Oh, My Aching Cranium!:

Jack Kirby’s OMAC Deconstructed And Reconstructed, Part Sixteen

So—what was that all about, then?

I assure you, it’s hardly a rhetorical question—Jack Kirby’s eight-issue run on OMAC is stuffed to the gills (and well beyond) with concepts, themes, often-eerily-prescient prognostication, and deft societal observations, in addition to characters and action. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be something of a daunting task in the case of this book, and far greater comics scholars than I have spent countless column inches attempting to discern its central premise (or premises), with varying degrees of success. Even Mark Evanier, arguably the most loyal Kirby fan in the comics industry and a one-time protégé/assistant to The King, admits that, on first reading, he “didn’t get” OMAC and that it’s taken him several subsequent readings to divine his friend/former employer’s intent with the project, while Kirby himself apparently once remarked to a fan who said he “wasn’t sure where you were going with that one” that “I knew exactly where I was going—if I knew you’d wanted to come along, I’d have taken you with me.”

Clearly, then, Jack was well aware of the fact that a lot of what he was doing in these pages went over people’s heads—and in many cases, I think it still does, even four decades later. Currently, the popular reading of the book seems to posit that the GPA was a fascist, dictatorial force, Brother Eye was a super-spy in the sky, and OMAC himself was an unwitting tool of the oppressors in “the world that’s coming!” That’s certainly the tack that  DC have taken with these characters and ideas in subsequent revivals, and is an intriguing thesis that’s laid out in fairly well-reasoned detail in Kirby scholar/historian Robert Guffey’s piece “Captain America Meets Big Brother,” published in the Winter 2013 edition of The Jack Kirby Collector (number 62), wherein the author accurately points out that OMAC presaged many elements of the “cyberpunk” movement well over ten years before that sub-genre took hold and foreshadowed a great number of developments that were to come here in the “real” world.

I have no qualms with any of those assertions Mr. Guffey makes, but—and I say this with all due respect—I think his central thesis, which opines that the GPA and Brother Eye are the real “villains” of the piece, and that OMAC is their simple-minded stooge, is both overly simplified and dead wrong. Guffey states that the evildoers OMAC is sent to destroy—Mr. Big, Marshal Kafka, Dr. Skuba—actually represent the last “free thinkers” left in the book’s dystopian future, and that Kirby cleverly tricked us all by making the bad guy the central character here and throwing his own sympathies behind OMAC’s antagonists. Sorry, but for a whole host of reasons, I just can’t buy that.

Clearly, it’s no secret that the GPA is a morally dubious, at best, organization—apart from the fact that a global governmental body is anathema to most of us just on a conceptual level, they show no compunction whatsoever about essentially mind-wiping the perfectly innocent Buddy Blank and turning him into a tool for the imposition of their authority, and when his “new” identity of OMAC  begins to exhibit signs of longing for a more “normal” life, they assign him complete strangers to serve as his “test parents”—even as they imbue him with the authority of a Five-Star General to carry out the most dangerous and necessary military and intelligence operations around the world. Looked at that way, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that, in Kirby’s view, a global governing authority is an inherently heartless, soulless, amoral idea. Here’s the rub, though—the super-criminals he’s going after are even worse.

Mr. Big is one of the wealthiest men on the planet—hell, maybe the wealthiest man—and rules a globalized criminal empire with a ruthless, iron first. Marshal Kafka is an aggressive warlord hell-bent on annexing neighboring territories against their wishes. Dr. Skuba is a mad genius out to steal every last drop of water on the planet and blackmail the world into making him its ruler in exchange for basic survival. I’m sorry, but if this is what the ranks of “free thinkers” have on offer, I’ll throw my lot in with the fascist super-state any day.

Not that they’re a whole lot better, mind you—and therein, I think, lies the crux of what Kirby is trying to get across here, although the point is so subtle that anyone could be forgiven for missing it: in order to combat that which we despise, we invariably end up, to one degree or another, becoming very much like it ourselves. Clearly, the threats of crime, violence, aggression, megalomania, etc. have evolved and metastasized in OMAC’s future world, and a nearly-equally–malignant trans-national governing authority has sprung up to combat them, one that either by dint of necessity or simply due to a natural state of escalation/evolution has ended up becoming “too big to fail”—as well as too big for its own damn good—itself. It’s not a pleasant state of affairs by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it meant to be looked upon as a desirable one. Granted, Kirby fought in WWII—the last war where we were inarguably on the side of “right”—and in 1974/75 the full scope of Watergate had only recently become known, so he probably had a far more generous, and far less cynical, view in regards to state power than most of us more-jaded modern readers, but his “heroes” in this series are still definitely flawed in the extreme—they’re just not as flawed as the forces they’re aligned against.

In his piece, Guffey goes on to posit that the destruction of Brother Eye and reversal of OMAC back to Buddy Blank make for a fitting conclusion to the run even if Jack had one more issue in mind, and while I can see how a person who takes his view that the GPA and Brother Eye are the true “villains” of the story would feel that way, I would emphasize, again,that this view rests on a reading of Kirby’s primary raison d’etre that seems rather limited—and limiting—to me. Let’s remember, Dr. Skuba meets his end in that abrupt explosion at the end of issue number eight, as well, and if we take the broader view that “power corrupts no matter who’s wielding it,” we can only conclude that the powerless Buddy Blank and his machine companion that fell from space are victims here—unfortunate casualties of a war that their “superiors” in the GPA waged against forces of evil; a war that saw them adopt many of their enemies’ tactics and excesses, and even surrender their very humanity and individuality (don’t forget the “cosmetic spray” that completely obscures their identities so that they can appear to be “of any nation”) in order to protect the greater good.

Looked at through that lens, OMAC is much more than just a dystopian slice of speculative science fiction—it’s also a grand, heartfelt, epic tragedy.

And with that, our business here is concluded. To those who have stuck with this series since the beginning—as well as any and all of you who jumped on board at any point along the way—I extend my most sincere and humble thanks. I hope you’ll be motivated to give OMAC another go (if you haven’t done so already) and end up finding extra layers of meaning that you may not necessarily have seen before; and if you’ve never read it, well, I hope you’re sufficiently intrigued to do so now! I’ll be getting back to my Portraits In Alienated British Youth Circa 1989-90 essay series next here on Sequart, and I hope to see all of you there!

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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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