Omega the Unknown was a short-lived yet influential comic created by Steve Gerber which ran for 10 issues (March, 1976-October, 1977). Tired of annoyingly plucky boy sidekicks, Gerber pitched it as a realistic portrayal of a young boy's life, but Stan Lee insisted on more supernatural elements and crossovers with in-universe heroes. However, Gerber ably worked around these restrictions, writing a fairly down-to-earth, emotionally-driven story about a young boy's difficult life. Sure he was raised (then orphaned) by robots and had a Psychic Link with a Last of His Kind Alien superhero, but for all that, it can be surprisingly touching.
Gerber wrote about the kinds of small, difficult struggles which affect the average child, such as bullying, the death of a friend, getting along in a new place, and trying to understand the motivations of others. One of the unusual elements in the book was the realistic portrayal of Hell's Kitchen, complete with sex workers, drug addicts, the homeless, porno theaters, and roving muggers. These were sometimes played for humor, such as Bruce Banner lying in the gutter in his trademark torn purple pants while pedestrians step over him, disparaging him as a 'wino'.
The series was canceled mid-way through when Gerber entered a struggle with the publisher over creator's rights. Omega was summarily given to another writer, who killed off most of the characters in the pages of The Defenders. Gerber was eventually let go. Despite its short run, the comic proved influential and memorable amongst comic authors, who have praised Gerber as the forerunner to revolutionary authors like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who used comics to tackle serious issues, leading to the Darker and Grittier comics familiar to us today.
One author influenced by Gerber was Jonathan Lethem, a MacArthur Grant-winning novelist who rebooted the series in 2007. When Gerber heard about Lethem's reboot, he reacted with anger and disbelief that someone who called themselves a fan of his would conspire with the company that he fought with so long to take away his creation and remake it, without so much as a by-your-leave. Gerber and Lethem later spoke, and Gerber softened his critique, typifying Lethem as naive and starry-eyed.
The new series also lasted for 10 issues (December, 2007-September, 2008). Lethem spent much of his run retelling Gerber's story, and then moved on to his own variations, thick with satire and hallucinogenic reality shifts. It's questionable how pertinent Lethem could be, when Gerber was writing a decade before the graphic novel revolution, and Lethem is writing the same story thirty years after the fact.
These works contain examples of:
- Action Girl: One of James-Michaels surrogate parents, Amber, who seeks out super battles so she can take pictures and sell them to J.J. Jameson, who she fights with over payment, drawing laughs from the compulsory Peter Parker cameo.
- Anti-Hero: The Mink. Genuine Badass, Huge Jerk, Shameless Shill.
- Author Avatar: Richard Rory, who first appeared in Gerber's Man-Thing.
- Badass Normal: The Wrench was an ordinary handyman named Kurt Klemmer, who went insane after his mother died and decided to "fix" anyone else he could find by beating them to death with the large pipe wrench he carried.
- Child Prodigy: James-Michael, thanks to his unique home schooling.
- Creating Life: Omega is an idealized Übermensch created by aliens.
- Death by Origin Story: James-Michael's parents.
- Deceased Parents Are the Best: Even if they are a bit unusual.
- Delinquents: One of James Michael's biggest problems at school.
- Failure Hero: Perhaps in response to Stan Lee's interference (see the Trivia page) Gerber depicted Omega as actually winning very few of his fights without some sort of outside interference. On a few occasions, Omega only managed to win after a Heroic Bystander helped him out, and on at least one occasion James-Michael duplicated energy powers similar to Omega's and defeated the villain on his own. It was only when other writers took over that Omega began winning battles on his own.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: In trying to write a more realistic story, Gerber has the protagonist's new chubby nerd friend beaten to an 'unrecognizable' pulp in the school bathroom for tattling on some bullies. He is treated at the hospital and returns to school, but while stooping to pick up a pencil, is kicked from behind, and falls, rupturing one of his recently-repaired organs and dying in the ambulance, which is struck in traffic.
- Fully Absorbed Finale: the final issue of Omega's title left a number of plot threads dangling. Some - but not all - of them were tied off in a two issue storyline in Defenders, published two years later, and killing off Omega and James-Michael for real.
- Glass Cannon: Unlike his original incarnation, the 2007 Omega's only superpower lies in his ability to fire energy beams. Otherwise, he's just as vulnerable to regular injury and exhaustion as anyone else.
- Heroic Bystander: Omega was assisted by several of these during his short career.
- Homeschooled Kids: James-Michael, until coming to New York.
- Human Alien: Omega.
- Inner City School: And then some, one nerd is beaten to death.
- Last of His Kind: Omega (or is he?).
- Mecha-Mooks: The robot aliens hunting Omega throughout the series.
- Not So Stoic: James-Michael, after a new friend is beaten to death by bullies.
- Orphan's Ordeal: James-Michael's life after the death of his parents as he tries to live with some unusual NYC residents.
- Psychic Link: James-Michael and Omega.
- The Quiet One: Omega, who rarely speaks since he feels there is rarely anything of use to be said.
- Raised by Natives: James-Michael leaves his isolated life in the mountains to live with New Yorkers in Hell's Kitchen.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Doc. Barrow, the doctor who treats the protagonist after the car accident that kills his "parents".
- Robotic Reveal: James-Michael's parents.
- The Runaway: in the last issue of the original series, James-Michael decides to escape from Hell's Kitchen and return to his home in the mountains of Pennsylvania after the death of his nerd friend. Dian tags along.
- Sadist Teacher: More out of anxiety than cruelty, but he does hit James-Michael for no apparent reason when he first walks into the classroom.
- Space Police: What the 2007 version of the character is a part of. James-Micheal was being raised to join their ranks, but ultimately refuses.
- The Spock: James-Michael, on account of being raised by robots.
- Spock Speak: James-Michael, due to his unusual provenance.
- Tomboy: James-Michael's first school chum, Dian.
- Trust Me, I'm an X: The doctor who treats James-Michael, only to turn him into an experiment.
- Übermensch: Omega is Gerber's literal take on Nietzsche's idea, where aliens try to create the perfect man of the future. Possibly a subversion in that, under Gerber's pen, Omega was actually a pretty crummy fighter.
- You Will Be Assimilated: The primary goal and go-to tactic of the 2007 machines towards those it can't simply murder.