Posts Tagged ‘OMAC #1’

“Man, that cover scared the shit out of me when I was a kid!”

You have no idea how many times I’ve heard or read various iterations of that same statement made in regards to the image depicted above, which greeted kids all over America at newsstands (remember them?)  back in 1974 (the issue is cover-dated October of that year, so it probably came out some time in the summer). Consider the words of noted Kirby scholar Charles Hatfield, who states that “ this frankly disturbing cover  introduces a comic that is chilling, dystopic, and just plain flat-out bizarre,” or cartoonist Scott Shaw, who calls it “one of the most disturbing sexual images in the history of funnybooks,” or prolific YouTube comics commentator (and major Kirby fan) Howlermouse, who says it more or less verbatim – “this  cover scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.”

So, like, what exactly is it about this cover, anyway? Even without the benefit of the context surrounding it – which has to be gleaned by, ya’ know, actually reading the book – it’s clear that Jack Kirby struck a chord with this image alone that continues to resonate for many people even all these years later.  One could argue that said context, once understood, actually makes this thing even more shocking – that’s a “build-a-friend” named Lila in the box, essentially a mechanical sex toy, and one of “her” exact duplicates is the closest thing our ostensible “hero” has to a “girlfriend” in his civilian identity as Buddy Blank – but let’s leave all that out for the time being and just focus on the picture and words right there in front of us, shall we?

For one thing, those words and that image definitely play off one another in a manner so expert that perhaps only someone with Kirby’s decades of experience in the field could have done it (he’s not called “The King Of Comics” for nothing), the picture itself definitely being a “startling” one, and the text promising us a “startling look into — the world that’s coming!” Again, as mentioned in our first entry in this series, not the world that “might be coming,” or “could be coming” – the world that most definitely is coming. “Does this shit creep you out, kids? Well, it should, because it’s gonna happen!”

Then we have the stark and impactful nature of the cover’s layout. Our bizarre-looking “hero” (remember that “Mohawk”-style haircuts were even less common back in 1974 than they are now) is rendered way in the background, so far back as to almost be meaningless apart from what he’s doing, which is throwing that box with a female head and limbs suspended in some sort of liquid concoction directly “at” the reader. I heard Howard Chaykin opine at a convention panel last year that the artistic genius of Kirby lies in the fact that he was the first person who understood that the impact an action had was more important to a reader than the actual action itself, and that little axiom is never more clearly illustrated than it is here. “Comin’ at ya!”

The other “startling” feature of this cover is, of course, the almost-overwhelming amount of empty, or “negative,” space that Kirby utilizes.  Seldom do comics – or any other publications, for that matter – go for that much “blank” (pun most definitely intended) real estate, and when they do it’s because they want the reader’s eye to be drawn to one thing and one thing only since – hey, that’s all there is. Nothing superfluous. No distractions. This is it, folks.

And yet that “nothing” says a whole lot, doesn’t it? One is left with the distinct notion that the rest of the world doesn’t matter, that this action takes places in a completely clinical, isolated, antiseptic setting – and considering that this comic, as we’re made fully aware from the outset, takes place in the future, that’s a scary commentary on the type of society we’re going to be presented with:  namely, that it’s an empty one. We’re told, in no uncertain terms, before even  opening up to the first page, that OMAC will be centered on a character that is isolated, minimized, perhaps even flat-out insignificant, in the hollow, cavernous – one might even go so far as to say soulless – future world that he inhabits.

The sexual nature of the cover that Shaw alludes to is debatable, I suppose, and probably has greater resonance once a person has read the contents of the book, so we’ll leave that alone for a paragraph or two, especially since it probably wasn’t Kirby’s explicit intention to create even a covertly – much less overtly – sexualized image anyway, so hopefully you’ll agree with my decision to “table” that for the time being. It’s not due to any “prudishness” on my part, I promise.

And yet, no sooner do I say that than, hey, look! It’s our “girl” from the cover—and apparently she’s got a name and everything! Dear readers, allow me—by way of Jack Kirby, of course—to introduce you to Lila, a manufactured “Build-A-Friend” that comes our way courtesy of the decidedly unethical Pseudo-People, Inc. in “The World That’s Coming!” Chalk one more uncannily eerie prediction up to “The King”—not only did he accurately foresee the coming of a soul-dead technocracy, dangerously huge income disparity, ecological disaster, faceless global bureaucracy, mind-numbing workplace drudgery, and other facets of contemporary life (some of which will be explored in OMAC #1, while others turn up in future issues), but he also foresaw the coming of the “Real Doll” artificial sex “partner.”

Come on, don’t pretend you’ve never heard of them. Just because Jack couldn’t come right out and label these robotic women what they clearly are doesn’t mean we can’t see them for, well—what they clearly are. But the first issue of OMAC is a decidedly breakneck-paced affair, and no sooner to do we begin to wrap our heads around the whole “Build-A-Friend” concept than we get the following, on the very next page(s):

Yup, we’re being thrown right in at the deep end here, folks, with the shit having already hit the fan, and while Kirby certainly didn’t invent the storytelling conceit of putting the reader into the action long after it had already begun, this kind of “timeline-shuffling” wasn’t anywhere near as common in comics—or any other form of popular entertainment—in 1974 as it is today. For a guy whose writing is often derided as being “behind the times,” ol’ Jack sure seems a few steps ahead of them here, if you ask me.

Hell, truth be told, all of OMAC #1 is incredibly forward-thinking. Sure, Kirby plays along with the popular-at-the-time notion of dividing his narrative up into distinct four-or-five-page “chapters,” but beyond that, this issue makes almost no gestures towards admitting that it’s part and parcel of then-contemporary super-hero yarns. How different is it? Let’s take a closer look…

For one thing, our “everyman” character, Buddy Blank, is aptly named. The guy’s just nobody. Furthermore, he’s not even a particularly likablenobody. He’s given to indulge in self-pity and whining to a degree that’s flat-out annoying, and one of his bosses gets so fed up with it that he assigns Buddy to a program of what essentially amounts to forcible attitude re-adjustment. I probably would too if I were in his shoes.

Not that our guy Buddy doesn’t have cause to be a little miffed, mind you. He’s on the receiving end of every practical joke and thinly-veiled threat his fellow functionaries can think of. But come on, enough is enough. Sooner or later you’ve gotta stand up to bullies and act like a man—right?

Perhaps the reason he doesn’t is because he’s lovesick.  There’s a special girl who seems to pop up just when Buddy needs her the most—her name is Lila, and while she never has much to say, her words seem perfectly measured to calm him down and ease the turbulence in his mind. One might even suspect that she’s too good to be true—if one had a brain, which apparently Buddy very nearly doesn’t. Remember, we’re talking about a guy who has no fucking clue what the company he works for even manufactures, despite the fact that it’s right there in the name, “Pseudo-People, Inc.”

Still, even if Blank lives up to his name in the utter cluelessness department, the powers that be at the Global Peace Agency have taken notice of his employers’ shenanigans and are prepared to act. The “nameless, faceless” agents of the GPA, working together with the illustrious Professor Myron Forest, have determined that “the world that’s coming” can’t afford full-scale armies or wars, but that a special type of “super-protector” might be needed to weed out extraordinary threats in this dangerous new future. To that end, they’ve constructed “the most advanced satellite ever built,” Brother Eye, and plan to link him/it up with their man on the ground, their One Man Army Corps—Buddy Blank.

Exactly why Buddy gets the call isn’t entirely clear—Professor Forest remarks that he’s basically noteworthy only for how un-noteworthy he is, and while that’s certainly true, there’s a little bit of “right place, right time” going on here, as well, since there are probably millions (at least) of dulled-down, “walking dead, ” interchangeable work drones in the future world of OMAC, but perhaps only one is close enough to the operations of “Pseudo-People, Inc.” to bring the whole thing down.

And by close, I mean real close. Despite the fact that we already know his first mission ends in success and his bosses are permanently put out of business, the Memento-esque reverse narrative structure that Kirby employs in this book is pretty goddamn riveting. Buddy meets Lila on the way to his company-assigned “stress-relief,” but this time he decides to follow her after she blows him off—and finds that she’s entering a restricted area of the factory, where she’s going to be disassembled and prepared for shipment to a special target—err, customer. Yup, Lila’s a “Build-A-Friend,” wouldn’t ya just know it?

He gets caught, of course—schmucks always do—and while he’s pinned down to a chair, the whole scheme of “Pseudo-People, Inc.” is laid bare: they’re wiring these sex-dolls-in-all-but-name up to explode, then sending them to important political dignitaries around the globe to act as undercover assassins!  Buddy’s worried that this might trigger a chain reaction that starts an atomic war, but the big-wigs at P-PI don’t care about that—they’re paid handsomely by unknown benefactors  to engineer these murders, and that’s all that matters to them.

Needless to say, this info-dump proves to be a bit more than a grunt like Blank can handle, but just as he starts losing it completely, Brother Eye steps in and, by means of long-distance “electronic surgery” transforms our hapless less-than-hero into a giant guy with an eye emblem on his chest and “Mohawk”-style haircut named, of course, OMAC. This “computer hormone operation—done by remote control!” affords us the opportunity to get a nice amount of patented “Kirby Krackle,” as you’d expect, and once it’s all over it doesn’t take him long to destroy the whole operation—he is,  after all, a One Man Army Corps. The action sequences that follow are frenetic, fast-paced, highly dynamic and impactful, and for my money really show Kirby firing on all cylinders. Throw in the fact that inks for this issue were done by Mike Royer (D. Bruce Berry takes over in #2), who I personally believe to be the best of Jack’s latter-period inkers, and you’ve got yourself a really good-looking comic here.

It’s also a comic that’s not without its quieter, more heartfelt moments. The initial characterization of OMAC seems to be that of a reluctant conscript, perhaps even a philosophical one—a guy who wishes that his job weren’t necessary, but who will do it to the best of his ability because he knows that he is, in fact, needed. Hell, even though Lila isn’t real, he’s downright apologetic about the fact that he has to destroy “her,” telling “her” that  “they’ll pay for this, Lila — they’ve done more than trifle with human life — they’ve made a mockery of the spirit.” Sounds like the soul of a “warrior-poet” to me.

The issue ends on a decidedly ominous note, as Brother Eye remotely informs his new friend that “I shall always help you — we are linked by the eye symbol on your chest — we are like brothers.” I get the feeling this is one “brother” you can’t go out and grab a beer with, though. He’ll just watch you go have a beer by yourself from his vantage point in low-Earth orbit—and probably cut you off by remote control when you’ve had enough. No fun at all, this Brother Eye character.

Obviously, there’s a lot to absorb in the pages of this book—Kirby is throwing concepts out there by the bucket-load, and not all are fleshed out very definitively.  OMAC’s origin makes enough sense as far as it goes, the action is pretty breathtaking, and the basic outline of “the world that’s coming” is both manageable and intriguing. It’s some of the little details that don’t add up, though—like GPA agents who hide their faces with “cosmetic spray” in order to be “anonymous” since they “could be of any nation, “ but just look like they’re wearing blank-featured orange masks.

Still, to be perfectly honest, I don’t see a whole lot of upside in dwelling on the minor failures of the book, when so much about it really does work. They tell us that “world-building” is an important feature of all first issue comics, and Kirby gives a downright clinic on how to go about that task here. This is powerful, imaginative, bold, highly prescient stuff—and that trend continues in earnest as the series progresses.