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.

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