Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Deus Ex Brother Eye: Omac, the One Man Army

Reading Jack Kirby in the Bronze Age made me wonder what his fans were smoking.

Why did everyone keep talking about the guy who wrote Devil Dinosaur and The Demon as some kind of genius (sure, I liked The Demon but I couldn’t see it as genius work)? The only books I really thought showed brilliance were Kamandi (which I blogged about here) and The Eternals (which I’ll blog about here soon), so where the hell did Kirby get this reputation for greatness?

To put this in perspective, I’d been a DC kid during the Silver Age. Even if I’d been a Marvel fan, I didn’t really appreciate art in my pre-teen years. To me the images were just a vehicle to convey the story the writer was telling, not anything interesting in their own right. There were one or two artists I disliked — that Neal Adams guy with his weird drawings! — but I never realized how much Curt Swan, Gil Kane or Ditko and Kirby (when I occasionally browsed Marvel) contributed to my liking a comic..

After my family moved from England to the U.S. I didn’t start buying comics again until Kirby’s Fourth World was almost done, and I found it hard to get into. After that/ Well, most of Kirby’s work seemed to have some good ideas but forgettable execution, like his Black Panther series. Or the topic of this post, Omac, The One Man Army. There were moments in Omac that I loved, but I sold the whole run a few years back without a qualm (I normally have great qualms about selling Silver or Bronze Age books).

Since my teenage years I’ve read most of Kirby’s Silver Age work and some of his Golden Age stuff, and I no longer have any doubts how tremendously creative and talented he was. I still don’t regret selling Omac.

The 1974-5 series is set in “the world that’s coming,” a near future setting where a Global Police Agency maintains a watch over WMDs, mad science and other threats to world peace. The agents have faceless Question-style masks so it’s impossible to know their name or nationality. However some extraordinary threats require extraordinary agents, so the orbiting GPA satellite Brother Eye turns schlub Buddy Blank into one such hero: Omac, the unstoppable One Man Army Corps.

Kirby’s friend and former assistant, Mark Evanier, has said Kirby originated the Omac concept as a futuristic Captain America, one he could work on without Stan Lee (Kirby disliking Stan’s portrayal of Cap as an angsty veteran uncomfortable in the civilian world). By the time Kirby hit on this idea, though, he was fed up with his lack of reward from Marvel and looking for the exit. The idea didn’t see daylight — obviously in a much mutated form — until he was working for DC.

The first issue hooked me, no question. Not Omac per se but all the little cultural details about the coming world. Sexbot girlfriends. Crying rooms at his workplace (“I feel so much better after a good cry.”) along with burning and stabbing rooms. Feel so angry you’d like to set your boss on fire? Pour gasoline on a mannikin and relieve your stress!

This was right in line with some of the 1970s speculation about the near future, which gave it a really cool feel. In #2, the billionaire villain pays off an entire city to evacuate for the night so that he can throw a party for his friends — actually a set-up to take down Omac — without anyone getting in the way. Aside from the impossibility of evacuating that smoothly (even with small towns, the logistics are nightmarish), I could easily see one of today’s 1 percenters trying something like that.

If Kirby had kept that up, I’d have been in heaven. Instead, the book slid into generic stories: Omac takes down a dictator, Omac fights a mad scientist, Omac fights a big ugly monster. Omac himself is a cipher, with no personality other than being heroic. There’s no supporting cast other than the faceless agents (Omac’s assigned a couple of parents in one story, but we don’t see them again).

Rereading the book in 2013 (this post expands on a blog post I wrote at the time) I spotted another problem, that Brother Eye hand-waves all Omac’s obstacles away. Omac gets hurt, Brother Eye heals him. Bad guys blast Omac with a flamethrower, Brother Eye shields him with a “molecular cocoon.” Omac’s flying chair in #5 just pulls out one weapon after another — freeze gas! Acid jets! — as if it were Green Arrow’s quiver of gimmick shafts. There’s no challenge when the hero draws unlimited powers out of his butt. If Brother Eye doesn’t have a ray to fix things, the Peace Agents can be counted on to show up and arrest everyone.

I suspect Kirby’s intention was to give the story a “wow” factor, stunning us with the tremendous, nigh unlimited tech at Brother Eye’s disposal. He did something similar in Mister Miracle: rather than escape by mere human tricks, Scott Free relied on his wonder-working New Genesis technology to cheat death. When I finally read the early issues this was my least favorite part; like Omac, the lack of clear limits on Scott’s abilities felt like cheating. But Mister Miracle had a lot of things Omac did not, such as colorful villains, a strong supporting cast, real imagination and a much more interesting hero (“He cheats death! He defies man! No trap can hold him!”). I could overlook the flaws.

Not so much with Omac. Unlike Neal Adams’ art, looking at the series as an adult doesn’t change my younger self’s views.

#SFWApro. All images by Kirby.

8 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Wow; really could not disagree more. I do agree that the first 2 or 3 issues are brimming with great ideas and are the best stories; but, I thought it was great all the way through. The last couple of issues do stumble; because Kirby had had enough of DC not fulfilling their promises and messing with his books and just mentally checked out (and physically, around the final issue or just after, though I can’t remember the exact timeline).

    For me, it was just this wild romp through a future world, with all kinds of bizarre things; but, you can kind of see Kirby’s themes that permeated his other works. Kirby is very much about grand ideas and his stories are told in broad strokes, with a lot of action going on. OMAC is very much about how the Haves lord it over the Have Nots and standing up for your rights and for what is right, as well as the unending exploration of freedom vs fascism, that had such an impact on his life.

    I think Brother Eye explores a lot of Kirby’s thoughts on surveillance technology, which was growing, about people being controlled by those in power (Buddy Blank being used by Brother Eye and the GPA), and some of the dehumanizing aspects of technology.

    Within the context of his bigger themes, Kirby does trot out the tropes; but, Kirby always had little twists on those things, when given his head. OMAC is his last great hurrah at DC, before he pretty much marks time to fill his page quota and head back to Marvel and gets treated the same way and tells both companies to go to hell and heads off to work in animation.

    I think too many people skipped his run on the Losers, when they talk about Kirby’s DC stint, in the 70s. That ends up being a very personal book as Kirby really shows some desperate, close quarter fighting, in a couple of issues, which read like combat memoirs. I’ve seen clips of Kirby talking about some of the fighting he saw and it sounded very much like what he put into those issues. He hated the title, but it did give him a chance to show what the war was like, rather than do something like Sgt Fury, which he hated.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Hm, I have to say for my part that I couldn’t agree more with most of what you said here. I found pretty much all of Kirby’s 1970s output at both DC and Marvel (including Kamandi and the Eternals for that matter) quite underwhelming. I could sum up any one of those series as having a fantastic underlying idea, a more or less promising start and then lackluster execution – any enthusiasm I may have had for any of them (which was never that great in the first place because I’m not the biggest fan of his art, either) fizzled out after only a few issues, or less.

  3. jccalhoun

    I’ve recently read several issues of Kirby’s Fourth World stuff and while there are tons of great ideas and some moments of cool art, the actual storylines are not executed well at all. And I can’t stand the stupid punny names of so many of his characters. Kirby really needed a writer to take his plots and make them better.

    1. Peter

      I think it’s a big cliche at this point… but Kirby and Lee really were kind of the Lennon/McCartney of comics. To be sure, I think Kirby’s 70s solo stuff is much more interesting than anything Lee worked on after Kirby left Marvel (and not that there’s a whole lot of that)… but it really could have benefitted from someone with more of a knack for dialogue. Lee’s dialogue had its flaws and excesses, but I think he was good at coming up with distinctive speaking patterns for major characters. When you read T’Challa’s FF appearances and then the Kirby solo Black Panther series, it’s striking how much more distinct and, dare I say, regal the dialogue is in FF whereas T’Challa just talks like a generic dude in Kirby’s series.

      1. For the initial arc with the Collectors, I think Kirby approached T’Challa as a generic dude. It felt like Kirby was more interested in Mr. Little and the other oddball relic hunters and simply stuck Black Panther in the script to handle the rough stuff (and probably to boost sales).

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