.

The culprits: Writers Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Steven Grant and penciler Jim Mooney and a little Herb Trimpe

My admiration for Steve Gerber’s imagination and occasional weirdness is vast; he is among the greatest imaginative talents (with Jack Kirby) to ever be part of the comics universe.

Howard the Duck is his signature character, but one that is emblematic of his career, in some ways, is Omega the Unknown. Its description by readers is so uniform it might as well be part of the name: weird. So when I found an inexpensive copy of Omega the Unknown Classic at a Charlottesville comics store, I was all over it.

Omega the Unknown Classic coverMost of the weirdness is encapsulated in the concept, which makes it hard to sum up. There are two narrative threads: James-Michael Starling, a child who suddenly becomes orphaned, and an unnamed superhero who escapes from his devastated planet. James-Michael, who is far more analytical and unemotional than most adults, has to survive school and life in Hell’s Kitchen, which he is singularly unsuited to do. His half-attentive caretakers don’t help, and neither do the strange fits and occasional powers he exhibits. Both are seemingly linked to the hero, who comes to Hell’s Kitchen himself and gains the name “Omega” after his headband, which is in the shape of the Greek letter. Omega, mute and taken in by an elderly shopkeeper, becomes a superhero, although he struggles with our alien morality.

It’s interesting that for such an odd concept, the book is firmly ensconced in the Marvel Universe: Omega fights the Hulk and Electro, for instance, and battles minor villains like Nitro and Blockbuster. Perhaps it was Marvel editorial policy. Still, other than a villain revealed to be Ruby Thursday by a later writer, there aren’t any of the strange villains Gerber could and often did create.

Omega is largely follows the themes Gerber emphasized in works like Howard the Duck and Man-Thing: alienation, being an outsider, the senselessness of much of human endeavor. Sometimes I think it must have been a very lonely and frustrating existence to be Steve Gerber. His protagonists are rarely happy and can’t find even the minor victories that, say, Spider-Man indulges in.

It’s no different in Omega, although there’s none of the leavening of humor that you find in Howard. Everything is played deadly serious, as deadly serious as young James-Michael always is. I don’t know if this is because of the influence of co-writer Mary Skenes or because Gerber thought Omega was a more serious creation; perhaps there’s another reason. The school scenes with James-Michael are depressing criticisms of urban education; the extraneous elements of the school experience realistically overwhelm the classroom parts, which is puzzling and disturbing for a scholar like James-Michael, and that gets across to the reader quite well.

Steven Grant has the unenviable task of wrapping up the story; I don’t know if the idea to do so was his or Marvel’s. It certainly wasn’t Skenes and Gerber’s, who didn’t like Grant’s ending at all. (As far as I know, Gerber never revealed his ideas for the series after its final issue.) It’s not a horrible ending in the “any-ending-you-can-walk-away-from” sense. But it certainly doesn’t match Omega’s tone; it’s a bit too optimistic and striving to match any Gerber story, whose cynicism stared back at the reader from the page like a third eye. Interestingly, Grant doesn’t skimp on the weirdness, although he does it in a more modern sense: characters like Ruby Thursday and Moondragon, plus invading aliens.

Jim Mooney provides the art for the Omega run. This was the ‘70s, you see, and Mooney gives the effort a workman-like edge. There’s little memorable about the art; it looks like most of the rest of the decade. There’s nothing that matches the imagination of the concept; I have the idea Mooney probably approached Omega as just another job, perhaps one more baffling than others. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I don’t want to come across as criticizing him. But if an artist with a distinctive style had worked with Gerber and Skenes, Omega might be a hidden classic rather than a curiosity. Herb Trimpe pencils the two Defenders issues and does a fine job.

Even after reading Omega, I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s not as bizarre as I had expected, although it’s certainly different. It’s worth reading for two reasons: because it’s always worthwhile to explore Gerber’s body of work, and because it’s just interesting enough that a comic fan should have an opinion about it.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (3 of 5)

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