Roger Slifer, a writer and editor at Marvel and DC Comics in the 1970s and 80s, passed away on March 30th at the age of 60 due to complications from injuries sustained in a hit & run accident in 2012. Slifer contributed to a number of titles during his time in the biz. His longest run was the first 13 issues of The Omega Men, a science fiction / space opera series published by DC in the early 80s.
The Omega Men made their first appearances in Green Lantern #141-144 (1983) created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Joe Staton. They were known as “Omega Men” because they were among the last free inhabitants of the 22 planet Vegan solar system (which is not, as far as I know, the home of the veggie burger). Vega was ruled with an iron hand by the brutal Citadel, and the Omega Men were a desperate group of freedom fighters struggling to overthrow them. Wolfman connected the Omega Men to some of the backstory elements of his super-successful New Teen Titans series. Starfire’s home planet of Tamaran was in Vega, and her origin involved the Citadel’s occupation of her world.
When The Omega Men series made its debut in April 1983 Wolfman served as the book’s editor. Slifer was paired with co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen and inker Mike DeCarlo.
I must have picked up most of the back issues of The Omega Men in the 1990s, and probably haven’t given them much of a look since then. Re-reading Slifer’s run over the past week I was struck by just how sophisticated his writing was, how he tackled genuinely difficult questions. I guess that the same story can appear quite different to someone in their late 30s than when they initially read it in their early 20s.
The series was published without Comics Code Authority approval. Slifer ramped up the violence, depicting the brutal costs involved in fighting a war against an intractable, savage enemy. The Omega Men was “grim & gritty” before that term was coined, but Slifer definitely did not glamorize violence. He utilized the conflict to explore philosophical & political issues.
Working off the dynamics set up by Wolfman in the Green Lantern issues, Slifer quickly establishes the Omega Men as a group very much at odds with itself. Comprised of refugees from numerous different worlds, the Omegans have different viewpoints and are frequently seen clashing over how to conduct the war against the Citadel. The only thing uniting them is a common enemy. They are in as much danger of collapsing from within as being defeated from without.
The internal conflicts of the group are epitomized by Primus and Tigorr. Primus is the leader of the Omega Men, and he approaches the war with the Citadel with caution, carefully mapping out the group’s strategies, hoping to slowly erode the enemy’s strength with a series of small but crucial victories. The feline Tigorr, on the other hand, is hotheaded, a born fighter. He wants to throw caution to the wind and mount a bold surprise offensive against the heart of the Citadel. Primus and Tigorr are constantly arguing over strategy.
The thing is, both of them are correct, and both are also wrong. Sometimes their struggle with the Citadel requires methodically-planned maneuvers, and at other times a bold charge against the enemy is what’s called for. On occasion Primus is shown to be indecisive and hesitant, while Tigorr is capable of being dangerously rash and impulsive. What these two men need to do is sit down and develop a plan of battle that encompasses the strengths of both their approaches. Instead, Slifer demonstrates that both Primus and Tigorr are too stubborn to do that. Each is convinced that he should be leading the Omega Men, that the other is foolhardy. As a result, the Omegans are almost fatally undermined when their teammate Demonia betrays them to the Citadel and manipulates Primus and Tigorr into fighting one another.
Slifer also addresses the question of whether or not violence is a productive solution by exploring the history of Broot, the Omegans’ massive grey-skinned strongman. Primus decides to travel to Broot’s home planet Changralyn in an attempt to ally with the populace, despite Broot’s efforts to try to explain that he will be unsuccessful. Primus and the other Omegans are shocked to discover that the entire culture of Changralyn revolves around pacifism. They are fanatical in their adherence to non-violence, convinced that any act of aggression will inevitably bring about a horrible cosmic retribution.
Years before when the Citadel’s forces first landed on Changralyn the populace agreed to regularly give over a number of their children to the Gordanian slave traders in exchange for peace. Broot, the only one to question his people’s religion in centuries, resisted and tried to prevent his son from being taken. The Citadel responded with force, Broot’s son was killed, and he & his wife were taken along with the children by the Gordanians. Since that day, Broot’s people have regarded him as a monstrous heretic.
Now back on Changralyn for the first time since then, Broot once again witnesses the Gordanians taking a selection of children to be used as slaves. Reminded of his son, Broot snaps and slaughters them all. In response, the Citadel’s orbiting forces drop a neutron bomb on the nearest city, murdering thousands.
Slifer demonstrates that sometimes the choice between pacifism and violence is not a clear-cut one, that there can be negative consequences to both paths. The non-violence by the people of Changralyn led them into slavery. When Broot resisted, the result was that his people, instead of being subjugated, were slaughtered. It is a no-win situation which leaves Broot devastated, gripped by paralyzing uncertainty.
Following on from the tragic journey to Changralyn and Demonia’s betrayal, Tigorr takes control of the Omega Men while a severely wounded Primus is recuperating. Tigorr and his followers launch a frontal assault against the Citadel. As word spreads of Tigorr’s battle through the solar system, revolts break out across Vega. Most are brutally crushed, but enough resistance fighters make it to spacecraft and rendezvous with Tigorr to aid him in his assault on the Citadel’s home base.
Issue #6 sees the final assault against the Citadel. Tigorr comes face-to-face with the true ruler of the empire, a once-living being now merged with a massive computer complex. Tigorr then learns that the First Citadelian’s ultimate goal was not the conquest of Vega, but its corruption…
“I am the personification of aggression. Until I existed, the Vegan star system was pure, without aggression. But I corrupted it – I corrupted it all! Even you, who claim to want peace, have been driven to fight – to kill – for what you seek.”
The First Citadelian created a regime so unrelentingly brutal & savage that the only recourse for the inhabitants of Vega was to also embrace violence in order to defeat it. The Citadel’s atrocities have been so horrific and widespread that the inhabitants of Vega are now consumed by hatred for their rulers, willing to go to any lengths to not just overthrow them but to achieve retribution. The First Citadelian regards his destruction as a victory, for in order to attain it the peoples of Vega were forced to descend to his level.
Issue #7 is by Slifer, DeCarlo and incoming penciler Tod Smith. The First Citadelian, his computer intelligence quickly fading, reveals to the Omega Men the origins of the Vegan system, its goddess X’Hal, and the Citadel itself. These revelations are horrific.
The First Citadelian explains that eons before the Psions, a group of scientists completely without morality, discovered there were two species within the Vegan system. One was the Okaarans, a race to whom the concept of violence was totally foreign; the other was the Branx, who were “the embodiment of unbridled aggression.”
Fascinated by these diametric opposites, the Psions become obsessed with determining the true dominant trait in the universe, peace or violence. They enact a grotesque plan: they kidnap the innocent X’Hal from Okaara and numerous warriors from Branx. One by one, they set the Branx warriors loose on X’Hal, clinically observing her being raped repeatedly until she is finally pregnant, all so that they can learn whether the offspring of these two disparate species will epitomize love or war.
(I was definitely disturbed by this aspect of Slifer’s story. It’s odd that I did not remember it from reading this issue years ago, and that it did not spur any unsettled reactions on my part. It’s similar to what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, how as a teenager I wasn’t especially bothered by what the Joker did to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, other than the fact that she was paralyzed and could no longer be Batgirl, but nowadays I am uncomfortable with that part. I really do wonder if Slifer should have approached this part of his story differently.)
To the Psions’ surprise X’Hal gives birth to two children, one that appears Okaaran, the other that looks even more grotesque than the Branx. The once-peaceful X’Hal, traumatized by months of abuse, finally snaps and stabs the Branx warrior that impregnated her. Before it dies, the creature breaks her neck. The Psions are alarmed that this will mean the end of their experiment since they do not know how to care for the two infants, and they frantically attempt to revive X’Hal.
Converting X’Hal to pure energy in the hopes of preserving her mind, the Psions unwittingly cause her ascension to godhood. The empowered X’Hal grabs hold her two children and vengefully destroys her tormentors. She returns to Okarra to raise them, but her innocence has been lost, and she is subject to violent mood swings. One of her sons grows to become the Omegan named Auron. The other, a victim of his Branx nature, feels completely alienated from the Okaaran people. This son begins to fan the flames of aggression within the Okaarans, introducing conflict the formerly peaceful world, conflict that inevitably escalates.
Eventually the Okaarans nearly destroy themselves in a nuclear holocaust. They blame X’Hal’s son, who they perceive as a corruptor. Banished from Okaara, the son becomes the First Citadelian. He makes it his life’s mission to prove that he was not unique, to demonstrate to all the races that had now grown throughout Vega that within each and every one of them was the potential to become a violent monster. The First Citadelian is convinced that he has accomplished that. He tells the Omega Men…
“The Okaarans sought to exile me, thinking I was the cancer that rotted their souls. I was not a cancer but a harsh light, illuminating the lie within themselves. And you, by killing me, showed only that you, like all the rest, want the power to decide for others. Just like me.”
With that the First Citadelian dies. Tigorr is convinced that the founder of the Citadel is full of it. As far as Tigorr is concerned, he did what was necessary to finally free the Vegan system from tyranny.
Of course that was not Slifer’s last word on the subject. In the next few issues he would examine in-depth the fall-out from the overthrow of the Citadel.
A look at the first seven issues of The Omega Men would not be complete, though, without mentioning Lobo. The ultra-violent alien bounty hunter makes his debut in the pages of issue #3. Devised by Slifer & Giffen, Lobo and his partner, the equally depraved Bedlam, are hired by the brutish figurehead ruler of the Citadel and his human advisor, the mysterious Harry Hokum. Lobo and Bedlam kidnap the Omegans’ co-leader Kalista so that the Citadel can suck from her mind the knowledge needed to penetrate the energy shield protecting her home planet of Euphorix. In the process the mercenary pair cut a bloody swathe through several of Kalista’s compatriots.
Despite the serious subject matter of these issues, with Lobo and Bedlam we see that Slifer & Giffen do have a more lighthearted side to their work, although that sense of humor is certainly very dark & sardonic.
Issue #3 sees the all-too-brief career of the Omegan known as Humbek, a political cartoonist exiled by the Citadel for his “subversive” work. If Humbek’s name & appearance seem a bit familiar that is because he is a caricature of comic book humorist Fred Hembeck. Even Humbek’s cursing is no doubt a nod to the Dateline:@#$% strips by Hembeck that ran in the Comics Buyers Guide.
Two pages after Humbeck’s debut, we are introduced to Lobo and Bedlam, as seen below. Yes, that is Lobo in the orange & purple spandex. What do you want? It was the early 1980s after all! I’m sure we all have occasions in our past when we embraced unfortunate fashion trends. It seems even the Main Man isn’t immune to that sort of lapse in judgment.
Right from the start, though, Lobo definitely possessed his sick sense of humor and fondness for extreme violence. Slifer & Giffen bestow upon Fred Hembeck, via his alien stand-in Humbek, the honor of being the very first character to ever be killed by Lobo in print. Of course it is a spectacularly gruesome demines. Yipes, that’s gotta hurt!
The artwork on these issues is certainly good. I liked the team of Giffen & DeCarlo, who did good work depicting the warfare as well as the quieter character moments. Giffen’s storytelling on these issues is very dynamic. On his last two issues Giffen was only doing rough layouts. DeCarlo’s finishes over these are very good. His embellishment suits the high-stakes battle sequences. Coming onboard with issue #7, Smith does good work rendering of the secret history of the Vega system. His penciling has a rich amount of detail in these flashback sequences. Once again, DeCarlo’s inking is strong.
Time permitting I will hopefully be taking a look at the second half of Roger Slifer’s run on The Omega Men in the near future.
UPDATE: Here is a link to part two.