When Words Collide

Mon, February 15th, 2010 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

STEVE GERBER AND OMEGA

I know this isn't what I promised last time, but events beyond my control have distanced me from my "Daredevil Omnibus" editions this week, and I'd rather give you something worth your time than a quickly hammered-out and completely vague recollection of Bendis's use of scheme and structure.

So this week, an interlude: a look at Steve Gerber's "Omega the Unknown," originally written as an article for the Gerber tribute in "Back Issue" #31. This is the first time the article has appeared online. You'll notice that it's more journalistic and less opinionated then my normal "When Words Collide" columns. But I hope you'll find this historical overview of "Omega" more than a bit enlightening.

Next week, I will return with the rest of my commentary on the Brian Michael Bendis "Daredevil." For now, enjoy this look at Marvel's New York City, circa the late 1970s. Daredevil's stomping grounds, from a different perspective.

OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, THE BEGINNING

In March 1976, as Luke Cage joined forces with the Fantastic Four to defeat the Wrecker and Spider-Man battled, yet again, with the Sandman, a strange character popped up on the Marvel landscape. It was the being soon to be known as "Omega" and while the cover of "Omega the Unknown" #1 may have looked like any other superhero comic, the story inside was anything but typical.

"Omega the Unknown" didn't even seem to be part of the Marvel Universe in that first issue, with its strange, passive narration and its elliptical storytelling. Nary a superhero was to be found, except for the silent, enigmatic being from beyond the stars--a being who seemed to share a psychic link with an Earth boy named James-Michael Starling.

What was the deal with this James-Michael kid, anyway? And who was this costumed alien who didn't speak? What was the connection between them? These mysteries were all established in that first issue of "Omega the Unknown," written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, with illustrations by veteran artist Jim Mooney. And although these questions would be answered over the years, none of them were ever answered by the series creators, who would move on to other things--other companies, other careers--without ever getting a chance to tell the whole story of the strange relationship between the boy and his counterpart from outer space.

At its launch, "Omega the Unknown" was certainly a very different kind of superhero comic book, although such was to be expected from Gerber, who, by 1976, had produced the bulk of his acclaimed (and decidedly off-kilter) Defenders run and had created the inimitable Howard the Duck in an "Adventure into Fear" Man-Thing story.

The multiple exclamation points and dynamic action pose on the cover of "Omega the Unknown" #1 might have fooled some readers into thinking that they were getting something in the mighty Marvel tradition, but even on the first page, Gerber and Skrenes signaled that the story would be a bit different from the norm: "Some unforeseen factor interrupts the orderly flow of events," says the opening caption, "and without warning, a finely-tuned organism erupts in discord, violence." Mooney's accompanying splash page shows a blue-and-red-garbed figure running from explosions against a backdrop of crystalline mountains and a field of stars.

The strangely clinical narration that continued throughout the opening scene hardly matched the dynamic images of destruction provided by Mooney, but the real twist in the first issue occurs on page four, when young James-Michael Starling wakes up screaming from the "agony," according to the caption, that "may span a universe."

But Gerber and Skrenes don't stop there, for as strange as the connection between an Earth boy and a muscle-bound alien might be, the series really takes an unexpected turn two pages later when a collision with an oncoming tractor-trailer reveals that James-Michael's mother and father were, well, robots. James-Michael, thrown from the crash, sees his mother's mechanical head on the ground--a head which warns him of danger: "don't listen to the voices," the robotic head implores, before melting into a pile of smoke and sludge.

Gerber and Skrenes were treading in Philip K. Dick territory here, and the strange paranoia and uncertainty were only enhanced by the appearance of faceless intruders into James-Michael's hospital room and the timely arrival of the blue-and-red costumed being who made not a single sound. The series was called "Omega the UNKNOWN," after all, and the first issue certainly lived up to that title, establishing a string of mysteries that seemed mostly designed to create an unsettling mood. A mood that quietly proclaimed this to be a very different comic book, indeed.

Unfortunately, the series would only last for ten short issues--two of which written by fill-in writers--before its untimely cancellation.

URBAN ANXIETY AND ADOLESCENCE

While it lasted, "Omega the Unknown" may have had some of the surface details of other Marvel comics--guest appearances by the Hulk, fights with villains like Electro or Blockbuster--but it was largely concerned with the perils of the urban environment and the disturbing state of inner-city public schools. The title character barely spoke and had almost no personality of his own; it was really James-Michael Starling's story that took center stage, as the stranger-in-a-strange-city tried to navigate the social and emotional upheavals of mid-'70s New York.

According to a June 14, 2005 blog post at stevegerber.com, although the comic featured a mysterious, muscle-bound alien, much of the reality of the story derived from the personal experience of Gerber and Skrenes, who collaborated equally on their issues. Gerber wrote, "We drew heavily on our own childhoods for aspects of James-Michael’s story and on observation of our neighborhood—Hell’s Kitchen in New York, circa 1975—for the setting of the book."

Hell's Kitchen, the section of Manhattan now known as Clinton (but familiar to Marvel readers as the Daredevil's base of operations during the Frank Miller years and beyond), featured prominently in the Gerber/Skrenes Omega the Unknown issues. In issue #2 (May 1976), appropriately titled "Welcome to Hell's Kitchen," James-Michael, now parentless, moves in with compassionate nurse Ruth and her sassy roommate Amber. On the way to their Hell's Kitchen apartment, James-Michael finds himself exposed to an urban jungle the likes of which he'd never seen or imagined. Amber comments on the "plethora of human misery," and when they reach their building James-Michael bluntly and dispassionately asks, "Am I mistaken--or is that the odor of human excrement?"

Surely such a line of dialogue had never before appeared in a mainstream superhero comic book.

Gerber and Skrenes added other colorful touches to the depiction of Hell's Kitchen: a tap-dancing homeless man, cockroaches, bars on the windows, and egg creams. And as James-Michael learns the ways of the inner city with the irrepressible Amber as his guide, Omega (or the silent alien who will soon be given that name) finds himself learning the ways of this unfamiliar world as well. He stumbles across a robbery and even though his massive form and superhuman powers should be more than a match for any human, Omega ends up being rescued by an old codger with a shotgun. The old codger known as Gramps--a Hell's Kitchen pawn shop proprietor--takes Omega in and becomes for Omega what Ruth and Amber are for James-Michael: shelter and support.

"Omega the Unknown" #2 features the some of the trappings of a normal superhero comic, as Electro pops in to kidnap Omega and the Hulk stirs up a bit of trouble on the streets, but the real emphasis of the issue is the anxiety of the unknown as both James-Michael and Omega find themselves in the strange and unusual land of Hell's Kitchen.

In an interview with Rich Johnston, posted at CBR's own "Lying in the Gutters," Gerber discussed what made Omega the Unknown so different from the other mainstream comics on the stands: "It was an oddity in that it was a few years ahead of its time," said Gerber. "The protagonist of the book, James-Michael Starling, was a kid with a strange super-power." James-Michael's power--the power which linked him to Omega--manifested itself through sudden bursts of energy emanating from his hands. But even though the character had a super-power, he never used it to become some kind of costumed crime-fighter. Instead, he was a strangely detached, intellectual kid with powers he couldn't understand.

"I wanted to do a series about a real kid who was nobody's sidekick," added Gerber, "facing real problems in what today would be called a 'grim 'n gritty' setting." As Gerber pointed out, "Omega predated both the Teen Titans and X-Men explosion and the 'grim 'n gritty' movement by a few years. If it had come later, it probably would have been deemed a little quirky but mainstream."

Although Omega himself would get into a number of super-powered fisticuffs throughout the series, much of those scenes were ancillary to the struggle of James-Michael as he learned that the public schools were just as treacherous--if not more so--than the streets of Hell's Kitchen.

In "Omega the Unknown" #3 (July 1976), James-Michael arrives in a classroom for the first time in his life (he'd been home-schooled by his robo-parents) and gets insulted, bullied, and even accidentally slapped in the face by a teacher. He's quickly befriended by two of the most important secondary characters in the series: the tomboyish Dian and the bookish John Nedly (called "Nerdly" even by some of the teachers). James-Michael's traumatic first day at school ends with him sprawled on the pavement outside--the victim of a bully's sucker-punch.

As much as Gerber, Skrenes, and Mooney emphasized the urban turmoil and the crumbling pubic-school infrastructure, they were bound in their portrayal by the tenets of the Comics Code Authority. As Gerber indicated in a September, 1976 interview with the Marvel-produced fanzine "FOOM," "The problem with a strip like Omega, where the characters are at least pretenses at reality, is that 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 James-Michael attends, because the code won't allow it." In reference to a scene from issue #5 (November 1976), in which "Nerdly" Nedly is practically beaten to death by bullies off-panel, Gerber added, "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 [the readers] see it every day, it's simply not allowed because it's not 'within the bounds of good taste.'"

Perhaps as a result of the Code restrictions, "Omega the Unknown," while still detailing the struggle of James-Michael as he makes his way in a chaotic world, would increasingly focus on traditional superhero moments. Flamboyantly dressed villains would trade punches with Omega more and more each issue and fill-in writers like Scott Edelman in issue #7 (March 1977) and Roger Stern in issue #8 (May 1977) would tell rather conventional superhero stories within the Hell's Kitchen setting. Both issues were practically issue-long fight scenes--the former with Omega vs. Blockbuster, the latter with Omega vs. Nitro--and the James-Michael storyline became merely a subplot.

Gerber and Skrenes returned to the book with "Omega the Unknown" #9 (July 1977) and promptly shifted the emphasis back on James-Michael, although not without including another long fight scene between Omega and Blockbuster. But many of the familiar Gerber/Skrenes elements, like random street violence and explicit social criticism, reappeared. Gerber's Foolkiller character--a self-righteous crusader who first appeared in Man-Thing--even became part of the story with issue #9. This was a new Foolkiller, though, with a secular mission to rid the world of fools, violently if necessary. The issue ends with the Foolkiller incinerating Blockbuster and shouting an enigmatic warning to all: "Live a poem--or die a fool!"

Yet the Foolkiller would never appear in "Omega the Unknown" again.

In his 1976 FOOM interview, Gerber had discussed the plans he and Skrenes had for the series, without giving away many specifics: "It has a definite direction," Gerber said. "It does not have incidents plotted out all the way through issue #100 or anything like that. We know where it is going; we know where James-Michael is going; we know certain things about which characters are going to be introduced into the strip and what part they're going to play. In some ways, it's the most calculated strip I've ever done, and largely that's because of Mary's predisposition toward structure. We know who the teachers are, for instance, that we have introduced into the story. 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." Gerber went on to say, "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. So all that stuff actually is 'plotted' in that sense. The concepts are all there; exactly how they're going to take shape, I don't know."

Readers would never get a chance to find out.

"Omega the Unknown" #10 (Oct. 1977) would not only be the last issue of the series, it would be the last Omega story ever written by Gerber or Skrenes.

Issue #10 feels more compressed than most of the earlier issues, shifting the James-Michael plot back to the fore and seemingly moving toward an answer to the question that had driven the series since the beginning: what is the connection between Omega and James-Michael Starling?

The issue begins with the funeral of John Nedly, who apparently died off-panel from the injuries he sustained from his beating in issue #5. Omega then goes off on a noble but misguided attempt to help Gramps win money in Vegas, while James-Michael and best friend Dian hop on a bus headed to the Starling family home. Snooping around for clues about his origins, James-Michael (with Dian's help) opens a secret door to find two exact replicas of his parents--immobile, deactivated.

The story cuts back to Omega, who is taking advantage of his ill-defined powers to manipulate the games of chance and win big money for Gramps. Another Gerber creation, Ruby Thursday -- villain from "The Defenders" -- steals their cash and flees into the night. Dressed in street clothes with only his omega-shaped headband to signal his identity, Omega pursues her, and apprehends Ruby after her car smashes into a lamppost. Mistaking Omega for a "felon," the police intervene, and Omega is gunned down by the authorities.

Next to Omega's fallen body, the text in the final panel of issue #10 reads, "The story of 'Omega the Unknown' will be concluded in a future issue of 'The Defenders.'"

Presumably, Gerber was planning on wrapping up the James-Michael/Omega saga when he returned to writing "The Defenders," but he never did return. His quarrels with Marvel would escalate and he left Marvel soon after "Omega the Unknown" was cancelled.

Readers were left hanging.

CANCELLATION AND BEYOND

Steven Grant would end up with the task of finishing the Omega story, without any knowledge of how Gerber and Skrenes had plan to tie it all together. Grant explains that Al Milgrom ended up as editor of "The Defenders" after the fallout from Gerber's exit, and Ed Hannigan was assigned as the regular writer. Grant says, "By the time Al got the book, virtually all the mail on it was from people wanting to know when Omega would wrap up in the book, and by the time I got to Marvel, in late '78, Al was sick of it. He wanted Omega out of his life for good. Ed, however, didn't want anything to do with it."

Grant goes on to say, "I'd written a fill-in [issue of 'The Defenders'], featuring a female Yandroth (which ended up being published many years later) and Al asked if I'd finish off the Omega storyline so they could get on with their lives. I was eager for any work, so I said 'yes.' In retrospect it probably wasn't one of my brighter decisions, but nothing I can do about it now."

Grant had no access to Gerber's plans for "Omega the Unknown" and the editors at Marvel didn't care much about how the story was wrapped up--just as long as it was wrapped up. Definitively. "The main direction I had was to get rid of him so no one could bring him back," adds Grant. "Other than that, it was entirely up to me, with Al looking over my shoulder. I wasn't especially well-versed in the character, though I'd read all the issues back in my days of working in distribution so I was at least passingly familiar with it. No one had any idea of what Steve intended. So I mapped out all the dangling plot threads, figured out there were too many to deal with in one issue so I managed to talk Al into giving me two (I would have preferred three, but was lucky I wasn't saddled with one). The big problem with Steve's series--we discussed this sometime later, and it's frequently been a problem with a lot of series since--is that, at least in what was published, it was all questions and no answers."

"So I then mapped out the possible solutions to the series," says Grant. "Since I didn't know what Steve intended, I decided to proceed like Steve in spirit--as completely off the wall as I could manage. The obvious solution, and likeliest, but for me the least interesting, was that James-Michael Starling would grow up to be Omega. That's what a lot of readers thought, and what they expected. So I went with the reverse: Omega would 'grow up' to be James-Michael Starling. Then I had to have a reason for the Defenders to get involved, etc. It was like putting together a puzzle. I had to figure out ways to streamline it, since there was a lot of material, like coming off the ending of the series where Omega had apparently been killed. I just left him dead. I couldn't remember anytime that'd been done, where the hero was supposedly killed in the cliffhanger, and opening up the next chapter it turned out there was no supposedly about it. Say what you will about the story, for me that's a Steve Gerber moment. That's something Steve would have done. The Omega fans were pretty much guaranteed not to like it. I knew a lot of people would be pissed off by the story, but that wasn't my intent, or my concern. I was just trying to get what I considered an interesting story out of it."

Grant's story, which would appear in "The Defenders" #76-77 (Oct.-Nov. 1979), featured art by Herb Trimpe and a story jam-packed with answers to the questions raised by Gerber and Skrenes. Amidst the fighting with Ruby Thursday and the intervention of the Defenders, James-Michael learned of his true origins, with a little help from the telepathic Avenger, Moondragon. Readers discovered that James-Michael was a kind of advanced biological robot, created by the very same faceless beings who had been hunting him down since the first issue of his series. The connection between Omega and James-Michael was this: both of them were created as the salvation of a dying race, with Omega as an earlier, less-developed organism than James-Michael. While James-Michael would grow in the nurturing care of robotic parents on Earth--eventually becoming the heir to the dying culture through a transferal of consciousness into his body--the more rudimentary Omega being would learn the "concepts of morality and nobility" on an alien planet.

It was a convoluted explanation, but an original one, turning the readers' expectations on their heads. In the story, Grant further explains that the reason the faceless creatures -- the robotic creators of both Omega and James-Michael--seemed so intent on destroying both of them was because Omega had become too powerful. The alien race he lived with had granted him the ability to tap into "biospheric energy," an energy which would inadvertently destroy the Earth. Omega's abilities and consciousness were to be transferred to James-Michael, and the faceless pursuers were actually trying to save the Earth by destroying Omega and James-Michael before the lethal biospheric energy was released.

Confronted with that knowledge, and unwilling to destroy Earth, James-Michael turns the biospheric energy inward, imploding in a crackle of light. Grant explains that "both Omega and Starling died by the end of the story because that's what the editor wanted. I didn't especially care one way or the other, I was only interested in the story." Grant adds, "Ed Hannigan didn't think I'd gone far enough; his following issue opens with Omega's corpse being 'buried' in the sun and reduced to atoms. He really didn't want anyone ever mentioning Omega again."

In retrospect, Grant admits that his conclusion to the Omega saga had some problems: "I had no idea what I was doing at the time, so looking back I'd say it's structurally a mess, and I'd probably do it differently today, but I still like many of the ideas there. I dislike it in practice, but not in principle." Grant also says, "I don't think it was an inappropriate ending to the series, it just wasn't the one Steve would have done, whatever that was."

OMEGA REBORN

Although Gerber was unhappy with the resolution that he wasn't around to write, he consoled himself with the fact that nobody else tried to touch the Omega characters after Grant wrapped up the story in "The Defenders."

Until a few years ago, that is.

"Decades went by, Marvel did nothing with the series," wrote Gerber, in the June 14, 2005 blog post on his website, "and both Mary and I allowed ourselves to believe they never would. I was convinced Omega had been forgotten, and that was fine with me." "I should have known that nothing in comics is ever allowed to stay dead," he added. "Gerber Characters who get their brains blown out are routinely resurrected. No series is ever really cancelled anymore; it just lies dormant until some writer or artist successfully pitches a new 'take' to the publisher. Above all, no trademark is ever permitted to slide into oblivion."

Gerber was referring to the 2005 announcement that award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem (writer of "Motherless Brooklyn" and "Fortress of Solitude," among other acclaimed works) would bring back the Omega character in a 10-issue series for Marvel. Gerber complained publicly about Lethem's involvement with the series, going so far as to register the domain name "omegatheunknown.com," a website which still features only a single, animated, line of text: "Omega the Unknown was created in 1975 by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes." Although Gerber never endorsed the series, Lethem's version finally hit the shelves in the fall of 2007, featuring idiosyncratic art by Farel Dalrymple.

Although the first issue featured almost a word-for-word remake of the opening issue of the Gerber/Skrenes/Mooney version, Lethem and Dalrymple's "Omega the Unknown" would ultimately head in a different direction while still exploring some of the same themes and ideas. Lethem explained, in a July 18, 2008 interview with CBR, his take on the Omega concept: “A superhero who really doesn’t know the first thing about our planet is nevertheless forced to perform an important intervention on behalf of a human boy, whose fate is tied up with the fate of the universe. Neither of them is particularly ready for life in New York City, which is too bad for them.”

In an interview with Zack Smith of Newsarama, Lethem discussed the impact of the original "Omega the Unknown": "I thought it was fantastic. Those first issues, when Gerber and Skrenes were really allowed to do what they wanted to do and were building this incredible story full of all sorts of weird implications and possibilities…I simply thought it was the best comic book I’d ever read." But Lethem mourned the fact that the series wasn't appreciated at the time--by Marvel or by readers: "There wasn’t enough of a precedent for what the creators were doing, and no one trusted it, so they never really had a chance to realize the story they’d initiated. But that whisper of it – the first two issues above all, with all the possibilities inherent in what they’d begun, made it hugely meaningful to me." "And though I’m not telling their story, not trying to continue or conclude their Omega in the least," said Lethem, "part of my impulse was to bring a version of Omega to something like fruition."

"I’m treating it as a legendary text is so often treated in the comic-book world, which is to say those tales are told and re-told in new and strange ways precisely because they were so good," said Lethem. "In other words, I assume--perhaps absurdly--but I assume for my purposes that Omega is a canonical text, and therefore that anyone would be excited to see it retold in a strange and different way."

Gerber passed away before seeing Lethem's series conclude--not that he would have read it anyway, after all of his complaints about Omega's resurrection. But as Steven Grant points out, Gerber was never one to hold a grudge: "Steve was easily among the most generous people I've known in comics," says Grant, "and where he had plenty of good reason to despise me for my connections to his Marvel creations, when we did meet in Los Angeles in the mid-80s he instead embraced and welcomed me and we subsequently worked together many times in the years since, and ended up being pretty good friends. Since we both lived in Las Vegas, we got together fairly regularly and I last saw him just before Christmas last year. He was worn out--due to his lung problem he had to carry a portable oxygen tank with him--but very upbeat and optimistic, and had finally been fast-tracked for a lung transplant, as soon as lungs became available. He was looking forward to it, talking new projects. It was pretty inspiring. The next thing I heard, a couple weeks later, he had contracted pneumonia--we had a very bad winter here for that sort of thing and everyone was coming down with bad respiratory infections--and in his badly weakened condition he just couldn't withstand it. It was very sad, coming off the most upbeat I'd ever seen him."

"It's a shame he didn't have more opportunity to give his ideas to the business," Grant adds, "and a shame the business didn't give him more opportunities."

NEXT WEEK: Back to Bendis!

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

TAGS:  when words collide, omega: the unknown, steve gerber

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