Let’s talk turkey, folks. Time for another edition of my never ending read pile. On this week’s installment, we’ll be tackling a little known series from mid 70s Marvel written by Steve Gerber called Omega the Unknown.
For those of you that know me personally, you’ll find that my comic tastes were pretty heavily influenced by my older brother, Dave. Dave read Spider man when I was very little, so hence I read Spider man. Dave has over the years recommended tons of books that I ultimately read most recently Fear Agent and Boom Studios Planet of the Apes series, And one of my brother Dave’s favorite author is that madcap mainstay, Steve Gerber. In fact, as my brother Dave tells the story, Steve was the first writer that he went out of his way to buy comic books of just because he was the writer on them.
As a result, he’s recommended several of Steve’s series from the 1970s like Man Thing and the Defenders, and so far I’ve read all of them except for Howard the Duck. Not that I’m not going to read Howard the Duck, but I was saving that series for last.
In any case, for the most part, I can see why my brother Dave likes Gerber as an writer. For bronze age stuff, Steve really excels at deconstructing the superhero genre and giving you a different spin on the same old tales that few from this time period were doing. He’s not afraid to weave in horror and otherworldly concepts effectively into his stories without losing a sense of realism. And most of all, he asks open ended questions of the reader and often leaves them with a sense that they are only getting half the story in the book.
All these things and a bit more are covered in the brief 10 issue run of Omega the Unknown. I picked up the entire series plus the two “wrap up” issues that occurred in the Defenders for 5 bucks via a TPB at a local comic convention, so I felt it was an extremely good value given what I got out of it. I don’t know if I would have read the series otherwise, but if you can get the entire kit and kaboddle for the same price as what you pay for pretty much one modern comic, you jump at it.
First, a little back story about the character for many of you not in the know. I’ll try to make this as spoiler free as possible but I’m not making any promises. Basically, the book is about two characters, the actual superhero, Omega, and a teenage boy named James Michael Montgomery, who share some sort of unique bond/link in which they seem to share experiences, mannerisms etc. Both are silent, introspective types with not a lot of experience dealing with the real world and its dangers, so in essence they are both fish out of water trying desperately to find a place in this ever confusing world of Marvel continuity.
You don’t really get to know the character of Omega too much over the course of the 10 issues. Whether that’s done deliberately or not I never really could figure out, but what you do get out is that he seems to be from another planet, has the ability to fly and shoot energy blasts from his hands, and is being pursued by evil purple robots. Oh and he fights cats…lots of cats.
Not so much a hero as someone that’s automatically assumed to be one by the way he’s dressed and his power set, more often than not Omega finds himself doing battle with super villains because he was thrusted unwillingly into harm’s way and is just trying to survive. He is somewhat “adopted” by an elderly pawnshop dealer known only as “Gramps” who seems him as a surrogate son he never had (Gerber’s commentary on the loneliness of the elderly). Gramps then attempts to teach Omega the ways of the world, or at the very least the ways of NYC in the mid 70s, especially in the bad parts of town.
Slowly, Omega begins to assert himself more and more, trying to carve out his own life for both he and Gramps, before tragically coming to an abrupt end. Again I won’t go into details as to exactly how that happens in case you want to read the series for yourself after this, but it is pretty matter of fact and something you wouldn’t really thought would happen in a superhero book.
As for the remainder of the story, Gerber spends most of time fleshing out the character of James Michael, the young boy who has a strange link to the destiny of Omega. At first I thought the book was going to be a rehash of the old “Billy Batson/Captain Marvel” motif in which Omega and James Michael are really the same person, but although there are shades of that throughout the book, the real truth is much stranger.
Without giving too much away, James Michael is an extremely intelligent young man with absolutely no emotional or social experience. After you find out the truth about his parents, its not surprising why he’s the way he is, but in any case, those parents die early on in a terrible car accident and James Michael is placed in the child welfare system.
At first, a doctor who treats James for injuries after the accident is intrigued by the unsettling imbalance between intelligence and emotional maturity wants to study him (plus the fact James can also shoot energy blasts like Omega), but is overruled by the hospital.
So instead he’s put with two young women living in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen (before they cleaned the neighborhood up that is). One of the women works for the Daily Bugle taking pictures, so that gets James involved with some of the more crazy antics of the Marvel universe.
But for the most part, James just lives the typical life of a young teenager, going the school in one of the poorer parts of town, dealing with street gangs, trying his best to learn how to fit in with normal people. Some pretty horrible things happen to James like his best friend getting beat up so severely by a local gang that he has to go to the hospital, and Gerber uses all of it to try and illustrate the harshness of everyday life for those living below the poverty line.
What’s the most interesting though is towards the end of the series, both Omega and James Michael realize that their lives in this part of town are not going to end well, and run away, literally and figuratively. Again in the case of Omega, that decision ends tragically but also for James, it ends up being not being the for the best. It’s as if they both still had important lessons to learn in Hell’s Kitchen and despite the dangerous environment they were better off staying put a bit longer.
Of course, the decision to end the series at issue 10 wasn’t Gerber’s either so the fact that it happens like that was probably not how it was planned. But due to poor sales, Marvel scrapped the book and told Gerber that if he wanted to finish out Omega’s story he’d have to do it in the Defenders.
Of course, he didn’t get a chance to do that either as shortly afterwards, Gerber was canned by Marvel all together. My brother says it was because Gerber wanted more creative control of his characters. Others say it was Gerber was consistently late with his stories and Jim Shooter didn’t put up with that shit for long. I personally think it’s a combination of those two things together.
Regardless, due to reader demand, Omega’s story did get a wrap up in issues 75 and 76 of the Defenders despite those issues being written by Steve Grant, not Steve Gerber. Although Grant tried his best to be true to intentions of Gerber’s character, the wrap up doesn’t really fit tonal or stylistically with the rest of the series. In fact, although I’m not going to come out and say how the series ends, I will say that I was incredibly disappointed by it and felt it as if for a series that had so much “going on”, the ending was pretty much as cookie cutter as it comes. Like a thousand ideas were crammed into a small box for convenience sake, and as a result, it does the series a major injustice.
Of course, Gerber was also upset with the way the series was ended by Grant, but in Grant’s defense, it’s really hard to match Gerber’s style of storytelling. I guess it’s true what my older brother always said: “Nobody really writes like Steve Gerber”. That doesn’t mean his stuff is good or bad per say, but he’s definitely got a unique voice which is very hard to duplicate.
And I guess that’s my final word on this series: Unique. There’s not really a series out there like this. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s great because for sure I thought it could be overly preachy and analytical for what amounted to a “capes” book. But that doesn’t mean it was terrible either, as there’s a lot of interesting ideas going on in the series, and I’m never going to fault a writer for taking risks with a genre, pushing the envelope of how to tell a particular story.
My older brother says the series is a product of its time, and as a result can feel dated in comparison to the stuff that came afterwards. But when he was growing up and buying the series on the newsstand, it was a fresh take on some tired ideas so for that it was worth the price of purchase.
No surprise in the fact that I tend to agree with him on that.
Andy’s Read Pile Rating: C+