Steve Gerber’s Omega The Unknown is a bit of an odd duck even by today’s standards. That’s probably why it’s still such fun to read. I can understand how this series would have had comic readers a little puzzled, even in the 70s. But there is some pretty remarkable stuff in here, both for it's time and even today. Even the intro on the first page header was out of the ordinary and definitely original. The space usually reserved for the Hero’s origin and motivations, the intro for Omega set him apart from his fellow heroes. It read:
“ENIGMA THE FIRST: the lone survivor of an alien world, a nameless man of somber, impassive visage, garbed utterly inappropriately in garish blue-and-red. ENIGMA THE SECOND: James Michael Starling, age twelve raised in near isolation by parents who (he discovered on the day they “died”) were robots. ENIGMA THE THIRD: the link between the man and the boy, penetrating to the depths of the mind and body, causing each to question his very reality of self.”
It takes place in Hells Kitchen and Gerber's portrayal of it is pretty grim, even compared to the Hells Kitchen stuff in Millers Daredevil. The odd boy "James-Michael" going to school after being "home schooled" for so long and trying to navigate the social hierarchy and the physical hazards of a rather dangerous public school is still timeless. James friend is beaten by bullies so bad he winds up in the hospital in a coma. Then, when he finally gets out, he's beaten again which aggravates internal injuries from the previous beating and he dies! I can see now why Gerber had some clashes with the comics code folks. We also see James smacked across the face by one of his Teachers.
James parents die in a car crash but his parents turn out to be androids, giving him cryptic advice before they self destruct and dissolve. Then there is the super powered Omega, whose character has taken a warriors vow of silence so we only see into his thoughts through the narration (somewhat similar to the narrative in Gerbers Man-Thing) which I found to be the most entertaining part of the book. But over the course of the 10 issues, Omega does speak. His first "word" is to a woman he saves from a suicide attempt. It's such a foreign concept to Omega how someone can be in such pain that they take their own life. He simply says "Why?" (and that isn't until issue 4).
Even the villains are far from the garden variety (for their time at least). When one villain fights Omega to a stand still, then tells Omega why he's stealing money from a bank, Omega sympathizes and lets him go. The villain then carries on with his robbery. Omega is then soundly and loudly criticized by the victims of the robbery. Several issues later, he confronts the villain again, only this time Omega is intent on defeating him solely for the reward money. This was a nice twist by Gerber I thought, as Omega, who so far hasn't cared anything about personal gain or wealth is suddenly and mysteriously intent on getting some cash. It turns out he wants to buy a suit to wear to the funeral of the boy who was beaten to death by bullies. There is also a villain called The Wrench, a handy man who bludgeons victims to death with a pipe wrench. Turns out he has gone insane due to the death of his mother, killed by muggers. There is also an interesting turn by another Gerber creation...the Foolkiller.
I can understand some of the criticisms about the series having an aimless feel to it as well as why some people say it worked better for them as a trade than as a ongoing series. I think the reason for this is that Gerber is going for more of a "slice of life" vibe. Also problematic is a story arc big enough that we don't have time to get to the next phase before the series is canceled. It's more about Omega and James interaction with life and people than about a more traditional superhero story arc with a standard protagonist. The villains that are there are mainly to give Omega and James some cathartic introspection.
However, in issues 9 and 10, it's obvious that Gerber is about to do something major with the series. He's gearing up to steer the story to another level. Unfortunately, Gerber leaves after issue 10 so we never find out what his intentions are with the story and characters. The fate of Omega is then wrapped up in Defenders by writer Steven Grant. These issues are really bad. Both in how the fate of Omega is ham handedly delivered through the exposition of various superheroes like Moondragon and Hellcat, as well as the horrible art. I'm not a huge fan of Jim Mooney, but he does a decent job for the most part in Omega 1-10. But in the two issues of Defenders, Herb Trimpe takes over. I've enjoyed a lot of Trimpes work on Hulk. I don't know if he was rushed, or what, but it's really unattractive.
Also, Grant tries to tell a story to wrap up Omega that is just too big to fit into an issue and a half of Defenders. It's not that Grants wrap up story to Omega was all that bad. It's more traditional than what Gerber might have done, certainly. Grants wrap up is a decent idea, but it needed another 4 or 5 issues at least in order for it to be remotely comprehensible. I now know why this trade includes the Omega origin segment from "Handbook to the Marvel Universe" in the back of the book. It needed the nine paragraphs of text to explain the origin. Just going by the Defenders story, it's almost indecipherable.
This was obviously a project that was personal to Gerber and I like when the writer makes that clear to the reader. I like stories where you know the writer has a definite emotional investment. I wish this series had fared better with readers of the time. But with only 10 issues and no hint of where the plot is headed with the exception of a few little peeks in issues 9 and 10, I can see how this flamed out pretty quick with readers used to more traditional fare.
I think it works on many levels. As an experiment, an oddity, a labor of love by Gerber, a symbol of Bronze Age creativity and as something that was just not like anything else out back then. Gerber delivers some interesting dialogue and a still rather unique narrative. It can be a challenging read and at times a frustrating one. In spite of and because of this, Omega The Unknown drew me in and I wanted to see what happened with this offbeat tale of self exploration. Marvel Classics: Omega the Unknown collects Omega the Unknown issues 1-10 and Defenders #77. A unique story even today and a must have for any fan of Gerber or great Bronze Age stories. Next in my series of reviews of Marvel Classics I take a look at What-If?