Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: Omega the Unknown

In the last fifteen years or so, comic books have undergone a bit of a renaissance. We’ve seen Art Speigelman get the Pulitzer, book stores sell manga, and an explosion of talented artists working and finding success in a variety of genres. However, the once prominent super hero genre is slowly dying a painful death. Sure, movie adaptions are box office juggernauts, but how many can say they bothered to give any Iron Man comics even a try after seeing the movie? Nobody, that’s who. See, current cape comics are not written for normal people. These comics are made exclusively for the man-children who grew up with only these heroes for friends, and now continue to follow their lives, just in a kind of creepy way. For every great comic like Runaways, we get 10 things like the recent Redhood and the Outlaws, which has become controversial for its portrayal of female-empowering Teen Titans character Starfire as a bikini-clad nymphomaniac. And indeed, like other modern cape capers, Omega the Unknown is mainly for teens and adults who grew up on capes, and inappropriate for young children. But unlike comics like Outlaws, Omega is a genuine super hero story, a charming, thoughtful tribute to the comics we all grew up with.

Loosely based on an obscure ‘70s Marvel comic of the same name, Omega the Unknown is novelist Jonathan Lethem’s first and only foray into the medium, with art by indie cartoonist Farel Dalrymple. The story centers on Titus Alexander Island, a neurotic fifteen-year-old prodigy who lives with his parents in isolation from the rest of the world. When his family decides to pack up and move to New York, a fatal car crash kills Alexander’s parents and changes everything. Before blacking out, Alex sees something very strange. Impossible even. He wakes up in a hospital in New York a few days later with bizarre Ω-shaped burn marks on his hands. He is then attacked by a group of robots, but is protected by a mysterious caped figure, the titular Omega. While Alexander is trying to adjust to the city and understand the strange events surrounding him, a super hero named The Mink® commercializes his name at the expense of whatever morals he once had. Meanwhile, Omega continues to pursue the robots the attacked Alexander while working at a street vendor in front of Alexander’s school.

As you can tell from the above paragraph, the Omega the Unknown is a very complicated comic. In fact, the above paragraph barely even touches on the 2nd issue of this 10 issue series. In the hands of a less competent writer, Omega would be a confusing, pretentious mess. However, Lethem (and his collaborator on the book, Karl Rusnak) is far from incompetent, and handles the convoluted story with charm and grace. The author smartly takes cues from the book’s title, and leaves much of the plot in Omega the Unknown unexplained. This can sometimes be infuriating to read, but it’s never actually confusing. Unlike many mysterious sci-fi or cape stories, we aren’t being tricked into a poorly planned Swiss cheese of plot holes, as Omega is a story that knows exactly what is happening and why. But rather than explain how everything works to us in boring chunks of text, we are shown what happens, with small hints and visual nods to the reasons for what we see. I imagine that were I to read Steve Gerber’s original, I would discover that many moments in that story are the basis for much of the action in the new Omega, but nonetheless I am certain the surreal vision in this story would remain wildly original. For the first time in ages, I have a superhero comic that doesn’t make me roll my eyes or fall asleep, but allows me to revel in the magic and fantastical nature of the genre.

But as fantastical as it may be, the world presented in Omega is one firmly rooted in reality. Even as spandex-wearing vigilantes are fighting evil alien robots, the real focus of the book is the people, people who live in a real world and sometimes see the worst of it. The adolescent characters in this comic aren’t a whitewashed group of nice-guys a la Archie, and the New York we see is no shining metropolis like the ones seen in most contemporary cape comics. Alexander and his friends are some of the most realistic young adults to appear in a superhero story since Peter Parker first learned of power and responsibility. They’re a diverse, slightly awkward group of individuals who don’t try to be fit any heroic Objectivist expectations, and sometimes make mistakes. A particularly memorable example of the comic’s realism is a subplot involving a chubby kid with glasses named Hugh who is routinely roughed up by a group of bullies led by a punk calling himself Roofie. One day, Alex tries to intervene, and Roofie gives Hugh a gun, leading to a moment neither can ever turn back from. Later, in a moment of unreality called the Nowh-area®, Alex sees Hugh again, and they have a conversation that moved this reviewer to tears. What makes this part of the story such an emotional read is that Hugh and Roofie are not shown as good or evil. Sure, what Roofie did was awful, but there are strong implications that he was a victim of peer pressure. Hugh easily could have been portrayed like many other geeks in popular culture, saints who are simply bullied because they are smart and unique, but he isn’t. He has a tragic flaw. He made the unfortunate choice to accept his unpleasant surroundings, and suffered as a result. It’s a human tragedy within a super-powered adventure that the main characters, and the people reading about them, can learn from.
The story and characters of Omega the Unknown may have stuck with me long after reading, but in any story told in comics, words only tell half the story. The comic also serves as a great showcase for Farel Dalrymple’s incredible artwork. While far from a household name, Dalrymple has proven his awesome talent for visual storytelling in this work. Using a sketchy, almost grimy, but overall mundane style, he captures the feeling of being in New York for the first time, that combination of bewilderment and exhaustion as you try to understand how people accept the place as normal, placing the colorfully dressed supermen on the same level as loudmouthed Brooklynites. Dalrymple is fully aware of how strange and surreal the story being told is, but chooses to ignore it in the telling, letting the reader discover exactly how messed up and bizarre everything really is on his or her own, thus allowing us to savour the oddness longer. Dalrymple also shows great skill at conveying the characters emotion on the page. In one scene, Omega is trapped alone in a giant maze. As he wanders through the maze, the panels get smaller and smaller, while the gutter space (gutters = the empty space between one panel and the next) increases. Through this panelling technique, we are forced to empathize with Omega’s growing desperation and isolation. Dalrymple’s name may never become a household one, but work like this makes his name one that will be fondly remembered by those who can appreciate the craft of cartooning.

Also notable is the work of colorist Paul Hornschemeier. I don’t normally notice color in comics all that much, but Omega has a great color scheme. See, many colorists today rely heavily on computer effects, adding energy blasts, heavy shading, and dark, almost monochrome colors not suggested by the original artwork. This style of coloring renders an artist’s unique traits unrecognizable and standard, turns dynamic sequences into muddy, static ones, and encourages new artists to turn in lazier work. Luckily, Paul Hornschemeier is not your average colorist. Using a palette of bright, eye-popping colors, Hornschemeier actually enhances Dalrymple’s artwork, adding a dynamic, exciting element to an otherwise slow-moving story. One could even say that despite the comic’s less traditional style, Omega the Unknown is one of the most traditional-looking cape comics to come out in years. There is little pretension or grayscale here. The comic simply does what it does and hopes you can appreciate it.

As much as I have enjoyed Omega the Unknown, I can understand that it’s not for everyone. While the mainstream loses its subtlety more and more each day, Omega is a story that dares to refrain from hitting readers over the head with a two-ton plot twist, and maybe even let us figure out some of the nuances on our own time. The unfortunate side effect of this is that readers weaned on Dragon Ball and Crossover Events will may find the comic confusing, or worse, pretentious. However, before condemning Omega into the cursed realm of Not My Thing, I would like you to consider this: Is being smart really the same as being pretentious? Does entertainment really need to be disposable? If you answered yes to both these questions, feel free to return to the episode of Glee you paused to read this, because you have every right to stay in your comfort zone. However, there is a whole world of stories that can (to paraphrase a better critic) excite both your mind and imagination, and if you’re looking for a place to start, I cannot begin to recommend Omega the Unknown enough.