The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part two

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.

Omega Men 8 cover

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The art team on The Omega Men #s 8-13 is penciler Tod Smith and inker / embellisher Mike DeCarlo.  They do excellent work throughout these issues, demonstrating genuine versatility.

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.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part one

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.

Omega Men 1 cover

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.