Omega the Unknown #1 (1975)

Omega the Unknown #1 (March, 1975)
“Omega the Unknown!”
Writers/Creators – Steve Gerber & Mary Skrenes
Art – Jim Mooney
Letters – John Costanza
Colors – Petra Goldberg
Edits – Marv Wolfman
Cover Price: $0.25

Hey everybody… don’t have much of a pre-ramble today.

We’re going to be looking at the first issue of Omega the Unknown, which was the book I chose to begin my ReMarvel podcast series with last Fall.  ReMarvel was my attempt at rediscovering some of my favorite Marvel stories… after many years away… and I felt like Omega was a fun place to start that journey.

If you’re familiar with my audio-exploits (which I highly doubt anybody is), you’ll know that the story that goes along with Omega will be filled with personal anecdotes and tangents.  I “discovered” this book during a very tumultuous time in my life… and, as such, can’t help but to equate it with that wibbly-wobbly time.

Here’s a link to the show in case anyone’s interested (which… yeah, I know… you ain’t):

Let’s get into it!

We open with the scene of a man clad in dark blue with red trim and cape is engaged in battle with a small army of robots.  There is an odd, uncertain narration accompanying this scene… it’s unclear who’s voice this is.  The man wrecks havoc on these robots, before ultimately destroying them with a blast from his hands.  Before the blast erupts, we can see that they sort form the “omega” symbol on his palms.

After blasting, he drops to his knees… exhausted.  A previously unseen robot approaches to take advantage of the situation, and winds up shooting our man in the back with a ray-gun of sorts
He screams in agony!

… which segues into our next scene!  A young boy sits up in his bed, also crying out as though he’s in pain.  His parents enter the room to check on him, and address him as James Michael
When asked if he can remember what his dream was about, the boy says he cannot.  He can only remember the “feeling”… cold, desolation… We learn that this family, the Starlings, lives up in the mountains… and to this point, James Michael has never *really* interacted with other children.  He’s met a few, but wasn’t all that impressed.  Tell me about it!

That situation is all about to change, however, because the kid’s going to be shipped into the city to attend school there.  In fact, this scene is occurring at a motel near New York City… and, he’s not taking this change all that well.  I can relate.  The next morning, the Starlings pack up at the motel and head toward their destination.
James Michael still ain’t digging this.  His parents try and psyche him up.

As they’re coming around a bend in the road, James Michael calmly suggests that his mother brace herself… because there’s going to be a collision.  Just then, a truck veers right for them!

It nails them head on, pushing the car off the road… and off the side of a nearby cliff!

Hearing his mother’s voice, James Michael comes to… he follows her voice and discovers her… severed robotic head?!  She warns him not to listen to the voices… as they’re the only thing that can harm him.  Then… the head melts into slag!

As James Michael attempts to make sense out of the situation, whispers begin to arise in the back of his head… those whispers become roars, and he’s suddenly seeing some really psychedelic stuff!  This is interrupted by the arrival of onlookers and passersby to check on the wreck… James Michael begins to panic.

Back to the big guy… our “hero” is shackled to a wall via energy beam restraints.  He looks on as a battle rages between those robots… well, they look like robots… and humans… well, they look like humans.  He is able to break free of his bindings, and launched into action… wrecking the bots.  He steals a rocket and shoots off into orbit.  As he draws further and further away from the planet, he is enveloped in darkness.

Which segues beautifully into the darkened hospital room of James Michael Starling!  He calmly asks a nurse if he was in a coma… she confirms that he was.  He’s at the Barrow Clinic in New York… so, it looks like he made it to the city after all!  He asks why he’s been restrained… she tells him it’s to keep him safe in case he begins thrashing.  He reminds her… calmly, that he’s not currently thrashing, and asks that the restraints be removed.  He also… calmly informs her that if he can’t untense his muscles pretty soon, he might just begin to panic.

The nurse calls in Dr. Thomas Barrow to evaluate the creepily calm boy.  After a brief introduction, the Doc is impressed with JM’s vocabulary.  James Michael tells him he’s been home-schooled.  The Doc asks where “home” is for the boy, to which he calmly replies that he doesn’t have one anymore… because, ya know, mom and dad are dead.  When asked “when?” they died, JM responds with “this morning”.

We learn that he was actually in a coma for a month!  The doc asks how he feels about losing his parents… and he calmly replies “They were good to me.”  He then lets it slip that the only thing he has to fear are the voices… whiiiiich makes the Doc’s ears perk up a bit.
This reaction kind of freaks the boy out… but the Doctor apologizes for overreacting, and everything gets smoothed over.

James Michael asks if he still has to go to school… to which, the nurse laughs… this is the first “normal boy” reaction she’s seen out of him yet.  The nurse gives him a sedative… and he asks her to explain the chemical composition of the pills… ay yai yai.  The Doc lights up his pipe, and tries wrapping his head around everything concerning this boy.  So fascinated is he, that he wants to keep him at the clinic to learn more about his situation.  Unfortunately, James Michael doesn’t have any money… and the Clinic’s board of directors isn’t keen on doing charity… so, the lad’ll likely be on the street before long.

In the meantime, however, he instructs the nurse, Ms. Hart to “pump” the kid for information… and so, over the next few weeks she does just that.  Well, she tries to anyway, this kid ain’t making a peep.

At the next Board of Directors meeting, Dr. Barrows makes his pitch to keep the boy at the clinic.  They tell him to cough up the $500 a week himself if he’s so interested.  Since the Doc ain’t willing to part with the funds, he and Nurse Hart move on to Plan B, which is: Ruth the Nurse and her roommate, Amber will take the boy home with them

While still at the clinic, Amber discovers James Michael playing chess… and they briefly talk about playing games against yourself… some real weird dual-personality chatter here.  Amber says sometimes “the voices” get into her head… to which, the boy perks up not realizing that she isn’t referring to anything “specific”.
Ruth enters the scene and informs the “punk” that he’s coming home with them.  He’s surprised… but, is cool to go along for the ride… after all, it beats being shipped off to the “funny farm”.

Later, James Michael gets settled in bed… however, before he can fall asleep… one of those robot-looking dudes from the other world busts through his window!  The creature “scans” JM with a sort of eyebeam to confirm he’s the right target… and although he’s not the right size… the bot is fine killing him anyway.

Just then… the “hero” arrives, and engages in battle with the bot!
After a lengthy, and room destroying tussle, the hero lets off an omega blast to destroy the baddie.  He smiles at the boy, collects the bot-body, and leaves!

… Just as Dr. Barrows bursts into the room!  He checks on the boy… who now has smoke rising from his hands.  Upon further investigation, it looks like the boy has the Greek letter “omega” imprinted on his palms…

What a weird and wonderful first issue!

Now, the first time I laid eyes on Omega the Unknown, it was the Jonathan Lethem/Farel Dalrymple version from 2008…

… which, doesn’t really look anything like a Marvel comic, does it?  I was totally taken aback by the weirdness… and, upon picking up the first issue, was completely hooked by the premise… even though, I hadn’t the foggiest idea quite what it was!

As I do, I started to research the character… and was pretty surprised to learn that this was a Bronze Age fella… created by Steve Gerber!  I was also kind of surprised (though, I probably shouldn’t have been!) by the fact that Gerber was… ticked off that Marvel was “reimagining” one of “his” characters.  He didn’t take too kindly to some “outsider” coming into comics and playing with “his” toys… and he made that abundantly clear on a web-site… Omega the Unknown-dot-com, which sadly no longer exists.  All the site said was “Omega the Unknown was created by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes”.  That was literally it.  Just a black background… and that line of text.  Weird… just like this comic.

I decided to learn all I could about the Gerber “take” on the character… which led me to this original 70’s run.  Now, if we were to compare the two takes… which, at present, I’m ill-equipped to do (it’s been awhile since I read through either series to completion), I wanna say there were plenty of similarities… but, also… enough differences to make the two feel like their “own thing”, ya know?  This ’08 Lethem series wasn’t like a straight-retelling of Gerber’s ’75.

Whatever the case… I enjoyed them both.  I almost started a project comparing the two… but, realized that it would have, at best, very limited appeal.  Sometimes I can be self-aware… thank heavens.

Let’s go ahead and talk about this issue.

It’s… really “in your face”, innit?  Very cerebral… and visceral… just really has a way of getting under your skin.  It’s a haunting story… that, you’ll likely be left thinking about for the rest of the day.  Least that’s how I received it (even on subsequent rereads).  It’s very dark… and, uncomfortable.

Like, the way James Michael’s story begins… we don’t get to see him in his “natural habitat”.  We meet him at a point of upheaval in his life… in a motel, on the way to a school he doesn’t want to go to.  Any semblance of a “real life” is missing.  It leaves the reader kind of nebulously “along for the ride”, ya know?  We don’t get any touchstone for J.M., which is difficult.  We don’t know much of anything about him.  It’s a very different way to start a story.

But, it’s that discomfort that fuels this book.  We don’t get any feelings of “home” or “family”.  We’re sort of passively receiving all of the information… but, only the information Gerber and Skrenes want us to have.  They’re building a mystery… on several fronts.  I don’t wanna say that this is “ahead of its time”, as I wasn’t a living nor breathing human back in 1975, and so I lack the proper context to do so… but, to me… this feels sort of head-and-shoulders above many mainstream comics of the day, insofar as its depth, and I dunno, “headiness”.

The scene where James Michael’s mother…..’s head tells him to protect himself from “the voices”?  Horrifying, wunnit?  Just from a visual… and visceral standpoint… that’s a mind-screwy bit, innit?  J.M. going from watching his mother’s head melt away… to full-blown psychedelia… what a visual!  Amazing storytelling from all involved.  Does it make sense?  No… not yet, anyway… but, damned if I don’t wanna know what happens next!

Nurse Ruth and her Roomie taking James Michael in… is a bit convenient… and makes me wonder just what sort of paperwork went into (even temporarily) adopting a weird child back in the mid-70’s… but, it keeps the story moving forward, so we’ll allow it.

Then… there’s Omega.  These were always the parts of the story that, comparably speaking, sort of bored me.  It was the sort of “grounding” of this book into the superhero realm… for better or worse.  I mean, for this story to “work”, we can’t have one without the other… so, we gotta allow it.  I will say, however, that these bits were the least strong… and, I have a sneaking suspicion that might’ve been by design.

Overall… should you check out Omega the Unknown?  And if so, which version?  I hate being “that guy”… but, my answer is “Yes.”  Read it… read ’em both.  As has become the cliche of these Marvel posts… I know neither diddly nor squat about Marvel Unlimited… but, for all I know, this book/these books are up there.  I’ll advocate for Omega the Unknown ’til the cows come home!  This one’s worth the effort.

(Not yet the) Letters Page (with a Marvel Value Stamp):

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5 thoughts on “Omega the Unknown #1 (1975)

  • Omega is one of those books that I have read more about than read actual issues of. It is for lack of a better term "proto-Vertigo". I think that it was ahead of its time. If the more modern limited series or graghic novel formats existed in 1975 this series ould have been better off in one on those formats. I think that Gerber had a story he wanted to tell here and was hampered by the demands of a monthly newsstand comic.
    It was unique when compared to other comics. This definately wasn't going to get confused with the latest issue of Spider-Man thats for sure. Its too bad that the ending to the whole thing got all fouled up.

    • Proto-Vertigo is definitely the "feel" of OMEGA. I wish Gerber and Skrenes were given the opportunity to properly wrap this one up. That said, I love how the ending of Omega's story was sort of facilitated by rabid fans of the day writing into letters pages. That really showed the power of the comics community back in the day. Even if the ending isn't the one we got, it's still a fascinating story that the fans "willed" it to happen

  • Well, I was a living and breathing human back in 1975 (at least according to the back story prepared by my FBI handlers after I arrived on this planet) but yeah, Omega the Unknown was definitely ahead of its time. I think it was the blue suit with red cape that made Omega the rare Marvel book to get my attention at that age. Older me recognizes that Steve & Mary were trying to do something different here; younger me wondered what was going on here. (I'm not sure if that is completely attributable to the storytelling or that I was still not completely acclimated to the ways of this planet in 1975. Alas, perhaps I have said too much.)

    I finally caught up on the original OtU series a couple of years back and it is a strange one but well worth the effort. Not just for the unique story from Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes but Jim Mooney's art steps up a notch on this book.

    In what is very much a creator driven project, Omega the Unknown still had fill in writers for 2 issues, Scott Edelman and Roger Stern. Scott and Roger did try to stick to the theme of the book, as I recall, but it does add more fuel to Steve Gerber's fire with how Marvel treated creators as you related in your podcast on Leonard the Duck. (Yes, I listened to that.)

    • I'm glad to hear that this one was actually ahead of its time! I always feel like I'm speaking "out of school" If I make such comments.

      Thank you for listening to the Leonard episode! I really appreciate it! I try never to assume there's any "crossover" audience. Much of my experience in content creation has taught me that pod-listeners are usually indifferent to blog posts, and vice-versa.

      Gerber was definitely protective of his creations, which… on one hand is mayyybe a bit "precious", though… I gotta say, it's refreshing seeing someone who actually CARES about the comics as much! It's a rarity anymore

  • Adam Bernstein

    Hi there, Adam from the Grown Ass Men podcast here. We trying to find Mary Skrenes for an interview. Any clues to her whereabouts?

    Thanks ahead!


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