Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 253 (10/14) -- Omega the Unknown by Lethem, Rusnak, Dalrymple, & Hornshemeier

The Big Two comics companies occasionally try to harness the energy and scope of non-superhero comics -- which is to say, comics about everything else in the world that isn't people in funny suits hitting each other very, very hard -- and they have mixed results at best. Just as one cannot serve both God and Mammon, it's pretty clear that trying to serve both honest human life and Superman will end up skimping on one side or the other. With 2007's Omega: The Unknown miniseries, Marvel enticed novelist Jonathan Lethem (here credited as writer "with" Karl Rusnak, whose contribution is never explained) to write a story, based on the oddball '70s comic of the same name by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney, for respected indy artists Farel Dalrymple (art) and Paul Hornschemeier (colors) to illustrate.

It's amusing to me that Lethem would "slum" in this way, after he spent most of the previous decade trying to repudiate and run away from his mildly disreputable science-fictional literary beginnings -- but I guess big mainstream comics, which lead to blockbuster movies, are just cooler than SF is, even to a boy from Brooklyn who grew up on both of them. Whatever the reason, Lethem was enticed to co-write a superhero comic, and this is it.

In this version of the story of Omega the Unknown -- similar in broad outlines to the '70s series, but very different in detail -- Titus Alexander Island is a 14-year-old boy, raised in seclusion in the Pennsylvania woods and homeschooled there by what he thinks are his parents. But on the way to the "Wolfmesser Institute" -- which is never mentioned again, so don't bother remembering it -- their car crashes. Alex's "parents" are revealed to be inhumanly sophisticated robots, and Alex himself goes into a fugue state, waking up in a New York City hospital some days later. Alex is an innocent in the typical way of fictional innocents: highly verbal and intensely precise, clear-eyed in identifying the things he doesn't understand about the world around him and driven to learn all he can.

He quickly is put in the care of a nurse at that hospital, Edie Fallinger, who took an immediate interest in his plight, and is shadowed by The Mink -- Washington Heights's own superhero, who had been at the scene of the car wreck. Also watching Alex are a phalanx of mysterious robots, and a cosmic entity that takes the form of a local park's modernist statue. And then there's the blue-suited man who battles the robots -- he's presumably Omega, of the title, since he has omega symbols on his hands and costume, but he never speaks.

Alex learns to live in his new home as the other players (Mink, Omega, robots) circle around him, fighting each other for reasons left murky through most of the book. Lethem keeps his parallel subtle, but it's clearly there: the everyday world of an urban highschool (its power struggles and fights) are as alien to him as the secrets of Omega and the robots are to all of us. But, eventually, Alex finds his place -- both in Washington Heights and in the Omega-robot conflict -- find allies, finds friends, finds a place to be.

Lethem tells this story with a true novelist's scope and depth, introducing many characters to be part of Alex's expanding world and hinting at effects in the wider world. (Some of those hints are that this Washington Heights is connected to the downtown of more typical Marvel comics.) The tenth and last issue of the series is particularly impressive, a wordless series of denouements showing the aftermath of the big confrontation. Unlike most comics about people in strange costumes that shoot energy beams from their hands, those denouements are mostly about people, and how they're going to move forward, and not about shiny bits of plot, carefully placed to lead to more stories of punching.

Dalrymple's art matches Lethem's writing excellently -- he's realistic without being overwrought, bringing a matter-of-fact tone to Omega's walking severed hands, evil nanomachines from space, and zombie-ized fast-food employees. Unlike most superhero stories, Omega isn't about power, or righteousness, or even fighting -- it's about learning, and growing, and being part of the world. This is about as good as any story about a battle between a mute blue-suited space cop and hegemonizing nanotech robots could be -- and that's surprisingly good, actually.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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