Acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem plans to bring back OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, to creator Steve Gerber's consternation. Gerber wants to know why Lethem can't just create a new character. It's a fair question, says Paul O'Brien.
20 June 2005

Steve Gerber is unhappy, and not for the first time.

Of course, it's well known that he's had running arguments with Marvel for years over the ownership of HOWARD THE DUCK, which they settled some time ago on a confidential basis. Since Marvel continue to assert ownership of the character, and Gerber doesn't challenge that, it's probably not an outrageous speculation to suspect that they paid him some money to drop the action - effectively buying out whatever rights in the character he might have, without ever really resolving the question of whether he had any in the first place.

But there are other Steve Gerber characters from the 1970s, such as the hero of cult series OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, which he co-wrote with Mary Skrenes. It ran for ten issues in 1976 and 1977 and got cancelled in midstream. I've never read it, what with it being out of print since before I learned to read, but I gather the ten issues involve Omega as an enigmatic superhero somehow connected to a kid called James-Michael Starling. He died in the last issue without any explanation being given.

For some unfathomable reason, somebody thought it would be a good idea to resolve the plot. So two years later, a story duly appeared in DEFENDERS #76-77 explaining away the whole thing on the basis that Omega was an alien warrior robot. It's perhaps easy to understand why Gerber wasn't too impressed by that.

Regardless, since 1979 Omega has been a dormant property, unless you count his appearances in Marvel's OFFICIAL HANDBOOK. There's not even enough material there to fill out an Essentials volume. But now author Jonathan Lethem has pitched a series to Marvel, which they were only too happy to accept, and the whole can of worms has been opened again.

'OMEGA THE UNKNOWN ran for ten issues and got cancelled in midstream.' Lethem is best known for his critically acclaimed novel THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE. As the title might suggest, it made heavy use of superhero comic book references, including OMEGA itself. Frankly, Lethem isn't exactly an airport novelist, and he doesn't seem like the most obvious person for Marvel to work with. It would seem likely that this is this year's token Marvel high-art/superhero/pseudo-indie crossover book, to be filed in your collections next to FANTASTIC FOUR: UNSTABLE MOLECULES.

Gerber is not pleased. Rich Johnston has helpfully gathered his comments on the subject from a Howard the Duck mailing list. His initial comments, frankly, are over the top by any standard - Lethem "has made an enemy for life by taking the job". Gerber subsequently backed down from that after being put in touch with Lethem and establishing that he really was just a big fan of the work.

Nonetheless, he still doesn't approve. According to Gerber, "I still believe that writers and artists who claim to respect the work of creators past should demonstrate that respect by leaving the work alone - particularly if the original creator is still alive, still active in the industry, and, as is typically the case in comics, excluded from any financial participation in the use of the work." His constructive suggestion is that since Omega has virtually no market value, Lethem should just change the names and do the story with his own characters.

Now, Gerber's primary objection is apparently that business practices prior to the early 1980s were indefensible and that today's creators should not endorse those practices by writing characters that publishers acquired at the time. (That's assuming that Marvel do own Omega, though Gerber casts doubt on that too.) Nonetheless, he does also seem to have a fundamental objection to the idea of reviving other people's characters.

'This is this year's token Marvel high-art, pseudo-indie crossover book.' But he does raise an interesting question here: what is the point of doing the story as an OMEGA THE UNKNOWN book, rather than just doing it under some other name altogether?

Let's start with two obvious reasons why you might want to re-use the name of a pre-existing defunct comic. First, you might be doing a sequel, in which case it's pretty much unavoidable that you're going to have to draw an explicit connection with the earlier stories. Second, the comic might have a big built-in audience.

Neither of those would seem to apply here. Unless Lethem has a desperate interest in DEFENDERS continuity implants, he'll presumably be wiping the slate clean and doing the story from scratch. And the built-in audience for an OMEGA THE UNKNOWN relaunch must be tiny. Those readers who remember it at all might be interested in a book revealing what the original creators would have done with the character, but there surely can't be many people so excited by the character as a free-standing entity that they're desperate to buy an Omega book by somebody else entirely. The marketability of Lethem's OMEGA relaunch - or rather, such marketability as it has - comes from Lethem's credibility rather than from a built-in audience for the character itself.

The other obvious reason to re-use a name is if you're doing a re-make so close to the original story that it would be absurd to call it anything else. Only when Lethem's book comes out will we be able to tell whether he has simply produced a re-make, or whether he's taken the same basic concept in a more original direction. It would be a dreadful disappointment, though, if Lethem was planning to reuse the original plot rather than just the original concept. (Because then, really, why bother?) At that point, you get into the vaguer territory of stories that are clearly inspired by another book yet have some life of their own.

'The marketability of Lethem's OMEGA relaunch comes from Lethem's credibility.' Over the last couple of decades, there have been some striking examples of characters being "revived" in forms so far removed from their original incarnation as to be effectively different characters. Vertigo (and its immediate predecessor books) were particularly bad for this kind of thing.

Their version of Kid Eternity had the same powers as the original, and that was pretty much it. Their version of Shade the Changing Man was so far removed from the original stories as to be functionally a different character in all but name. Even SANDMAN started life as a revamp of the guy in the gas mask, although in fairness, the name also had pre-existing associations with dreams.

All of these books could quite easily have been called something else entirely, and nobody would have batted an eyelid. No doubt the underlying similarities to the original characters would have been spotted, but they would simply have been seen as influences. Many of the characters were far too obscure for fanbase appeal to be a factor (BLACK ORCHID, for example). It's almost as though the point was to flag up the books' roots in completely unrelated comics, as if to say "look how much we've changed".

Of course, there's also a middle ground where the revival is still close enough to the original that you wouldn't get away with that kind of thing, especially if the original concept was unusual in some way. OMEGA was a weird book to start with, and if Lethem produces something clearly recognisable as OMEGA, then that connection will be apparent whatever he calls the characters.

Pragmatically, at this point everyone knows that the book is inspired by OMEGA, and there's really little to be gained by using the original name. Anyone who cares already knows. Anyone who doesn't care doesn't need to know. The value of the name is negligible. The book is hardly going to make a fortune for anyone.

But with Gerber publicly complaining about it, and moreover firing warning shots about the ownership of the character, Marvel are hardly going to be inclined to climb down. That leaves the unfortunate Lethem, who seems to have had the best of intentions, caught in the crossfire between the two. Not a position I'd want to be in.

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