Or – “Another Of My Transformative Comic Book Experiences…”

My work-week is a strange and freakish sort of thing, changing random in terms of hours, days off, stress level and general need for attention, and is the equivalent of herding cats in a firestorm while wearing a cotton-candy suit and being chased by hungry mandrills.  As such, I try to use Sunday as a decompressive day, a moment where I can think about something (or, indeed, about nothing, if necessary) and evaluate meaningful things.  The Retro Review is basically my forum to say, “Hey, did you guys read this excellent comic I have?”  As such, I thought I might share with you one of the first books that I encountered that really grabbed me and made me think about the meaning and the possibilities of the art form.  And, naturally, if you know me, you know damn well it was written by Steve Gerber…

Omega The Unknown #10
Script: Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes
Pencils: Jim Mooney
Inks: Jim Mooney
Colors: Phil Rachelson
Letters: Gaspar Saladino (page one), Howard Bender
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Previously, on Omega The Unknown:  James-Michael Starling was not a normal young boy.  Stoic to a fault, with a genius-level intellect, J.M. was raised far from civilization by his equally enigmatic parents.  Soon after his 12th birthday, James-Michael is told by his parents that they will be moving to New York City to further his education and expose him to a broader spectrum of humanity (a sentiment that the boy highly dislikes and argues vehemently against.)  During the move, the family is involved in an auto accident which throws J.M. safely away from the vehicle, but causes fatal damage to his parents.  Why call it “damage” and not “injuries,” you ask?  Well, Faithful Spoilerite, that’s because his parents aren’t human at all.  As his robot mother melts and explodes, young Starling finds his mind near the breaking point.  While in the hospital recovering, Starling is attacked by robots and defended by a strange hero dubbed “Omega The Unknown” by the press.  Starling and Omega are somehow bonded, and James-Michael is even able to use super-powers of his own, but neither seems to know the whole story of their history.  Both J.M. and Omega end up in Hell’s Kitchen, where one of them fights villains and the other attends high school, and neither is truly satisfied with their lot in life.  When the brutality of life in the city leads to one of his only friends being murdered, James-Michael Starling finds himself at a crossroads…

After the brutal and senseless death of a 14 year old boy, both Omega The Unknown and James-Michael have had enough of New York, enough of their situations, and enough of the horror that is Hell’s Kitchen.  Each begins his own plan to escape, in very different ways…

Amber and Ruth, by the way, are the women who serve as James-Michael’s foster parents, and they’re not the bitches that this sequence makes them seem.  (There is some gentle subtext as to whether or not they’re a couple, but that may just be me.)  Omega and Gramps, the local pawn shop owner, take all the cash that the old man has in the world and set out for Las Vegas to make their fortunes.  The moment they step off the plane, Gramps sees a slot machine, and Omega instructs him to choose his machine carefully, to use all his senses and to make the machine an extension of himself.  An immediate jackpot surprises the old man to no end…

Accompanied by sarcastic tomboy Dian (who clearly isn’t as much of a tomboy as it seems when it comes to James-Michael, mind you) J.M. Starling catches a bus to his family’s home, returning home for the first time since his parents’ deaths.  As for Omega, his ability to get into a fight with evil-doers, regardless of how well he tries to mid his own business has followed him even into the desert.  His extensive interactions with humanity have left him drained, and he retreats to a bluff to try and gather his facilities for the unknown mission to come.  Enter a monster.  Read the captions closely as you look at this sequence, by the way…

Omega’s attempt to find solitude ends in more bad tastes in his mouth, as he is forced to blast the creature with his hand-rays (a process that has been described as unpleasant for him, and even more so for James-Michael, who has also shown this ability) and returns to Vegas puzzled as to what in the hell just happened.  It’s the brilliance of Steve Gerber that makes the sequence shine, though, as he makes a super-villains fistfight a metaphor for human interaction and opening yourself up to strangers, and how they steal little pieces of you while they’re not looking.  He also has a few choice thoughts for James-Michael Starling, who obviously hasn’t heard the bit about how you can never go home again…

Dian is truly freaked out by the strange house in the hills, especially her erstwhile beau’s assertion that it’s somehow “disorderly.”  In looking for the restroom to freshen up, Dian finds a small anteroom and screams in horror at what she finds:  more androids, specifically ANOTHER set of the androids that James-Michael knew as Mommy and Daddy!  At the same time, Omega and Gramps take the “attune yourself” method of gambling to it’s logical extreme as they take the Vegas Strip by storm…

How successful can these guys be at this particular gambit, you ask?

Gramps and Omega get choked out by the strange woman, who steals their fifty thousand dollars, and (with the help of her little pink dragon monster, the same creature that attacked Omega in the desert earlier in the issue) escapes out the hotel window using her strange tentacle things.  (Longterm Gerber readers might be able to put together the clues in this scene as to the identity of this mystery villain, and a Bronze Blok award goes to the first one to identify her.  NO WIKI!  Play fair!)  The alien hero wakes up quickly, and leaps after her, catching the feeling villain as she tries to take off with his money.  Unfortunately for Omega The Unknown, the Vegas Police Department doesn’t have any of this context to work with as they see a burly man strangling the $#!+ out of a girl in a dress…

Omega The Unknown is shot down in the streets, and left for dead.  THE END.

No really, that’s how the series ends.  Upon my first reading of this issue, I missed the closing panel there, and didn’ t realize that this was THE FINAL ISSUE of the series.  The book that started weirdly and never gave us a lot of context ended exactly as it should have:  With inexplicable violence and a cliff-hanger for James-Michael.  This was the first issue of Omega that I ever found after reading of the character in the Official Handbook of The Marvel Universe Book of the Dead, and my first look at the art of Jim Mooney, whose work on Dial H For Hero, Superboy, Tommy Tomorrow and (Siiiiigh) Supergirl would later become a fave-rave.  His take on Kara Zor-El made her absolutely adorable, and his work here, while somewhat grimmer and more mature, is equally amazing, with the legendary artist inking his own work.  I’ve talked before about “good mystery” and “bad mystery” and Omega’s saga is truly my definition of how “good mystery” works.  Even though there’s very little explanation or exposition (indeed, it’s several issues before the title character even SPEAKS) but you want to know more, you want to know the truth about what’s going on.  The eventual denouement of it all in Defenders isn’t what I expected, missing that distinct Gerber panache, but really, nothing could follow up on the simple elegance of this book and the lightning bolt ending that it gives us.  There may be a lot of personal love here, but I can honestly say that this issue of Omega is a wonderful bit of work, with art that is elegant in it’s simplicity, writing that is clearly personal and meaningful, and a cliff-hanger the likes of which I wouldn’t run into again until Twin Peaks went off the air years later.  As with anything though, it’s my review, my rules, and I make ’em up, meaning that Omega The Unknown #10 earns a heartfelt 5 out of 5 stars overall.  The whole series is available in trade and in Essential Format, and I highly recommend you dig ’em up.  It’s an unusual coming of age story that’s completely worth the bucks you’ll shell out..

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Late Evening:  What final issues have the most emotional resonance for you, and why?

 

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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7 Comments

  1. Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
    October 3, 2010 at 10:46 pm — Reply

    I have to agree. There’s something about Gerber’s work in this era that is very compelling. I picked up Omega and the mid-70s Defenders after getting hooked on the early 80’s Defenders and found it all mesmerizing. Weird, but compelling, and some of the best storytelling I’ve ever run across. Thanks for highlighting this (and Defenders #50, one of the first four-color stories that made me cry.) RBHS

  2. Michael M Jones
    October 4, 2010 at 1:29 am — Reply

    If it’s Gerber, and a woman named Ruby with weird head tentacles, it can only be Ruby Thursday of the Headmen. Definitely a freaky-cool creation.

    As far as final issues go, I’ll stick with the ends of Hitman, Starman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and Sandman. In every case, the creator got to tell a full story from beginning to end, and spin out things as they wanted, whether it was a happily ever after or a tragic-yet-heroic death. (Or both!)

  3. Navarre
    October 4, 2010 at 7:33 am — Reply

    I have one issue of Omega the Unknown. It is one of the first comics I’d read but I’d forgotten all about it until today. Thanks, Matthew!

    As for the resonating final issue of a series, I think Rom: Space Knight comes to mind. I would still love to see a hero history or even a retro review on that character.

  4. keith davis
    August 20, 2017 at 7:32 am — Reply

    I was in love with this comic book as a kid and I was so sad with the way Omega and James Michael Starling died. But what I don’t get is this: if Omega was an android or a robot,whatever, how could some bullets kill him since he technically wasn’t alive?

    • August 20, 2017 at 11:10 am — Reply

      I think the eventual explanation was that his home planet was trying to create a perfect android, with Omega being the penultimate step to a perfectly replicated aritficial human, and as such was practically human. (James-Michael was the final step, a fully organic artificial being, if I recall correctly…)

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