Friday, March 23, 2007

Catching Up With Omega the Unknown

I finally got around to reading the Omega the Unknown Classic collection this weekend. Released last year when Marvel was trying to float a new Omega series, this collection collects all things Omega, and is pretty steep at $30. I have a sweet discount at my comic shop, so mine was cheaper. Before this, I'd only read Omega the Unknown #2, as one of those comics my dad picked up for me on the way home from an especially bad childhood sick day. You know, one of those days when you really did have to go home sick from school. He picked up an assortment of comics, and among them, this strange tale of an eerily eloquent boy and a mute superhero from space who shared a strange Corsican bond. In that bleary feverish state, I remember reading this strange, dark story that dealt in some pretty grim realities, including the cockroach infested tenements of Hell's kitchen and a comical bum who suddenly turned scary. Electro showed up toward the end, but be continued. My ten-year old self decided he didn't need to know how it all turned out, and it was only this weekend that I read the conclusion of that particular Mighty Marvel epic.

Written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, drawn by Jim Mooney, it was one weird read. The whole story plays out as only a short-lived, abruptly-ended, awkwardly finished two years later by another writer, mid-'70's Marvel Comics series can. I can kind of see why it never caught on; a connection between James-Michael Starling and Omega was the central mystery of the series, starting off with the "death" of James-Michael's parents and the revelation that they were robots. But once all of this was established, the story stalled for several issues as Omega tussled with some truly pitiful villains, ignoring the big questions. Issues 4-6 marked time with the likes of El Gato and Wrench mingled with schoolyard and tenement drama. Issues #7 and 8 were written by other writers, and when Gerber and Skrenes returned, they devoted much of #9 to Foolkiller, who, fantastic as he is, shouldn't have been the focus of the second-to-last issue. The last issue, #10, had to wrap up the remaining plot threads, starting with a funeral for James-Michael's classmate, John Nedley, killed off-panel. The rest of the story had Omega and Gramps retreat to Vegas in hopes of getting rich, with the Headmen's Ruby stealing their winnings, ending in death by police gunfire for Omega, as well as James-Michael's cliffhanger discovery of another set of parent-bots in his home. It was an abrupt ending, and obviously, all was not well behind the scenes. All the mysteries were left unexplained. Gerber, in interviews, has mentioned that he was writing so many books during this period that he often didn't necessarily have an ending worked out, and I suspect Omega was one of those cases.

Beware the claws and fangs of...EL GATO!

The final panel promised: The story of "Omega the Unknown" will be concluded in a future issue of "the Defenders." but that story remained untold for two years before it was concluded by Steven Grant and Herb Trimpe in Defenders#76 and 77. Loose ends were tired up as Omega remained dead, and James-Michael Starling joined him after a brief rampage. To this day, Omega remains the among rare Marvel Superheroes that died and remains dead.
Omega himself was a strange sort of superhero, much to the ire of the public. Given to detailed internal monologues and copious navel gazing, Omega was just as likely to let a villain escape if the potential collateral damage outweighed the value of whatever was being stolen. He also didn't speak, making him seem aloof and hesitant, which he kind of was. Thus a very wordy and cerebral comic, with a dark worldview and nary a conventionally-likable protagonist in sight failed. Gerber has written plenty of other comics that I enjoyed, as well as co-writing the excellent Hard Time with Skrenes a couple of years ago so Omega's failure may was likely Marvel's fault (editorial interference, or whatever) for all I know. I know there's bad blood there, and based on the pacing I mentioned, I'll bet there was virtually no warning of cancellation. Overall, this collection was most interesting as an historical look at a favorite creator's "one that got away", but I can't really recommend it as a casual read.


Jason said...

Thanks for the review. I've been hemming and hawing about picking this u;p, but I guess I'll wait until I can find it super-cheap somewhere. I'm still excited for the Jonathan Lethem update that's coming (someday)

Erich said...

I really wish that Gerber and Skrenes could have done a proper conclusion to "Omega the Unknown." Heck, they could still do it as a graphic novel, outside continuity and unhampered by what happened the Grant Defenders storyline: "Omega the Unknown, the Creators' Cut." Nah, it'll never happen, but it's an interesting thought...

Brian Hughes said...

jason: I'd be surprised if that Letham book ever happens. I haven't heard anything about it in years - it may have died a quiet death.

erich: While you're dreaming, dream up a Howard the Duck ongoing and some new Hard Time for me, willya?