Reviews and Warnings

Omega: The Unknown #1 (of 10)

Let me start this off with a very big caveat: I haven’t read the original 1976-77 incarnation of this title, as written by Steve Gerber & Mary Skrenes, and illustrated by Jim Mooney.

And the reason that’s a very big caveat is because I know enough about the original to discern that the first issue of this new Omega: The Unknown, written by Jonathan Lethem (“with” Karl Rusnak), drawn by Farel Dalrymple and colored by Paul Hornschemeier, is hewing very close to the source. Same first-issue plot. Same primary character types. Same total series length, if we want to look toward the future. I use the term ‘total’ loosely, by the way, since the original series was sometimes pushed away from its writers for fill-in work, and was cancelled before it could reach any definite ending. A different writer (Steven Grant) did provide a ‘solution’ to the series’ mysteries in a different comic (The Defenders), but it clearly wasn’t the intended finale.

The very first page of this new debut issue informs us that it’s “A version of an unfinished dream by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney.” Therefore, I think it’s safe to presume that there’s going to be some interaction between the two versions, perhaps in the form of metafictional commentary, or recontextualization of some type, and it’s probably going to get heavier when we approach the fill-in bits and the ending, if things keep going at the pace set here. Or maybe the new series will veer off somewhere else entirely starting next issue.

It’s already different on some obvious levels, even to someone who hasn’t even read the old stuff. Certainly Dalrymple’s wrinkled features and bowed postures instantly set the new work apart from Mooney’s muscular Marvel house style. As Tim Hodler wrote of the '70s original in Comics Comics #2: “It’s a book that looks like a superhero book, but reads like the diary of a maniac.” This new book doesn’t look much like a superhero book, although Dalrymple does add some winning lithe grace to the action pages, and reads like a distanced mental processing of a maniac’s diary by an imaginative biographer. Which may well be the point.

The story concerns young Alexander (James-Michael in the original), a highly mature home-schooled young teenager, who dreams of a mystery superhero battling things by firing beams from his hands, and wakes to face the sorry reality of his parents carting him off to New York City so he can socialize with other kids his age. Lethem & Rusnak adopt a mannered, often gut-twitchingly precious style for the erudite clan's dialogue (some of it visible at the first Dalrymple link above), only to have them all caught in a car wreck and Mom & Dad revealed to be literal robots. I understand the plot point's from the original, but it's transformed into a decent little gag here through its pairing with such overtly 'literary' dialogue.

The rest of the issue shows less wit. Alexander is checked into an NYC hospital with caring nurse Edie Fallinger, who's eventually set up as his guardian. A typical fame-hungry superhero called The Mink takes a likely nasty interest in things. The dialogue tones itself down somewhat, but often wanders into the painfully arch (sez a doctor: "Miss Fallinger, when I see a healthy patient in an extended coma, I reflect that they are surely waiting for something. There may be much to learn from this tendency of the human animal to endure and abide. Now, I must return to the war zone."). The boy wakes, the superhero returns, and the former discovers he can fire power beams from his hands just like the latter, albeit painfully. Sputters the concluding dialogue:

"Answer me. Were you trying to harm yourself?"


"Then how is it, Alexander, that the wounds on both hands... take the form of the Greek letter Omega?"

I get the feeling that this is exactly the type of comic liable to drive to frothing a certain type of superhero reader, the kind that tends to detect mockery of the genre in a wide variety of books. Lethem, it should be noted, is on the record concerning his measured admiration of the original, which he sees as a noble misapplication of novelistic narrative-aesthetics to a soap opera form (of course, he also called the contemporary Marvel line "a garish wasteland."). Perhaps this new-old Omega will be a stronger novel, grown in a superhero environment more responsive to such inclinations.

So, in a self-contained first chapter capacity, this is an attractively rendered, intermittently intriguing piece of heavily considered superhero noodling. But it mainly felt to me like walking in on the middle of a conversation, specifically one between creative team ‘07 and creative team ‘76. I haven’t felt it necessary to do this much online capes ‘n tights background checking since Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America. Of course, Meltzer didn’t get me nearly as eager to actually read the foundation-setting comics from years back, so that’s some mark in Lethem & company’s favor, I guess.