Enigma The First: How ‘Omega the Unknown’ Was A Comic Out Of Time [Sci-Fi Week]
The first thing you notice about Omega the Unknown, Marvel's short-lived mid-'70s sci-fi series, is its narration. Like most Bronze Age comics, it's densely narrated, but something about the narrative voice in this work is different; rambling, like a Beat poet. It hops from adjective to adjective, not in the grand carnival barker style of Stan Lee, but like a hepped-up poet taking joy in his words and phrases. Deliberate, but seeming not to be; that's probably the best way to describe the way writers Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes narrated their bizarro epic.
The narrative effect is best exhibited in the recap box that opens each issue after the first:
But the narration isn't the only thing that makes Omega --- published bimonthly from 1976 to 1977 for ten issues --- stand out from not only the sci-fi comics of the era but also from Marvel's line as a whole. No, what sets it apart is its intriguing central mystery, its hyper-articulate, isolated child protagonist and its wandering loner of a superhero who's nearly mute, and weaves from one encounter to another.
Written primarily by Gerber and Skrenes, with fill-in issues by Scott Edelman and Roger Stern, and drawn by Jim Mooney, inked by Mike Esposito, colored by Hugh Paley, and lettered by Joe Rosen, Omega opens with two violent beginnings.
The first sees a mysterious, unnamed, caped man fleeing the destruction of his home planet and his highly evolved humanoid race by a robot menace, hurtling towards Earth in a spaceship. The second sees twelve-year old James-Michael Sterling surviving the car crash that kills his parents --- and discovering that his parents are robots, who tell him to "beware the voices" before they melt and explode.
After falling into a coma for a month, James-Michael awakes at a psychology clinic in NYC, surprising everyone with his emotional remove and robotic diction. Going to live in Hell's Kitchen with his nurse Ruth and her roommate Amber, a Daily Bugle freelance photographer, James-Michael enrolls in public school, meeting the feisty Dian & compassionate John, as well as abusive bully Nick.
The caped man --- labelled "Omega" by the press because he wears the Greek letter on his forehead, and "Sam" by the elderly shopkeeper Gramps who takes him in and employs him --- finds himself drawn into conflict not only with an assortment of heroes and villains like Hulk, Electro, the Wrench, and El Gato, but also drawn towards James-Michael. For his part, James-Michael seems to understand the mysterious Omega, and has visions of his exploits and past. Perplexingly, they can also both shoot huge blasts of energy from their hands, leaving them marked with the Omega symbol.
Omega the Unknown is, as you might have gathered, a very weird story. It's deliberately out of touch with the rest of the Marvel Universe, like fellow Gerber creation Howard the Duck. But while Howard used that remove for comedy, Omega does it for the sheer alienness of it. Despite the dynamic action and superheroics that Mooney and company produce, the focus is more on how the eerie James-Michael tries to adjust to the realities of life in Hell's Kitchen (albeit never once encountering Daredevil), and the sheer unfairness of life.
Despite the cosmic bizarreness, Omega is ultimately about more Earthly strains of existentialism. Why is life the way it is? Why do the strong bully the weak? What does it truly mean to have a sense of self? What does one do when everything is taken from them?
In that regard, Omega has less in common with the whiz-bang Space Age adventure of the Fantastic Four, and more with the grim fable-telling of Planet of the Apes. This blend of four-color adventure and moody SF could only have been a product of the pre-Star Wars era that saw Soylent Green and Silent Running hit the big screen.
Unfortunately, like fellow low-selling series like the original Nova, Omega The Unknown ended on a cliffhanger, with James-Michael discovering new versions of his robotic parents, and Omega being shot to death in Vegas. These plotlines were supposed to be wrapped up in The Defenders, but due to Gerber's ongoing creators' rights battles with Marvel over Omega and Howard, he was fired before he could resolve the plotlines the way he intended.
In late 1978, with fans still writing in wanting to know what had happened with Omega and James-Michael, Defenders editor Al Milgrom hired Steven Grant to complete the story. Although Grant had no interest in the characters, he wrote a two-part story about James-Michael attempting to destroy the world, but being subdued by the Defenders. Gerber wasn't too pleased with the outcome, but Grant has stated that he felt his ending --- which is considered canon by Marvel --- was true to what Gerber would have done had he been allowed to complete the story.
A favorite of literary darlings like novelist Jonathan Lethem, there's something timeless in the concerns that Omega raises. A quest for identity and meaning is at the core of almost every story ever told, after all, including a good chunk of the stories told in the Marvel Universe. Lethem actually relaunched the series to great acclaim --- again for only ten issues --- with artist Farel Dalrymple in 2007.
Omega and its out-of-time yet utterly time-specific sensibility is a Rosetta Stone for the formal and literary experimentation that would come to mainstream comics with the 1980s British Invasion and the Vertigo era. It's an encapsulation of the heady ambition and daring that marked the best comics of the Bronze Age, and its legacy can be seen in contemporary works that explore wild sci-fi fringes within the confines of a shared universe, whether it's Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's Vision, Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's Nextwave, or China Miéville and Mateus Santolouco's Dial H.
In the end, like so much of the very best science fiction, Omega The Unknown was both utterly of its time and frustratingly ahead of it.
Both series of Omega the Unknown are available in print and digitally from retailers, and are available on Marvel Unlimited.