Originally published from 2007 to 2008, “Omega the Unknown” came from a period of time when corporate superhero comic companies were looking beyond their usual rosters for writers, artists, and other creators to help contribute to their universes. Following his success on The Fortress of Solitude, Marvel asked Jonathan Lethem to write a comic, and he chose to revive “Omega the Unknown.” Bringing along indie kid Farel Dalrymple, Lethem set out to make one of the more interesting and odd comics Marvel has in their back catalogue.
Written by Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rushnak
Illustrated by Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier
The story of a mute, reluctant superhero from another planet, and the earthly teenager with whom he shares a strange destiny — and the legion of robots and nanoviruses that have been sent from afar to hunt the two of them down. Created in 1975 by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, the original Omega The Unknown lasted only ten issues but was a legend to those who recall it — an ahead-of-its-time tale of an anti-hero, inflected with brilliant ambiguity. One of Omega’s teenage fans was award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem, who has used the original as a springboard for a superbly strange, funny, and moving graphic novel in ten chapters.
Marvel isn’t exactly a company that takes a lot of chances. Even when it seems like they’re doing new and progressive things — Sam Wilson as Captain America, that Northstar wedding, the current and coolest Thor — their stories often fall into the same rhythms and conventions. There’s a definite formula they follow for practically all their stories, where smaller, more personal dilemmas are pushed to the side for some major cataclysmic crossover event, culminating in all their characters joining some team or another. I guess it’s the nature of mainstream superhero comics, trying to be accessible to the broadest audience.
Every so often Marvel will release a book like “Strange Tales”, which, like DC’s “Bizarro Comics”, gathers an assortment of cartoonists and creators to play around with their roster of famous characters. As interesting as these stories can be, the platform for them from Marvel is infrequent. It seems like when a creator is invited to play in the MCU, they have to adhere to a very specific set of rules.
Which makes “Omega the Unknown” such an odd entity.
Written by Jonathan Lethem with Karl Rusnak, and featuring art by Farel Dalrymple, “Omega the Unknown” is a reboot of this 70s series created by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney (who get credit for their creation only in the afterword) about robots, aliens, and teenage superheroes. Lethem incorporates some elements of the Marvel formula into the narrative (built up from years and years of reading comic books), and he definitely has a lot of fun with the premise from the main series; however, he and Dalrymple have totally made this their own weird thing.
There’s a lot going on in this story, which originally was serialized as a 10-issue miniseries. First up: young Titus Alexander Island, who’s been living secluded in the woods with his robot parents for his entire life. Ridiculously smart but socially stunted, the Islands have decided it’s time to enroll Alex in school. However, on the way to drop him off on his first day, they’re involved in a horrible car accident and liquidated. (Dalrymple renders a haunting image, based off the Mooney original, where Alex’s mother’s face melts on an engine.) A series of events, including Alex conjuring fire that leaves an omega symbol on his palms, leads him to move into an apartment in Washington Heights, attending an inner city school, and trying to figure out why everyone wants to beat him up when all he wants to do is pursue his developing interest in robotics.
Meanwhile, there’s this dude in a blue suit and cape with the omega symbol also burned on his palms, who’s crash landed on Earth, pursued by this batch of malevolent robots, who in turn start possessing people around New York City with nanobots. Silent but mobile, he takes a job as a fry cook in a french fry truck, where he speckles this salt over all the food. Silent but mobile, he seems to suddenly appear whenever Alex finds himself in trouble.Continued below
Then there’s The Mink, a D-list superhero more concerned with his brand and image than with actually helping people. He has this labyrinth in his lair to run experiments or keep prisoners. Like Alex, he’s also trying to figure out what’s going on with these robots, however mostly out of vengeance than curiosity, after losing his hand to them. That hand, by the way, sprouts legs and becomes sentient, running around Washington Heights.
And I haven’t even brought up the floating head thinker statue character, also the narrator of the story. An omnipresent entity, it can grow and shrink and get vandalized.
Primarily a novelist, Lethem unsurprisingly structures this thing in a more novelistic fashion. Initially, it seems like there’s all these disparate elements thrown on the page that don’t seem to have anything to do with one another, and it can make the start of this book feel cold, enigmatic, and sort of impenetrable. But I think this is a truly warm book. Like his prose fiction, Lethem spends a lot of time exploring friendships and relationships. “Strange, isn’t it,” one character says, “how you seem to need to be forgiven for what you can’t help in the first place? Here’s to friends who know what you want without making you ask.”
The sheer amount of ambition and character work here doesn’t feel like something from a corporate superhero comic company or something that was concerned with making each single chapter stand on its own. “Omega the Unknown” reads a lot better as a completed collection rather than a bunch of single issues.
For his weird, bizarre superhero story, Lethem could not have found anyone better to illustrate the thing than Farel Dalrymple. Though his linework is tighter and more conventional than his recent work on “The Wrenchies” or “It Will All Hurt,” this book still bears hallmarks of a unique perspective. His expressions are on point, some of the more horrifying elements feel genuinely terrifying, and there’s plenty of his off-beat sense of humor. The further and further in Dalrymple goes into “Omega the Unknown,” the less interested he seems in maintaining a more accustomed style. Toward the end, he has this frenetic energy in the art, like he’s so excited to deliver the next part of the action, that it creates its own intensity. The fact that Dalrymple letters the book himself helps give it a more complete presence.
For “Omega the Unknown,” Marvel let Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak, and Farel Dalrymple go off on their own wavelength, and the end results are much more interesting because of it. The book, though incredibly odd, has a warm heart and strong message to it. The thing is fun in the way a superhero comic ought to be fun (seriously, still love the giant hand running around on little legs) but loaded with interesting insights from a strong novelist. Books like this are what I wish Marvel, and DC, would take bigger chances on.