Oh, and there’s just one more thing, ma’am…
You see, once upon a time there was a comics company, that had a culture.
Now, I’m not saying people got treated fairly by the company. But there was a culture, there. And it was a pretty interesting one while it lasted, because it came out of a particular grouping of interesting people, with interesting things to say about their world, and themselves. About where they’d come from, where they were at, and where they were going. So welcome to Seven Soldiers Of Steve Number Zero Number Two, in which I realize I didn’t get to all of what I had to say the first time, and so I come back around to go over it again. See, the problem with this project is that it’s gone on for so much longer than I originally thought it would, that along the way I’ve forgotten a lot of the connections I saw swirling before me in other people’s essays, that I wanted to save my comments on for the end. And I still can’t remember all of them, but I do remember that, thanks to sparks struck in my head by Sean Kleefeld and RAB, there was something else I wanted to say both about Steve Gerber’s epilogue-like run on She-Hulk (boy, is it! Nice catch there, Sean), and his ill-fated Omega The Unknown from years earlier, that finished off the last chapter of the main text of his Marvel opus…
More or less.
It’s kind of a little thing, really. Just a little bridge, hardly big enough to run across. But it speaks to the concerns of the old Marvel creative culture that Gerber was so influentially a part of, and so I think it’s got a place here. Especially since it may perhaps help to show something about the character of his Big Seventies Marvel Adventure, and the way it flamed out, that might otherwise remain obscure.
And my, but Omega The Unknown is a disturbingly apt title for Gerber’s last major effort in his Seventies Marvel run, isn’t it?
Especially considering what it consisted of.
Because no matter how you slice it, Omega was a failed blending (a deliberately failed blending?) of the same straightforward superhero stuff, and corresponding not-so-straightforward psychological dimension, which blending Marvel had always made its bread and butter on. Gerber takes Gerberism itself to brand new heights, here, and doesn’t necessarily stop along the way to preserve his own hallowed techniques; the standard superheroic allegory he’s wont to employ is blown apart by the same skill that usually gets it to hang together freakishly well, so well that more things are possible to be derived from it than would usually be the case…but that’s the old stuff, now, and Steve is moving on. Omega is something different. And what he’s moving on to might be taken for obscurity, easily enough; because the fights and the tights do mean something, but that something isn’t integrative as it has been — quite the opposite. Instead separation, even what we’d ordinarily think of as undue separation, or even radical dissociation, is the key here: the boy and his hero-self are aggressively split apart, and the transformation is not climactic, and the mirror is broken into pieces.
The superhero concept is broken into pieces.
And the mystery man practically wallows in the resulting opacity, or rather in the resulting refraction…let me make it clear, his thoughts seem opaque rather than reflective, but really they are neither: really they are refractory. Which also means stubborn: all the little declamatory pieces of the script don’t add, but rather simply agglomerate, and the path of understanding…is at least difficult to find, and at worst not there at all. Because, what’s the upshot of all these battles? Where once Gerber’s omniscient narrator could be counted on to explain for us how the fight is just a symbol of the emotional realities that pass to and fro beneath it, now Omega himself is constantly challenged to interpret the meaning of the superheroic activity even as he participates unwillingly in it, and explanation is much more elusive because of that. Every fight scene is an encounter with the Alien, to him: not speaking, even in caption, he presents a chilly picture of affect struggling to keep itself aligned with (unknown) purpose in a circumstantial world that makes little to no obvious sense. A mirror for James-Michael’s struggle in the “real” world? Superficially, yes; but also no, because the mirror’s all busted up. What’s the upshot of the battles? Well, what’s the upshot of James-Michael’s adventure with public institutions and public identity/society? He runs away, you see, that’s all. He runs off to the desert. He doesn’t beat the bully, find his identity, rehabilitate his society. He merely gains an impetus. And thus the organism doesn’t have clear goals; the boy’s answers are not just about successfully negotiating obstacles. Even Omega’s thoughts are introverted, distanced from the fights he gets into…as his thoughts are distanced from the reader through not being conveyed directly as first-person-centred thought or speech. The fights are spurs to the development of his character, but at the same time they are distractions, digressions.
Well, that’s probably on purpose.
Because this is the superhero story without its usual centripetal force, you see: the pieces are all there — identity, anxiety, etc. — but they’ve spun off away from each other, to become fractured and fragmented. To become incapable of addressing a notional centre, and therefore difficult to rationalize, lacking a rule. Disconnected; a jigsaw puzzle without a box; well, and after all why has the mystery man come across all those light-years to Earth? He has only the vaguest of notions, as do we. For what ultimate reason must James-Michael come to the big city, and human society? Only his parents knew…except they weren’t his parents anyway, and so this fractured superheroic fairy tale doesn’t just include Captain Marvel in its disquieting embrace, we might notice, but Superman too…only here’s a Superman whose backstory was a lie, an invention whose obscure purpose must be found out, but whose purpose may be undiscoverable despite all best efforts. Because all the lines of communication, information, and memory are fatally broken up, and only the antagonistic forces have any clue what’s going on…and you can’t ask them. It’s them you’re running from, racing against. And anyway they won’t tell you. Because who are you, to be told?
Just a strange visitor, from another planet. That’s all.
The superheroic fights are broken mirrors: Omega’s, and James-Michael’s, true conflict/quest/purpose is only visible through being obscurely reflected in the nonsensical obstacles presented by Marvel’s brightly-coloured, purely reflective superheroic world. Pattern lurks there, but it’s only visible in the distractions and digressions: it can almost be seen, but not quite. It’s terminally elusive. Almost seen: Omega almost learns things as he fights. And intimation is everywhere, but it’s only intimation. As James-Michael’s encounter with society, and the obstacles it presents, is only intimation too. Because somewhere there is a true, overblown, expressly-meaningful symbolic battle he has to find and get into; and so he can’t stay in the school, or in Ruth’s apartment. He does actually have a destiny. Somewhere is the symbolic clash that will bring clarity (that will also, presumably, be a genuine fight!), and he has to find it, and it will be, indeed, deliberately science-fictional and allegorical. Everything else, all the refracted images from the bits of broken mirror, is just foreshadowing. Yes, it will have to be something like this, something like that…something like fighting El Gato, something like making friends and losing them. But what it will actually, exactly be, rather than be like, is not known yet. Not until the lost centre, not until the puzzle-box of identity, can be found.
And this is pretty goddamn ambitious stuff, for a Marvel comic of its time. Although partly that’s because it is a Marvel comic of its time: and so the distracting fights are part of the point, the uneven joining-up of character to conceit is no accident…the fractures that get in the way of concision and symmetry are supposed to be there, as part of the play against type that creates our mystery. You can say these things in this language; better still, you get to push the limits of the language while you’re saying them. It’s all very site-specific.
It could have been Void Indigo.
It could have been Adventure Into Fear.
It could have been The Defenders.
But none of those would have been quite right for it. Here we have Omega, and he is indeed a commentary, he is indeed a clever bit of play…on Alpha, naturally: who is Superman, prototype for the whole damn grammar of this genre in the first place. Marvel’s full of quasi-Supermen, if you think about it. This is something that gets applied all the time. Marvel frequently comments on Superman, to comment on itself, its own “culture” and raison d’etre as a superheroic universe, and usually under very flimsy cover, too. Well, whenever anyone wants to say anything about comics, they have to refer to Superman, don’t they? Because he’s the only symbolic conduit that goes direct to the source. Because, well…he is the source. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that Marvel, that company founded on Superman-sampling in the first place, on Superman-jazz in the first place, has got a lot of semi-Supermen in it. Nefaria’s been one. So has Wonder Man, Wundarr, lately the Sentry…so has, even, the Human Turnip…and ultimately (and I do mean ultimately) we have She-Hulk’s first critical threat in her Gerber incarnation, Pseudo-Man.
And, there are actually more of these Marvel Supermen at large.
But in my opinion (hence this essay) Pseudo-Man’s still their ultimate exemplar.
And I’ll tell you why: here we have Nefaria, whose weakness is too much age and too little time; and Wonder Man, whose weakness is (correspondingly youthful) about having too little will and too much desire…meanwhile Wundarr’s weakness is too much simplicity and too little regulation, and the Sentry’s is too much significance and too little reason…and listen, this is just a bit of an intro: but Pseudo-Man’s weakness makes it all crystal-clear, what it’s all about. It’s all simply too much fantasy, and too little reality. Hey, just like the Space Turnip! Well, but of course: fantasy is the ultimate superheroic Achilles heel, after all, precisely because it is also the wellspring of superheroic power and actualization. I mean, that barely needs noting, right? Because as I said, it’s always been the Marvel culture’s bread and butter. Because if Marvel is anything, it’s a world without a Superman…and Marvel’s publishing (if not corporate) ethos is something that grew up to this (originally business-oriented) necessity, that there are no Supermen.
Not a bad philosophy, even if partly accidental, for a modern Pop Art company.
There are no Supermen.
Well, but of course there aren’t. Because what there are, instead, are endless conflicts between power and personality that put the individual who’s suffering from them in an intractable ethical bind. Power certainly can corrupt, at Marvel…but more importantly, power can trip up, and confuse, and distract from the proper goals of life, even as it also can’t be done without, or ignored. And thus, Omega: a Superman re-envisioned as a protagonist through the Marvel filter of the thoughtful Seventies New Wave scripters — not just there for Captain America or the Fantastic Four to fight, not just there to be defined-as-opposite to Peter Parker, but there as a Marvel Superman.
Or, as a Marvel Captain Marvel?
What would that look like, anyway?
Well, at first it started out looking like the Thing, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Cyclops…but here we are at the end of the “Pop Art” era that Stan was so excited by, at the moment before the Exodus of the New Wave scripters, and so the ethos of the Marvel story that they’ve been elaborating for the last few years is reaching up to more ambitious conclusions, now. Because it’s the beginning of the end, which is only to say it’s the apex of the power, skill, and influence of an innovative culture…and therefore though diaspora, and then decadence, is coming before long, right now this is where Ditko meets Deathlok, if you will: where all the early ethical influences detonate, and make a big explosion that closes the last chapter of the first half of the Book Of Marvel. From here, it’s the long and frequently brilliant (yet always downward-sloping, do what you might) afternoon of the Eighties, before the sun finally sets on that ethos in the Nineties. And then there’s only the Green Flash of the early 2000s to go…
We sometimes forget, you know: none of these guys will be around forever.
We’re passing through history, here…so take a good look…
Anyway. So finally we have a Marvel Superman/Captain Marvel in his own right take the stage, and it’s quite a compelling show. Because it’s Gerber, of course: and who else but Gerber ever made protagonists who so desperately needed rescuing from their own lugubrious natures? By the necessity of action, naturally…
Well, but what else? Let’s not forget, this is the same Gerber who wrote Man-Thing: we should know what fascinates him, by now. Stan and Jack’s old trick of the fatal flaw, the feet of clay, in Gerber’s hands became expressly a problem of ethics rather than powers. To put it another way, for Gerber the powers stood in for the ethics, inasmuch as they formed excuses for the fights. The powers (to the degree that they were functions of the fights) originated in the ethics. And therefore all the fight scenes primarily put the ethics at risk, which is why all the fight scenes had to be populated by people, striving against necessity, or fate.
And could a true Marvel Superman/Capt. Marvel be any different, in this respect? Wonder Man, Nefaria, these are cases which demonstrate the inadequacy of mere power, mere self-actualization, to solve problems…because these are all speculations on the necessity of the fatal flaw and the feet of clay, or to put it another way on the manner in which heroic self-awareness is sourced in imperfection. And without this awareness of imperfection a character’s “destiny” simply takes over — external (sometimes arbitrary) limitations bring them, inevitably, to a ruin that the internal limitations of introspection and self-consciousness would otherwise make it possible to avoid. In a world of No Supermen the freedom that power embodies is either subverted from within to make character, or demolished from without to make moral. So either way, plot becomes critique…
But then there’s Omega, who turns Marvel’s traditional Superman syndrome on its head. Because in Omega, character (as the unification of power, purpose, and personality that thwarts a ruinous moral destiny) is not yet formed, and its pieces are so broken-up that, hey, forget Spider-Man, or even Man-Thing: this is Pilgrim’s Progress, right here. Or, the Inferno? Yes, it’s the Inferno: because superheroes and a certain species of allegory may have always gone hand in hand with each other, but Omega takes them much further off the marked path, into a more conventionally literary forest of allusion. And suddenly the typical relationship of Marvel’s No-Superman-Superman to his universe is inverted, you see; the ethos of Marvel’s publishing culture is no longer seen as simply ascendant over hypostasized Men Of Steel, no longer trumping them with ethical destiny, but rather through Omega’s eyes everything that was previously solid in Marvel’s universe is made shaky. Phantasmal: since the organism knows nothing of hero and villain, but only wants to live…
But then, unfortunately, as we all know…
So now to Pseudo-Man. And it’s twenty-five years later, as we pick up this part of our story: the time of the Green Flash, and so the complex ethical Gerberverse of the Seventies is long dead and buried. Sean Kleefeld remarks on Gerber’s curious concentration here, in the few issues before Howard appears to help She-Hulk navigate the Baloneyverse(!), on what seems to be a rather slapdash indictment of Modern Culture. Our stand-in for Lex Luthor, Pseudo-Man’s enemy, tells us in so many words that reality is an irrelevant concept now; Pseudo-Man’s power is itself a testament to the supreme elevation of simple Belief over any sense of real-world proportion. And so, where exactly the villainy is located in this satirical superhero fable isn’t quite plain to the reader — except for Jennifer herself, it seems like everyone’s the asshole of this story.
So…what’s Gerber trying to say?
Well, I submit that his critique — for that’s what it is — isn’t quite as slapdash as it looks: because it isn’t Modern Culture that’s really being skewered here, but Marvel Culture. And did Steve mean it to be read this way? I don’t know, of course…but he’s good at it. He’s had a lot of practice at it. And he’s always sought a centre to oppose himself to, one way or another, wherever he’s gone…so that She-Hulk (improbably!) becomes both a good comic and a good character under his whimsically humourous pen is probably not merely coincidental with the appearance of encroachiverses, Critics, and old boyfriends. Can it be coincidental, then, that the Marvel Superman featured in its pages can be read as screaming “cynical irrelevancy” out to the reader? Because this No-Superman is a creature of no meaning, just like his nemesis; this isn’t the misplaced and overwrought idealism of Turnip-Man, this is an encounter with the forces, not of stupidity, but of just not caring anymore.
Or, if you like: too much fantasy, and not enough reality.
If Marvel has anything like a “post-” hero, born out of bullshit but reaching for higher things, She-Hulk may well be it, these days. Or, she could have been. Anyway, the upward reaching of the pre-“post” Marvel heroes is long over…and especially Omega, of course. Additionally, as time goes on Marvel’s “Superman Syndrome” seems more pointless each time it crops up: because what is really left of it, to riff on? As Pseudo-Man’s episode in She-Hulk may well be trying to tell us, the ethics of power and personality that made the Marvel Supermen such fruitful locales for commentary right up to the Eighties, and which (I am saying) were instrumental in forming what was once Marvel’s writing and publishing culture…well, those are really dead issues, now. And maybe their bones were finally interred in West Coast Avengers, or something: I don’t know.
But I’m pretty sure their future died with Omega.
Who — of course — remains unknown to this day.
Okay, thank you for your time!