Saturday, October 27, 2012

Not All My Power Can Save Me

As long as we're talking about failed experiments in comics, this one was a doozy:

The late 1970s seemed to be Marvel's hit-and-miss years, as far as establishing new series and new characters. The reboot of Uncanny X-Men was inarguably the company's most high-profile "hit"; and of course Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man, in part made possible by Spider-Man's successful anchoring of Marvel Team-Up, enjoyed a long run of over twenty years. But many of Marvel's concepts of that period didn't bear fruit. The Man Called Nova, despite having a pretty inspired costume, came across visually as merely a flying super-speedster. Its last issue, pulling out all the stops, proclaimed:

To which readers, those who were left, responded at this point with: "So?"

And despite her endurance to this day, Ms. Marvel didn't have an easy go of it either, her first comic series ending after 23 issues--the last few including redesigns of the book's masthead as well as her costume. The Champions, which grouped Iceman, Angel, Hercules, the Ghost Rider, and the Black Widow into a super-team based in Los Angeles, failed after just 17 issues.

Then there was Omega, the Unknown--featuring a character who, after over a year and a half of (bi-monthly) publication, still remained "unknown" to even his readers. That's a little long to tell an origin story and still be no closer to the title character's origin. The last two issues then tried to coax new readers with an almost shamelsss cover blurb on each:

Which was really the only lifeline available to it, unfortunately. Writer Steve Gerber, despite stints on scripting The Defenders and Daredevil, didn't approach the calibre of comics writers like Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, et al., in part because he was sort of the Tim Burton of comics--delivering respectable product, but more imaginative in the short term sense. Howard The Duck fared better than most late '70s start-ups (with 31 issues), getting its boost from the uniqueness of its title character as well as from artist Gene Colan's contribution to it--so this sort of plug at this point in Omega's run couldn't do any harm, though it was probably more of a "hail Mary" pass as far as expectations for increased sales.

So what exactly was the deal with this character? As it turns out, the cover of the book's first issue gives you just about every piece of the puzzle concerning the character's makeup:

Yet from there, the story drags on, throwing its readers bones. We learn that there's a strange link between this mysterious costumed figure a newspaper has dubbed "Omega," and a boy, James-Michael Starling, who survived a car crash that killed his parents. Unfortunately, the book's final issue leaves us not only that unsolved mystery, but a new storyline involving a woman and a strange creature, which results in Omega's death by the police:

The story of Omega--the very dead Omega, by the way--then gets lobbed over to The Defenders for its resolution. And it only takes just a few pages in a two-issue story in that title to wrap things up and reveal everything.

Basically, the metal "assassin" you see on the cover of Omega #1 is part of a bio-metal alien race which has reached the end of its evolution, and is bio-engineering its own "replacement" race. The plan involves creating several "models" to be sent to different worlds, each resembling its respective world's inhabitants--and each ignorant of its true origin, thinking itself to be the same species as that which inhabits the world it's been sent to. Each model then absorbs the qualities of the race it lives among, after which its evolved attributes are transferred to another model on another world--and so on, until the last model, which has accumulated all of the other models' attributes, is summoned back to serve as the prototype for the replacement species.

"Omega," know by his model name as X32, is the next to last model, and is just about ready to have his attributes transferred to the final model:

The "final, purely biological model" placed on Earth, if you haven't already guessed, is James-Michael. A kid who has been observed to be "unemotional" and who speaks in a very analytical fashion, and with good reason--he has yet to process the emotions he's learned on Earth in the context of what's been absorbed by the models preceding him, because the transfer from X32 to himself hasn't yet taken place.

Nor, tragically, will it, at least according to plan. Because X32's hosts have chosen him to be the recipient of a process which will give him the ability to harness their world's life force--which the bio-metal race sees not only as a danger to that world, but a danger that might be spread because of their own carefully-laid plan:

Well, you know what they say about "the best laid plans." While the bio-metal ships race to the planet, X32 successfully undergoes the treatment. But the approaching ships are seen as alien attackers (beats me why one ship couldn't have retrieved this guy), and the planet's leaders decide to test their warrior's new ability in combat against them. And as the bio-metal beings feared, the power proves to be uncontrollable--X32 ends up destroying the entire planet's infrastructure and population.

But in his rage and frustration, he places the blame on the "attackers," who provide a startling revelation:

X32 then escapes his captivity, and travels to Earth to seek out James-Michael and thereafter become his silent protector. As we've seen above, events led to his death. But James-Michael, who now possesses the same power which destroyed X32's host world and is now beset by the bio-metal beings who are attempting to contain him, finally has the entire story revealed to him by Moondragon. The truth proves to be too much for him--and, rejecting it in anguish, prepares to remove the threat of these beings who have haunted his dreams, once and for all:

Fortunately, the humanity which his creators had hoped to instill in him by placing him on Earth turns out to be the planet's saving grace:

In retrospect, I think Omega the Unknown would have done better in sales had it been produced and marketed as a 10-issue "limited series," trimming it down and getting rid of a lot of pointless exposition in favor of more informative segments of Omega's origin. Much of James-Michael's awkwardness and difficulty in fitting in with his peers could have been accomplished in far less space than was taken during the run of the book. And as for Omega himself, we could have done away with panels like this one, which seemed to serve no purpose other than giving the writer something to do:

If a limited series featuring the character had been successful and the character of "Omega" was in demand, it could have been a good jumping-off point for a regular monthly series. In reality, it seems Omega's real-world fate was as doomed as the purpose given to him by his fictional creators.


Kid said...

No wonder he was disturbed - take a look at the panel 7-down. He had a a woman's body. I bought the first few issues of this series when it first came out, but could never really get into it. Marvel seemed to want to give their new heroes outer-space connections for some reason. (Omega & Nova. In fact, it occurs to me that Nova's origin was kind of similar to Green Lantern's in some ways.)

Comicsfan said...

Now that you mention it, Ms. Marvel also had that "outer-space connection." Though you might say Omega's extra-terrestrial connection to James-Michael was under wraps until well after his book was cancelled.