Graphic Novel Of The Month
Omega: The Unknown (Marvel): One of the first things I noticed about this incarnation of Omega: The Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple, is the multi-layered approach to the narrative(s). This dynamic occurs in a straightforward fashion and then almost at a subliminal level of comprehension to the reader, based on assumed familiarity with the medium or embedded authorial commentary. The best example occurs early, page three to be exact, which shows an extended chase/fight sequence with some robots. There’s a line of dialogue that reads: “These forms are so dreadfully familiar.” This phrase says everything. Ostensibly, this line is used to describe exactly what’s happening on the page from the perspective of the narrator we actually see. This is simply Omega commenting that he’s tired of dealing with these robots. When you read deeper and ponder the subtext, you begin to feel as if the narration isn’t coming from the person you see and that the source could potentially be the young protagonist of the book, Alex. You can certainly argue that this is Alex thinking about how he’s weary of dreaming about all of this, having the disturbance apparent on a subconscious level. Yet a third explanation is that Jonathan Lethem is speaking directly to the reader and winking at us, saying “yep, it’s another superhero fight scene, we’ve seen this a million times before, haven’t we?” Taken individually, any one of these layers is interesting, but when they converge simultaneously the work is at its most brilliant and complex.
That’s the most prevalent theme to me that seeps through the work; the other bits I enjoyed are disparate elements. I like the fact that this creative team mirrors Gerber’s original run, both ten issues, with some panels and sequences being direct translations. There are many character portrayals which can be read as jabs at the “Distinguished Competition,” as they would have said in industry parlance during the time period the original debuted. Omega really feels like a true alien outsider, and for that is not unlike a more grounded version of Superman. The reveal of the formation of the Omega “Corps” is very similar to the Green Lantern Corps’ origin, both interstellar police forces created and organized to address a robotic menace. And finally, The Mink looks like what would happen if you took the chummy do-gooder Adam West Batman and just let him turn evil enough to become the pock mark on society, Mr. Kansur (phonetically “cancer”), that he’s been dying to be all along. There’s the astounding imagery of the head/hands statue, lurking ominously in the background like something out of The Prisoner, subtly changing, revealing moments that redefine all that’s come before. In a few corners of the blogosphere, it has even been suggested that the work is, in part, an attempt at graphic depiction of the feel of Asperger’s Syndrome (on the autism spectrum) and a child navigating an existence fueled by that affliction. Lethem includes the delicious social commentary with the robotic homogenization found in the fast food corporation, all the while giving us the inherent clash of individuality and conformity. There’s the lone editorial mistake on the book flap, the artist’s name spelled incorrectly as “Dalyrmple,” which I feel is a piece of unintentional meta-commentary in itself. Editors are not paying enough attention to him; Farel Dalrymple is not getting his due. I’ve always maintained that he’s from the school of Paul Pope, Ryan Kelly, or Nathan Fox – those gritty, visceral, lived-in pencils that avoid the refined perfection of a more confectionary artist like say, John Cassaday. Dalrymple’s style suits this story of mental illness and crumbling pop fiction archetypes very well. He should be working more, enough for editors to get his damn name correct. He’s ready for prime time, not relegated to an under-read, quirky corner of a shared universe – no matter how great it is, I truly don’t intend that to sound like a pejorative statement, only that I want more people to be exposed to his great work.
Toward the end of this project, it’s difficult not to notice the industry commentary embedded just below the surface of the narrative. Take a look at the three Omegas we are most familiar with, in their variegated states of inhabiting the role. Their fate is a very telling indictment of the industry they reside in and its own fate as a superhero factory. The old guy is portrayed largely as a bum until we finally find out he is the previous Omega. His life has essentially peaked and is on a decline after so much repetition. The arc of his character that we can infer is sort of analogous to this tired industry, which tries the same things over and over in hopes of the condition improving. The current Omega is never really given a name, he’s essentially anonymous and faceless, without a distinct identity of his own. He is unknown as the title suggests; he is simply (an) Omega, with nothing left to fight at the end. The industry comparison is that you can’t distinguish most superheroes from each other; all of them are derivative of the same one or two archetypes. There’s nothing left to say or do that’s original, they’ve become very vanilla and homogenized. Attempts are made to position the kid, Alex, as the future, the next big thing, the next Omega. But, he rejects the role. He will not be the next Omega. In industry terms, he’s not going to be the next big thing. You can read this as this work itself not being the next big thing that will shift the paradigm of storytelling. But, I read it as kids not being interested in comics, they can’t be the next big thing which saves the medium. So, the path we’re lead down is that if your audience isn’t changing and adapting, the output in the model has to. And that basically brings us to the point we’re at. At the end of the book, as in comic life, we see a failing genre playing to a captive audience, a largely closed system of dispassionate activity. Superficially the end appears peaceful, but in reality it’s actually depressing. It’s up to the creators to carve out thoughtful reimaging of work that, through commentary, transcends what’s ostensibly on the page in order to avoid that bout of insular ambivalence, all for a dwindling group of the last few remaining fans.
Lethem’s new take on Omega: The Unknown portrays whoever embodies Omega as an outsider, both in terms of characterization and as a new work; it’s as much an outsider as was the majority of Gerber’s original work (I mean really, who would have thought Howard the Duck could have been so engaging, pointed, and fun?). Lethem stated in a Comic Foundry interview that this is the only comic he wants to do. He’s not interested in “breaking in” to a new career direction from his prose novel work. This is a property he liked growing up and has now said what he wanted to say, which serves as a tribute to two iconoclast creators that stand in stark contrast to the Marvel style of their respective days. Grade A.