Monday, October 22, 2007

Unknown No Longer


In the never-ending quest to find out whether or not big-budget comic book companies should bother shelling out the extra green for big-name authors continues as we take a look at the first issue of Jonathan Lethem's miniseries Omega: The Unknown. For Lethem, author of the New York Times bestseller Fortress of Solitude, this is his first jaunt into the world of comic writing, following in the footsteps of Eric Jerome Dickey (Storm) and Jodi Picoult (Wonder Woman). Unlike his predecessors, Lethem seems to have a passion for his subject, though few others did.

The original Omega the Unknown was a Marvel release from 1976-1977 and only lasted 10 issues before being canceled due to poor sales. It told the story of James-Michael Starling, a gifted 12-year-old boy who apparently had a superhero as a guardian angel. That hero, Omega, would always appear whenever the boy was in danger, though we never found out in that ten issue run what their connection was. Although it was canceled and didn't do very well sales-wise, apparently the comic had a small cult following, of which Jonathan Lethem was an supposed member.

Fast forward to 2007, and the first issue of the new miniseries is released. It opens in a forest at night as the titular Omega is camping near an abandoned cabin. As he prepares the fire and cooks his dinner (two ducks or swans from the look of it) three robotic figures are checking out a space ship that appears to have crash-landed in the area. Whether the ship that crashed is theirs or Omegas is yet to be explained. The robots track Omega down, there's a brief scuffle, a nice opening monologue by Omega speaking to himself before he's struck from behind by one of the 'bots. Then the whole comic gets kinda... bad.

After Omega is rendered unconscious, 14-year-old Alexander awakes from his nightmares, which are apparently common. His parents, to whom he refers as Rupert and Lydia, come in and check up on him. This is where the comic gets not just weird, but painful to read. The dialogue is so clammy, so... uptight. These people don't talk like you and me. It's understandable for Alexander, who we realize is -- say it with me, people -- "gifted," but his parents have no excuse. They're supposed to be "normal" but they don't talk like it. They certainly don't talk like normal Pennsylvania suburbanites. The dialogue isn't all bad. When told he's a teenager now, and doesn't need to refer to kids his age as "children," he responds: "I'm fourteen years old, yes. But teenager, if I've understood correctly, is a social role." Who among us hasn't felt like that? We're old enough, but feel like we don't truly belong with any of the others. And, when told by Lydia that learning social behaviors might be fun (what high school did she go to?) he miserably responds "The more often you use that word, the less I believe you." It's pretty good, but doesn't last long.

After a near-collision with a gas tanker runs Alexander and his parents off the road the day after his most recent nightmare, Alexander is surprised to see the decapitated head of his mother lying next to him on the ground outside their crashed vehicle (guess Alex wasn't wearing his safely belt) and even more surprised when it speaks to him. This is all before he blacks out and we're mercifully devoid of him speaking for several pages.

However, this only serves to introduce another "meh" character, known at first as "Mr. Kansur" and after a few minutes we're revealed his superhero avatar, The Mink. The Mink?? Anyway, the Mink is a self-obsessed glory-hound, the type of person who is famous for being famous. He's called to the scene of the accident by the New Jersey Police (Alex and his 'rents were traveling to NYC at the time of the accident, this probably took place on the Jersey Turnpike) to check out the decapitated, android head of Lydia. Fascinated, the Mink hooks Lydia's head up to a car battery to see if that would get it running, I guess, and succeeds in melting all the fabricated skin and muscle tissue off the head before the metallic head itself blackens and burns up. Before he takes off he learns the fate of the surviving Alexander (in a coma at the hospital) and has someone keep an eye on him, in case he's as interesting as his parents were.

At Colombia Presbyterian Hospital, Alex is deep in his coma, with a young nurse named Edie Fallinger. She's new and, as of this point, the only person who seems to care for this comatose boy lying in a hospital bed for seemingly no reason. It doesn't take long, but he does eventually wake... which coincides with the forgotten hero Omega's escape from his robotic captors. Somehow, seemingly feeling the direction he must go, Omega hitchhikes his way to New York City... towards this boy he's supposedly sworn to protect.

Let's get down to it. Omega: The Unknown is confusing. It's a world of glory-hogging superheros, corrupt police, uncaring medical establishments, and occasionally searing kindness. It's got bad dialogue, so-so art by Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War; Yeah, I never heard of it, either), and an unbelievable situation in which the good nurse takes Alex into her life (somehow I believe Social Services would have something to say about that) The best parts are where Omega makes his appearance, never saying a word, just fighting for this boy who resembles a younger him. And when Alex starts exhibiting powers... well, the idea doesn't seem to stem very far from the ideas expressed in the 70's run.

Omega: the Unknown is not good. Having picked up the first issue, it might be the natural response of many readers to never ever pick up the subsequent issues. This is just a vanity piece by a bestselling author, and Lethem still can't pull it off correctly. Marvel only agreed to put this bunch together because they did the math and Jonathan Lethem = $$$. Even if the comic does poorly, it's only a 10 issue miniseries so it's not a lot of money out of Marvel's pocket; plus the trade release will almost certainly be an indie fan's wet dream.

I never read the original Omega. Now, thanks to Marvel and Lethem, I never want to.

10 comments:

brian said...

Have you read Meltzer's Identity Crises? Or, is that an example of a graphic novel that Comic fans love to hate?

Gianni said...

Never read Identity Crisis myself, hadn't heard good things, but maybe I can get Steve or Elmo to scare me up some reading material on that. I'll give it a shot.

steve said...

I bought and read the original Omega, lured by the gorgeous Gil Kane covers and immediately disappointed by the stiff Jim Mooney interiors. I looked at this first new issue, and the first thing I thought was how nice it would be to have Jim Mooney back. A remake of this piece o' poop might have worked, but this one certainly doesn't ...

jglenn said...

I disagree! The plot veers from dreamlike to nightmarish, so why does everyone have to talk like "normal" people supposedly talk, or act like they supposedly act? Also, the art is terrific. I'm into Omega, so far.

Gianni said...

JGlenn, I'll fight for your right to be wrong. However, you're still wrong. The parents are forgiven for talking weird because they're androids, but the whole plot stinks of unbelievability, and the next few issues would have to be much better for me to recant my earlier criticism.

Elmo said...

Brian, I can bring in Identity Crisis. Despite glaring flaws, it's a great read. I think fans love to hate Civil War and the original Crisis even more.

Elmo said...

I liked the art and dialogue of this comic. It's reminiscent of Peter Milligan, and like nothing else Marvel's putting out.

Kevin Caron said...

I'm with Hellmo and jglenn.
I found Omega to be refreshingly enigmatic and dream-like - like a David Lynch superhero comic. Which seem to compliment the books original run - though books original writer is none too happy that this remake is being made - Steve Gerber is furious that Marvel is embarking on this remake while he's still around to write it himself, initially posting on the web that he'll consider Lethem an enemy for life (later back-pedaling a bit).

The art is also pretty inspired, overall - who better to capture a quirky, strange, fever-dream of a comic then Pop Gun War's Farel Dalrymple (with the nice touch of Paul Hornschemeier's colors)?

Admittedly, 'the Mink' is a stupid addition, and the book could go either way, but I'll certainly check in on number two to see where this goes.

Gianni said...

In Lethem's defense, though, there's no way Marvel remakes this series without Lethem doing the writing. He was a fan of the original, and pretty much went to Marvel to ask if he could type up a remake. There's no reason for Gerber to be upset, since if he'd gone to Marvel to ask the same thing, he'd have been tossed out a high window.

Gianni said...

New review soon, I promise!