The following piece is a contribution to Plok's "Seven Soldiers of Steve" project in honor of comics writer Steve Gerber. I've written a more personal tribute to Steve here, and I'm always on board for any effort to give this guy the props he deserves. Enjoy!
This is how it ends:
The alien visitor we know only as Omega -- the alleged title character of OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, though that isn't his name, he's never called that by anyone else, and he's not the lead character of the series -- has travelled to Las Vegas on an urgent mission. His goal on Earth now requires large sums of money, which he's getting in the casinos with the help of his sole human friend, an elderly Hell's Kitchen pawnbroker named Gramps. But their takings are stolen, and Omega goes after the culprit. Uncharacteristically emotional and agitated, Omega threatens the culprit, demanding the return of the stolen money...and three Las Vegas policemen, mistaking him for the felon, shoot at point blank range. Omega drops to the ground, and our last image is of the fallen alien apparently lifeless on the Strip.
Whatever Marvel Comics may have told you, that was the last we ever saw of Omega...and whatever Marvel may tell you now, that's very likely the last we'll ever see of Omega. His body is still lying there, eternally bleeding to death but never dying, like Prometheus chained to the Las Vegas Strip.
Superhero stories are often described as adolescent power fantasies: an extended metaphor for the juvenile ego discovering its own power, lashing out against the mysterious forces of the world, and the growing realization that no one else will ever truly understand your true hidden self -- the ultimate "secret identity" we all possess. If that's so, what writers Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes did in OMEGA THE UNKNOWN was decouple the superhero metaphor from the adolescent reality it represents, separating the real boy and the costumed hero to give new meaning to both.
In a text piece in the first issue, Gerber says "I'd always resented the lousy treatment kids had received in comics over the past three decades: either they had to be magically transformed into a full-grown man to be effectual, or they were saddled with an adult "mentor" and relegated to the duty of making bad puns during fight scenes. I wanted to do a real twelve-year-old, a human being poised on the edge of puberty, facing all the enormous (and enourmous-seeming) problems adolescence would bring..." But, he realized, to make this work the protagonist could not be wearing a super-hero leotard. Spider-Man may have been revolutionary at one time as the teenaged superhero with "real problems" but the limits of that approach had been reached long ago. And yet, a costumed hero was necessary for the commercial considerations of Marvel Comics circa 1975. This new book needed both a protagonist and a hero. One would be life sized, and one larger. Working with his friend and ally Mary Skrenes -- who had previously written mystery, horror, romance, and funny animal comics under a variety of pseudonyms -- Gerber fleshed out his vision of this new series.
The artist would be a favorite collaborator, the legendary Jim Mooney, a childhood favorite of Gerber's for his work on the TOMMY TOMORROW series twenty years earlier. (Among hundreds of other credits, Mooney also drew DIAL H FOR HERO, one of those comics about a child magically transformed to an adult...and SUPERGIRL, a well-known juvenile offshoot of a more capable adult mentor.)
The first issue of OMEGA started in sound superhero fashion with a blue clad, red-caped heroic type fleeing the conquest of his native world by robot armies. The mysterious figure's story is intercut with a parallel story on Earth, in which an aloof, intellectual boy raised and home schooled in rural isolation discovers that his "parents" are actually robots. Their unexpected destruction in a car crash leaves young James-Michael Starling adrift in the harsh neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen in New York City...very much the polar opposite of his previous cultured and disciplined upbringing. When the mysterious alien arrives on Earth, he becomes James-Michael's covert protector, but always staying at a distance. There's some bond between the two, but what is it? Is "Omega" the boy's father? Is James-Michael another refugee of the same race? Were his android "parents" connected to the robots who sacked the alien world?
We may never know. OMEGA was cancelled after ten issues, just as the narrative was reaching a major turning point. After several harrowing encounters with school violence, James-Michael flees Hell's Kitchen and returns to his secluded former home...where he discovers further robot duplicates of his deceased "parents." There was a sense something major was about to be revealed, if only the book had lasted one more issue...
Marvel just published a reprint collection of the original ten issues of OMEGA, along with a couple of unwelcome extras (more about these in a moment), so there's no need for me to recap the course of the series. If you're interested you can read them for yourself, and I cannot recommend the series too highly. It combines all the pomp and cosmic significance for which Marvel was known in the mid-Seventies with an intimate potrayal of real people and motivations as sophisticated as anything ever published in mainstream comics. It includes the eponymous super-powered character with blue tights and a red cape and plenty of bad-guy-crushing action -- both the Hulk and Marvel villain Electro appear in the second issue, to reassure fans that standard Marvel action is never far off -- but the real story is about the soul-crushing burden of adolescence on a sensitive introspective mind.
The problem is that Marvel won't leave the corpse alone.
On the final page of the last issue, a note from "Steve, Mary, and Jim" promises that the story of Omega will be concluded in a future issue of THE DEFENDERS. But when this finally came about, Gerber had split from Marvel acrimoniously, and the two-issue "conclusion" was written with what can only be called hostile intent. That hatchet job is reprinted in the collection alongside the real OMEGA stories: I won't bother to describe it here. Gerber assures his fans that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to his intentions for the characters.
The rift between Gerber and Marvel was healed to some extent in later years. Gerber returned to write titles such as SHE-HULK, FOOLKILLER, and a revival of HOWARD THE DUCK -- all excellent -- and new management at the House of Ideas seemed much more sympathetic. But the new spirit of goodwill was undone by Marvel's announcement that novelist Jonathan Lethem would be "reviving" OMEGA THE UNKNOWN against the express wishes of his creators. Gerber and Skrenes' immediate response can be seen here. The controversy has been covered at length elsewhere. I'm just going to say I feel Lethem has acted in bad faith, showing no regard for the wishes of fellow writers, and exploiting someone else's work in a way he would fight with every means available were it done to him.
But this essay isn't about controversy, it's about a great issue of a great comic. The last issue of OMEGA is a perfect little microcosm of many things that make Gerber and Skrenes' writing so worthwhile.
The story opens with the funeral of John Hadley, one of James-Michael's only school friends, who had been critically injured in a beating at the hands of bullies in a previous issue. Not intending to die like John, James-Michael announces his decision to leave the city to his other friend Dian, who in turn asks if she can come along. But the mysterious Omega has also been watching the funeral from a distance, the same remove from which he always observes his young charge...and, in the way that his decisions always seem to parallel or complement those of James-Michael, he also decides that a change of locale is in order: he collects his elderly friend Gramps for a sudden trip to Las Vegas.
In Vegas, the increasingly and uncharacteristically talkative Omega teaches Gramps a Zenlike method for becoming attuned to a slot machine, producing an immediate jackpot. Soon both men will be wealthy, and Omega will use the money for his secret purpose: to rescue James-Michael from Hell's Kitchen. He doesn't realize the boy has already made his departure...
Omega makes a brief trip to the desert to recuperate (from the effort of talking so much, we're told) where in a hallucinatory interlude he's attacked for no apparent reason by a oddly malleable rose-hued demon. When Omega tries to punch said demon in the chest, his fist stretches through the monster's body as if the creature were made of rubber; I mention this because it will be important later. The resulting gratuitous fight scene demonstrates Gerber's flair for the narrative double-entendre style he perfected long before Alan Moore came along and won accolades for doing essentially the same thing.
This apparently throwaway and meaningless scene is quintessential Steve Gerber in another way. Most scenes of violence in his Marvel work are couched in futility and outright absurdity. While other comics writers were trying to give increasingly "logical" and "realistic" justification to their action scenes, Gerber seems to have decided early on that this stuff couldn't be taken seriously and there was no reason to try. Building a more verbose action comic isn't his interest: the relationships of his characters are where the real action can be found. Bring the monster on and have him fight the hero for a couple of pages for no purpose and then disappear, and we can get on with the good stuff. Like Gramps, the kindly World War I veteran who has taken Omega under his wing, all excited by the adventure of a gambling spree in Las Vegas. Or James-Michael, a prepubescent boy raised by a pair of robots and frequently sounding like one himself, allowing a girl into his private world and thereby demonstrating how socialized he's become thru his recent experiences. These are human beings experiencing human moments, and no rubbery monster fighting a guy in tights can mean as much as that.
When James-Michael runs away, his adult caretakers back in New York -- the overly empathetic Ruth and the jaded bohemian survivor Amber -- differ sharply in their responses. Ruth is naturally worried for his safety, but Amber says "Close the floodgates and put on a pot of coffee, willya? It's no tragedy. He made a move on his own, that's all -- without consulting us grown ups. I'm telling ya -- he'll be in touch. The punk's nothing if not responsible!" From the first issue, Amber has been in the role of the cool, clued-in adult who alone treats James-Michael with respect as an equal, conferring on him the dignity of honorary adulthood: an intellectual teenager's dream of the ideal aunt or older sister. But here Amber becomes Gerber's mouthpiece, overtly stating one of his recurring themes: that children live in a world of constant peril and horror no matter what adults may do to shield them, they are far more capable than they're given credit for being, and they deserve both respect and trust -- in fact, they need these things in order to become adults.
The underlying message of the best children's fantasy is "young hero undergoes a terrible ordeal of initiation to achieve symbolic maturity" and this iteration of the heroic myth serves as a metaphor to explain the growth process to young readers who are going through a similar ordeal in more prosaic terms. What makes OMEGA especially potent is that, for all the series is couched in fantasy terms -- an alien costumed hero, strange psychic powers, robotic surrogate parents, the super-villains of the Marvel Universe -- James-Michael's trials are not of the metaphorical fantasy type. His quest isn't for a magic ring or to end the rule of winter over a fairyland: it's to cope with the sudden loss of his parents and to survive the brutality of bullies and life in a dangerous and crime-ridden urban neighborhood. Childhood is a time of real danger and outright melodrama, and the too-sensitive and too-intelligent child faces constant threat to his or her identity. When these comics were published I was the same age as James-Michael Starling, and I immediately felt that his story was a potent metaphor for my own life by not being metaphorical at all.
And then there's the thief...
There are many good reasons a writer might reuse a character from an earlier work: in response to audience demand, a shortcut to save having to build a new character from scratch, personal fondness, or the chance to show the character in a different light. But in continuity-minded comics, it creates an illusion of depth to the imaginary world that assists the suspension of disbelief. Our memory of accepting the previous story bootstraps our acceptance of the new one. This principle is the basis of the whole Seven Soldiers of Steve project, of course: the idea that Gerber reused particular characters in different series as a way of creating a "Gerber continuity" within all his Marvel comics, a subset of the Marvel Universe itself.
(A typical example of Marvel continuity of the period appears in OMEGA issue #2, when a guest appearance by the Incredible Hulk includes dialogue and an editorial note specifying that these events take place immediately after the events of DEFENDERS #35 -- now on sale! -- even though placing this appearance chronologically in the Hulk's life doesn't really have any impact on the story. Although continuity is now treasured for its own sake by generations of fans, remember that it was born as a sales-enhancement device; a way to remind the reader of OMEGA there are other Marvel titles he or she might want to buy as well. Just as the cover and story appearance of the Hulk in that issue of OMEGA is a way to entice Hulk fans to pick up yet another Marvel book they might otherwise pass by. All of this is obvious, but in an era when continuity is being held up as an end in itself, it's good to remember that historically the main purpose of comic books has been to sell more comic books. But I digress...)
If a writer brings back an old character and doesn't identify him or her as such -- the nature of the medium requires you to assume that only a small portion of the readers will have read the previous appearance; any comic book might be some reader's first -- spotting the callback to the past becomes a sort of Easter Egg for the attentive reader. And what we have here might be such a case.
At the climax of the issue, Omega and Gramps have their winnings stolen from their hotel room by a female thief who produces tentacles from her forehead, choking both men into unconsciousness, and later using the same appendages to make her escape. The culprit introduces herself by saying "Little Ruby gets paid for using her head." She turns out to be the boss of the malleable rose-colored demon seen earlier, addressing him as "Dibbuk."
So we have a larcenous woman named Ruby with a malleable head, who commands a malleable servant. Could this be Ruby Thursday, a villain from Gerber's run on THE DEFENDERS, who replaced her own head with a perfect sphere of rose-colored "malleable organic circuitry" that could be reshaped to her will? Could "Dibbuk" -- the Hebrew word for "demon" -- be a synthetic creature extruded from that same flexible stuff? When last seen, Ruby had been foiled by the Defenders along with her colleagues the Headmen, but we never saw what happened to her afterward. Had Gerber and Skrenes actually concluded the Omega story in DEFENDERS, it's entirely possible Ruby could have provided the bridge between the two series, clearing the way for Doctor Strange, Valkyrie, Nighthawk et al to become involved in the final resolution of James-Michael Starling's mystery.
But that isn't what happened. Ruby's identity remains unconfirmed, as do the answers to pretty much every question raised by OMEGA THE UNKNOWN. To this day, thirty years later, Gerber and Skrenes leave open the possibility they may yet complete their story as it was originally intended, and for that reason will never disclose any of its secrets. So James-Michael and Dian are still staring in amazement at the robot duplicates of his parents, and Omega himself still lies on the Vegas Strip...and possibly always will.
The same cannot be said for Gerber and Skrenes...well, except that it can, in that both are still in Las Vegas. But the writing team has reunited for the DC series HARD TIME. (For nebulous contractual reasons only Gerber was given a writing credit on the first volume; the second volume gives Skrenes her due as co-author.) Even without a superhero character, HARD TIME -- the story of a juvenile offender sentenced to prison as an adult, following a Columbine-like shooting -- has many, many similarities to OMEGA in theme, story elements, and character types. The primary difference is that the American comics scene has changed enough to allow a series without a superhero character -- although there is a fantasy element, and the protagonist has strange psychic powers -- and to permit the use of language and "adult" situations not possible at Marvel in the Seventies. Any fan of one would have to be an equal fan of the other. For this fan in particular, nothing could be better than seeing that after three decades these two writers have lost none of their creative fire or storytelling ability, and their empathy for their characters is every bit as strong. The story is not the plot; the story is how people relate to each other.
Buy the OMEGA collection if you like; it's definitely worth reading. But make sure you buy HARD TIME, so that Gerber and Skrenes have a chance to complete the story this time.