April 1, 2012

Classic Comics Cavalcade: OMEGA THE UNKNOWN

This Column Originally Appeared on Comics Bulletin
As promised (or threatened) last time, Daniel and Jason are back to talk about Steve Gerber's mad genius work for Marvel Comics in the 1970's. This time they explore his work on the series OMEGA THE UNKNOWN.

Daniel Elkin: “Are you in pain, James-Michael?”

Jason Sacks: “Only the voices can harm you. Don't listen to the voices. It's dangerous to listen.”

Elkin: This Omega the Unknown is some seriously hard-to-wrap-my-head-around comic booking going on.

Sacks: It's all pretty Gerber, if you ask me.

Elkin: But with such an overwhelming sense of disconnect. To the point where I began to feel my emotions dripping out of my toes -- that is, I guess, until the fucking Foolkiller shows up again.

Sacks: What do you mean by "an overwhelming sense of disconnect"?

Elkin: I guess the fact that James-Michael and Omega were, at least initially, so devoid of an emotional response to the world. It seemed almost un-Gerber.

Sacks: A lot of this book is about what happens to unemotional people when they're thrust into a situation where they are forced to react.

You put a stone-faced, home-schooled genius in the midst of one of the worst slums in New York and send him to the middle school from Hell, and then force him to deal with the consequences of that life.

Elkin: And he has this very intimate connection with Omega who is also very uneasy with his emotional side -- so much so that when he finally has to emotionally respond to things, he seems to get increasingly erratic and out of control.  Or am I totally misreading this comic? I kind of found it confusing, but engaging because of that -- Actually, I'm not really sure how I felt about Gerber's Omega. Talk me through this, Sacks. Maybe by the end of this, I will actually be able to tell you what I thought.

Sacks: Hmm, tell you what to think? Well, this is the comic that has haunted me for years, since I was literally 11 years old, and the comic that really cements Gerber in my mind as one of the great American writers.  There are so many factors in this comic that make it intriguing for me: the mysteries at the heart of the story (what is Omega fleeing from, what is his connection to James Michael, and what is the story with James-Michael's parents); the incredible horrors of inner city life, full of roaches and bums and a school that can literally kill you; the kind of unknowable figures at the heart of it - Omega really is, quite literally, unknown on almost every level; the fact that the series ends on about ten different cliffhangers; Gerber's expansive and generous writing that over-intellectualizes so much; and last but not least, the very strange satire of Superman at the heart of the story.

Plus for years I've had a crush on Amber Grant.

Elkin: Heh. I understand all that you say here, Sacks. I guess maybe the fact that there is so much that is unknown in this story is what made it hard for me to connect with it. I've got this problem, see -- I'm one of those sense-making creatures. If you would be so kind, please walk me through what you know about this series and Gerber's connection with it.

Sacks: Now that's a tough question.
Gerber actually didn't ever talk much about this series except to say that readers shouldn't discount or forget Mary Skrenes' work on it. He never answered many questions about the series or about what he intended readers to make of it. Which is also part of what makes it so intriguing for me - it's a bit of a Rorschach test for readers in a way.

Elkin: Nice metaphor.

Sacks: Let me ask you this: did you feel like this book tried to be emotionally distant? Do you feel like there was an effort somehow to separate readers from the super-hero action?
Because one of the interpretations of Omega I've played with over the years, and I'm sure this insight didn't originate with me, but the comic is much more about the kid than the hero. It's as if Shazam! was about Billy Batson but they had to throw Captain Marvel in there.

Elkin: In terms of the book trying to be emotionally distant, I would have to say yes. It was like Gerber was purposefully keeping the audience at arm's length. Now, given your theory that the book is really about James-Michael, that would sort of make sense, wouldn't it? Because he was raised in isolation by robots, James-Michael could not have an emotional attachment to things, so by making the book as distant as he did, Gerber is, in a way, immersing the reader into James-Michael's point of view.

Something that Ruth said in issue one was, "And you know this trouble I've had lately... Relating..." That really stood out to me. And, given this context, it makes sense why.

Sacks: Yet despite your comments about the coldness at its heart - which I think is an interesting insight and actually is one of my favorite aspects of the comic - there is so very much happening around the edges that is intense and highly emotional, from the squalor of New York to the edge that Amber has, to the events at Junior High School 41.

Elkin: That's true, and the juxtaposition is rather unnerving at times.

Especially with what happens to poor John Nedley

Sacks: Shades of "The Kid's Day Out".

Elkin: That's what I was thinking, exactly.

Sacks: Imagine reading that at age 10 or 11.

Elkin: I imagine you were terrified to go to Middle School.

Sacks: When everything else on the stands was bright and shiny and full of flash, here was this crazy. almost underground sensibility that showed a whole different world than I lived in at that time. It was bizarre, strange, transgressive. It felt wrong. And even reading it today, it feels wrong. Stuff isn't the way it's supposed to be in super-hero comics. Bruce Banner treated like a bum on the street, Elektro terrorizing a TV telethon, the hero allowing a villain to just walk away, another villain who basically is a rapist and sadist, and then the completely inexplicable reappearance of Ruby Thursday.

It's the fact that everything seems so different that makes it so compelling to me.

Elkin: Don't forget The Handyman, either.

I agree there is truly an underground sensibility to this comic. It's almost like it really, really wants to tell us something important, but is afraid that when it tells it to us, we will end up hating it for doing it.
At the start of Issue 4 there is this bridge metaphor – Gerber talks about going from one beginning to its other beginning. I think that sort of sums up what I am talking about.

Sacks: The great cosmic question: "What am I doing here?"

Elkin: Right -- but I don't know that Gerber felt comfortable telling us his answer to this question. He has Omega gunned down by cops in Vegas, for goodness sake!

Sacks: It's such a despairing ending - like Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Very late '60s early '70s auteur cinema, you know?

Elkin: I agree. It's like he was saying that order, control, (dare I say) perfection is absolutely impossible to become manifest on this dirty, sordid, chaotic planet.

Because we have our emotions???

Sacks: In that narration, the question isn't why our emotions lead us to those actions, but why with all of our emotions, nobody tried to save the woman from attempting suicide.

Elkin: You're talking about the El Gato storyline, right? Is that not only a condemnation of our selfishness, but also a condemnation of organized religion and an exploration of the whole appearance vs. reality question?

Sacks: Yes, absolutely, and all themes that we've seen Gerber explore before.

In some ways this comic is a summation of so many of Gerber's themes - the uselessness of existence, the way random things happen to good people, and as I think I mentioned before, the problem that parents always seem to have in Gerber's stories.

It's a very existential comic. And Gerber built to this level of existentialism for a long time, as we read.

Elkin: So what do you think Gerber is trying to say, ultimately, with this series?

Sacks: There's one other aspect I really wanted to mention: the presence of Omega at its center. The blurb in each issue kind of sums up the kind of strange juxtapositions in the character: "The lone survivor of an alien world, a nameless man of somber, impassive visage, garbed utterly inappropriately in garish blue-and-red."
Elkin: I do love it when he gets the suit and the glasses, but he keeps his headband on!

But you were saying...

Sacks: Yeah I love that too. He looks so great in the casino scenes.

But what I was saying was that on the surface Omega looks like a classic hero; in fact, elements of the first issue remind me of Superman. But instead he's selfish, mysterious, seldom talks. He is both unknown and unknowable.

Elkin: So, I hate to keep coming back to this, but what is Gerber trying to convey here?

Sacks: Ha, you're such a schoolteacher.

Elkin: Sorry...

It just seems to me that there is some sort of profound subtext going on here -- something just under the surface -- that Gerber really wants his readers to grasp, and yet he is afraid to let it all hang out.

And that is kind of alluring, isn't it, so I think I understand why you are such a fan of this series.

Sacks: I think we're seeing a continuation of the themes he explored in Defenders and Man-Thing: a sense that no matter how strong you are, no matter if you can shoot omega-sized bolts out of your hands or have jet wings on your back or whatever, that despair and pain are just around the corner. I think he saw himself as a kind of social realist, who was using the milieu of super-heroes and a Billy Batson/Captain Marvel metaphor to show that even the Marvel Universe is just as fucked up as our normal world.

We're all bozos.

Elkin: Amen.

Sacks: It's the same insight that makes me love the writing of Philip K. Dick so much - no matter what happens, no matter what we can do or what we think of ourselves, we're still at the mercy of everything around us in the world. Or as Crowded House sang, "everywhere you go, you take the weather with you." Or to quote the great philosopher Buckaroo Banzai, "wherever you go, there you are."

Elkin: So Omega has to die. That makes sense. But what is to become of poor James-Michael?

Sacks: Well, does he die? How do we know? And the question of what would have happened to James-Michael and Dian has haunted me for years. I honestly have absolutely no idea what happened to them.

Elkin: Time for you to write a fan-fiction.... heh.

Hey, I understand that in 2007, novelist Jonathan Lethem took a crack at the character -- did you read that series and does it have anything to do with our discussion?

Sacks: Yes, and it was outstanding, and Letham's book explores similar themes, yes. But I'd rather focus on Gerber and Mooney's work and not explore the sequel.

Elkin: Can I assume Omega came after Gerber's work on The Defenders and Man-Thing?

Sacks: Yes, it was one of his final series at Marvel.

Elkin: So, could we assume that it was the culmination of the themes he had been exploring in the previous titles, then?

Sacks: I think there's no question about it, don't you? It just feels like a summation of the world view we've been exploring over the previous 5 columns and a very interesting "serious parody" (as Lethem calls it) of the hero tropes that Gerber had explored for so long and so intensely.

Elkin: So the message I am picking up from all of this, especially Omega the Unknown, is that Gerber believed that emotions lead to suffering, making true human connections ultimately impossible, and that we as a species are ultimately doomed to a certain annihilation (due to the overuse of aerosol sprays)?

Sacks: Ha.

Elkin: That was two ultimately's – sorry.

But seriously -- Gerber seems to have a real issue with emotional connections between individuals.

Sacks: Jonathan Lethem writes, "Gerber seemed to verge on writing his way not only out of comics, but out of the human race."

Elkin: Profound... and sad.

Sacks: Yes, that seems to be a universal theme in his work. We're all alone. No matter our families, our friends, our connections that we feel with others. We are all ultimately alone.

Elkin: And this appealed to you at 10 years old????

Sacks: Wow, you know, all this conversation makes me wonder why I like Gerber so much even now. After all, I relate well to people, love my family life, and am very much an optimist.

Elkin: It's the duality thing that Gerber was talking about, perhaps. Or maybe the appearance vs. reality idea -- like El Gato.

Sacks: Maybe it's because Gerber was an alternative to the other media of the time. He and a handful of other writers of his era stood out as being intensely, emotionally honest. He wrote from the heart and he wrote with passion. You could feel him reaching through every page and begging you to understand his view of the world.

Elkin: I agree.

Sacks: My other favorite writer of the era, and a man who I'm very happy to call a  real friend, Don McGregor, once summed it up perfectly: "I write every word as if it's the last word I'll ever get a chance to write."

Elkin: Nice. That gives a real intensity and thoughtfulness to writing. Funny -- now that you put that quote out there, I feel like an increasingly foolish bozo with each keystroke.

Sacks: Why? Do you feel like a dilettante?

Elkin: Not a dilettante, so much, more like being far too casual with my thinking. Damn you, Gerber for filling me with further self-doubt!

Sacks: Ha, well, after the discussions we've had lately, I don't exactly think you're shallow, The piece on "Shut Up, Little Man" was one of the most interesting pieces I've ever been part of for the site.

Elkin: Thanks for the compliment. You're no slouch in this department either. It was pretty amazing where that film took us. It is also pretty amazing where an exploration of the works of Steve Gerber has taken us too. I noticed that Jamil Scalese has given us the moniker, ElkSack.

Sacks: Love it! Okay, final words...

Elkin: Gerber = Good, but in kind of a "depressing realization of the futility of our desire to connect" way?

Sacks: It's all about trying desperately to kick against the pricks and keep trying, sometimes against desperate odds, to just stay alive and going.

Elkin: Sounds like a campaign slogan to me. Heh.

Sacks: Or maybe I'm just trying to justify him as being more optimistic than he actually is. Because you're right, I'm tempted to sum Gerber up by saying, wow, he was really depressed in the mid '70s but boy was he a great writer!

Elkin: Those may be the final words, Sacks.

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