Getting to Know Omega the Unknown

imgres-4I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all had that strange sensation of reading a comic book to completion and then realizing you have absolutely no idea what it was about or what the writer was going for. Whether it’s bad storytelling, cryptic execution or simply your own personal inability to “get it,” there are just those times when you find yourself staring at what you’ve just read and wondering out loud: Did I miss something? If memory serves, I’m pretty sure the first time I had this particular comic book sensation was back in 1976. I was seven and it involved the premiere issue of Omega the Unknown by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes. Mistakenly obsessed with collecting number one issues for their presumed future value, the sight of Omega the Unknown on the shelf at San Francisco’s Best of Two Worlds (my LCS) was glorious indeed. I was a sucker for an origin story and the words “The Most Fantastic First Issue of All!” splashed across the cover sealed the deal. I plopped own my twenty-five cents and headed for home.

Unlike a lot of comics I purchased back then, Omega number one didn’t go straight into the vaults for posterity. No. I actually managed to read the thing. Why wouldn’t I? This book was, in my young eyes, equivalent to reading Action Comics number one. Whoever this Omega character was on the cover, I was certain that he was going to be the next big breakout character. This dude even looked a little like Superman, complete with the requisite red cape and boots. This was unprecedented! I was getting in on the ground floor of something big. I’d be able to look back and tell my grandchildren that I was part of comic book history. Maybe I’d be this Omega dude for Halloween. Future me would shout it from the rooftops: I was there when Omega the Unknown truly was unknown!

imgres-5My excitement was unfortunately short-lived. I buried my head in the first issue of Omega, powered through the pages to the end and was left with a feeling of supreme disappointment. Simply put, I didn’t get it. These characters didn’t do the things that other heroes did. Omega didn’t speak a word in the issue and Gerber and Skrenes spent a lot of time on a young character named James-Michael Starling who was somehow connected to Omega, despite never meeting him. I’d read Spider-Man’s origin story and it made sense; dude gets bits by radioactive spider, gets spider powers. I knew about Superman and his voyage from Krypton. It made sense; dude from another planet comes to Earth and uses his super powers to help mankind. No ambiguity there. But Gerber and Skrenes were doing something different, something that my young mind simply couldn’t grasp. Apparently, they were being subtle and inventive in their storytelling, which just didn’t track for me back then. Confused and perhaps even a bit mad, I tucked that first issue of Omega away. Ten issues later the series was cancelled and its disappearance from the racks and Omega’s eventual death didn’t really make much of an impression on me at the time. Omega was off my radar and would be for decades to come.

Cut to thirty-five years later. I’m browsing good old Amazon and I come across the collected trade paperback that includes all ten issues of the original Omega, as well as the two issues of The Defenders in which the Omega story was ultimately concluded. I’m intrigued, especially when I see that I can get a used copy for a penny (plus the cost of shipping). I “buy it now” and a few days later I’ve got the complete Omega the Unknown run in my hot little hands. Time to give the guy a second shot. I’m older. I’m wiser. And now I’m mentally prepared for comic that challenges conventional storytelling and offers up characters that are more than just redressed versions of things we’ve seen before. The material doesn’t disappoint. It’s Gerber at his best in a lot of ways, as his voice and point of view come through loud and clear right up until the final issue. This is the work of a writer bucking convention. There’s a vision there, a vision that was unfortunately never fully realized.

Omega the Unknown is one of those books that never quite gained traction at the time it was published. Whether itimgres-3 was the storytelling style or the fact that the book focused on two separate characters, the book ran for less than a year and was ultimately cancelled because of low sales. There’s some debate over its real quality, but it has managed to attain some level of cult favorite status due to its unique tone, characters and storytelling. I’ve read the entire “saga” a couple of times now and the aspect of Gerber and Skrene’s work (especially that first issue of Omega the Unknown) that really sets it apart from other similar-minded fare is a willingness to take time with the storytelling. Simply put, Gerber and Skrenes were willing to do a kind of slow burn-style storytelling at a time when comics were all about the very truncated types of stories. If you wanted a quick superhero hit and simple answers back in 1976, this was not the book for you. As I see it now through my much older eyes, the first issue of Omega is a thing of beauty that sets a mystery into motion in a way that is both subtle and compelling. It’s essentially a pilot episode for a series that unfortunately never really got chance to shine. It holds up, however, and I recommend picking it up if you’ve got a spare penny laying around.

imgres-1Omega’s ultimate demise in the final issue of the series via a simple gunshot is so abrupt that it belies a writer who was essentially forced to act fast and kill his creation. How unpleasant that must have been for the creators. From what I can garner from the internet (and that’s of course always dubious at best), Gerber was not a fan of the way the Omega story was eventually wrapped up in the two Defenders issues that came out nearly two years after issue ten of the original series. Maybe it was a bit too tidy for its own good or maybe Gerber was simply annoyed that his dual creations were explained away as robots from another world and summarily expunged from the Marvel universe. There’s something to be said for closure, I suppose, but judging by the time and effort put into the long form storytelling, Gerber and Skrenes imagined the story of Omega the Unknown reaching epic proportions. Unfortunately, where Gerber and Skrenes would have taken Omega is something we’ll just never know.


Gabe Roth is a TV writer and reluctant suburbanite who is willing to evolve.  He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.

Comments

  1. cosmo cosmo says:

    A few years ago, I read the Omego trade and pretty much agree with the above verdict: a great, quirky, character driven series that should have gone on longer, but, alas, ended on a rather abrupt, false note. Those two Defenders issues are quite a let down. Still, the title made a Steve Gerber fan out of me . . . I discovered the character through the Omego series that Marvel published in the 00′s, which had its own unique oddball voice and is definitely worth seeking out as well.

    • Gabe Roth Gabe Roth (@gaberoth) says:

      The newer Omega book is next on my list. I think I may have perused the first issue when it came out, but reading it now that I’m all caught up on the original seems like the way to go.

  2. My comic shop gave me the Omega trade free with purchase and it was crazy how he dies so suddenly from a gunshot by the police and later the writers had to kill off the boy he’s connected to after 2 issues of the Defenders.

    • Gabe Roth Gabe Roth (@gaberoth) says:

      Agreed. I felt there was so much potential there. Omega was just showing the affects of being among the humans…and then he’s shot dead. Brutal. I can imagine an alternate reality where the book got more time to develop and Omega and his young cohort were allowed to team up and figure out their origins together. Ah to dream!

  3. IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

    I found a spare penny!

    • Gabe Roth Gabe Roth (@gaberoth) says:

      Do it. I may have gotten the one penny offering a few weeks back, but I think it can still be had used for six or seven bucks which is a great deal considering the trade has twelve full issues in it. Forty of fifty cents per ish is a steal!

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      I remember reading about this in “Marvel Comics:the Untold Story” and it’s got me iching for some 70s comics and/or anything Jim Starlin did.

  4. bpage bpage says:

    I remember picking the first issue of Omega up off the ol’ wire rack back in ’76. I was 12 at the time. Those were great years to be a kid buying comics. For starters, they were $.20 to $.35 cents in those years, even as a kid you could afford to take a chance on any new book that came along. Of course not every book was a “classic” but when you could by 3 or 4 books for a buck, they didn’t all have to be a masterpiece. Kirby, Neal Adams, Jim Starlin were still producing new work every month, among other greats.

    I remember this series because, unlike today, new #1 issues didn’t crop up every week from DC or Marvel, it was somewhat of a novelty when a new series was launched. Gabe is right, when you saw a new #1, you were sure it was going to be worth $100,000 in ten years.

  5. filippod filippod (@filippodee) says:

    In Italy it came out 2 years later in the “Gli Eterni” monthly magazine, which compiled together The Eternals, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Nova and Omega. I was 9 and I loved it!

    Many years later I bought myself a full original Omega run (including the 2 Defenders issues) from Mile High Comics for cheap. I still treasure it.

  6. J-Nel J-Nel says:

    I finally got around to reading this (the Gerber/Skrenes trade) after I’ve been thinking since its release that Lethem & Dalrymple’s remake was just about at close as Marvel would ever get to having a singular artistic evergreen collection on par with something like “Watchmen” in their library and publishing history.

    There are plenty of nods to the work covered here, but I doubt even the most militant TCJer would find fault with the remake. It’s truly a masterpiece that embraces the roots of its predecessor but does not make their research necessary for maximum enjoyment. It’s pretty much the best thing Marvel has done since the 60s…

    But I digress (a lot and lovingly), this work was nicely written, not Gerber’s best but he definitely makes his mark in humanizing James Michael and his gang of social misfit buddies and had plenty of heart despite all of its more forced superhero elements. But damn, it got downright wacky and hilarious when in the final Omega issue and those Defenders stories… I was like, “Really, this is how they ended this character???”

  7. Nathan Adler says:

    The following site has some potential clues as to the mysteries left behind by Gerber and Skrenes:
    http://fanfix.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/%E2%80%A6the-connection-between-omega-the-unknown-and-james-michael-starling/

    • J-Nel J-Nel says:

      Wow! What a great blog post. You even got Ms. Skenes in for a comment… I’m happy to hear she approved of the Lethem remake…

  8. Nathan Adler says:

    Thanks J-Nel, Happy to communicate with you further about it if you post a comment on my blog (and I’ll get in touch privately:)