Oh, My Aching Cranium! Jack Kirby’s OMAC Deconstructed and Reconstructed, Part One

If there’s one work by the King of Comics that polarizes his legion of fans, it’s his short-lived 1974 DC series OMAC. Appearing to take place in a future universe all its own (as was the case with arguably his most popular and successful effort after returning to DC in 1970, Kamandi), the eight issues chronicling the exploits and adventures of former low-level-laborer Buddy Blank after his transformation into a super-powered agent for global peace affixed with the designation One Man Army Corps are certainly a good deal “darker”  and more somber  in tone than much of Jack Kirby’s more celebrated, well-regarded works. But in the years following its abrupt conclusion/cancellation occasioned by Kirby’s return to Marvel after his contract with the former National Periodical Publications expired, a near-continuous stream of critical re-evaluations and re-appraisals have shown the series to be both better than its reception at the time indicated, and downright prescient in many respects.

OMAC, you see, was a tale of — as we were continuously reminded in its pages — “The World That’s Coming!” Not “A Possible World That Might Be Coming,” “What May Come To Pass If We’re Not Careful,” or any other watered-down description of the future that hedges its bets — as so many works of speculative science fiction are. The King never did subtle, and this comic was no exception — this was what human society was definitely headed towards, according to Jack, and damn if time didn’t prove him to be right in numerous respects.

Speaking of time — it really has proven to be Kirby’s greatest ally, hasn’t it? With every passing year, the stature of his inestimable and singular body of work has continued to grow, the context under which much of that work was created has become better-known, and his creations have generated revenue that is, in a very real sense, beyond calculation.

Too bad his family has seen very little of that revenue come their way, and hopefully that will change sometime in the not-too-distant future, but there’s no mistaking it: Jack Kirby’s fertile imagination continues to be worth, literally, billions of dollars, and as more and more people go back and seek out the original comics that served as the springboard for their favorite movie and TV franchises, they find themselves more amazed and awestruck than ever when they return to Kirby’s work with an adult appreciation of just what it took to do what he did. As for those younger readers encountering Kirby’s work for the first time all these years later — I can only imagine what it must feel like.  “Hand Of Fire,” “The Word Of God,” and countless other descriptions have been used by writers of far greater stature than I to attempt to relate their monumental early encounters with The King’s visionary genius, and not a one of those folks is exaggerating in the least.

So, yeah — it’s fair to say that just about everyone who loves comics, and even countless numbers of people who don’t, are blown away by the power of Kirby’s ideas, as well as their execution on the page. But for all the near-universal acclaim most of them receive, OMAC continues to divide even his most die-hard adherents.

Curious (or masochistic) bastard that I am, I figured now was as good a time as any to examine why that should be, given that the series is celebrating its 40th anniversary. How is it that a comic that came out so long ago can remain so hotly debated to this very day? It doesn’t take a genius to see why it was probably considered to be far less “accessible” than most of Jack’s other work at the time of its publication, but why does it continue to divide people into “love it” or “hate it” camps, with very few folks straddling the fence in between, all these years later?

That kind of polarizing effect usually means, of course, that a work has something to say, and that folks are either on board with its message or not. It’s also usually indicative of a great, or at least strongly-realized, work of art. Very few people hold middling opinions of, say, Blue Velvet (or any of David Lynch’s films, for that matter), Salo, Naked Lunch, or Lolita — they’re all incredibly divisive, line-in-the-sand statements of  a film-maker’s or author’s intent. They simply don’t allow for anything less than a strong opinion one way or another. The same appears to be true for OMAC (and for White Castle hamburgers, but this isn’t a food site, so we’ll just leave that one alone),  so what we’re going to attempt to do here in this series is gauge the reasons for that violent (metaphorically speaking) split.

For my own part, before we go any further, I should proclaim my own feelings on it, just for the sake of absolute transparency: I fucking love this book. It’s complex, challenging, and features some of Kirby’s most “far-out” ideas and imagery. I find it equal parts frightening, mystifying, dead-on accurate, and breathtakingly ambitious is its scope and heart. It’s everything I love about Kirby dialed up to the max, with its pedal pushed right to the floor. It is, as the young folks say, the shit.

And yet — I also understand, at least to some extent, where its critics are coming from. I see why people find it somewhat off-putting and understand how it flies completely in the face of Jack’s usually-optimistic outlook on the world as expressed via his numerous other incomparable imaginings. This was the toughest ride he ever asked his readers to grip themselves in for and it very much plays out in a manner that suggests he knew not everyone would be hanging around for its full duration.

In order to better understand OMAC, then, we’ll be taking things one piece at a time here — we’ll look at where the ideas came from, how they related to other views of the future popular at the time, where Kirby was, creatively and professionally, in 1974, and ultimately try to decipher precisely why all of this ended up in the shape it ultimately did.  After that, we’ll concern ourselves with the real nitty-gritty of examining each and every one of the series’ eight issues, before taking a look at how, and in what form, the legacy of both the character and the book continue, and evolve, to this day.

So that’s the basics of what it is we’re on about here out of the way. I expect it to be a pretty wild ride. I’ll try to remain as “objective” as humanly possible when looking at the historical circumstances behind OMAC’s creation, but once we get into the proper issue-by-issue examination, all bets are off. If you hate this book, you’ll probably hate what I have to say. If you love it, you’ll probably agree with most, maybe even all, of my observations/critiques. And if you’ve never read it before and want to follow along at home anyway — welcome! And do yourself a favor and pick up either the hardcover or trade paperback collection of the series pictured at the outset of this post (or the back issues, if you so desire).  I encourage you to experience the work for yourself and form your own ideas and opinions of it regardless of whatever it is I’m blathering on about.

Let’s meet up here again in a week or two then (depending on what sort of “publishing schedule” Sequart’s editors decide to serialize this beast in), shall we? I’d say something like “we’re about to begin an incredible journey together,” but Jack Kirby was so much better at that sort of magnificent hyperbole than I could ever hope to be in my widest, weirdest dreams.

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, and writes about films and comics for sites such as unobtainium13.com, dailygrindhouse.com, geekyuniverse.com, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Ryan, I am very excited about this. OMAC is my favourite Kirby comic not only because it’s a fantastic comic but also because it the first time I “got” Kirby.

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the series.

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