Saturday, April 05, 2008

Out of the Vault - Omega

For the first edition of Out of the Vault, I figured I'd talk about an odd Marvel title from the 70's: Omega the Unknown. Omega ran for 10 issues, starting in early 1975 (Wikipedia is wrong about this) and running until mid-1977. It was written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes and drawn by Jim Mooney (Gerber died in February of this year, and Mooney died this week, on March 30).

Omega was about the relationship between a 12-year-old boy named James-Michael Starling and a mysterious alien with no name (the Daily Bugle dubbed him Omega due to the symbol on his headband, apparently). It only ran for 10 issues, but it made an impact on several readers of my generation, apparently. For instance, Jonathan Lethem, author of Fortress of Solitude, mentions Omega in several essays, and even included him on a list of the "Top Five Depressed Superheroes."

The series started with a bang, as Omega battled killer robots on his home planet. The robots enslaved the population, but Omega managed to break free, steal a spaceship, and escape the planet. It was a slam-bang opening, and I, for one, kept reading through 10 issues of second-rate supervillains and all manner of depressing crap, waiting for the series to fulfill the promise of this first page.

I mean, look at this (click on the picture for a larger version). This is the very first page of the first issue and shows Mooney at his best. The form is solid, the blacks defining the shape in space to perfection, and though the anatomy is good, the pose is exaggerated beyond all belief. I mean, look at his back foot. It's practically over his head. Dynamic action, solid basic drawing, polished inks: that's what Mooney brought to this book when he was at his best.

Unfortunately, Mooney's style fell a little short of everything the book required. His characters, with their delicate features and often stilted poses, looked more at home in a romance comic than in a gritty story about the mean streets of Hell's Kitchen in New York City. Not that Mooney didn't produce some excellent moments; his action scenes were pretty good, and he used a lot of blacks and shadows to create a foreboding mood. But there was just something sunny about his work, some holdover from the days when he was illustrating the adventures of Supergirl for DC, that he just couldn't get rid of and made scenes like this confrontation between James-Michael and a streetwalker ring false.

I'm not sure what it is, whether the delicate eyes or the Samantha Stevens hair, or just the clean inks that make the backgrounds look so sterile, even when he draws a street full of trash, but Mooney just never managed to make the pictures really fit with the mood of the script in these scenes.

But of course, that was part of the problem with the series as a whole. It was half a gritty tale of life on the street, and half a superhero story, and the two halves never really merged into a coherent whole. Omega as a hero never went out and battled crime as a conventional crimefighter; he literally seemed to stumble from one fist into another throughout the entire series. He never had a signature villain, never had a grand adventure. If Mooney never managed to juggle all the elements in the book just right, neither did Gerber.

And Marvel had no idea what to do with the book after a while. How do you put a compelling cover on an issue about a mentally disturbed handyman who beats an old lady to death with his wrench? Romita tried, God bless him, but this cover just completely misrepresents the story inside. I mean, "The Power of the Wrench?" Please.

In the final issue, cover dated October 1977, the book finally starts picking up momentum and looking like it's going somewhere. Omega and an old man he's befriended go to Vegas so Omega can earn enough money to get James-Michael out of Hell's Kitchen. Meanwhile, James-Michael runs away from Hell's Kitchen with a classmate to his old home in the mountains, where he discovers robot duplicates of his dead parents (who were also revealed to be robots when they died in a car crash in the first issue). At the same time, James-Michael's guardians, Amber and Ruth, are going crazy with fear for James-Michael while trying to deal with the menace of the Foolkiller, a nutso ex-cellmate of Ruth's boyfriend.

At the end of the issue, Omega is gunned down by cops in the street, with the promise that the story will be wrapped up soon in an issue of The Defenders (which I'm guessing Gerber was writing at the time). About a year later, Marvel announced that the story would actually be wrapped up in Captain America. Another year after that, in 1979, the story was finally wrapped up by a different writer, Steven Grant, in The Defenders after all.

The story was a big disappointment, in which both Omega and James-Michael were also revealed to be robots. Omega never shows up in the story at all, because the cops really killed him dead, apparently, and James-Michael goes crazy and self-destructs. A fitting end, I guess, given the downer tone of the series, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, nevertheless. Then again, this was America during the malaise of the Carter administration. Maybe if they'd waited until the Reagan administration, things might have turned out better, but by then, who would have cared?

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