Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Omega the Unknown: What's not known is how something this good came from Marvel

I don't think I linked to this earlier, but I reviewed Punisher War Zone #3 over at Comics Bulletin.  I'm on a roll with that series.  Go Ennis!

Oh, and looks like no weekly preview this week, because I was sick the last couple days.  I suppose I could still do it, since new comics don't come out until Friday, but screw it.  There wasn't much there anyway, except maybe the new Goon.  Next week will be back to normal, hopefully.

Omega the Unknown
Written by Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak
Art by Farel Dalrymple, Paul Hornschemeier, and Gary Panter

How did something this unique and bizarre and, well, good come from the corporate blandness factory that is Marvel Comics?  The obvious answer is that it wasn't their idea; novelist Jonathan Lethem (author of the excellent books Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, among others) brought the concept to them, pitching a revival of Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes' weird, unsuccessful 70s series.  Amazingly, they agreed, so along with co-writer Karl Rusnak and indie artists Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier, he managed to create this fascinating reimagination of the character, making for one of the best reads of 2008, especially in the "mainstream" superhero genre.

Lethem brings a novelistic flair to the series, weaving a dense, layered tapestry of plots, themes, and characters.  It would take several readings and some intense analysis to attempt to unpack everything that is going on, but it's pretty fascinating to see the story touch on such varied ideas as robotics, nanotechnology, mental illness, celebrity, inner-city life, and marketing.  But at its core, it's all about a teenage boy growing up, accepting the changes he is going through, and making a family for himself in a harsh world.

Familiarity with the source material might make the book work better, or at least provide some illumination on Lethem's themes and ideas, but the lack thereof certainly doesn't hurt.  The story follows a teenager named Titus Alexander Island, a socially-maladjusted genius who is moving to New York City to attend a prestigious academy after being homeschooled for his entire life.  These plans get derailed, however, when a car crash reveals his parents to be robots in a jarring, horrific scene:

Soon, Alexander is left nearly on his own in the city, living with a nurse from the hospital who felt sorry for him and attending a public high school in Washington Heights, Manhattan while trying to understand the weirdness going on around him.  For in addition to his own parental issues, he has some sort of connection with a mute superhero (or a guy who dresses like one, at least) who is wandering around the city getting in fights with robots.  The local superhero, a boastful, egotistical blowhard named the Mink, who has a TV show and an army of henchmen is on the case, but he is more interested in getting his name in the papers and schmoozing with politicians than in fighting for justice.  And under everybody's nose, there seems to be some sort of infection related to a fast food chain called Butterdogs and a delivery serviced called 2U Quik that is turning people into mindless drones. 

This is all rather complex and confusing, but it's all grounded in the very human story of Alex learning to make his way in a world that seems confusing and bizarre to his sheltered mentality.  In fact, it has been suggested that the entire thing is a metaphor for Asperger's Syndrome, which is a compelling idea.  But the character is relatable simply as a symbol of the awkwardness of adolescence, and particularly feeling like an outsider.  He's a compelling figure, and he's surrounded by several others, including the pompous Mink, the mute (and mutable) Omega (or whatever the "blue guy" is supposed to be called, since he's never officially named), and the sentient statue named Verth the Overthinker who sometimes narrates the story.  Not to mention the walking hand that escapes its owner, or the guy who gets combined with some robots and cooking machinery into an unholy cyborg being.  Their plots all bounce around and off of each other, until everything comes to an explosive and fairly satisfying conclusion that still leaves a lot open to interpretation.  It's smart stuff, and for a first-time comics writer, Lethem does an excellent job of telling a great story and using the medium to its fullest.

He gets some great help from artist Farel Dalrymple, who brings a really nice indie sensibility to the book.  His style is closer to somebody like Jim Rugg (Street Angel) than the usual Marvel superhero artists, and it gives the book a unique look, while doing a great job of telling the story.  Dalrymple uses a kind of scratchy, sketchy line, but one that's clean enough to convey exactly what needs to be related, and to do so expressively and excitingly.  He gives the story a very street-level look, adding lots of urban detail:

He does a great job with the small, icky details, like this scene of freaky nano-bling being absorbed into a character's skin:

Not to mention the action, which isn't the big focus of the book but does entertain when it shows up.  This fight in a fast food restaurant is mostly depicted from the exterior, placing the reader among the bystanders and giving just enough of a hint as to what is going on inside as to picque the curiosity:

The panel-to-panel flow works wonderfully; there are several scenes that play out in sequences of small panels to show moments in matter-of-fact detail:

A lot of credit should be given to colorist Paul Hornschemeier as well, who brings a muted pallette to the art, grounding it in more of a real-life-seeming setting than with the usual candy-colored superheroics. It's beautiful to look at, and as mentioned, it's a great use of the comics medium.  This is the sort of story that couldn't be told nearly as effectively in any other medium, as demonstrated in one sequence in which an imprisoned Omega seizes on the idea of comics storytelling to convey his history.  The resulting product is perfectly realized by Gary Panter in his crude style:

All in all, it's a pretty damn amazing book, full of great moments and fascinating developments.  As good an author as Lethem is, he delivered beyond all expectations here, possibly due to the strengths of his collaborators, with whom he worked to create a truly unique and riveting work of art.  That he managed to do so within the confines of corporate comics makes the victory all the sweeter.

By the way, this will probably be my last post of 2008, so happy new year, everybody!  It's been a pretty good one (in some aspects, at least), so let's hope things only get better in 2009!