Here is the second part of my look at Roger Slifer’s run on the DC Comics science fiction series The Omega Men. (And here’s a link back to part one.)
Previously the tyrannical Citadel, which brutally ruled Vegan star system, was overthrown in an assault headed by Tigorr of the Omega Men. As issue #8 opens, the inhabitants of Vega’s 22 worlds are celebrating their newly-won freedom.
While the various members of the Omega Men begin to adjust to the idea of victory, the enigmatic human criminal Harry Hokum is working behind the scenes to take advantage of the chaos. He decides that the former figurehead leader of the Citidel would make an ideal puppet ruler. Guiding him, Hokum quickly begins organizing the surviving Citadel factions, rebuilding the fallen alliance with amazing speed.
It is quite interesting to see what Slifer is doing in these issues. It is a common theme in sci-fi and space opera to have a resistance movement fighting a desperate battle against a ruthless dictatorship. What you see much less seldom is the eventual outcome of such struggles. What happens after you overthrow the evil empire?
As was demonstrated on numerous occasions in the real world throughout the 20th Century, more often than not when a totalitarian regime is overthrown, it is not replaced by a stable democracy. Instead, another dictatorship steps in to take its place. Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran… all of them saw one form of oppression supplanted by another. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the saying goes. And in cases where that did not occur, the other likely outcome was complete disorder. Just look at Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya within the last decade and a half.
Slifer obviously wanted to look at how the Omega Men would attempt to stabilize the Vegan system which, after decades of Citadel rule, is now in disarray. Tigorr was so concerned with topping the Citadel as quickly as possible that he did not consider what would happen next. The result is that the Omegans are caught completely off-guard when the charismatic Hokum begins consolidating power.
The new Citadel is, in certain ways, more dangerous than the old one. As was previously revealed, the First Citadelian made his regime so totally vicious because he wanted to drag the entire Vegan system down to his level of violence & ruthlessness. In contrast, Hokum is not interested in proving a point. He wants to rule over a stable empire. Instead of merely relying on brutality, he also utilizes guile and deception, weapons which are much more difficult to detect and to fight back against.
Slifer addresses the question of what freedom really means. I think that here in Western society we take for granted that freedom is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Many of us do not give it too much thought. But for other cultures and societies, freedom is a very different concept.
In the real world the question has often been asked of what to do when a tyrant is elected by democratic means. If outside forces disapprove and decide to overthrow that dictator, in the process are they not taking away that country’s freedom to decide its own destiny? Slifer has the Omega Men facing that very question when several Vegan worlds voluntarily join Hokum’s new Citadel, lured by promises of order & security.
The question is also explored on a more personal level by Slifer via the character of Broot. He is still haunted by grief and uncertainty following the tragedy he unwittingly caused on his home planet of Changralyn. Broot realizes that the lull in hostilities finally gives him the opportunity to search for his wife Kattayan, who was taken by the Gordanian slavers years before.
Broot tracks his wife to a harsh planetoid. It is here that all of the children seized from Changralyn by the Gordaians have been taken, to spend the rest of their lives in brutal toil, mining valuable minerals under extremely dangerous conditions.
Broot is aghast to see these children relegated to this fate, and disgusted that they have embraced his society’s religion of extreme nonviolence, passively accepting their roles. He is also shocked to discover that Kattayan has been teaching the children to follow that faith.
At first Broot desperately wants to take his wife and the children away from their desolate existence. He attempts to convey to them the vast possibilities of life:
“It is easy to choose the simple path, to take the path of least resistance in living your lives. But in the end they are empty lives, enriching neither yourselves nor your spirit. Each one of you needs to learn to look beyond your present lives, to the true potentialities of the universe. And of your true potentialities.”
In response, the children tell him that this is the only life they have known, that in their own way they are happy here, and that they do not know how they would exist in the vast universe outside. Broot realizes that just as he will not allow others to dictate his own individual path, neither can he force these children to conform to his idea of freedom. He has extended to them the choice to leave, and he must respect their decision even though he disagrees with it.
Slifer also focuses on Kalista, wife of the Omegan leader Primus. After Tigorr’s victory over the Citadel, Kalista is preparing to resume her role of monarch of Euphorix. She had only reluctantly given up the throne as part of a deal with the opportunistic Alonzo Dulak.
In exchange for Kalista letting him assume control of Euphorix, Dulak erected an energy shield around the planet, preventing the Citadel from conquering it. Although this has spared her world the ravages of war, Kalista is nevertheless eager to resume her role as queen as quickly as possible, as she finds Dulak untrustworthy. Indeed, we see that Dulak is quite the autocrat. Under his rule Euphorix has adopted zero tolerance broken windows policing, as an unfortunate pair of litterbugs discover when they are summarily vaporized.
Once hostilities break out again, and the revived Citadel attacks the now-defenseless Euphorix, Primus and Kalista find themselves at odds. Primus is determined the attempt to salvage the peace in Vega. Kalista, however, is now primarily concerned with her home planet. She informs Primus that she intends to raise the energy shield again, this time permanently, and that if he will not join her on Euphorix then she is ready to end their marriage.
Kalista is faced with a painful dilemma, between her planet and her husband. Although her ultimate decision to safeguard Euphorix and abandon both Primus and the rest of the Vegan system seems cold, it is clear that the decision is a difficult one for her. As the queen of Euphorix, she genuinely regards herself as the servant of her people, and perceives it as her duty to protect them, even if it means sacrificing her happiness. For Kalista, the freedom of her people is paramount to her own.
In issue #11 Slifer looks at the origins of Harpis and her now-deceased sister, the treacherous Demonia. They were both prostitutes in an upscale bordello on the planet Raggashoon. Harpis was extremely good at her job, bringing pleasure and comfort to her many clients. But her existence then came crashing down as a result of the machination of the Citadel officer Komand’r, aka Blackfire, the older sister of Starfire from the New Teen Titans. The sadistic Blackfire forces several of the prostitutes, including Harpis and Demonia, to undergo genetic manipulation, transforming them into concubines for her various alien lieutenants as a way of cementing their loyalty.
As written by Slifer, Harpis is very much a victim. She is constantly being manipulated, either by her sister or by the Citadel. Harpis relies on others for strength, unable to find it within herself. In the present, severely wounded by the bounty hunter Bedlam and learning of her sister’s death, Harpis is completely distraught.
I wish that Slifer had made Harpis an emotionally stronger character. I feel that her backstory has not aged well, and that three decades later, when assertive female protagonists are fortunately much more commonplace, Harpis’ weakness seems even more apparent. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to judge Slifer’s writing in this way. After all, he did write Kalista as a strong individual. As in real life, not everyone, be they male or female, is going to end up being assertive and independent.
Lobo the bounty hunter returns to the pages of The Omega Men, this time as an ally of the Omegans. Slifer appears to have recognized the character’s potential popularity early on.
Of course, given that Lobo was introduced as a brutal sadist, it would have been ridiculous for him to suddenly turn heroic. The mercenary joins forces with the Omega Men because he feels that the Citadel did not uphold their end of their bargain with him. Lobo also finds it highly amusing that the Omega Men, despite their disgust for him, are forced to enlist his services. At the end of issue #9, Primus realizes that he has no idea how to effectively fight Harry Hokum’s new, manipulative incarnation of the Citadel. Reluctantly Primus approaches Lobo and acknowledges “We need someone as twisted as they are.” Lobo, of course, chuckles at this admission.
In these bleak stories, Slifer obviously realized that a certain amount of humor was needed in order to keep the series from becoming a depressing slog. Lobo provides some of that humor, albeit once again of an extremely macabre type. Slifer also continues to utilize the Omega Man known as Shlagen. The goofy-looking yellow-hued member of the Omegans is a technician, not a warrior, and he is constantly finding himself in over his head. Shlagen is definitely not the bravest of individuals, to say the least, and his reluctant, bumbling heroism certainly helps to lighten the stories.
Slifer also generates comedy via the interactions of Lobo and Shlagen, who are complete opposites. Shlagen was the first character to encounter Lobo back in issue #3, and he only survived because the bounty hunter didn’t feel like killing him. Since then, Shlagen keeps bumping into Lobo over and over again, much to the former’s alarmed consternation and the latter’s twisted amusement.
If there is one significant weakness to Slifer’s work it is that he never seemed to find a way to balance out the huge cast of characters. Various regulars disappear for several issues at a time. I guess that not every writer can be a Paul Levitz or a Chris Claremont and excel at juggling large casts of characters and multiple plotlines.
Slifer’s stories featured some previously unexplored inhabitants and worlds of the Vegan system, and the art by Smith & DeCarlo really brings these exotic, alien creations to life. They expertly illustrate the various action sequences. They also do effective work rendering the quieter character moments. And in the moments of comedy, they successfully bring Slifer’s humor to life. Smith & DeCarlo are especially good at depicting Shlagen’s misadventures throughout these issues.
Slifer’s run came to an abrupt end with issue #13. In the letter column, Slifer wrote “Because of irreconcilable differences between myself and DC, this will be the last issue of The Omega Men written by me.”
It is unfortunate that Slifer had to depart the book. In his year on the series he did spectacular character development and world-building while telling exciting & challenging stories. It would have been interesting to see where he would have gone from this point, exploring the fractured alliances of the Omega Men and the resurgence of the Citadel. I wonder if he would have eventually revealed who Harry Hokum was , since the character literally showed up out of nowhere in issue #3. At least in his final story Slifer was able to conclude the story arc he began with Broot a year earlier, providing the character with closure and peace of mind.
I regret that it took Roger Slifer’s recent untimely death to motivate me to re-read these first 13 issues of The Omega Men. Looking through them, it is apparent that he was a talented, imaginative, thoughtful writer.