The world of fan fiction is one I’m generally loathe to dip a toe into. Speculation as to how Spider-Man’s Clone Saga should have resolved or a better ending to Superman Returns hold little if any interest for me. But fan fiction is perhaps the only apt descriptor for Omega: The Unknown , novelist Jonathan Lethem’s re-imagining of an obscure Marvel superhero from the seventies. Lethem has made no secret of his admiration for early Marvel comics in general and Omega: The Unknown in particular, and success has now afforded him the opportunity to bring the character up to date, rendering the story with the weirdness Lethem felt it deserved.
The original ten-issue series, penned by Steve Gerber, kicked off in thoroughly strange fashion, with a silent, caped alien, an emotionally distant and fiercely intelligent teenage protagonist and, well, the melting heads of robot parents. However, by the second issue, the series had already made clumsy attempts to fit itself into Marvel continuity, shoehorning guest appearances by the Hulk and Electro. Mysteries were explained, the silent protagonist began speaking (and later making a killing in Vegas) and the series ended after ten issues, leaving much of the story unresolved.
Lethem takes the original concept and setting and jumps off in an entirely different direction, refusing to compromise strangeness in favor of legibility. The results are alternately exhilarating and confounding. Lethem’s Brooklyn is neither the shining Metropolis side of the city nor its dark shadowy Gotham: like the real Brooklyn; it’s a mix of imposing buildings and green space, populated with bullies, surly food vendors and a giant talking head sculpture.
Okay, so that last is less than realistic, but Verth the Overthinker, Lethem’s concrete version of Marvel mainstay Uatu the Watcher, who provides occasional commentary on the action, is one of the more perfectly delivered bits of the fantastic in the book.
Set against the Brooklyn backdrop is a story of alien-invasion-as-franchise-operation, complete with self-replicating robots, a giant sentient hand and an interstellar race of protectors. The plot and the exploration of the relationship between the silent Omega and the emotionless Alex Island veers wildly before reaching a less-than-satisfying conclusion, but the alien invasion plot is secondary (at best) to Lethem’s purpose. More than universe-spanning epics, Lethem is interested in telling a smaller story about a socially awkward boy’s identification with a superhero who can’t speak, whose actions are benevolent and protective, if sometimes confusing.
The implications of this for a comic book fan are obvious: like the four-colored heroes dear to comic book fans in their youth, Omega’s relationship to young Alex is vital to the boy, although difficult for him to understand and always limited. No matter how many times you read Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run on Fantastic Four, Reed Richards will not help you with your math homework and Ben Grimm will not stop the bullies from harassing you. Omega’s muteness echoes the silence in which the comics of our childhood are enjoyed. Reflective of how degraded our childhood heroes can seem in retrospect, Omega appears often shabby, flipping burgers in a lunch truck, but always clad in his bright blue and red uniform, which in good comic book tradition is constantly repairing itself. Lethem has suggested that Steve Gerber originally intended Omega as a Superman analog (last member of an alien race and so forth), but rather than using the character as a metaphor for power, Lethem uses both the silent Omega and the too-smart-for-his-own-good Alex to explore ideas of isolation in a world drifting towards conformity.
The art by Farel Dalyrymple is a nice change from the photorealism prevalent in contemporary comics and Lethem’s selection of this collaborator for this work seems to reflect his affinity for sixties artists like Kirby and Ditko over the more realistic work of artists like Neal Adams, whose style came to largely overwhelm that of more cartoonish artists. Dalyrymple’s figures have some of the boxiness of Kirby characters without the frenzied kinesis of the King, giving them a weight that seems to ground them in their realistic setting. His depictions of Brooklyn fit perfectly with Lethem’s idea of the area, while his robot designs have the comic sense of mid-century science fiction mixed with a mass producible design aesthetic. He shows the bizarre and daily with an equanimity and humor that lends itself perfectly to Lethem’s story.
For a first foray into graphic storytelling, Omega: The Unknown demonstrates an admirable flexing of narrative muscle, and if Lethem drifts at times into the overly verbose, it’s at least partly in keeping with the wordy, almost disconcerting captioning style of Gerber’s original comics. Like Grant Morrison’s revamp of Doom Patrol, Omega the Unknown makes explicit the weirdness merely implied by the comics he grew up with, a potential that went unrealized. Fans of Morrison will find a lot to like here, but those looking for a hot new character, ready made for action figures and a jump to the big screen had best look elsewhere.