Omega the Unknown

It is the tenth birthday/anniversary of The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics, which made its debut on this very day in 2013 over at Pronto Comics. In celebration, I’ll be re-presenting that first post here today—a post on Steve Gerber’s Omega the Unknown—followed by some present-day commentary along with a little perspective from ten years later. Originally published across two parts, I’ll be giving you the whole thing altogether here, with just a few tweaks and edits to go along with some added images, subheads, and fresh links. As the Pronto Comics website appears to be shut down at this point, my plan is to re-publish all of my old posts here eventually.

The Greatest Comic Book Series of All Time?

What was the best comic book ever? Ask ten people and you could get as many answers. Usually, though, the debate boils down to a just a few possibilities: Watchmen. Dark Knight Returns. Maybe Ghost World or Love and Rockets if you’re of a more alt-comix bent. Sandman. Maus.

I’m probably the only guy you’re ever going to meet who would make a case for Omega the Unknown.

At the very least, Omega was a comic that was far ahead of its time. Maddening inscrutability was its hallmark nearly fifteen years before Twin Peaks and almost thirty before Lost. The strip features a twelve-year-old kid with a most uncommon intellect and an even more uncommon personality, to go along with a title character that does not utter a single word until the fourth issue—and even then it’s just a single word (“Why?”). He won’t speak again after that until the seventh issue, where we get a whopping four words out of him (“secret” and “I am sorry”). Not only does the guy not speak, he doesn’t even get thought balloons. Not one; not ever. Intrigued yet?

In addition, the book featured powerful social commentary, as it managed to vividly capture the poverty, violence, and generally desperate atmosphere of 70s New York City of that era, despite the suffocating constraints of the Comics Code Authority (which still had some teeth in those days).

Written by Steve Gerber (the godfather of modern comic-book weirdness) and Mary Skrenes (a newcomer to superhero comics at the time) and penciled by Jim Mooney (a pro’s pro and an excellent illustrator, but one whose style was not exactly what you’d call “flashy”), there was probably not a lot of buzz amongst the general comics-reading public regarding Omega upon its launch. In Marvel’s “Bullpen Bulletins” the month before the first issue’s release, it received a brief mention (along with Black Goliath and Howard the Duck, two other titles set to premiere about the same time) and a small illustration of Omega by John Romita. However, Gerber & Mooney had recently done some good work together on Man-Thing and the “Son of Satan” feature in Marvel Spotlight, so among Gerber aficionados (and there were more than a few back then), there was probably some degree of excitement and anticipation.

Bullpen Bulletins page from Marvel Comics cover dated February 1976.

Unknown and Unforeseen

The first issue begins with a full-page splash of Omega dramatically running against the backdrop of an alien landscape. With one look, the reader knows this is the 1970s, as Omega has that Brady Bunch man-perm that Greg, Peter, and Mr. Brady all shared in the show’s final seasons. He’s also sporting thigh-high boots and a headband. (Be warned: If you’re not old enough to remember when such style was fashionable, you might find it a bit distracting.) The first issue of Omega was cover dated March 1976 and the last October 1977. That’s the heart of the seventies, and the series is very much a product of its time in terms of style.

There is no dialogue for the first three pages of the first issue—only third-person narration in caption boxes that feels just vaguely connected to the action: “Some unforeseen factor interrupts the orderly flow of events and without warning, a finely-tuned organism erupts in discord. Violence.”

Pages two and three continue with this narrative style as we watch Omega battle a bunch of faceless humanoid robots, displaying great strength as well as the ability to emit bursts of energy from his hands as he does so. Eventually, he gets waylaid by one of the robots with a ray gun blast from behind. As he appears to cry out in pain, we cut to the earthly home of James-Michael Starling, who is suddenly sitting up in his bed, also crying out in pain.

James-Michael’s parents enter to see what’s wrong. His mother asks if he can remember the dream that has apparently interrupted his sleep. All James-Michael can recall of the dream is a feeling of “terrible cold” and “desolation.” Almost immediately, the kid steers the conversation toward his not wanting to leave the family home in the mountains to attend school in New York City. It seems he’s lived most of his life in isolation, home-schooled by his parents, and feels no need to alter this arrangement. His father won’t hear it and insists that they will be leaving their mountain home, as planned, the next day.

The recap above doesn’t do these family scenes justice—they really need to be read firsthand to appreciate their peculiarity. The twelve-year-old James-Michael displays the emotional range of Mr. Spock while speaking with the vocabulary of a seventy-year-old, retired English lit professor, and his parents sound like . . . well, we’re about to get to that.

On the family’s fateful car ride the next day, there’s a head-on collision with a truck. James-Michael briefly awakens by the side of the road to see his mother’s disconnected head, with metal and wires dangling from her neck, and hear her/it assure him that he’ll be alright, adding this one simple warning: “Don’t listen to the voices. It’s dangerous to listen.” Then the head melts away into slag and James-Michael passes out once again.

Robot parents. The plot thickens.

After another cutaway to two pages of Omega pulling free of his magnetic bonds, commandeering a small spacecraft, and escaping his violent homeworld, we return to James-Michael on Earth, in a hospital bed, where he has just awoken from a coma after nearly a month. He’s in the Barrow Clinic in New York City and his nurse happens to be Ruth Hart of Man-Thing fame. Despite the trauma he’s been through, James-Michael remains remarkably calm. Or perhaps more accurately, disturbingly calm. Later, Dr. Barrow will remark to Ruth that he’s fascinated by the mystery surrounding this boy—from his abnormal psychological state, to the fact that there was “no trace of flesh and blood in the car crash.” It’s a mystery he’s determined to solve.

Under orders from Dr. Barrow, Ruth tries to get closer to James-Michael in an effort to get him to open up, but fails miserably. Meanwhile, the clinic’s board of directors is putting pressure on Barrow to cut the kid loose since, orphaned as he is now, he’s a charity case they cannot afford. So Barrow makes arrangements for James-Michael to move in with Ruth and her roommate, Amber Grant. Amber visits the clinic to introduce herself to James-Michael right before the move is about to take place.

As a character, Amber is Ruth’s polar opposite. Whereas Ruth is sweet and kind, Amber is willfully (and delightfully) unsentimental, streetwise, and tough. Shortly after meeting James-Michael for the first time, she takes to calling him “punk.” While Ruth couldn’t seem to make any kind of connection with him, James-Michael takes a shine to Amber immediately. A shine that might resemble a crush, though the seemingly emotionless James-Michael would appear unlikely to recognize it as such.

On his last night at the clinic, James-Michael is unable to sleep. He finds himself ruminating on the “rapport” he felt with Amber and looking forward to learning more about her. Suddenly, one of those faceless robots from the beginning of the issue bursts through the window. A beam of light shines out of its (non) face onto James-Michael, taking some kind of reading of the boy. “Unmistakably the correct target,” the robot asserts. “Yet it has altered its proportions. Smaller . . . more compact.”

Just as suddenly, Omega makes the scene. Upon seeing him, the robot shines its beam on Omega, stating matter of factly, “Re-evaluation is called for.” Omega battles the robot as James-Michael watches. At one point, the robot has Omega cornered, gun drawn and about to fire, when James-Michael instinctively raises his hands…and out comes that same burst of fire-like energy we saw Omega use earlier. The robot is struck by the burst and collapses.

Omega looks at James-Michael and smiles, saying nothing. James-Michael tells him that he wanted to help him, that he’s seen him before in his dreams. Omega does not respond. In silence, he picks up the robot and leaves. At this point, Dr. Barrow runs in to find James-Michael on his knees, steam rising from his hands. Upon examination, the doctor discovers what appears to be the Greek letter omega seared onto the palms of both the boy’s hands. To be continued next issue.

So what the @#$! is going on here??

Who’s the Star?

Ostensibly a super hero comic, one quickly discovers otherwise after reading this first issue. We’re given five pages of Omega, nine of James-Michael, and then four pages at the end with both of them together. So who’s the real star of this book: the superhero or the kid?

The answer is the kid. As Gerber explained in the first-issue text page: “It began as the simplest of ideas: a strip whose protagonist would be a twelve-year-old boy. Why? Because there weren’t any such strips extant, for one thing. And for another, I’d always resented the lousy treatment kids had received in comics over the last three decades.”

Early Romita design for Omega.

When Gerber brought his idea to the editorial powers that be, it was rejected, naturally. The rationale being that kids don’t want to read about kids, they want to read about grown-up super heroes (particularly, I suppose, if they were Marvel fans). Most writers would have given up the ghost at this point, but like any true artist, Gerber got creative instead. He turned his idea into a superhero book, but the superhero wouldn’t be the protagonist; the kid would be. Together with editors Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, Gerber took the idea to the Man himself, Stan Lee. After some kibitzing, Lee approved the project and even gave the super hero his name: Omega the Unknown. Gerber and Wein then got together with art director John Romita and put together a costume design for Omega.

At this point, all Gerber really had was a twelve-year-old protagonist named James-Michael—a kid with robot parents and some kind of connection to the titular hero, Omega. After sharing a dinner at McDonald’s with fellow writer Mary Skrenes, all the other details were filled in, with Skrenes joining the project as a co-writer. Jim Mooney then signed on as penciller, having worked with Gerber before and enjoying strong creative chemistry with the writer. (For more on Gerber and Mooney’s Man-Thing collaboration, start with this post. For more on their Son of Satan work together, click here.)

“Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen”

After establishing the premise in the first issue, things really get rolling in issue #2. This is where the other main “character” of the series is introduced: Hell’s Kitchen. As James-Michael enters his new neighborhood for the first time, he finds he has to gingerly step over homeless people, watch Amber and Ruth get propositioned by street lotharios, avoid pan-handlers, and then finally arrive home, only to immediately ask, “Am I mistaken or is that the odor of human excrement?” To which Amber responds, “That’s the most convenient part about living in a jungle, right Ruth? You can go anywhere.”

Then after four flights of rickety stairs, James-Michael enters their very small apartment and finds himself greeted by cockroaches and barred windows.

“Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen.” I don’t know that there’s ever been a more perfect title to a comic book story.

Now would seem an appropriate time to reiterate: This strip is WEIRD. And very, very dark. There has never really been anything else like it in comics. There’s no other comic series that has ever touched—or even attempted to reach for—the same spots of my soul that this one does. But I realize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. For the sake of complete transparency, let me reveal the two aspects of the strip that speak to me on a very deep, personal level.

First, I’m adopted. And I think this fact probably plays a part in the appeal of superhero comics in general for me. A whole lot of superheroes have origins that begin with losing biological parents. Superman loses his in the explosion of Krypton. Batman loses his to street violence. Spider-Man was raised by his Aunt and Uncle and knows hardly anything about his parents. Omega takes it to another level, though, as James-Michael has to face the shock of discovering his parents were not even human. His parents aren’t who he thought they were—they’re not even WHAT he thought they were. His whole existence has been turned upside down; he doesn’t know who or what he is anymore.

Now, I grew up knowing I was adopted, but still, it’s the type of thing you may grasp rationally when you first find out, but it doesn’t really hit you emotionally until a later age. (Or at least this is how it was for me.) When it does hit you, it’s a similar kind of shock. It finally sinks in that hey, there are these other people out there that conceived and birthed me, plus all these other potential blood relatives, none of whom I even know. It’s an entire world that is a complete mystery to me. How am I supposed to begin to know who I am without solving that mystery first? So I found myself identifying very strongly with James-Michael because of this.

The Real “Grim & Gritty”

Secondly, I grew up in the ’70s and early ’80s. I remember what the city was like then—and if you’re too young to remember the city of that era, I don’t know that there’s any way you can fully appreciate it. I remember stepping around those same homeless people, avoiding those same heroin addicts, pretending not to hear those same street toughs who were looking for any excuse to cut me. I remember being a little kid going to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx—the Bronx, where residents set fire to their tenements on a daily basis—and being terrorized by the squeegee guys literally jumping on the hood of our moving car. (Ever drive through the Wild Safari at Six Flags, with the wild tigers jumping on the car? These squeegee guys were way scarier, lemme tell ya.)

Gerber and Skrenes were both living in Hell’s Kitchen at the time they were doing Omega, so they were firsthand experts on the subject. Their success at capturing this environment and bringing it to life on the comics page was astounding. Having strong memories of this place and time, the stories come alive for me in a way that they may not for those who didn’t get to share the experience. Certainly no other comic captures this time and place as well; I’d say the one movie that may have done so is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

The first issue of Omega that I actually bought on the newsstand was #4. I can’t remember why I bought it. The name “Omega” probably struck me as alien and intriguing, and I likely thought the character looked cool. (A cool look was all that was required for my thirty cents in those days.) As it turned out, this particular issue had one of the most powerful sequences in the series’ entire run.

It begins with James-Michael’s new school friend, John Nedly, going to the boy’s room and encountering three school thugs. Earlier in this same issue, there was some ominous foreshadowing of this when Nedly himself told James-Michael that “those guys never fight unless they outnumber their marks by at least three to one.” Another new friend, a girl named Dian, added: “The trick is you never let ’em catch you alone—anywhere! ’Cause if you do, sport, they’re just liable to cripple you for life—an’ that’s no joke.” So just seeing Nedly alone against the three thugs, you know something terrible and ugly is about to happen.

The thugs’ leader, Nick, accuses Nedly of having “snitched” on him regarding an earlier incident in the story. The next two panels have no dialogue, just caption narration. One panel shows Nick brandishing brass knuckles while his two cronies pull out a chain and a tire iron. The next is a close-up of Nedley’s face, scared to death and dripping sweat.

At the time I bought this issue, I was still learning to read. But even before I could read, my parents bought me comics just for the pictures. And I will never forget the effect the visuals of those last two panels had on me—particularly the last one. I can’t remember how much of it I was specifically able to read at the time, but I got the message loud and clear from the pictures. It was terrifying. Possibly the best work of Mooney’s career. When you do add the captions, however, the power of the sequence waxes even greater:

John shakes his head vehemently—his mouth is too dry to permit speech—but his soundless denial makes no impression. No point sticking around to get all bloodied up. Why doesn’t he run, he wonders? Oh yeah—his legs have turned to Jello, all wiggly and wobbly and unresponsive to his brain’s commands. That’s why. Well then let’s see—what’s left? Trembling? He’s already doing that. Pleading? Nope, no voice, remember? He’ll just haveta stand here and take it—and hope he doesn’t cry.

The sequence ends on that panel, the close-up of Nedly. We don’t actually see anything happen to him—but I think that only strengthens the scene, as it invites the reader’s imagination to run wild. I’m not sure Gerber agreed, though. In an interview with FOOM magazine that was published around this same time, he lamented, “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 that James-Michael attends because the code [the Comics Code Authority] won’t allow it; 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 those kids see it every day, it’s simply not allowed because it’s not ‘within the bounds of good taste.’”

In the letters column of Omega #5, the editor (quite probably Gerber, though he speaks of himself in third person) repeated this sentiment in response to a criticism that “James-Michael’s plight is totally superficial and unbelievable”: “Steve and Mary both live in Hell’s Kitchen. They know those kids. And believe us, the only unrealistic element in James-Michael’s school situation is the absence of terror and violence which we cannot portray because the Comics Code won’t allow it.”

With all due respect to the late Mr. Gerber, I think he was wrong on this point. About seven years later, Gerber had the opportunity to write for Marvel’s Epic line of comics, which was free of Code restrictions. This project, Void Indigo, was as violent as any comic I’ve ever seen. It had severed limbs, bifurcated bodies, charred flesh, hollowed-out eye sockets, and blood by the bucket load. There was ritual torture, human sacrifice, you name it. So much violence, in fact, that it becomes numbing at some point. So while Void Indigo shows us a lot more surface violence, I believe the violence in Omega, scaled back as it was, has the greater impact on the reader. A clear example of how less can be more.

No Spoilers

I’m not going to spoil any specifics for the rest of the series, in deference to those who might wish to read it for themselves. But suffice it to say, there’s a lot of Hell’s Kitchen and a lot of cryptic hinting at who (and what) Omega and James-Michael really are. Some of it is right in front of us from the start, like the kid’s name. The compound first name “James-Michael” (never “Jim” or “Jimmy” or even “J.M.”) hints at the character’s dual nature. The surname “Starling” evokes extra-terrestrial origins. Beyond this, we don’t get many solid clues that would point us in any more specific directions.

On the lighter side, there are all of the Superman callbacks with Omega. From the blue costume and red cape, to the rocket escape from his home planet in the first issue, Gerber’s affection for the man of steel is quite evident. In the final issue, we even see Omega in a Clark Kent-like civilian disguise consisting of a three-piece suit, glasses . . . and the Omega-themed headband, still worn loud and proud over his brow, as if this wouldn’t be the least bit noticeable.

Then, when all else fails, there’s always some good ol’ superhero action. Over ten issues, we see Omega square off against classic characters like the Hulk, Electro, and Nitro. And for the remaining Gerber aficionados among us, we get the return of old favorites like Richard Rory, the Foolkiller, and Ruby Thursday.

Naturally, the ten-issue series gets my highest recommendation. The only proviso I’ll offer is that you need to enjoy a healthy dose of ambiguity in your fiction. And you have to like open-ended stories, because this one never does get a proper ending. After the sudden cancellation with the tenth issue, Steven Grant tried as best he could to tie up the loose ends in two issues of Defenders, but it doesn’t really work. Nothing against Grant, but Omega was the unique vision of Gerber and Skrenes, and no one else’s vision could ever be as satisfying.

If you look on eBay (or similar sites), you can probably find the collected edition of Omega the Unknown Classic for fifteen to twenty bucks [NOTE: updated so that this is as of March 2023]. Not bad considering it carried a $29.99 cover price when first released in 2005. Again, it’s not for everybody, but if you’re interested in reading something uniquely different, they don’t come any more different than Omega the Unknown.

Ten Years On

A further update on catching up with this series today: A little less than two months ago, 13th Dimension announced that Omega would be getting the Masterworks treatment, which should be out in the fall of this year, 2023. Anyone out there with $75 to burn, here’s your chance!

So . . . a nice start to a comics-blogging career, if I do say so myself. It’s funny just how short I kept it (the two-part post is less than 4,000 words altogether—not long at all relative to other epic-length posts I’ve since published here), but my reasoning at the time was that I wasn’t sure how well I could keep up with a regular writing assignment, so I figured the safer course would be to break up my article across multiple parts. Also, since I was writing for someone else’s website, I was mindful of being too self indulgent and/or rambling on over points that might not be of great interest to a wider audience. Writing here on my own blog for my own pleasure, I’m less concerned with such things (as regular readers can most assuredly attest.)

Here today in 2023, Omega the Unknown reminds of a recently completed television series called Atlanta. Being a vehicle for (and created by) Donald Glover, most people (including myself) were expecting Atlanta to be a comedy, and while it certainly had comedy in it, the show also had many strange and absurd elements that would lead it closer to the realm of Surrealism—more specifically, Afro-Surrealism.

The strange stuff on Atlanta could get really strange. But the show always worked because beneath the surface craziness, there was always this core of undeniable truth and reality. It made you think, and always made you feel something. And this is where it reminds me of Omega the Unknown, because underneath Omega’s fights with the Hulk and Electro, and underneath James-Michael’s robot parents, there was the brutally-honest reality of Hell’s Kitchen in 1976. Beneath the mystery of James-Michael’s connection to Omega, there was the real-life mystery of nearly every human connection—how and why do any of us manage to connect with anyone else? Is it all accidental? Circumstantial? How do we come to love each other? Is love even real, or is it just a lie we all tell ourselves?

In 1985, R. A. Jones, the regular comics reviewer for Amazing Heroes, wrote an article for AH looking back on Omega the Unknown. As he put it at the time: “It was an experiment in comics fiction which, in financial terms, must be considered a failure. To those who remember it, however, it was a bold attempt to stretch the limits of the genre, a journey to explore the human condition.” (R. A. Jones, “Enigma the First: A Hero History of Omega the Unknown,” Amazing Heroes #80, October 1, 1985, p. 37.)

He would go on to characterize Omega the Unknown as “a noble experiment in graphic fiction” (Ibid., p. 45.), and noted that “Its demise probably came as a big surprise to no one. Many fans, even those who loved the series, had predicted its failure. Over the months, several letters had expressed the fear that the book was too unorthodox, too intellectual, too big a departure from mainstream superhero adventures to ever be successful. Alas, they were proven to be right.” (Ibid., p. 43.)

Jones, my favorite comics reviewer at the time, had articulated what I could not as a still-young teenager. Omega was a special work and I somehow always recognized it as such, even though I couldn’t quite put it into words back then. As a somewhat mature adult, hopefully I I did a fair job articulating my feelings on the series ten years ago, as well as today.

Jones’s article may have been what spurred me on to consider a comic critically, as literature, for the very first time. Almost immediately afterward, Dark Knight and Watchmen would be released, and I would start judging all the comics I read as literature forever afterward, leading me to major in English Literature once I got to college. Whether or not Omega the Unknown is the greatest comic-book series ever, it was definitely something unique and powerful, with artistic aspirations like no other comic series before it (and matched by just a handful of comics since).

4 thoughts on “Omega the Unknown”

  1. As with you, issue 4 was the first issue of OtU I got, same with Howard the Duck too, actually. I turned 14 in June of 1976, and was I already loved Gerber’s writing from Daredevil and the Defenders and the few issues of Fear/Man-Thing I’d gotten. Omega the Unknown certainly struck me as strange, but I still enjoyed it and was disappointed when it was cancelled, but not terribly surprised. By that point, so many other Marvel titles or series had been cancelled. In many ways, OtU was a forerunner of DC’s Vertigo line — something that was still within the regular superhero universe, but still very different and written for a somewhat more mature audience than the pre-teen crowd. In 1976, I went from a junior high school in San Francisco wherein someone I knew (a former neighbor of mine from when our families lived in Navy housing in Long Beach, CA) had been beaten on the head with a lead pipe in shop class; he wasn’t killed but injured seriously enough to require hospitalization and having to wear bandages over the injury for several weeks. Over the summer we moved to a small town south of Fresno called Lemoore (big Navy base — dad was in the Navy from ’57 to ’83). So that very year I went from big city school to a small town school, but then I’d moved around enough by then to have previously experienced that sort of cultural whiplash. James-Michael’s high school experiences, while more extreme than what I ever went through, still struck me as close enough to what I had seen, heard and read about.

    1. The scene with Nedley made such an impression on me that the prospect of leaving grade school for junior high scared the hell out of me. It was so much different then– bullying and violence between kids at school was not just tolerated but, at times, even encouraged (particularly in gym).

      1. Yep, in OtU and other series Gerber wrote, he was dealing with violence and its consequences in a far more serious way than any previous mainstream comics writer that I’m aware of had done, at least as much as the CCA would allow. Even if the art couldn’t couldn’t show the blood, bruises and broken bodies, Gerber’s writing made clear of the horror committed. A previous example that stuck with me was in his Black Spectre story in Daredevil, wherein one scene shows the Mandrill’s soldiers knocking down a massive antenna from atop a skyscraper — the art doesn’t show the antenna landing but Gerber’s caption describes DD hearing the carnage below as the antenna crushes a crowd of people far below — screams, bones breaking, heartbeats stopping permanently.
        One of the first times I’m aware of any superhero comics writer making explicit the death of multiple people from a purposeful act of terrorism. Before, maybe due to the CCA, it was always made clear or left to assume that a damaged building was vacant or the damage resulted in a heroic death such as Captain Stacy pushing a child out of the way of falling debris from a fight between Spider-Man & Dr. Octopus, and the destruction was entirely an unintended consequence of Spider-Man’s effort to curtail Doc Ock’s control of his mechanical arms, causing them to flail wildly and smash into part of the building. In Gerber’s story there was no heroic sacrifice — just a tragedy brought about by a crime the hero couldn’t prevent and could only move on to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. In Omega the Unknown, the superhero was entirely unaware of Ned’s tragic death. No one in authority seemed willing or able to take action to properly deal with it, opening the door to vigilantism by another classmate, incensed by the event. The adults allegedly in charge could not maintain or restore order and did not appear to even care about what was going on. More chilling than any horror comic.

        1. A perfect example of how less can be more. Great job by Gerber, and also Mooney—Nedley’s expression in that last panel was wonderfully done.

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