The mystery is the point: Omega The Unknown

I first saw an issue of Omega The Unknown back in the early 1980s when trading comics with another kid. I was a nascent comics geek even then but I’d never heard of this Omega character, who was battling the familiar Spider-Man villain Electro on the cover. Who was he? And why was he unknown?

Debuting in 1976 for what turned out to be a brief run, Omega was one strange comic – I felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of the movie, with a story featuring a mute superhero’s tentative adventures over portentous, philosophical narration tangled up with the story of a peculiar brainy but emotionally very stiff young orphan boy, James-Michael Starling. The two characters – the hero “Omega” and the boy – were linked somehow, but how? 

Over its 10 issues before cancellation, Omega The Unknown hinted at a lot, but told us very little. “Something is different now in his universe,” the omnipotent narrator told us at the end of that first issue of Omega I read, #3, “Burn While You Learn.” It was different. This wasn’t Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. The title character barely even spoke.

Steve Gerber, who cowrote the series with Mary Skrenes, was one of comics’ true originals, with his iconoclastic writing in Howard The Duck, Man-Thing, Son of Satan and other comics feeling like something that could only have come out of the let’s-try-anything 1970s at Marvel Comics. 

Re-reading Omega today more than 40 years on, it’s still a mind-trip. Omega is Unknown, and unknowable. The titular character doesn’t speak a word until #4, and even then it’s only to ask “why?” Gerber and Skrenes cast a haunting spell over those early issues, mixing rambling, borderline pretentious narration with a cruel realism about life in Hell’s Kitchen. Multiple innocent people are victims of crimes, unsaved. You get brief glimpses of the wider Marvel Universe like Electro or a quick Hulk guest appearance, but more often there are barely capable villains like “The Wrench” and “El Gato.” The mystery is the real villain here. Threads come and go without being resolved. It’s almost like a Charlie Kaufman version of a superhero comic. 

It wasn’t a hugely successful comic even at the time. The letters pages carried some highly critical views – “OMEGA is a sick comic book,” wrote one. 

Writers Gerber and Skrenes vanished for a couple of issues, which is particularly notable in a series that only ran for 10. When they returned, the series had lost a bit of momentum, but the final issue, #10, is particularly bleak and unsparing in its view of the world even by Omega’s standards. We jarringly have jumped through time and are at the funeral of a school friend of James-Michael who was beaten badly many issues ago and never recovered. This is a series where a bright young student, who could easily pass for much of the target audience, is beaten to death by other kids just for being who he is, with no Omega or other hero to save him. And that 10th issue itself ends with a big cliffhanger, with Omega himself shot to death by police while attempting to get his money back from a con artist. A wan “to be continued elsewhere” box running next to the hero’s dead body seals the story of Omega’s brief solo run.

Unfortunately, Gerber never got to resolve his creation, which was finished off rather inelegantly by another writer in a few issues of The Defenders, Marvels’ catch-all superhero team comic. The enigmatic narration is gone, the mysteries all tidied up in a bland, confusing and unsatisfying fashion (aliens, robots, et cetera) and the theme of duality and identity that Omega The Unknown so carefully crafted in its 10 issues just sort of melts away. Who were James-Michael and Omega, really? We never really get to know. An overview of the series back in the Amazing Heroes fan magazine put it nicely: “What began as a noble experiment in graphic fiction ended as nothing more than a poorly executed comic book story.” 

Gerber’s gone now – he died at just 60 in 2008 – but he left behind an awful lot of classic, questing comics. Omega is perhaps the apex of his style. 

There was a kind of reboot/retelling by the author Jonathan Lethem back in the early 2000s of Omega, which spun off in new surreal directions. It’s an interesting take in that whole indie style-meets-superhero vein, but it somehow feels like a cover band version of the gaudy original. 

Perhaps it’s its very nature as an unfinished experiment that makes Omega so captivating to me. No ending by Gerber would’ve lived up to the atmosphere of bitter enigmas the first few issues crafted. Omega The Unknown took superhero comics and spun them around until the colours blurred and the unknown leached into every panel. It’s imperfect by design, yet unforgettable in its weird, bluntly fatalistic view of the Marvel Universe. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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