Graphic Novel Review

by Jason Helms

Looking Forward, Looking Back
Omega the Unknown
by Jonathan Lethem

Thirty years ago, Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes rocked the comics world with Omega the Unknown, a smart, self-conscious, postmodern meditation on the then-relevant caped crusader. This year, critically-acclaimed upstart hipster novelist Jonathan Lethem tries his hand at the underground epic.

The first issue of the new Omega series dropped in October, and each month brings a new installment. With its unusually deep themes and meditations, this off-beat project promises to introduce a more literate audience to the world of mainstream comics.

In the original 1970s comic, Gerber — creator of Howard the Duck, which (trust me) actually has much-deserved street cred in the comic world — created what at first glance seems to be an awkward Superman rip-off. Yet, this Übermensch has more in common with Nietzsche than Batman.

Gerber's initial issue opens with the blue-tighted, red-caped Omega battling robots on a distant planet with his laser hands. The traditional superhero shtick is interrupted by an adolescent boy waking up from the nightmare of that battle. Young James-Michael Starling converses with his stiff, almost robotic, parents about the dream, which they attribute to fears about attending school for the first time. The next day, the former homeschooler's journey toward public education is interrupted by a car accident. The boy awakens after the collision lying beside his mother's severed head, which is speaking to him. Wires dangle from her neck, and before she "powers off" she warns him of danger in the strange new world he now enters. James-Michael then falls into a coma and dreams again of Omega. When he next awakens, the teen finds he is a ward of the state. Omega continues to haunt the boy's dreams — now on Earth and standing guard outside his window. Then one night real robots, dressed as doctors, burst into his room. Omega swoops through the window and a battle ensues. Just when Omega is on the ropes, James-Michael shoots laser beams out of his own hands, destroying the robots. Omega takes the robots and leaves just before the nurses rush in. The medics interpret the mess of James-Michael's room as a psychotic break and the wounds left on his hands as self-inflicted.

That first issue promised a subtler comic that would play on issues of mental health and the disparity of fiction and reality. Unfortunately the subsequent nine issues devolved to a series of fights between Omega and second string Marvel heroes. The series was scrapped abruptly with a two-issue exposition in the Defenders — done by other writers and notable only as one of the worst dénouements in all literature. While it had garnered a small-but-fierce following in its initial run, Omega the Unknown eventually was relegated to the status of cult-classic.

Lethem, whose work has been likened to everyone from Philip Dick and Raymond Chandler to Michael Chabon, first announced plans to take up the helm on Omega in 2005. Delayed by that pesky speed bump of the MacArthur Genius Grant (evidently the ,000 prize came with some time-consuming attachments), Lethem's revamped Omega has finally arrived to fulfill all the promise of Gerber's prototype.

The revitalized first issue mirrors the original closely. The dialogue — on occasion verbatim nods to Gerber — scores well above the par of the earlier series. Farel Dalrymple's art, which smacks of retro-Fila ads, perfectly complements Lethem's concise, dense prose. The artist punctuates his simple, hand-drawn characters and panels with background flourishes. The New York Public Library receives painstaking attention, while characters on its steps obey McCloud's rule of amplification through simplification: fewer details in a character's face allow for more identification, more participation by the reader. Lethem handles the material deftly. He veers away from Gerber somewhat, renaming the teen protagonist, from James-Michael to Alexander, and introducing a new superhero — the sleazy Mink (AKA Rex Kansur) who sends his people to stalk Omega and Alex after an initial run-in.

Issue two finds Omega continuing to act as Alex's unseen protector. Meanwhile Edie, a young small-town nurse struggling to find herself in New York, agrees to take care of the now-orphaned teen. A voyeuristic theme insinuates itself as the robots watch Alex, Omega watches the robots, and the Mink watches all. When a fight breaks out between Omega and the robots, Alex watches unemotionally from his window, then pulls the shades. Once Omega has won, the Mink steps in to suckerpunch our hero. Omega silently slips away and the Mink holds a press conference for the local media. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that a book published in our surveillance-happy culture would mediate more on voyeurism than Superman.

Issue three opens with Alex in school. After alienating most of his classmates with his exceptional vocabulary, he finds a friend in Amandla, a fellow student. He also runs in to Omega, now working in a food-van parked outside the school. The issue ends with the Edie's date showing up on at the door — none other than the mild-mannered Rex Kansur. Three or four other sub-plots also weave through the story, involving corrupt officials, "nanobots," and Omega's chemistry experiments.

Voyeurism continues to pervade the storytelling; even the statue in front of Edie's apartment seems to be watching and taking part. Dalrymple's art perfectly complements the impressionistic, surreal story, in which mental illness blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Lethem's retelling fulfills the promised complexity of the original, all the while adding his own self-aware bent. One wonders if a kinder, hipper Marvel will be able to tolerate a new realization of the postmodern fable it canceled in the seventies.

We can only hope.

Graphic Novel: Omega the Uknown
Publisher: Marvel Comics Group
First Issue: October 2007
Available at: Major book sellers and comic shops
Price: $2.99

posted December 31, 2007