At some point in your teenage years you inevitably become aware that the world is larger than you feel comfortable thinking about. It’s a bit of knowledge you had previously held inside you, but the way it applies to your personal reality lies hidden like a landmine no signage could ever properly warn you about. This knowledge of the world’s enormity finds different ways to assert itself, deftly adapting to character and circumstances in the everyday, but the bottom line of that anagnorisis is the same: that great big world around you and the people in it are all you’ve got. You may not like or even understand the tethers that connect you to that way of seeing the world at the time, but you’re at its mercy whether you like it or not.
In the cases of twelve-year-old James-Michael Starling and fourteen-year-old Titus Alexander “Alex” Island, the respective protagonists of the 1975 and 2007 runs of the Marvel comic Omega the Unknown, this knowledge comes as a literal car crash: the young man is in his parents’ car, on the way to a new school filled with people he neither knows nor cares about after a whole lifetime of total isolation and home-schooling. Soon the car crashes into a truck, killing both of his parents and leaving the kid in the mercy of strangers.
In my case, this same knowledge came a bit later in my senior year of high school—the same year I read the 2007 series of Omega The Unknown. I was not particularly popular – to a great degree because I was a know-it-all who had been trying so hard to set himself apart from the people around him, only to realize that, well, I did not in fact know it all. On top of that, within the span of nine months between 2017-18 I lost my uncle, my grandmother, and my father; all of this on top of the fact that I was slated to go into three years of mandatory army service soon afterwards. The present was confusing; the future was downright terrifying.
At 17 years old my tastes in comics skewed heavily toward the mainstream, but I had been reading for long enough to have developed a hunger for the different, which to me meant little pockets of weirdness inside the mainstream, for the most part, those little pockets opened (or at least expanded) by the British Invasion, whose influence was ubiquitous and palpable in everything I was reading. I was totally captivated by those demonstrations of how one could breathe new life into forgotten or neglected properties. This was also not long after I’d resolved to write comics myself, and I grew attached to “unchosen” characters more than anything else. (Some people have known me long enough to remember me as the kid who constantly tweeted about Space Cabbie or Detective Chimp.) I may have been confused and scared of the future, but that sense of uncertainty and possibility was, and is, a source of excitement when it came to art.
The premise is identical in both iterations of the story: the young boy, recently orphaned and navigating life in the foreign city of New York (and the equally foreign concept of society) with an unusual circle of people around him, is also haunted by a mysterious metaphysical connection with Omega—a superhuman figure from a doomed world who fights the alien robots who are trying to kill the young boy. The two figures of the story are equally alien, in their own ways—the young boy possesses an astounding intellect, but his point of view is clinical in its detachment; while superhuman guardian angel Omega is initially incapable of communicating with the world, instead finding himself lumbering around in it –intent on protecting the young boy, saving the day a few times only by virtue of circumstance. The two need to understand not just the nature of the connection between them, but their respective places in the wider world as well.
One could say that the core themes of Omega the Unknown are learning to live with personal catastrophe and finding your footing in the changed world left in disaster’s wake; but it would be hard, in practice, to find any coherent thoughts on this theme in the pages of the original series. James-Michael – the young protagonist of the 1970s version of the the story – may accumulate human connections with schoolmates or with the hospital nurse that serves as his guardian and her friends, and Omega the Unknown’s superpowers may manifest in him in times of crisis, but this great power does not appear to come with any great responsibility.
The way the 2007 series restructures and reimagines the story, however, puts a greater emphasis on this theme. The difference is made clear from the very first issue, during the car crash scenes: before the young boy in both series slips into a coma, he is given a final message from the decapitated head of his mother. In the original series, James-Michael is told that “only the voices can harm him,” referring to the voices that on occasion manifest, embodying his darkest impulses. Alex’s mother, on the other hand, makes a heartfelt request: she asks him to accept the help of the people he meets. And, indeed, this divergence is pursued—while Alex’s experience of the world is alien, his emotions are much more present within the story than James-Michael’s. He may start from an identical point of fundamental detachment, but unlike his antecedent he comes to learn not just to be surrounded by society but to anchor himself in it, to consciously occupy the emotional and social space that he fills.
This difference partially stems from plot structure. The best way to describe Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes’ writing in the original series is “unfocused.” The questions at the core of the first issue (“Who are these two characters? How are they connected?”) present themselves as the engine for the whole story, as its top priority, even offered as such in subsequent issues’ introductory narration boxes; but there is no consistent overarching platform for these questions to be developed. They’re very quickly sidelined, the initial interest replaced by detached, ill-fitted non sequitur plots which impede on the story, rendering the central conflict weightless.
The reimagining, however, operates as a complete unit of story. Co-writers Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak clarify that, unlike the events of the original series, every tangent and detour is in service of the bigger structure; the reimagining is not a mere indie-flavored cover of a forgotten oldie, but a work that, while rooted in the past, is something new. When it does refer to the original series, it does not ask “How would Gerber and Skrenes have said this?” but rather attempts to use the story’s past, in its multitude of virtues and myriad flaws, to improve itself and build a path into something new, something better.
By picking the story apart and examining the pieces, Lethem and Rusnak reassemble it in a way that allows it to cohere beyond the original premise, and allow the characters to grow beyond mere concepts. Therein lies a major tonal difference between the two: James-Michael’s detachment turns into misanthropy and a lack of connection to the world at large; Alexander’s detachment turns into attachment. In both series, the protagonist’s schoolmate dies after an altercation with bullies (in the original as a result of internal injury; in the reimagining he seizes a bully’s pistol and shoots himself). Both protagonists are saddened by this, but their conclusions are different: James-Michael chooses simply to “remove himself from an intolerable environment” after the funeral in the final issue, but in the reimagining this event happens earlier, affording Alex time to seek closure. It allows him to understand that he was sent to New York in order to protect those around him—and that, in the case of his schoolmate, he failed gravely.
This difference also manifests in the fact that the reimagining has a more cohesive antagonist, in the form of the spotlight-chasing Mink, a failed entertainer and “superhero” whose only meaningful superpowers are being rich and failing upwards. The Mink quickly becomes intrigued by the mysterious superhuman and the young boy he protects, and by the robots that come for the two. The Mink studies the robots and abducts Omega to do the same, and comes to the same conclusion as Alex—that this exists on a larger scale than just Omega and Alex. Omega, it turns out, is part of an intergalactic corps of superheroes—and it is time for Alex to take up the mantle.
This leap forward extends to the art as well. The art of the original series, mostly by Jim Mooney (with one chapter inked by Mooney and penciled by Lee Elias, several inked by different inkers, and colored by several different colorists), is lovely in a way that blends in with most other Marvel books of its era. The form of presentation is familiar, the larger-than-life action and melodrama contrasted by a completely straight depiction that prioritizes telegraph-clarity, leaving the imagery and the weirdness therein to speak for themselves (for better or for worse).
The art in the 2007 reimagining, on the other hand, sets out to match not the publishing line but the differences inherent to the book itself. Farel Dalrymple’s art and hand-lettering, colored by Paul Hornschemeier, certainly diverges from most other Marvel books of the same era, whose aesthetics leaned more toward the cinematic. Instead, the series offers a humble, sincere look–seemingly uninterested in the self-beautifying bombast and spectacle–with lines that shy away from aesthetically-conventional beauty and muted colors with low saturation. When there are changes in the art–with guest pages from Hornschemeier himself as well as Gary Panter–they are used as evocation and statement (signifying lowbrow merchandise schlock, in Hornschemeier’s pages, and raw primitivism in Panter’s), rather than an acknowledgement of publishing circumstances.
When examined together, the undertones of existential fulfillment in the two books are amplified by their very being: like Alex himself, the reimagining takes its source and develops their ideas to a much greater extent, taking the story from what it simply is to what it can and perhaps needs to be. Together the two books become almost a meta-bildungsroman, focusing not just on the character but on the work itself.
The narration in Omega the Unknown #1 (1976) declares that “the element of change […] [is] in fact the only hope of salvation,” and that “to resist […] [is] to abandon all hope.” It’s been four years since I first read the 2007 reimagining, and a lot has changed. I got exempted from the army service I was so terrified of, thanks to the help of strangers. I started working, then stopped, then started again. I lost some people, and gained others. I could hardly say that I fully understand the world around me and what I need to be in response, but I have started thinking about that more seriously. Odds are, we’re all somewhere between the detachment of James-Michael Starling and the selflessness of Titus Alexander Island, and it’s all a question of putting our best foot forward and walking. All one can hope is that the right direction will reveal itself without too many mistakes in the way.