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Monday, December 28, 2009

Omega the Unknown Review

When my girlfriend bought me a copy of Paul Pope's artbook Pulphope for my birthday, a great gift that I unfortunately had picked up for myself when it first came out, I returned it to Forbidden Planet. So when looking over the store for a book that I could exchange it for, I knew I needed something significant.

I finally came across the hardcover of Omega the Unknown, published by Marvel Comics in 2008. It was written by Jonathan Lethem (w/Karl Rusnak) who I knew from his first novel "Gun With Occasional Music" rather than his more famous "Fortress of Solitude". His name to me was like that of a hipster literary rockstar.

The art was done by two of the best indie comic creators from the last decade. Farel Dalrymple of PopGunWar, his work has a honest beauty to it, every day fairy tale quality to it. Along with Paul Hornschemeier, of Forlon Funnies, who's work is hauntingly somber and sentimental. Both artists can present the fantastic as mundane mythology.

This combination was enough to sell me on the purchase. How could I miss out on these creators coming together to create a Marvel comic. Omega the Unknown was one of those odd 70's series that I've heard of but regarded it with a cryptic oddness.

Then I found out that it was co-written/created by Steve Gerber, who is about one of the most fascinating and stalwart comic creators who has done more great things than he is recognized for. This was a ten issue series in 1976 that had a quirkiness to it that the comic industry tried to mold into a generic superhuman brawl book.

I've never read the original series, and in a way I don't necessarily need to. This current ten issue series skirts a sort of remake/sequel thin line just as the writing and artwork pushes what is mainstream comics. A lot is left to the reader's interpretation, and in its own way it's a little clunky and meanders a bit along the way, just as any good auto-bio comic or indie flick does.

The story revolves around a mute alien in a costume fighting robots, but only as a backstory to the tale of a child raised by robots sent off to live in the big city to confront his destiny: to save the earth from invading alien robots. There's also a gloryhound hero called The Mink who has a rather unique and realistic approach to millionaire superheroics.

The series reads as an exploration of cycles within superhero literature, as well as in life itself. It gives us a young hero origin laid under the story of a fish out of water, robotic genius, adjusting to life in Washington Heights, NYC. It confronts school bullys and their victims, showing us the battle of villains against the weak, and what happens when the meek are introduced to the superhuman.

It leads to suicide, which is handled realistically, if not cold and emotionally detached. The main character even meets with the dead boy's soul and everything is matter of fact. But nothing is cut and dry with the badguys here, except the replicating robots that are infecting and replacing humans, and even they are treated as more passive, zombie like swarms, devoid of deeper thought.

There's overtones of mythology complete with a labyrinth, superhero meta tropes such as the "Over-Thinker" parodying Marvel's "The Watcher", a spectator and occasional omniscient narrator. It feels to be almost kind of trite in its plotting at times, but it wins you over with the art and the genuine realness of the characters.

There's a great commentary with select panels from the original comic in the back that give some insight into why Jonathan Lethem and his co-writer, Karl Rusnak, loved the original series enough to bring us an updated version. Also, Gary Panter's guest art when Omega details out his origin in comic format is amazing.

The book itself is goregeous, with a well designed cover, nice organic style to it that clashes with the slick colored pages and high production values. It really is an opposing forces parallel throughout every aspect of the book. Top it of with a quote on the back from Michael Chabon, author of Pulitzer Prize winning "Kavelier & Clay", and you've got the mainstream graphic novel with the most indie cred around.


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