GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "O"

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Omega the Unknown Classic 2005 (SC TPB) 224 pages

Written by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, with Steve Grant, Roger Stern, Scott Edelman. Pencils by Jim Mooney, with Herb Trimpe, others. Inks by Jim Mooney, others.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Omega The Unknown (1st series) #1-10, The Defenders (1st series) #76, 77 (1976-1977, 1979)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Omega the Unknown Classic collects an obscure 1970s series, plus its "conclusion" in a couple of Defenders issues. It was collected years later because novelist Jonathan Lethem had persuaded Marvel to let him revive Omega for a new re-interpretation. That created its own controversy, as Omega co-creator, Steve Gerber, wasn't happy about seeing what he regarded as a very personal project handled by others. But you can google that to find out more.

So what was Omega and why, decades later, did it continue to haunt? Gerber was still angry, other's wanted to revive it, and it may've had a passing influence on DC's 1980s maxi-series, Jemm, Son of Saturn.

I came upon an issue of the original Omega the Unknown in a back issue bin some time back...and was sufficiently intrigued that, over the next year or two, I tracked down the remaining issues. And I thought: this may be an obscure 1970s series...but, wow!, Marvel really out to collect it in a TPB. And lo and behold -- eventually, that's what Marvel did.

Ain't I the clever gus?

Omega the Unknown was arguably one of the strangest (ostensibly mainstream) comics ever produced...sometimes, because it wasn't strange at all. Created by Steve Gerber -- who was already joining the list of edgy, experimental writers at 1970s Marvel, testing the limits of what could be attempted (in mood and philosophy) in a super hero comic -- and Mary Skrenes -- who remains a bit more ambiguous. Her official credits are more limited (though she was still writing years later, even collaborating with Gerber as recently as their Hard Time series for DC) but references were made to her having written for every conceivable type of comic, under pseudonyms...but what those pseudonyms might be is not said.

Anyway, here's the set up: a super powered humanoid, Omega, last survivor of his race, escapes from the robot marauders who have killed his world...meanwhile, on earth, James Michael Starling is an eerily precocious, emotionally reserved 12 year old boy who has been home schooled in the mountains by his equally reserved parents, who have now decided it's time for him to go to the big city and a regular school. But his parents are killed...yet not before he learns they were robots! Omega meanwhile arrives on earth, James-Michael and he seeming to share an ill-defined empathic bond (James-Michael, under stress, even fires beams from his hands just like Omega). James-Michael is taken under the wing of a good hearted nurse and her rough and tumble roomie, and he tries to adjust to the grime and despair of living in the New York ghetto, Hell's Kitchen.

The series set up various bizarre questions and enigmas: who is Omega? Who is James-Michael? What is the connection between them? Who were the robots who destroyed Omega's world? Who created the androids that raised James-Michael? Why? How? Weird stuff, weird questions. And yet, as I said, it was also weird...because it wasn't weird. Because there was a real sense that the creators were as interested in telling a kitchen sink drama as a super hero adventure. It was like two series, the adventures of James-Michael and of Omega only occasionally intersecting.

James-Michael was even more of the star of the comic than Omega, and despite his strange personality, and the occasional beams from his hands, he wasn't really a super hero, and his dilemmas -- dealing with the coarseness of inner city schools and of ghetto life -- were rooted in reality rather than fantasy adventure. The super hero stuff often seemed deliberately small scale, as the writers would dredge up second string foes to battle Omega (like Electro, Nitro or Blockbuster, a guy who'd made only one appearance in a Captain American comic about five years before!) or a tussle with the Hulk. The super-villains were more there to just provide a little rough housing between the high brow ruminations on life and morality.

And it generally worked!

The human drama as riveting as the super hero fantasy, and the latter made more than just mindless fisticuffs by Gerber and Skrenes dense, introspective captions (as exemplified in the climax of the fight with Electro in #3) as Omega and JM wrestle with each new experience, trying to puzzle each new paradox that was the human experience.

Omega and JM were both strangers in a strange land, attempting to deal with experiences and sensations for which their previous lives had not prepared them.

Of course, the series offered a bitter/cynical view of humanity, featuring rude people, pushy panhandlers, vicious bullies. In a letters page, Gerber said: "Our implicit suggestion? That the world, society, cities, even other human beings constitute a hostile environment. We consider that realism." Of course, if you'll excuse a certain philosophical aside, I can't help thinking taking that attitude (however justified it might seem) compounds the problem. If you assume people are going to be rude, or self-serving, you act accordingly, becoming rude and self-serving yourself, thereby exacerbating the problem on a societal level. Focusing exclusively on the bad around you is, in a sense, narcissistic ("everyone's out to get me") and as unrealistic as a fiction writer who presents too Pollyanna a world view.

Then again, maybe they did it just 'cause it made better drama. And, of course, both JM and Omega did make friends.

Anyway, James-Michael (and Omega) made for fascinating companions as we journeyed into the dark side of poverty and existence. For ten issues, the comic achieved a literary luminescence rarely seen before or since, full of musings on life and the human experience, and, as noted, making the "realism" every bit as engrossing as the fantasy (it helped the JM was an intriguing personality, pensive and thoughtful, lending a "heightened" aspect to the drama). The ambition of the series is perhaps unsurprising given Gerber also wrote the equally profound (and pretentious) Man-Thing (and carried over a few Man-Thing supporting characters into Omega). And, yes, it could be pretentious. Some letter writers clearly felt Skrenes and Gerber were layering on the style over the substance, and there was some truth to that.

I can't talk about the series without mentioning Jim Mooney's art. I was mainly familiar with Mooney as an inker (often on Spider-Man) and as a penciller on long ago, simpler, 1950s comics. But the art here really suits the material. Some letter writers politely said the art wasn't special, but did the job. I'd say: that's why it was special. In a series so rooted in the real world, Mooney beautifully expressed a low-key naturalism, telling the story with subtle panache and moodily shaded panels rather than gross exaggeration. So that even the super human battles seemed rooted in a plausibility. It was really nice work.

Unfortunately, it all came to an end with the series cancelled unexpectedly (though the final page promised it would be resolved in a future issue of The Defenders, which Gerber was writing at the time). Worse, it ended on a cliffhanger.

It took two years, but finally the promised Defenders story arrived -- minus Gerber and Skrenes (the former having departed Marvel rather acrimoniously in a dispute over Howard the Duck) and minus Mooney. Steve Grant and Herb Trimpe concluded the saga, which they picked up just hours after where the series left off (despite the two year hiatus).

What to say about Grant's conclusion? As a conclusion, he provided a reasonably interesting solution that answered most of the questions. But he made no attempt to mimic Gerber and Skrenes philosophical and character based stories. Grant's tale is simple super hero fisticuffs. Worse, since this is a Defenders comic, the Omega cast is short changed, most of them just filling up the panels. And Trimpe's art lacks the elegance of Mooney's. As a physical/technical solution to the Omega series, it succeeds...as an emotional/visceral conclusion, it fails quite badly. Grant provides an answer but doesn't seem to have grasped the questions!

I'm still glad they did it. After all, it does provide a "conclusion", even as one might regard it as apocryphal -- it's sufficiently disconnected from what Gerber and Skrenes were doing that even as it was downbeat, I didn't really feel myself getting choked up...because this didn't really seem like the same characters. And there's no indication anyone working on the Defenders issues had any idea what Skrenes, Gerber, and Mooney intended.

And the cynic in me wonders if they had intended anything! After all, after setting up their intriguing enigmas in issue #1...they proceeded to neither answer, nor even greatly expand upon, any of them. It was as if they wanted to use the super hero fantasy simply as a catalyst for a fable about two strangers through whom we can see the world around us through fresh eyes. Who and what Omega and JM were might have been less important than what they represented.

There's a vagueness at times even to the specifics. Like sometimes Omega just seems to be able to jump -- but once or twice he almost seems to be flying. Omega is written as extremely taciturn, but he doesn't quite seem to be a mute -- but it was confusing. Of the two guest writers on the Omega series, Scott Edelman comes closer to aping the introspective pretensions of Skrenes and Gerber.

Reading these issues, some possible solutions (alternate to Grant's) occurred to me:

i) Omega was a corporeal manifestation of JM's subconscious fantasy. Clues? There's something dreamlike about Omega's pre-earth experience and it's never clear how he arrives on earth. And, as a letter writer pointed out, Omega was similar to Superman -- the last survivor of a doomed, highly evolved planet, dressed in blue and red. So maybe Omega would turn out to be JM's comic book fantasy come to life.

ii) Omega and JM were past and future versions of the same being -- they looked alike with similar powers. One of the robot attackers even remarks that they are the same.

And so on. We'll never know what -- if any -- solution was intended. But Omega The Unknown, though an unfinished symphony, is criminally overlooked. In its mix of kitchen sink realism and high flying fantasy, its puzzling ponderables and its imponderable puzzles, it was both an enigma in a puzzle box and drama exploring and exposing the human condition. And though the Defenders issues are unsatisfying in comparison...they at least offer the saga a token ending.

And what there is of it...is quite unique. No wonder it haunts some people still.

Cover price: $29.99


100 Greatest Marvels #25-22 2001 (SC TPB) 100 pages

Written/illustrated by by various.

Reprinting: Uncanny X-Men (1st series) #141, Amazing Spider-Man (1st series) #1, Fantastic Four (1st series) #48, Daredevil (1st series) #181.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (well, more, but only once as a collection)

Published by Marvel Comics

Some months previous, Marvel had solicited its readers to send in suggestions for the greatest Marvel Comics stories ever published. The result is the 100 Greatest Marvels mini-series -- misleadingly named since it will reprint, not the top 100, but the top 25 fan selected suggestions. The first four issues will be giant issues reprinting four stories each, then five regular-size issues will reprint one issue each, counting down the top five.

It's a good idea, for the most part, representing classic stories for a modern audience (and clearly inspired by DC's Millennium Edition series). And I was sort of looking forward to the result. Unfortunately, the first issue gets off to a rocky start.

100 Greatest Marvels 25-22 reprints Uncanny X-Men #141, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Amazing Spider-Man #1, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Fantastic Four #48, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and Daredevil #181 by Frank Miller. These are all the first series of these titles. That in itself is a surprise. Given that these were supposedly selected by modern fans, I kind of expected it to be made up of trendy but forgettable comics published in the last five or ten years. Though maybe that will be the trend as the series counts down toward #1.

I didn't end up buying this for the simple reason that I already have all four issues (or earlier reprints) in my collection. But that's not the source of my ambivalence.

These are, on the surface, worthy selections -- sort of. But here's the catch. Two of the issues, The X-Men and the Fantastic Four, end To Be Continued. What's the point of that? The Fantastic Four issue introduces the Silver Surfer and Galactus, a milestone to be sure, and the X-Men was a brooding, atmospheric one about time travel and the New Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Both are good stories, even exceptional stories, when read in their entirety. But as unfinished stories? Maybe Marvel did this because the full stories are available in other collections -- some times more than one!

Call me a nutty maverick, but I don't pick up a collection like this simply so a company can sucker me into going out and buying other books just to find out how the stories end.

What on God's green earth were the editors of Marvel thinking? I somehow doubt that when fans wrote in their suggestions, they said: "Please reprint FF #48 'cause it was really cool, but not the rest of the story." No, I'm betting it was more like: "Please reprint the first appearance of the Silver Surfer" and so Marvel's literal-minded editors reprint the first appearance from #48, but not the second and third (from #49 and #50).

The Spider-Man story is entertaining enough, introducing J.J. Jameson to the mythos (though this isn't Spidey's first appearance and origin which was in Amazing Fantasy #15). Already there's some of trademark angst and "reality" that would set Spider-Man apart from similar comics as Spidey grapples with money problems. But, of course, it's a product of its time: simplistic, juvenile and Lee and Ditko were only just getting a feel for the gig, so it's not as good as what was to come.

As such, the only great story in this "greatest" collection is the double-length Daredevil. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, "The Last Hand" is a dark, brutal tale of Bullseye killing Elektra, then having a show down with DD himself. Moody-as-all-get-out, poetic, poignant, tense, told from Bullseye's P.O.V. with Miller using his patented sense of irony, of playing images and words off against each other to brilliant effect. It reminds you, after the major disappointment that was The Dark Knight Strikes Again, that once upon a time Miller really was a great storyteller. But the story's also pretty violent, so be warned. If I had compiled a list of top 10 comics stories by any publisher, I might very well have included this. So maybe this collection is worth buying just for it alone.

Of course, since Elektra was shortly resurrected, and is even starring in her own series, the story hardly qualifies as a milestone. But then, the 100 Greatest series shouldn't be about "milestones", it should be about great stories, period, even if no new character is introduced, or era shattering revelation is depicted.

Unfortunately, "great" stories don't end in the middle, as happens with the X-Men and the FF. And if the editors at Marvel can't understand that, can't understand that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end, comics in general will never be taken seriously by the mainstream media. And Marvel's "greatest" will remain an elusive dream.

Cover price: $11.50 CDN./ $7.50 USA


The Origin of Generation X 2001 (SC TPB) 300 pages

cover by Terry DobsonWritten by Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Todd DeZago, Larry Hama. Pencils by Adam Kubert, Joe Madureira, others. Inks by various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Uncanny Xmen #316, 317, The Xmen #36, 37, X-Factor #106, X-Force #38, Excalibur #82, Wolverine #85, Cable #16, Generation X #1 (1994), with covers.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed April, 2011

Published by Marvel Comics

This is an oddly named collection. Although it does feature the "origin" (such as it is) of the Generation X team, and concludes with the first issue of their self-titled comic, it's all part of a broader storyline involving techno-organic alien invaders, the Phalanx. The overall saga itself broken up into three separate, but interconnected, storylines.

The premise is that some techno-organic aliens have been activated by the usual mutant hating crowd to purge earth of mutants -- unfortunately, the Phalanx isn't just interested in stopping with mutants, but wishes to subjugate and assimilate all organic life. But apparently mutants aren't as easy to assimilate as normal humans, and the Phalanx want to know why. The first four issues of this collection detail how a handful of X-Men set out to protect some novice mutants -- those who will become Generation X -- from the Phalanx, who want to study their mutant properties. The next part details how another group of X-folk (the storyline involves X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor and Excalibur so mashed up together, they're not really separate teams) set out to sabotage a major operation of the Phalanx. And the third and final act involves another group of X-folk attacking the Phalanx's major base in an effort to free some captured X-Men and put the final kibosh on the Phalanx.

So, as I say, the Generation X stuff is only really a third of this collection -- but presumably calling it "The Origin of Generation X" made more marketing sense than, say, The Phalanx Saga.

I sometimes find myself eyeing these sorts of collections as a chance to dip back into the X-world for an epic saga -- a graphic novel. And covering ten different comics, most double sized, and totalling some 300 pages, there's a promise of a meaty epic. Unfortunately, such collections can be problematic.

In this case, and like the earlier Inferno, this doesn't really feel like a beginning, middle and end. Rather, it feels like the climax to an already running story line. The X-folk seem to have encountered the Phalanx before, and most of the first strikes seem to have occurred even before this collection begins, with some X-Men already missing, and some of the characters already aware of what's happening. It doesn't really allow much of an introduction into the premise, or a build up of the tension. And it's not really clear what -- and who -- we're supposed to know going in. I mean, the characters that will form Generation X are referred to as fledging mutants Professor Xavier has been keeping tabs on, but hasn't yet invited into any of his teams. But it's not clear if we (the reader) have known about them for a while, or whether this is our first introduction to them (nor why these characters are so special when, one assumes, there are lots of mutants out there). When we first meet one character, her guardian talks about how she has been trying to interest the girl's parents in sending her to Xavier's School...implying that at this point, they have no connection to Xavier, or have ever met him. We meet this girl as a mute, later it's referred to her being catatonic, still later she starts talking...with no real explanation for how this all connects in the same chartacter. And other characters refer to her by name...yet, again, it's not clear they're actually supposed to have met before!

As I say: it's a mite confusing. There's a scene where a character makes the ultimate sacrifice -- yet it just seems out of the blue, since we weren't really sure how or why her power worked, so it's not clearly why using it in a certain way required a self-sacrifice.

I'm not sure why with collections like this a simple introduction explaining "what's gone before" wouldn't be included. I've read other TPBs which have included such things, and it can make the world of difference between whether a story is comprehensible (particularly read a few years after it was originally published) or not. Likewise, for some reason the editorial decision was made to black out all the footnotes that were in the original comics...so even if you wanted to track down the relevant back issues -- you couldn't. (And the editor got overzealous, sometimes even accidentally erasing dialogue from the word balloons).

To be fair, some stuff that starts out confusing does get explained. Early on The Phalanx is referred to as both being created by humans to wipe out mutants...and yet also as an alien intelligence. Yet that contradiction is eventually explained midway through.

But beyond that, the ensuing story -- or three stories -- are okay...but only barely. I mean, there's lots of fighting and action, amounting to a lot of talking head/character scenes interrupted by big action scenes (or vice versa) -- but for a 300 page saga, not really a lot of little scenes that build on each other, or secondary plot threads that get teased along, all building to a climax. Some of the character stuff is okay, while some is pretty confusing and kind of begs some explanation for what's gone before. Some seems to be struggling to find an emotional core. Two of the former New Mutants -- now part of other X-teams -- meet a good guy Phalanx who has the form (sort of) and memories of their deceased team member Doug Ramsey, and they argue back and forth about whether he is Doug or not (the emotional, hopeful Rahne saying he is, the bitter, suspicious Cannonball saying he isn't) -- the problem is, the Doug/Phalanx creature never claims to really be Doug...so why are they arguing that he is?

Part of my ambivalence to the story may be the art. On one hand, it's certainly assembled a decent collection of artists, and the art styles, though not indistinguishable from each other, are nonetheless of similar types so that the visuals form a smooth, consistent look throughout. But though it's certainly decent art...I wasn't quite loving it. Partly it's because of how the artists chose to compose scenes, often emphasizing tight close ups, or big action movements, and partly because of the settings, often involving battles with shape shifting, amorphous enemies against weird, techno-organic backdrops. You often weren't entirely sure what you're looking at. And even during that talky, character scenes, the characters didn't so much stand about, as they seemed to be posing -- or even voguing. Arms flexed, chest out thrusts. The women sometimes standing around on their tip toes (presumably the artists cut their teeth on drawing glamour pictures of long legged gals in high heels...and weren't sure how to draw a foot and leg that was in a flat heel). And a lot of the characters have similar looks. Most of the women have these waterfall locks that cascade down to the small of their backs (and beyond). When Banshee is first show, I didn't recognize him as Banshee, because he just had the same square faced, tight lipped look of all the other guys in their Wildstorm/Jim Lee sort of way -- a far cry from the days of Dave Cockrum and John Byrne when the X-Men had different faces and looks. Or at least, realistically different faces and looks. Here there is some attempt to distinguish the characters, simply through exaggeration -- so this character has big muscles, and this character has really big muscles, and this character has gigantic muscles!

With that being said, I didn't dislike the art, not in the way I found the art in Inferno rather messy and confusing. I just found it too much, well, like super hero art, rather than well drawn pictures that happened to be depicting super heroes. But, I mean, this was the 1990s, and that was the style then -- just as Cable's guns being as big as Volkswagon Beetles was supposed to be cool, but seems kitschy now.

And then we get to the first issue of Generation X itself -- and a significant change in tone. The Phalanx story is over with, and we're back to mutants at Xavier's school. It's a more human issue (though still with action and a dangerous menace) and beautifully illustrated by Chris Bachalo. Bachol's style would later get more extreme and stylized (though still enjoyable) but here it's much more grounded and realistic (though with hints of the stylistic changes to come). It's beautiful, appealing work, putting me in mind a bit of the delicate realism of English artist John Ridgeway. Though the conflict itself sort of resolves (the villain escapes) it's not tidily self-contained, but still serves as a decent intro to the series. Admittedly, there's nothing too special about it. Despite the grandiose title "Third Genesis", meant to harken back to the story, "Second Genesis", that first introduced the "New" X-Men (and started the X-Men on the road to being Marvel Comics flagship property) -- though in truth, this would more be fourth or fifth Genesis (I mean, we'd alread had The New Mutants and others inbetween). The banter between the characters is fun, and as mentioned it's beautifully rendered, but it's not like there's anything original here -- and the characters, bickering in a humourous way, aren't as endearing as The New Mutants were when they started.

The overall result of this collection is that for a 300 page epic, it didn't really seem all that epic, so much as it just seemed like a collection of really big action scenes. It wasn't a slog to get through, yet neither did it really excite or interest me, or make me care about these characters and what happened to them -- save perhaps the Generation X issue.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $24.95 USA.


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