2018 Revival: OMAC Essay

This only went up on the Shelfdust site a week or so back, despite my having written it in… October? November? I can’t even remember at this point. Internet deadlines can be weird, here’s an essay I wrote to accompany the Shelfdust Top 100 Comic Issues list. It’s kind of a mess — I was in a very strange frame of mind as I wrote it — but I like it anyway.

The very first page of 1974’s OMAC #1 tells the reader exactly what to expect; the opening narrative capture explains the set-up for the entire series as Jack Kirby starts the book in media res: “OMAC One Man Army Corps is the story of a young man in The World That’s Coming!!” it starts. “In that strange place, the common objects of today… may become the terrors that we never bargained for… like the one below!”

Kirby gets a lot of shit for his writing tics, all the weird emphasis and “random” “quote” “marks” where it doesn’t really seem to make sense from today’s point of view, not to mention the irrepressible momentum of it all; it’s a million miles away from the stylized, self-conscious thing that passed for naturalism in today’s mainstream comics, and for that reason alone it’s often criticized or targeted as a guilty pleasure. But it’s genuinely amazing stuff, as immediate as the best pop music and featuring turns of phrase or ideas that are wonderfully memorable and memetic decades before anyone knew what that word meant. OMAC is filled with so many examples of this kind of thing, from “The World That’s Coming!!” to Lila the Build-A-Friend, who pleads “Put me together… I will be your friend…” prompting OMAC to respond, “Where does humanity stop and technology begin? We no longer know, Lila…”

The techno-suspicion of the first issue is wonderful, and wonderfully prescient; Buddy Blank’s discovery that the one person in the world who was kind to him was just an artificial intelligence — although, again, this was decades before that term would enter popular usage — feels like a predication of the relationships formed through social media and the ways in which they can turn out to be not as real as some hoped for, or believed. But Buddy, the nebbish alter ego of the One Man Army Corps who essentially disappears from the series midway through this first issue, is what makes it feel like Kirby knew what The World That’s Coming!! was like more than most.

There’s a scene in the issue, where Buddy is wandering aimlessly through the halls of “Pseudo-People, Inc.,” the dehumanizing corporation he works for, having been bullied. What initially seems like a Marvel-esque origin story — is he the loser that no-one understands? — gets turned on its head by a subtlety and ambivalence that Stan Lee would’ve jumped away from in fear. “Maybe Fox is right,” Buddy thinks to himself. “I’m angry enough to flip out!” A page later, he says to himself, “I’m not angry at anybody… I just feel depressed, that’s all…”

OMAC #1 has all the hallmarks of a Kirby comic that people would expect from reading his Marvel work, and arguably even the majority of his Fourth World material — it’s visually bombastic, it’s fast-paced and dynamic and filled with astounding concepts that are at once ridiculous and utterly perfect. But at the heart of it is a character who feels honest and true and recognizable to so many people today: A character who is somehow more real than the milquetoast nerd stereotype of a million other comics by that point, who feels alienated and abandoned by a world around him that’s hypnotized by the toys and the technology at its fingertips, and who — most importantly, perhaps — doesn’t get a last-minute vengeance or score-evening moment of redemption.

Instead, Buddy is swallowed up by that same technology, against his will. He isn’t changed into OMAC by choice, or even an accident; he’s chosen by an authority he isn’t even aware or, and once “Omactivated,” is essentially a different person altogether: He’s more violent, more confident; a version of the cliched alpha male. Buddy is murdered by the state so that OMAC can live, if you like.

OMAC as a series is great; it’s got everything you could want from 1970s Jack Kirby, who is undoubtedly my favorite Jack Kirby. But OMAC #1, taken on its own, is something far greater than what followed; it’s a sneaky, but perfect, horror story about the world that we live in today, and the ways in which the everyman — “Buddy Blank” is a poetically perfect name for someone who could be all of us — is powerless to resist against its lure of techno-distraction and authoritarian control. 44 years after it was published, it just continues to feel more and more timely with each new reading.

2018 Revival: My Personal Top 10 Comics Issues List

This one wasn’t written for publication or performance; it was the notes I made to accompany my submission to Shelfdust’s Top 100 Comics Listwhen I submitted my Top 10. (To clarify: It was specifically top 10 comics single issues, not storylines/collections/graphic novels, and it was by any definition I wanted — I went for something between what they meant for me personally and how good I thought they were.) I didn’t know that it wasn’t for publication at time of writing, because I didn’t know whether we were supposed to write note to share or not, but that just made sure that I wrote more, which is always good. 

#10: The New Guardians #1 (1988, DC Comics)

— I loved Millennium, the crossover this came from, so much that I subscribed to this (for an exceptionally large amount of money; I was in the UK, after all) before it launched. The series was a disaster, with Steve Englehart leaving midway through the second issue, but even today, there’s something special about the launch issue: A vision of socially inclusive and diverse comics that I was looking for but hadn’t found yet.

#9: The Invisibles #12 (1995, DC/Vertigo)

— The Invisibles was a (the?) seminal series for me, and this is arguably the most important issue in it; the one that introduces the true hero of the whole thing, and also explains how bad guys become bad guys. It’s very much in the whole pulp tradition, but also something that asks and expects a little kindness from those reading.

#8: Uncanny X-Men #185 (1984, Marvel Comics)

— The comic where I decided that I was going to collect comics. What was it about this? Claremont arguably in his prime, Romita Jr. and Dan Green at the 1980s best, but also the sense of it being this expansive fictional universe that went far beyond the superhero comics I’d read as a kid. This felt “other,” it was amazingly exciting.

#7: Or Else #2 (2004, Drawn & Quarterly)

— Kevin Huizenga has the honesty of an Eddie Campbell, but the formal curiosity of a Chris Ware and the heart of a Jaime Hernandez. This was the first thing I read from him, back when it was a mini comic called Supermonster #14. The reprint (that was, I think, also redrawn and/or expanded?) just cemented how wonderful he, it, and comics in general, are.

#6: Deadline #5 (1989, Deadline)

— The first issue of Deadline I bought, and the place where I discovered comics that weren’t superheroes or 2000AD. My first taste of Philip Bond, Jamie Hewlett, Nick Abadzis and Shaky Kane. This was unspeakably important to me at the time; it really felt like the world was opening up and comics were a place to explore all these things in a language I’d understand.

#5: Mister Miracle #10 (2018, DC Comics)

— No comic has ever felt like a more perfect expression of a relationship than this one, to me.

#4: Flex Mentallo #4 (1996, DC/Vertigo)

— “Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy needs to get out of the house and meet some girls.”

#3: OMAC #1 (1974, DC Comics)

— One of the most perfect first issues ever made in comics, and also one of the most prescient pieces of 20th Century science fiction. Oddly, also released in the same month I was born, apparently.

#2: Dork #7 (1999, Slave Labor Graphics)

— Evan Dorkin writing about his nervous breakdown was (and, in many ways, still is) a shock considering this had previously been his humor anthology, but he does it with such honesty, anger and wit that it’s undoubtedly one of the best comics I’ve ever read.

#1: Grafitti Kitchen #1 (1993, Tundra)

— Simply one of the best one-shot issues ever, one of the best autobiographical comics ever — sure, he’s pretending to be Alec McGarry, but still — and one of the most honest pieces of writing about how complicated and dumb and hopeful we get when it comes to relationships.