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cic200834-01.jpgMonths before comics writer Steve Gerber passed away, I had already been planning to write about him in “Comics in Context” this year. My subject was going to be the original Omega the Unknown comic book series, which Gerber and his collaborator Mary Skrenes jointly conceived and wrote for Marvel over three decades ago.

I first read Omega when it was originally published in 1976, but I didn’t particularly like or understand what Gerber and Skrenes were getting at. Still, I was a devoted follower of Gerber’s work and kept reading the series till its abrupt end with only its tenth issue. A few years later in 1979, after Gerber had left Marvel, writer Steven Grant devised an ending for Omega in the pages of The Defenders, whereupon the character sank into nearly total obscurity, remembered only in an entry in the 1980s version of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe’s “Book of the Dead.” (Rereading that entry, I realized that I probably wrote it: the style seems like my own.)

Probably Omega would have remained forgotten had it not been for the highly acclaimed mainstream novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose past work, including a 2003 book titled The Fortress of Solitude, after Superman’s arctic headquarters, demonstrates his knowledge and love of superhero comics. Fortress also mentions Omega, whose series Lethem read as a boy, and when Marvel invited Lethem to write for the company, he chose to revive Omega. The project was announced in 2005, although the new series did not appear until late 2007. Marvel’s editor in chief explained that “winning the MacArthur Grant”–known as the “genius” grant–“put additional and unexpected demands on [Lethem's] time”. Here’s yet another way the world of comics has changed in the 21st century: how often has winning a “genius” grant served as an excuse for a writer delaying a comics project?

But the fact that Lethem would be doing a high profile revival of the character provided sufficient impetus for Marvel to reprint the entire original series, and even the Defenders wrap-up and my Handbook entry, in a full color trade paperback titled Omega the Unknown Classic in 2005. Had it not been for Lethem’s interest, Marvel would not have awarded “Classic” status to Gerber and Skrenes’ original Omega stories. They would surely have remained neglected rarities in back issue bins, just as I expect that Marvel finally got around to reprinting Jack Kirby’s Eternals after three decades because Neil Gaiman was going to revive them.

Moreover, I notice that Gerber and Skrenes’ names don’t appear on the front cover or spine of the paperback. I presume Marvel’s rationale is that if it listed Gerber and Skrenes and Mooney, they’d have to list Scott Edelman and Roger Stern, who each wrote a fill-in issue, and Grant for the Defenders issues, and every artist who worked on any of these stories. I see the point, but Gerber, Skrenes and Mooney created the series and did the majority of work on the stories in this book. When Marvel has been trumpeting its association with mainstream novelists like Lethem and Stephen King, it seems unfortunate to me that the “Classic” Omega paperback’s front cover and spine treat the series creators as if they were anonymous.

I had decided to wait until Lethem’s ten-issue series ended later this year, and then write a “Comics in Context” installment comparing and contrasting Lethem’s series with Gerber and Skrenes’. But since Gerber died a few weeks ago, it makes more sense for me to write about the original Omega now, thereby concluding my trilogy about his groundbreaking comics work in the 1970s.

Rereading the original Omega after so many years was eye-opening: I had grossly underrated the series, and I can understand why Lethem found it so intriguing.

Perhaps what made Omega most challenging to the comics audience of the mid-1970s was that it depended upon mysteries that Gerber and Skrenes were in no hurry to resolve, and that, indeed, were left unsolved when the series met its untimely end.

The central enigma was the nature of the connection between Omega’s two protagonists: the mysterious title character, an alien humanoid who rarely spoke and became a superhero on Earth, and a strange, precocious yet emotionally distant 12-year-old American boy, James-Michael Starling (named after comics writer/artist Jim Starlin). Gerber and Skrenes continually offered tantalizing hints and suggestions in their scripts but never an explanation.

Perhaps Gerber and Skrenes were attempting to draw their readers more fully into the stories and the characters through Omega’s riddles, inducing the members of the audience to devise their own, personal readings of Omega’s mysteries and metaphors. For years comics readers and even many comics pros have insisted on exposing secrets, even when the mystery is far more dramatically resonant than the rather prosaic eventual solution (as in Wolverine: Origin). Perhaps television series such as Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Lost have now made the popular culture more appreciative of works that draw dramatic and thematic power from their ongoing conceptual puzzles. This is one of the ways in which Gerber and Skrenes were ahead of their time in Omega. (On the other hand, Omega followed the television series The Prisoner, whose meaning continues to be debated four decades later.)

For the sake of argument, I’m going to ignore the Defenders’ explanation of the Omega mysteries, which Gerber and Lethem both reportedly disliked. I prefer to speculate about other, more rewarding possible solutions, for which Gerber and Skrenes laid the groundwork.

The opening pages of the first issue (March 1976) show the costumed figure of Omega, on a clearly alien world, running towards the unseen source of destructive ray blasts. On the next page we will discover that Omega’s assailants are robots. Captions have fallen out of favor in today’s comics industry, but in Omega Gerber and Skrenes demonstrate one of the ways they can be used effectively. Omega’s omniscient narrator provides a running commentary offering an interpretation of the characters and events we witness, thereby provoking us to raise further questions about them. The first caption tells us, “Some unforeseen factor interrupts the orderly flow of events, and without warning, a finely-tuned organism erupts in discord, violence.” In other words, Omega existed in a state of peace and order, which was suddenly disrupted by something–the robots’ attack–beyond his control. Not only do his enemies indulge in violence, but Omega must also turn violent in order to stop them. Although violence is a familiar, perhaps essential element of the superhero genre, Gerber and Skrenes nonetheless continually question the use of violence in their Omega series. In this opening scene, Omega may need to employ violence to defend himself, but the “finely tuned” is nonetheless thrown into “discord” by using it.

But why refer to Omega as an “organism,” rather than as a person? Gerber and Skrenes are distancing their narrator–and us–from both Omega and the action, encouraging us to adopt an analytic perspective–not unlike that of Omega and James-Michael, as we shall soon see.

Atop page two, as Omega hurtles at the robots, as the caption tells us, “The mind searches furiously for a key to it all: what is it? What went wrong? Why? How?” As noted, Gerber and Skrenes deny the readers such keys to the series, forcing them to hypothesize their own.

The narrator continues, “The body, meanwhile, does what it must, to survive!” as we see Omega smashing some of the robots with his superhuman strength. Notice that the narrator describes Omega’s body as if it operates independently of his mind.

That mind is portrayed as questioning and analyzing, while the body is driven by the primal need to survive, which animals share. That is an emotion, and, as we shall see, both Omega and James-Michael have analytical minds that usually seem disconnected from their capacities for emotion. One of Gerber’s recurring themes is that of the human being who distances himself or herself from certain emotions. Remember that in Gerber’s Man-Thing classic “Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man” (see “Comics in Context” #214: “The Essential Steve Gerber”), protagonist Brian Lazarus, despite the terrors that overwhelmed him, believed that he was becoming like a “computer,” unable to connect emotionally with others. The story’s female lead, Sybil Mills, made a habit of suppressing her own capacity for empathy and love. Are the attacking robots, with their inhumanly analytical, emotionless minds meant as metaphorical mirror images of Omega?

Next the narrator describes this black-haired, super-strong costumed alien as “this last of his superior breed.” Did Gerber intend Omega to be a variation on Superman, just as his earlier character Wundarr, from Adventure into Fear #17 (October 1973), more explicitly had been? Omega too will escape to Earth in a spacecraft, although as an adult, and live on his adopted planet as the sole survivor of his race.

Puzzlingly, the narrator then informs us that the “chaos” surrounding Omega is the result of “the pain and the passion and the fire” (all terms indicating emotions) “to which he alone remains heir.” Do Gerber and Skrenes mean that Omega somehow induced the robots to attempt to destroy him? Or did they intend the robots to be externalized representations of the capacity for violence within Omega himself?

As Omega shoots energy blasts from his hands, the narrator continues, “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.” Gerber and Skrenes seem to be saying that Omega only has a limited ability to discipline and even suppress his capacity for violence, which will inevitably “burst forth,” overwhelming his rational control.

What do Gerber and Skrenes mean by referring to Omega’s energy as “the creative force”? I confess I feel perplexed by this. Does Omega somehow represent the creative artist, whose abilities can either be used constructively or twisted to negative ends?

Omega realizes that there is a solution. He falls to his knees, rendering himself vulnerable to attack, as the omniscient narrator, apparently describing Omega’s thoughts, informs us that “An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow.” In the next panel a robot blasts Omega with its ray gun. The narrator, unperturbed, goes on: “The element of change, which loomed so terrifying”–like a robot assassin, or death itself?–“was in fact the only hope of salvation.” So as the robot launches a attack on the hero, the narrator invokes a term that could refer to Omega’s fate in the hereafter. “To resist, to dam the flow, to go rigid”–as in repressing emotion?–“was to abandon all hope,” a phrase associated with Dante’s gateway to hell. This sequence closes with a close-up of Omega screaming in pain, as the narrator tells us that Omega must “wait for the ordeal to be over.”

What sort of “growth” and “change” is it that entails an “ordeal” that seems to entail submitting to possible death? Of course, the Joseph Campbell “hero’s journey” involves symbolic–or even real–deaths and resurrections. In submitting to the robot’s attack, Omega may be crossing a Campbellian threshold from his old life through actual or metaphorical death into a new sort of existence.

This sequence also reminds me of the climax of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a decade and a half later (and if you haven’t read it, skip the rest of this paragraph). Responsible for the death of his son, and incapable of change (in conventional terms, anyway), Morpheus allows himself to be slain in punishment. A new embodiment of Dream, a young boy, takes his place. Gaiman depicts the new Dream ambiguously: the new Dream is simultaneously Daniel, a human boy who has been elevated to this supernatural status, and is the old Dream reborn under what is termed another “aspect.” What coincidental relevance might this have to Omega?

Gerber, Skrenes and Mooney segue from the close-up of Omega screaming to the panel that introduces James-Michael Starling, in the exact same pose, wearing the exact same facial expression, “shouting,” as the narrator tells us that “the agony,” meaning Omega’s, “may span a universe.” James-Michael awakes, but cannot remember his dream apart from the “feeling” of “cold and “desolation.” But the implication is that through that dream James-Michael saw and perhaps somehow experienced what just happened to Omega. The series will explicitly confirm that James-Michael sees Omega in his dreams. So, at the very least, there is a psychic bond linking them.

But is there more than that? If James-Michael sees Omega in his dreams, is it possible that James-Michael somehow “dreamed” Omega into existence? Were Gerber and Skrenes commenting on the way that young boys imagine themselves to be the superheroes they read about in comics? Is Omega a projection of James-Michael’s fantasies of the ideal hero?

Certainly there are similarities between Omega and James-Michael. Omega is the last of his kind, and therefore has presumably been leading a solitary existence. James-Michael has been living in a home in the mountains with his parents, who have home schooled him. He says he has met other children, but they “bored” him. Hence, apart from his parents, James-Michael has likewise led a solitary life.

But now James-Michael’s parents are leaving the mountains and moving to New York, and they insist that he attend school there. His father tells him, “You must begin to interact with other children. . .meet other kinds of people. . . .” (With his black hair and glasses, James-Michael’s father looks something like Omega disguised as Clark Kent.) Later his mother asks him, “But the prospect of facing the unknown–learning, growing–don’t you find that exciting?” There’s that notion of growing, again. Omega and James-Michael each resists the idea of changing until outside factors abruptly alter his peaceful status quo.

James-Michael is precociously intelligent, and speaks in a formal, adult manner. As we shall see, like Omega he has an analytical intellect that is divorced from his capacity for emotion. In nearly her last words, James-Michael’s mother tells him, “The intellectual needn’t exist in scholarly isolation.” James-Michael may be only a boy, but Gerber and Skrenes seem to be signaling that he also represents the cerebral adult who cuts himself off from social interaction or experiences beyond his own, safe ivory tower. Remember that Brian Lazarus was a writer who lived alone.

James-Michael’s mother advises him, “Open up, James Michael. Your life is just beginning.” Gerber and Skrenes put that entire last sentence in bold lettering. I wonder if they might have intended it to be not just figuratively but literally true. There is no proof in the comics that James-Michael existed before that moment he woke up screaming like Omega. James-Michael may recall leading his life before that, but how can we be certain that those memories are real?

The narrator told us that the serene state in which Omega lived changed abruptly due to “some unforeseen factor.” You could describe what next happens to James-Michael the same way. A truck collides with the Starling family’s car. James-Michael revives to see the severed head of his mother, who turns out to be a robot. She warns him not to listen to “the voices,” and then her head melts into metal sludge before his eyes. The deaths of parental figures play a role in many superhero origin stories, but this is one of the weirdest and most horrifying.

Presumably James-Michael’s “father” was also a robot who met a similar fate, though, perhaps significantly, Gerber and Skrenes never show us the father’s remains. Is it possible that he was not a robot and survived? Is it possible that the mother who was in the car was human and survived, and left a robot duplicate of her head with her unconscious son. But why would they abandon James-Michael like this? And if James-Michael’s “parents” really were both robots, who were his real parents? Or didn’t he have any parents?

The newly orphaned James-Michael is understandably unable to cope mentally with the horror, and hs “body succumbs to its state of shock”; again, Gerber points to a disconnect between a character’s mind/logic and his body/emotions. “One reality recedes, another takes its place, equally grim, equally horrifying,” the narrator states, as the scene shifts from James-Michael to Omega. Is the narration implying that James-Michael and Omega share the same consciousness, which has just shifted from James-Michael’s world to Omega’s? (Think of Desmond in the February 28, 2008 episode of Lost, “The Constant,” in which his consciousness shifts between two different locations in time and space.)

James-Michael saw flames rise from the scene of his automobile accident. On Omega’s world “Here, too, columns of flame shoot skyward.” Throughout the original series, Omega and James-Michael’s lives repeatedly parallel each other in various ways. Forced to leave his homeworld, Omega has figuratively become an orphan like James-Michael. Both have unwillingly embarked on journeys to a strange new place, which, in both cases, turns out to be New York City.

The story again segues from a close-up of Omega to a close-up of James-Michael, as he awakens in he Barrow Clinic in New York City. Here he is attended by a nurse, Ruth Hart, whom attentive Marvel readers of the 1970s would recognize as the girlfriend of Gerber’s fictional surrogate, Richard Rory from Man-Thing. Although James-Michael was “thrashing” in his sleep, once he wakes up he is abnormally “calm” and “analytical.” Moreover, whereas a normal boy would be anguished over losing his parents, James-Michael seems to be almost indifferent to their deaths. He is capable of feeling emotion, as his dreams demonstrate, but in his waking life he seems cut off from his own feelings.

The solitary James-Michael also refuses to talk to Ruth, who confesses to clinic head Dr. Barrow that she has difficulty “relating” to people. Nonetheless, since Dr. Barrow is unable to keep James-Michael in the clinic as a charity case, Ruth agrees to let him live at the apartment she shares with her roommate Amber Grant.

Amber is a wonderful character: feisty, funny, liberated and sexy, she immediately hits it off with James-Michael and becomes his mentor in the ways of the world. (Is it a coincidence that Amber is originally depicted with the same color hair as James-Michael’s mother?) She’s such a good character that it’s surprising that, as far as I know, Marvel has not used her since the original Omega storyline, even though her job as a freelance photographer for The Daily Bugle could easily lead to appearances in Spider-Man and other series. In these dark and dismal times for the superhero genre, though, it may be a blessing in disguise for a character to remain safely in obscurity, lest one of today’s writers subject her to fates like rape, mutilation, madness, and murder.

When Amber first meets James-Michael, he is playing chess with himself. “I can’t play chess alone anymore,” Amber tells him. “I keep anticipating the other me’s next move before I turn the board around.”

James-Michael responds, “It’s easier. . .when you feel like two people all the time, anyway.” Aha. The divided self is one of the great themes of the superhero genre, with such famous examples as Clark Kent and Superman or Bruce Banner and the Hulk. You don’t have to have a literal secret identity to relate to the idea that there are different sides to your personality, as Amber indicates.

When James-Michael talks about feeling “like two people,” Amber replies, “Yeah, I can dig that. The voices get pretty loud sometimes, don’t they?” James-Michael becomes excited that she too hears the “voices.” James-Michael may indeed be “hearing” voices in his mind, as the story has previously indicated, whereas Amber is speaking figuratively. Presumably she is referring to the subconscious mind. Again Gerber and Skrenes are pointing out that the fact that certain characters in the superhuman genre literally have multiple selves is a metaphor for the multiple aspects of any person’s psyche.

So James-Michael and Amber have something in common, and they quickly bond. Not only that, but meeting Amber has aroused another sensation in the 12-year old James-Michael, on the verge of puberty: “Who is she?. . .Why does he feel. . .ever so slightly. . .aglow?”

His reverie is interrupted when one of the robots from his dreams invades his bedroom. In the manner of comic book robots, it talks aloud to itself: “Unmistakably the correct target. Yet it has altered its proportions. Smaller. . .more compact. . . .”

This is close as Gerber and Skrenes come in the series to explicitly defining the connection between Omega and James-Michael. The robots’ target, obviously, has been Omega. This robot identifies James-Michael as Omega, albeit in “smaller” form. In other words, James-Michael is Omega in a different form.

Yet the adult Omega immediately arrives and battles the robot, who notes, “Re-evaluation is called for.” The adult Omega and the child James-Michael exist simultaneously.

Yet they still seem to be, somehow, the same person in separate forms. There is another key passage in the next issue, in which Amber and James-Michael walk by Omega, who is wearing ordinary Earth clothing (and is unrecognized by the boy). “Grow up to look like that,” Amber tells James-Michael, “and I’ll forget my position on monogamy and marry you!” James-Michael is bewildered, asking, “Merely because I would resemble that man?” There we have it: Omega looks like an adult version of James-Michael.

Maybe the resemblance could be explained if James-Michael were Omega’s son, somehow displaced through time and space. But Gerber and Skrenes seem to be pointing in a different direction.

I wonder if Omega is Gerber and Skrenes’ variation on the original Captain Marvel. The child Billy Batson can magically transform into the super-powered adult hero Captain Marvel, who presumably looks like Billy all grown up. (In the original stories he cannot simultaneously exist in his Billy and Captain Marvel forms, although in Jeff Smith’s recent Shazam series, they can in certain circumstances.)

Gerber and Skrenes may supply another hint in issue 3 when they introduce Freddie, a crippled boy who heroically hits the supervillain Electro in the shin with his crutch, giving Omega the opportunity to defeat him. One of the original Captain Marvel’s allies is the crippled boy Freddy Freeman, who can magically transform into the superhero Captain Marvel Jr.

Let’s return to the final pages of issue 1. As Omega battles the robot, James-Michael, watching, “feels” a “cold, calculated loathing” “as though it were his own”: “And yet, it is not his own. . .and yet, it is. . . .” James-Michael must be sharing Omega’s “loathing” of the robot, just as he feels the same pain that the robot inflicts on the costumed adult. (It’s like the title characters of Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novella The Corsican Brothers, who share an empathic bond. Remember, too, how the Man-Thing’s empathic power enables him to feel the emotions of others.) James-Michael’s analytical mind is bewildered by this unexpected emotion. Finally, James-Michael unleashes energy blasts from his hands, just as Omega can, destroying the robot, and leaving burn marks on his hands resembling the Greek letter omega! If Omega and James-Michael are somehow the same person, these connections make more sense.

In the opening pages of issue 4 the narration makes clear that Omega does not know why he feels compelled to remain on Earth when he could leave in his spaceship at any time. (Indeed, of all the planets in the cosmos, why did Omega come to Earth if not for James-Michael’s presence there?) But the series repeatedly shows that Omega feels a responsibility to protect James-Michael. Why? Does Omega subconsciously sense a fatherly obligation to shield his younger counterpart from harm?

In the opening pages of issue 1, the narrator told us that “An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow,” and that “the element of change” was “the only hope of salvation.” Had the adult Omega “ceased to grow” so he somehow triggered the creation of a new, younger self–James-Michael? It’s as if, instead of sending his son to Earth, Superman’s father Jor-El was himself reincarnated as a child on Earth. Was that the “change” that Omega found necessary?

In issue 2 James-Michael and Omega each finds a place to live in the dangerously downscale Manhattan neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen. (This was years before Frank Miller turned Hell’s Kitchen into the main locale for Daredevil or its subsequent gentrification.) In general, in each story what happens to Omega somehow parallels what happens to James-Michael.

This hall of mirrors effect extends to other characters, as well. In the second issue James-Michael encounters Bruce Banner, who transforms into the Hulk and battles Omega. Banner/Hulk, of course, is a prime case of duality in the superhero genre, having two physical forms, one an emotionally repressed intellectual and the other embodying uncontrollable power. So it is very appropriate that the Hulk is the first guest star in the Omega series.

The original Omega series abruptly ended in issue 10 with a shocking cliffhanger (spoiler alert through the end of this paragraph), as Omega was gunned down by police. Steven Grant’s wrap-up of the Omega saga in Defenders cleverly connected the dots to solve the mysteries in a way that was true to the letter of the series but not its spirit. For example. he established that Omega and James-Michael were separate beings, artificially created by those alien robots. Omega really was dead (although he had easily survived a bullet to the head in issue 6!). James-Michael, unable to contain the “uncontrollable” Omega energies, went into an insane rage but finally incinerated himself rather than harm his friend Dian. (It’s rather like the later “Dark Phoenix Saga” ending, isn’t it?) For readers who cared about Gerber and Skrenes’ two protagonists, this was surely unsatisfactory and depressing.

In 2005, after Marvel announced that Lethem would be writing the new Omega series, Gerber wrote in his blog that “Omega was one of only two series from my early days at Marvel that I really did care about in a personal way. The other, of course, was Howard the Duck.” He explained that “Much of Omega’s content was derived from personal experience, both mine and Mary’s. 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.”

Gerber was infuriated that Marvel planned to have someone other than himself and Skrenes revive Omega. His anger at Lethem subsided after he and Skrenes were put in contact with him. Gerber stated that “As best I can tell, Jonathan is a very nice guy who was acting with the best of intentions.” and that Lethem “claims he was unaware of my history with Marvel, including the lawsuit over Howard the Duck, until the present incident arose; I choose to believe him.”

But I find this disturbing. In the world of corporate comics, it seems that often it does not even occur to editors or writers that maybe the original writer of a property should get first crack at working on a revival. Or that it would be unwise for the company to alienate important creators from its past. Yet I know of case after case in which comics writers are slighted in this fashion. Didn’t Lethem ever wonder what Gerber and Skrenes would think of his writing the series they originated?

Despite making peace with Lethem, Gerber still contended “that writers and artists who claim to respect the work of creators past should demonstrate that respect by leaving the work alone — particularly if the original creator is still alive, still active in the industry, and, as is typically the case in comics, excluded from any financial participation in the use of the work.”

How workable would such a policy be? Should every Batman story have to receive the approval of Bob Kane’s widow? On the other hand, DC Comics doesn’t allow anyone to do new stories with Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus or commission sequels to Watchmen or V for Vendetta, even though Alan Moore is unlikely to work for DC ever again. (Sometimes, though, I wonder if some future DC administration will decide to do a Watchmen sequel or new Sandman series about Morpheus without the original creators. And I would bet that there would be writers lining up to work on them, while professing admiration for Gaiman and Moore.)

Gerber publicly proposed that Lethem “simply retitle the story and rename the characters”: “Make the book your own, and I’ll have nothing to complain about”. Lethem’s series is still titled Omega the Unknown, but whether because of Gerber’s request or not, he has renamed other characters: for example, the boy protagonist is called Alex, and his nurse is Edie. I would be unhappy if Lethem’s Omega is meant to supplant Gerber and Skrenes’ version in Marvel’s official continuity. But perhaps the use of different names means that Lethem intends these to be different characters than the original cast, and that history is now mysteriously repeating itself with variations.

I’ve only read the first four issues of the Lethem Omega so far, so it’s still too early to judge what he intends to do with the concept. So far, however, I am disappointed. The new version lacks the original’s rich subtext of metaphors, its psychological complexity, and its vivid characterizations and dialogue.

But I am grateful that Lethem’s revival of Omega redirected my attention to Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes’ original version, which impresses me far more today than it did when I read it over thirty years ago. As Lethem described it at the 2007 New Yorker Festival, the original Omega does indeed seem like a potentially great work, left in a fragmented state. And “the Omega flap,” as Gerber called it, reminds me that Steve Gerber’s legacy to American comic books is not simply his collection of memorable characters and stories, but also his pioneering work throughout his career fighting for comics creators’ rights.

-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson


2 Responses to “Comics in Context #216: The Omega Enigma”

  1. Peter b. gillis Says:

    My pleasure in the Original Omega the Unknown was from the negatives: Steve and Mary had drawn lines through almost all the easy and traditional comic-book explanations. There really wasn’t enough to make a guess, but it was clear that the answer to this puzzle was not going to be obvious.
    I was certain at the time that the Captain Marvel/Billy Batson parallel was a feint, because all the fans in the world were going to make them the same person.

    And as for re-dos, you know as well as I that Marvel was going to do a new version of Strikeforce Morituri without me and Brent…

  2. Abe Hoekstra Says:

    Hi Peter,
    I recently read Omega the Unknown Classic. I have been doing some research about the character on the net and found a number of very insightful reviews. Yours is one of them. I also wrote a review, for Amazon.com, and it looks like we share a lot of ideas about the character.
    I am going to copy and paste some paragraphs of my review over here, and if you can find the time maybe you can shine your light on them.

    Here are my about James-Michael Starlings father:
    “By the way is James-Michael’s father’s appearance based on Steve Gerber? They do look alike. And is James-Michael Starling’s mother based on Mary Skrenes, Gerber’s co-author? In the beginning of the book Starling’s father says: “A character needs experience in order to fuel one’s imagination”. That’s what Gerber intended to do with Omega and James-Michael Starling, I believe. It could be another clue why Starling’s father looks like Gerber.”

    And here are my thoughts on James-Michael Starling:

    While I was reading issue #1 of Omega, I got the impression Omega was somehow created by James-Michael Starling.
    There a a few clues that point in that direction.
    The most obvious one might be the resemblance between James-Michael and Omega. Omega looks like a grown-up version of the teenager. Of course, one might be a time-displaced version of the other, but I found no evidence of that.
    Before the book starts James-Michael already knows he has to leave his sheltered life behind and go to school. He fears leaving his old homestead behind and even gets nightmares. In one of them Omega appears. Did James-Michael’s subconscious create Omega as a defense mechanism, a protector? His subconscious might even have created Omega’s safe and orderly Homeworld as metaphor of his own sheltered life. In the Omega series we never get to find out the real name of Omega’s homeworld. Maybe the designation Homeworld is a clue in itself. The faceless robots might be representations of James-Michaels fears.
    And then there is James-Michael’s name. Two first names. Does that fact hint at a duality? And what about the name Michael? Michael means Who is like God? (question mark included). Religious people believe God to be the creator of Earth. Did James-Michael, James- Who-is-like-God? create Omega and Omega’s Homeworld?
    Gramps calls Omega “Sam”. The three letters of this name can be found in the name James. Coincidence? Of course, the letters also appear in the name Gramps, so it may mean nothing and I am reading to much into this.
    Why did James-Michael create a super-hero? There are no hints he ever read a super-hero comic book, however on the cover of issue #1 we see a couple of copies of the Amazing Spider-Man. Another hint?

    There may also be a few clues in the text.
    Let us assume the robots attacking Homeworld are a metaphor of change. Omega fights these robots, fights change. But during the fight he reaches the conclusion that change may be his salvation. So he gives in to change and at that precise moment Omega is struck down by a robot. For Omega: “… No recourse is left but to scream, and wait for the ordeal to be over”.
    Now what does this text mean? Is this a birth of sorts? Is this the moment Omega ceases to be part of a nightmare and come into existence by James-Michael’s power?
    During the fight we read: “The chaos (…) could only be the product of the pain, and the passion, and the fire to which he (Omega) alone remains heir.” The meaning of this text is not very clear. Whose pain, passion and fire are we talking about? James-Michael Starling’s? If we accept he created Omega’s Homeworld, we can also accept he created the robots and the chaos. So could it mean Omega is James-Michael Starling’s heir?
    Somewhere in issue #1 Omega screams, and his “agony …. may span a universe”. May. We don’t know for certain. Now the usage of the word universe is very interesting considering the fact that during the final battle with Electro in issue #3 people’s lives are being compared to a universe. So if we go back to issue #1 could we also have read: “agony …. may span a life”? Whose life? James Michael Starling’s?
    In issue #2 James-Michael and Amber walk past Omega, who is wearing plain clothes, not his costume. At the start of his fight with the Hulk it is said: “The boy!! …. Even his face…! Momentarily it betrayed him, betrayed his inner self.” What this means is also not made clear. Did James-Michael unlock something in Omega’s mind? Maybe the realization that Omega is a product of James-Michael’s mind?

    And does James-Michael even have the power to create a super-being and his homeworld, even subconsciously?
    When Omega shoots his beams at the robots in isue #1 the energy is said to be “the creative force”. James-Michael is also able toa shoot beams from his palms, so he is is also able to use the CREATIVE force. What if this force helped him to bring Omega into existence?”

    Here are my thoughts on the Defenders issues:

    “The storyline was eventually wrapped up in two issues of the Defenders. Omega turned out to be a member of a warrior-caste among other things. In Steve Gerber’s series I got the impression Omega wasn’t that keen on fighting, so I doubt if that was Gerber’s Original intent for the character.
    Also there is major mistake at the conclusion of the book: in the final page of Defenders #77 James-Michael Starling blasted himself to smithereens, yet in issue #78 we see his body. If I remember correctly this issue was also addressed in the Defenders letter pages lo those many years ago (I looked it up and in the letters page of Defenders #83 Marvel acknowledges the mistake).

    But hold on, JMS desintegrating himself? Where have we seen a similar scene before? Didn’t Omega desintegrate himself in issue #5 of Omega? And didn’t he turn up alive and well at Gramps’ doorstep some time later? So the desintegration process must have been some form of teleportation. Now imagine: what if JMS hadn’t blasted himself to kingdom come? What if he had teleported himself away from the scene? Could he still be alive somewhere?

    That raises some interesting questions. Could JMS have teleported Omega to Earth before he was incinerated by the sun? Could he have resurrected Omega using the beams, the creative force? And could the Omega origin story be some warped version of the truth, a version created by a very confused James-Michael Starling? Ah, wishful thinking ; -)”

    I had a lot of fun trying to figure out the bond between James-Michael Starling and Omega. The book almost reads like a detective novel.

    I mentioned a number of other reviews, like yours, for those people who are interested in the character and want to learn more about Omega.

    I am looking forward to your reply.



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