In the Bullpen Bulletins page for the February, 1976 issues of Marvel comics, two new titles, HOWARD THE DUCK and OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, were previewed and spotlighted with illustrations. Two new, original comics by Gerber -- and yet, neither comic debuted that month. HOWARD debuted the month before, and OMEGA hit the stands a month later.
Once again, Gerber, with co-writer Mary Skrenes, created a hero inspired by the Superman mythos, a flying powerhouse from a distant planet with a shock of blue-black hair, a red and blue costume, and a red cape. His planet is destroyed by an army of metal soldiers, his people wiped out, and he himself, the last of his kind, escapes in a small rocket ship. "Escapes"? No -- he departs:
"Escape is impossible. Departure is not. He knows now where he must go...and why. There is more than self-preservation at stake...more, too, than one last thrust at the enemy. For he will be back one day...to claim his revenge."
Where he must go is planet Earth. But every other question fans were to have about the enigmatic and short-lived OMEGA comic will forever remain a mystery -- but more about that later. (We don't even know the hero's name. Here on Earth the media dub him "Omega" because of his headband, which has an omega-shaped design in the front.)
In the first issue we also meet the intended star of the book, a twelve-year-old named James-Michael Starling. In appearance he could almost be a younger version of Omega. Raised in isolation in the mountains near the Pennsylvania border and educated by his parents, James-Michael is mortified to learn that they intend for him to continue his education in New York City where, his father explains, he can "...begin to interact with other children...meet other kinds of people...be exposed to others' lifestyles..."
"Why?" James-Michael protests. "The other children I have met...bored me. And I can't imagine any way of life better than..."
"Correct," his father interjects. "Because imagination is fueled by experience, which is precisely what you wish to avoid."
On the way to New York, James-Michael's parents try to convince him that he'll benefit from the experience of social interaction
"...Human beings," says mom, "aren't as dull as you seem to believe, James-Michael."
"Hardly," dad agrees. "Understanding people is a science in itself."
Suddenly, a large truck swerves into their lane, and James-Michael utters in clinical fashion, "Mother...brace yourself. There's going to be a collision."
James-Michael is thrown clear of the vehicle, and awakens to see his mother's head on the ground. Her severed neck, however, reveals wires, cables and mangled machinery. She's an android, and her cryptic last words, like everything else in the series, are a mystery:
"You'll be all right, James-Michael...the world may confuse you...but you'll be all right...only...the voices...can harm you...don't listen to the voices...it's dangerous to listen..."
She melts into a bubbling puddle. James-Michael, having never developed parameters for emotion, is unaffected by the loss of his parents, his only regret being that his mother was unable to elaborate on the voices; nor is he duly disconcerted by the discovery that they were robots. (Perhaps he'd known all along, but in that issue's editorial, in lieu of a letters page, Gerber mentions that in the earliest stages of conception, James-Michael had no idea that his parents were robots until the accident.) Physically, though, he's hurt, and the voices that he was warned about , however indistinct they are, suddenly crowd into his head and overwhelm him. He passes out.
He awakens in a New York hospital, the Barrow Clinic, after being in a coma for a month. A nurse, Ruth Hart (the former biker chick from MAN-THING), calls for Dr. Thomas Barrow, and they're both astonished at his analytical approach to everything and by his facility with words.
"You've quite a vocabulary for a lad your age," says the doctor. "Where did you go to school?"
"I didn't. My parents tutored me at home."
"Mmm-hmmm. And where is home?"
"I don't have one anymore. Mother and father are dead."
"I see. When did they die?"
"This morning, wasn't it? In the car crash."
"That's right. The auto accident. How do you feel about that?"
"They were good to me."
Dr. Barrow finds James-Michael a fascinating subject and would like to study him further, but the clinic is on a tight budget, and the board of directors won't allow James-Michael to remain at the hospital. Ruth agrees to let him stay with her and her roommate, Amber Grant, a crude, gorgeous denizen of Hell's Kitchen. James-Michael has nowhere else to go, and, more importantly, no one to teach him. And Amber "interests" the 12-year-old, so he agrees to the new arrangements.
That night, still at the clinic, James-Michael is finding it difficult to sleep, the captions displaying the gist of his ruminations upon Amber: "Who is she?...Why does he feel ever so slightly...aglow?"
Suddenly, the window shatters and one of the metal soldiers we've seen earlier enters the room and analyzes James-Michael: "Unmistakeably the correct target. Yet it has altered its proportions. Smaller...more compact...No matter. I shall kill it anyw--" The robot's words go unfinished. He's confused when Omega creeps in through the window. A battle ensues, and here's where Gerber employs a new narrative twist: dispensing with dialogue for the next two-and-a-half pages, he instead uses captions to describe the thoughts going through Omega's mind as he and the metal soldier battle in James-Michael's hospital room. But there's an untold mental and physical connection between Omega and the boy, and we discover that it was actually James-Michael whose experience was being described. He feels every sensation Omega feels, their points of view interchangeable. And when Omega is about to be zapped by the metal man's gun, James-Michael instinctively raises his hands and destroys it with fiery rays that issue from his palms.
James-Michael tells Omega that he's seen him before in his dreams and wants to know who he is, but the caped man isn't telling. Omega lifts the inert form of the metal man from the floor and flies away. Dr. Barrow, having heard the commotion, barges into the room, only to find James-Michael staring at his smouldering hands and the omega-like symbols branded onto his palms. James-Michael, in typically detached manner, simply utters, "...I'm not accustomed to pain. It interests me..."
So, how did this comic book, ostensibly about a superhero named Omega but actually about a 12-year-old boy's analysis of an irrational world, come to be? Said Gerber, "I wanted to do a real twelve-year-old, a human being poised on the edge of puberty, facing all the enormous (and enormous-seeming) problems adolescence would bring..." What he didn't want was a cliched teenage sidekick, like Batman's Robin, or Captain America's Bucky Barnes; nor did he want a boy like Billy Batson, who could utter the word "SHAZAM!" and solve all his problems by turning into an adult superhero.
Gerber was told (presumably by fellow writers) that it wouldn't fly (no pun intended), that "[k]ids don't like to read about kids. They want a hero they can look up to and identify with at the same time." Critical of the superhero myth, Gerber "interpreted that to mean an adult with the emotional maturity of an infant...The clown in longjohns who punches first and asks questions later." Still, Gerber had to compromise -- he devised a mysterious superhero and gave the kid robot parents (this is beginning to sound old school) -- to sell the idea. "It had to be disguised as a superhero book, or Marvel would never have considered publishing it."
Marvel editors Marv Wolfman and Len Wein saw potential in Gerber's "amorphous invention" and the three of them brought it to Stan Lee, who liked it and gave it a title: "Omega the Unknown." Gerber, Wein, and former Spider-Man artist John Romita, now art director, designed Omega's costume. (In lieu of a letters page, Gerber used the space to write the preceding account of how Omega came to fruition. However, in an interview many years later, he claimed that it was he and Mary Skrenes that approached Stan with the idea.)
One night, Gerber was enjoying a "Quarter Pounder (with cheese)" with Mary Skrenes ("munching on her Big Mac"), who wrote comics mostly for other publishers and under a variety of pseudonyms, "when the subject of Omega entered into the conversation." They bounced ideas back and forth until they had a plot outline for the first issue and "a firm direction in mind for the series." Gerber and Skrenes would plot the stories and write the dialogue together, and then the material would be handed over to Gerber to write the captions and the final draft.
As was Marvel's wont, the second issue of OMEGA firmly established the hero in the "Marvel Universe" by having the Hulk and Electro guest-star, no doubt to boost sales of the fledgling title. Said Gerber, "It was pretty much company policy that the second or third issue of any new title must feature a guest star, usually either Spider-Man or the Hulk, the two best-selling characters of the time. I didn't think it worked with OMEGA at all."
Continuing from the previous issue, the story starts off with Omega making his way through a darkened alley, still carrying the metal man, when suddenly he's confronted by a shadowed figure. This stalker proceeds to insult Omega and everything he presumably stands for: "I've got you typed already as a do-gooder...the square jaw, the gorilla shoulders...a lost cause if ever I saw one." The mystery villain (anyone who's ever read SPIDER-MAN or DAREDEVIL would easily recognize his silhouette) electrocutes Omega with a lightning bolt from his fingertip and steals the robot.
Far more interesting is page five, where Ruth, Amber and James-Michael emerge from the subway and he's introduced to his new neighbourhood: Hell's Kitchen. Art imitates life, as they say, for Skrenes and Gerber had taken an apartment together in Hell's Kitchen in the mid-'70s to save money. "Brave man, that Gerber," as an item in the March, 1975 Bullpen Bulletins page put it. Commenting on those halcyon days of yore, Gerber said, "Mary and I lived in Hell's Kitchen, which, I'm told, some people thought was a reverse tactic to keep myself miserable. In fact, it was just cheaper. Mary and I were planning to move out of New York and wanted to keep our expenses down."
Skrenes was rather blunt about life in Hell's Kitchen in her article (again, in lieu of a letters page) in the 2nd issue of OMEGA. She wrote it in the form of a fictitious conversation between her and an obnoxious, crude Marvel employee identified only as "Guy," but later said to be the fictitious "Sanchez of the mailroom," a running joke at Marvel. He'd read issue #2 (presumably the original pages) and wondered how she and Gerber could be so cruel as to deposit a naive country bumpkin like James-Michael into an environment like Hell's Kitchen:
"Let me tell you just what it's like down there," Sanchez insists. "It's right near 42nd Street and the Times Square district. Sure, you got them Broadway theatres, but mostly you got sleazy bookstores and movie houses. Degenerates cruise the streets 24 hours a day. Floozies, hipsters, con artists, addicts, winos, bums, shopping bag ladies! Everywhere you look there's an eye missing, an arm, a leg, twisted bodies with oozing sores sleeping in doorways. People don't talk down there, they scream.
"Ninth Avenue leads downtown, right into the Lincoln Tunnel. The traffic is constant, and the noise level is ear-splitting. Exhaust fumes mix with the odor of human waste, rotting fruit, soggy cardboard, cow blood dripping from the meat market deliveries, booze on every breath, and cooking fumes from Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Indian restaurants, and as many different bakeries.
"The kids there would curl your hair. You don't see many of 'em, and the ones you do see are off the leash and tough. They got concrete postage stamps for playgrounds, but they'd rather play chicken with the crosstown traffic or get their yoks from tippin' over blind cripples. Who's James-Michael gonna be friends with -- the kid down the block with the switchblade in every pocket who plays mumbley-peg with his two-year-old sister when he has to babysit her?
"I'm tellin' ya, James-Michael will be eaten alive in that neighborhood!"
A legitimate concern. Indeed, on the fifth page alone the trio encounter punks hanging out on the street corner, a wino passed out in an alleyway, and an old geezer tap dancing for change, which Amber refuses to give. They reach their apartment building -- the front door of which is covered in graffiti -- and as soon as they open that door Ruth winces: "Eewgh! The corridors been violated again." James-Michael adds, "(Sniff) Am I mistaken -- or is that the odour of human excrement?" Amber replies, "That's the most convenient part about living in a jungle, right, Ruth? You can go anywhere."
Continuing on the next page, in the first panel -- having traversed four flights of the walk-up -- Ruth and Amber notice, upon entering their apartment, a cockroach, which we see in extreme close-up. Ruth proceeds to kill it with a can of bug-spray while growling, "Kill! Kill! Die! Die!" James-Michael turns to Amber and asks, "Is Ruth aware of the damaging effects of aerosol sprays on the ozone layer...?" Amber answers, "Probably. She's into the whole ecology bit. But I don't think this is the right phase of the moon to point it out." In the space of two pages we've run through a gauntlet of hoodlums, winos, bums, "human excrement" left in the hall, and cockroaches. Not your usual mainstream comic book fare. Nor is Ruth's period. Gerber himself was mystified by its existence: "I can't believe that dialogue got past the Code."
Later that night, Omega breaks into a pawn shop through the front door, hoping to find enough cash to buy clothing so he can roam the city less conspicuously. A normal law-abiding superhero would get a job, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. Omega, with desperation and shame, does a b&e: "His nature is not predatory. His race had come so close to perfection. And yet...indecisiveness repels him equally." As fate would have it, Omega wanders in on three hoodlums who have apparently broken in through the back entrance. One of the robbers attacks Omega with a chain, which leads him to conclude that not all humans have a "special power" like Electro. With herculean strength, Omega overpowers the men -- but he's not impervious to bullets, and takes one in the shoulder. The store's proprietor, "Gramps," appears, brandishing a double-barreled shotgun. The police arrest the three hoodlums, and Gramps befriends Omega and dresses his wound, not realising he'd also been there to rob the place.
It should be noted that Omega, the strong, silent type, hasn't spoken one word up to this point in the series. Since he can't get anything out of Omega, Gramps calls him "Sam," as though he were adopting an alley cat. (We never do find out what our hero's real name is.)
In the third issue, James-Michael experiences his first day at school -- JHS-41, Grade 7 -- in Hell's Kitchen. The classroom is in chaos; to James-Michael, it probably seems like a madhouse. He's befriended by an outgoing, exuberant, pigtailed girl named Dian -- the complete opposite of James-Michael. She addresses him as "Jim," and James-Michael, already annoyed by Amber always calling him "punk" -- however affectionately -- insists that his name is "James-Michael."
Undaunted, Dian hooks her arm around his to lead him to the lunch room. "Aren't you being a bit effusive?" says James-Michael. They're served sloppy joes, and James-Michael remarks, "What is this odd concoction?" And that's all the impetus Nick, the school bully, needs to antagonize the new kid.
"What're you?" Nick says. "Some wise guy, puttin' down our good hot lunch program food?"
"Are you speaking to me?" asks James-Michael.
Sensing trouble, the street-wise Dian, a life-long resident of Hell's Kitchen, nudges James-Michael over to a table to explain a few facts of life. "I wish you wouldn't be so physical," he gripes. Dian introduces him to her friend, John Nedley (spelled "Nedly" in this issue only), a chubby, bespectacled kid who hopes one day to be a writer. Nick invites himself to their table, shoving John.
"Move it over, Nerdly!" says Nick. "You guys are lucky -- I'm joining ya for lunch!"
"I'm sure luck has nothing to do with it," James-Michael retorts, more ignorant than defiant.
He's just made enemies with Nick, who challenges James-Michael to meet him after school. During the rest of the school day he learns a non-academic lesson: "Survival under ever-shifting circumstances entails -- demands -- a capacity for learning, adaptation, growth. Wry vexation, bemused detachment, the stance of the unfeeling, unobtrusive observer...may no longer suffice if existence is to consist of more than sleepwalking."
3:00 p.m.: James-Michael is standing with Dian and Nedley at the top of the steps at the school's entrance, Nick and two of his friends impatiently waiting for him at the bottom. Dian advises him: "Uh, listen, James-Michael. See Nick and his pals? Well, they're gonna beat the crud outta ya if you go down there." Nedley agrees -- he knows from experience! Dian suggests they leave out the back way.
"I'm meeting someone at this gate," insists James-Michael. "Another would be inconvenient. Besides, what possible motive would he have for -- ?"
"'Motive'?" Dian says. "He needs a motive?! Your nose is too straight -- that's his motive. Look, we'll stick by you, but --cheez!"
Nick attempts to extract a 25-cent toll from James-Michael for exiting the gate. James-Michael scoffs: "Are you serious?" The toll goes up to 50 cents. Just then, Amber arrives in time to see Nick punch James-Michael in the face and run off.
"Did you see that?! Did -- you -- see -- that?" he gasps. "I am astonished that -- person hit me -- without any provocation!"
"That's life in the big city, kid," says Amber.
"Please contain your homespun philosophy for the moment...How am I supposed to deal with that character, that situation?"
"I dunno. Have you considered...hitting back?"
He ignores Amber's suggestion. "I'm going to have to analyze this problem in depth."
It isn't until the fourth issue that Omega finally speaks. Standing in the rain at the bottom of the 59th Street Bridge, reflecting on the human condition and wondering what compels him to remain on this planet, he sees a young woman jumping from the bridge and rescues her from self-destruction. Omega's first spoken word barely escapes his lips: "Why...?"
This issue and the next involves perhaps one of comicdom's lamest villains, El Gato, a Hispanic witch-doctor whose "special power" is to hypnotically induce cats to do his bidding, i.e., attack Omega.
John Nedley gets attacked, too, by Nick and his gang, in the school washroom, only he doesn't walk away with a few bites and scratches. The scene cuts away as the boys approach Nedley, brandishing a chain, a metal pipe, and brass knuckles. Mercifully, we're spared from witnessing the horrible beating, but on the first page of issue #5, Nedley staggers into the mess hall, clothes torn, hands covering his face. Dian drops her glass and plate on the floor: "Oh, no! Somebody call an ambulance! They got Nedley!"
"His eye! It's bleeding!" James-Michael utters. Shocked by the violence, James-Michael has another of his "attacks" in which voices crowd into his head. This time, however, one voice is distinct, coming psychically from a classmate named Thomas Tyson, whom the kids call "Tank" due to his large size: "Revenge."
By the time the ambulance arrives, Nedley has gone into shock and is taken away with broken ribs, internal bleeding, etc. Later, James-Michael and Dian visit him in the hospital. (Children weren't allowed to visit, but they bent the rules a bit at the behest of Dr. Barrow.) Nedley is in bad shape. As James-Michael and Dian are leaving, another victim of violence is being wheeled in. It's Nick, minus some teeth, his face bruised and bloody. Apparently, "Tank" Tyson had had enough of Nick terrorizing the students, and dealt with him accordingly.
In the sixth issue, James-Michael wakes up screaming from one of his nightmares. He gets dressed and goes outside for a late-night walk A bum, the "tap dancer" we met earlier in the series, is sleeping in front of the door. James-Michael tells him to leave and pushes him down onto the sidewalk. With sudden pangs of guilt, he apologizes and hands the old man a coin. He tempers this rash display of compassion with cynicism: "He'll only put it toward his next bottle of wine."
James-Michael, still wandering around, witnesses a scar-faced pimp beating one of his hookers. He intervenes, but is utterly baffled when, instead of welcoming his assistance, the lady ungratefully scolds him: "Get yer stinkin' little face outta here! Get your diapers up on 8th Avenue with the rest o' the chickens!"
He then gets in trouble at an arcade, becoming an instant pinball wizard, much to the annoyance of the gang of creeps there who think they're being hustled. Fortunately, Amber, coming home from a date and finding the "punk" missing, managed to locate him in time to save him from a beating. The two of them leave.
"Amber..." James-Michael begins.
She finishes his sentence: "No, you don't need me to protect you. I just provided a shortcut out of the hassle, okay?"
"Okay," he says, finally acknowledging that one can't always reason with someone predisposed to violence as a solution to every problem.
Gerber, who was also writing HOWARD THE DUCK and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY at the time, needed a break, and so the next two issues of OMEGA were written by Scott Edelman (#7) and Roger Stern (#8). The issues are mostly peripheral, having little to do with James-Michael. Instead, Omega slugs it out with minor supervillains Blockbuster and Nitro. There is one integral plot development, though, which Gerber instructed: Richard Rory arrives in New York, fresh out of prison (Rory ended up doing time in a Florida prison for "kidnapping" 17-year-old Carol Selby), having been invited by Ruth to stay with her, Amber and James-Michael.
Gerber and Skrenes return with issue #9. Omega observes as an argument begins when a grocer, Bruno, accuses a young man, Tommy, of stealing an apple. He denies the charge, and the grocer punches him in the face. Tommy pulls a switchblade and the matter becomes a little more grave. The crowd that gathers eggs them on. "Life's pretty much a joke on Ninth Avenue," the caption reads; "and so is death. Just part of the ongoing spectacle of decay."
And disintegration. Bruno and Tommy are vaporized by a ray, and the crowd frantically disperses. Omega notices a figure on a nearby rooftop, retreating out of view. It seems the Foolkiller has returned, and he has a sympathetic supporter: Gramps.
Omega ekes out his next two words: "You...approve?"
"Approve?!" Gramps hisses between gritted teeth. "Damn right I approve!"
The Foolkiller visits Ruth and Amber's apartment, shocking both Ruth and Richard Rory, who saw him die in MAN-THING #4. But Foolkiller reveals himself to be Greg Salinger, Rory's former cellmate, not the original (who was never named by Gerber). It seems Rory had regaled Salinger with stories about his adventures in the swamp, and even where he hid Foolkiller's costume and gun. Salinger attempts to assure them that he's quite sane, and wants to carry on the mission by secularizing it.
Ruth explains the original Foolkiller's motives for the benefit of Amber and James-Michael: "Greg's namesake was a religious fanatic raging a one man crusade against the infidels -- i.e. murdering anyone he considered a sinner and a fool."
"But my criteria differ somewhat," says Salinger. "You see...I'm a poet."
He exits to continue his mission. Rory thinks Salinger has lost his mind. James-Michael, already displaying a considerable loss of innocence, mutters, "I think you may be judging your friend too harshly, Mr. Rory...an' too hastily. You're...new to Hell's Kitchen."
Omega borrows money from Gramps to finally buy that "navy blue 100% worsted Edwardian suit" he'd seen in the window of a ritzy shop. He flies there with a handful of cash just in time to see Blockbuster come crashing out of the jewelry shop next door. Omega is indifferent. But then the proprietor yells out that he'll give a $1000 reward to anyone who stops the thief. "Suddenly, there are a thousand good reasons to involve himself." He tackles Blockbuster and they carry their battle all the way back to Hell's Kitchen. Blockbuster throttles Omega -- and then is disintegrated by a blue ray. The Foolkiller shouts down to Omega from a rooftop: "Pathetic, isn't it, how they're always proving something. Their strength, their cunning, how much they can drink -- ! But never a poetic thought or word or deed -- ! Never -- from a fool! But beware! Though you performed very poetically this time, brave hero, I've yet to render a final verdict. I shall be fair -- but I shall be watching -- closely! The choice is yours: live a poem -- or die a fool!"
Richard Rory was right: Greg Salinger had lost his mind.
The final issue of OMEGA opens in a Bronx cemetery at the funeral of John Nedley. Dian and Ruth are weeping. Amber is stoic. James-Michael, in his first real display of emotion, tries in vain to hold back a tear. Omega is present in his prized new suit: "It's this man's first experience with ritualized grief...The dead are beyond consolation." He flies off.
After the funeral, Dian notices James-Michael's agitation:
"James-Michael...J.M., I mean...Talk to me, will ya?"
"You mean 'confide,' don't you?" he says, marching onward with determination. "Very well. I do not intend to die like John in Hell's Kitchen."
Dian grabs his arm. "Whoa, sport -- translate! Are you gonna run away?"
"Children 'run away.' I am merely removing myself from an intolerable environment."
Dian invites herself to tag along. Omega and Gramps run away, too -- to Las Vegas. Omega's been more verbal lately, and teaches Gramps to "attune" himself to the slot machines. Jackpot! "It was sorta like...I was one of the gears! Like I could stop them barrels rollin' anytime I wanted ta." (This might explain how James-Michael was able to keep winning at pinball, though he might not have been consciously aware of his ability to "attune" himself to the machine.) Omega is pleased: "Excellent. We shall both depart Las Vegas wealthy men."
Leaving Gramps at their hotel room, Omega flies off into the desert to be alone. Once in the desert, Omega is inexplicably attacked by a purple monster that crawls out of solid rock. He battles the thing before blasting it to smithereens with rays from his hands. The captions for those three pages don't describe the content at all; instead, Omega ruminates upon his detachment from humanity: "Here, on the desert outside Vegas, he can be silent without being conspicuous. How, he wonders, can these earthlings bear to spend so much time in the company of their fellows? It's as if they equate solitude with loneliness." They also "[revile] your aloofness, your insensitivity, your self-centeredness, your tendency to brood..."
James-Michael and Dian meet at the bus terminal at 9:00 p.m. She'd broken open her piggy bank and he'd "borrowed" money from Amber's wallet. It was enough to get them back to James-Michael's home in the mountains. But not directly. In the wee hours of the morning, the two get off the bus and James-Michael tells Dian that they'll have to hike the rest of the way. Dian trembles: "Those woods get spooky at night. I'm a city kid, remember? Muggers and dope fiends I can handle, but -- "
Nevertheless, they make it to their destination. Dian is awed by the Buckminster Fuller-style house with every modern convenience imaginable and can't imagine why James-Michael would have left this paradise in the mountains for Hell's Kitchen.
They don't have a guest room. "We never had guests," James-Michael explains. He offers Dian his parents' bedroom, which appalls her. "How 'bout a blanket and corner within screaming distance?" she suggests with typical facetiousness
Dian searches for the washroom and finds a sliding door. She screams "Jeeeeeeeeez" at what she finds within: two androids. James-Michael comes running and seems just as startled: "They're -- my -- parents!"
Meanwhile, Omega and Gramps try their hand at slot machines and tables in a number of different casinos "to evade the aegis of the IRS," and retire to their hotel room $50,000 richer. A woman, who had been lurking in the background while they gambled, knocks on their door. It turns out she's Ruby Thursday, from Gerber's DEFENDERS, whose head, usually a ruby bubble, can morph into any shape. Tentacles reach out from her forehead and strangle the two men into unconsciousness. Ruby escapes with the loot but Omega regains his senses and follows her out to the street, finally catching up to her. The police arrive, seeing this large man attacking a lady. He resists arrest and they gun him down.
A promise was made in this issue that the story would be concluded in a future issue of THE DEFENDERS, with Gerber and Skrenes writing and, hopefully, Jim Mooney pencilling. It wasn't to be. Marvel fired Gerber a year later, and with him (and Mary Skrenes) went the rest of the plot, which Steve and Mary made a pact never to reveal. (Steve held up his end of the bargain -- he took the secret to his grave.)
Two years later in 1979, the story did conclude in an issue of THE DEFENDERS, but it was written by newcomer Steven Grant, who had to use the information at hand to wrap up the story. Not a word will be said about it here. Certainly, Marvel and die-hard fans who take these things seriously consider Grant's ending to be "canon." Gerber considered it apocryphal: "...[It] had nothing to do with what Mary and I planned." He adds, "I've promised Mary, though, that I would never reveal what our ending was. I never have, and I never will!"
Some interesting letters were printed in OMEGA claiming that the book wouldn't last. These were meant as compliments. Here's one from #6:
"...I believe OMEGA will be cancelled in the near future. Throughout comics today, there is a retreat to safe, middle-of-the-road escapism. Your own list of recent cancellations proves my point: every one an experiment in ultra-realism or ultra-fantasy without the customary hero-villain punchout every issue."
And this one from issue #8:
"Mary Skrenes and Steve Gerber are the co-writers of one of the most interesting comic books on the market. They excel in imagination, depth, and understanding of the human conditions. Too bad the book won't last."
Written by true cynics -- those who believed that the comic was not only good, but too good! And to be better than the rest of the comics on the mainstream market it had to be different, experimental, daring, sophisticated, unconventional -- all of which adds up to uncommercial. And if it couldn't sell enough copies to justify its continued existence, it had to be cancelled.
Interestingly, the last two issues bore these blurbs on the covers, respectively: "Another off-beat saga from Steve Gerber, writer of HOWARD THE DUCK!" and "Another kind of hero from Steve Gerber, author of HOWARD THE DUCK!" No writer was ever given a cover credit before, other than Jack Kirby at DC in the early '70s -- but he was an entire package: writer/artist/editor. But Howard (and Gerber) were getting a lot of press in the media. Was Marvel exploiting this fact in an attempt to save a dying comic?
Readers are always excited about a new title. Reaction to the first issue was good, 12 to 1 on the positive side. According to Marvel's FOOM magazine, "OMEGA THE UNKNOWN has done quite well on the stands, thus allowing Steve to begin thinking in long-range terms about the book's future." But the negative reactions started piling up with each issue. Some readers thought the book was too pessimistic and too depressing. Some thought it was too realistic. On the contrary, one letter signed by a group of seven accused James-Michael's plight of being too unrealistic. The response to that letter read, in part:
"As for James-Michael's school environment and ever-fluctuating emotional balance, we don't consider either unrealistic at all. Apparently, you've (a) never gone to school in Hell's Kitchen or (b) been raised in a household where logic was the final arbiter of all disputes. Steve and Mary both live in Hell's Kitchen. They know those kids. And believe us, the only unrealistic element in James-Michael's school situation is the absence of terror and violence which we cannot portray because the Comics Code won't allow it."
Gerber also denied that the book was inherently negative: "If we were truly promulgating negativism in this magazine, James-Michael would've been dead in issue #2. As it is, the punk's intelligence, insight, and his willingness to learn from Amber, Ruth, and the denizens of Hell's Kitchen have kept him alive and mostly unharmed."
In the middle of the OMEGA series, Gerber did a lengthy interview for Marvel's FOOM magazine, a subscription-only publication for fans. Considering how awfully frank Gerber was in his comments on the industry in general and Marvel in particular, the Comics Code, fans, and his peers, it's a wonder the interview was published at all. Asked about violence in comics, he was all for it, as long as it was presented realistically:
"Violence is generally presented as a solution to problems in comics, because, being the illustrated form that they are, they tend to over-simplify, reduce everything to its most basic. Pure Good vs. Pure Evil, for example, is a conflict which rarely occurs in the real world. It's a set of circumstances that doesn't exist. The way comics are structured now, they teach very positive values and brutal means for achieving them. And readers tend, I think, to take this bizarre lesson seriously, as if it were real...The problem with a strip like OMEGA, where the characters are at least a pretense at reality, is that you can never go far enough, you can never show how filthy those streets are in Hell's Kitchen, you can never show the dope dealers in the corridors of the school that James-Michael attends, because the Code won't allow it; you can't show what would really happen to somebody if they got beat up as badly as John was beaten up by Nick and his hoods, because even though those kids see it every day, it's simply not allowed because it's not 'within the bounds of good taste.'"
Asked if there was anything that shouldn't be depicted in comics, Gerber emphatically said, "No. Absolutely not. I don't think there's any aspect of life that people shouldn't know about. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is a trap; the less you're aware of, the more easily you can be deceived and seduced. I don't think there's anything that shouldn't be presented in comic books, no matter how horrible or, for that matter, how lovely. I wouldn't say comic books should only present the negativistic side of things that cannot be depicted presently; there are an awful lot of positive things, too, that we can't show in comic books."