The Rabbit loved superheroes as a kid but seldom identified with them. It took growing up to do that. I was well into my 20s before I realized that every mild-mannered male had a secret identity, if not a colorful leotard with or without the requisite “S.”
I was somewhere in between youth and manhood, at least psychologically, when Marvel introduced Omega: The Unknown in 1976. There was plenty to identify with if I’d only been paying attention. Not that I could have imagined myself as the grim, buff-and-caped hero of the series or the adolescent, curly-haired James Michael, whose parents looked like Clark Kent and Lana Lang even if they were robots. But the identity confusion James Michael felt and his alienation; that would have been immediately recognizable and no more unusual than it was for a skinny, middle-class Midwestern kid to identify with a New York prep school brat named Holden.
Writers Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak and illustrator Farel Dalrymple’s new Omega is less pumped and super. Their James Michael, here named Titus Alexander, is a skinnier, less curly-haired and handsome kid. But the shared story—battling battalions of alien robots while figuring out their own identities—is, if you can believe it, more believable in Lethem and Dalrymple’s hands. Alexander’s parents are tired and worn, even if they are robots. The women who become his guardian angels are fatigued and hardly bodacious. Super villains don’t just fall out of the sky as they do in the Marvel series which ran through ten issues of Omega The Unknown and two issues of Defenders before vanishing (still available in the Marvel collection Omega: The Unknown Classic). The main antagonist, other than alien robots, is a scene-stealing, self-promoter in a fuchsia body suit who monopolizes the local superhero franchise with an army of surrogates and a panel truck. His fearsome name: Mink.
Yes, Lethem plays for laughs as well as parody. He’s a genius at injecting elements of fantasy even though there’s not as much contrasting reality as there was in Fortress of Solitude. He’s extracted the best facets of the original Omega and done away with some that drowned its fantasy in commercialism. It’s an improvement on the original and, at the same time, something entirely different.
In his notes at the end of the remake, Lethem calls Steve Gerber and Mark Skrenes’ original Omega “simply the greatest single comic book I’d ever read.” But after its promising first issue, Omega reverted to serial Marvel form, dropping in appearances from Electro and, yes, The Incredible Hulk as well as a cameo from Spider Man. Lethem sticks with Mink and the robots while keeping all of the original’s clever devices: James-Michael/Alexander’s sympathetic pain for the shadowy Omega, their shared, palm-sized super power, Omega’s struggles to deal with life on Earth, and Alexander’s own struggle to survive in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.
One of the standout sections in both the original and the remake concerns Alex’s bullied fellow student. The statement here is that street life can be as terrifying as an invasion of alien robots. Dalrymple’s drawings, as stereotyped as the originals were exaggerated, spare us the visual consequences of intimidation that the original does not. Despite the stereotypes, the illustrations lend a further element of believability to the story, even at its most surreal turns. The dully lit, often dark backdrops from colorist Paul Hornschemeier, and the grayness in the deteriorating Omega’s face, make for a sort of visual foreshadowing. There’s a standout panel early into the tale of our young hero and his roommate in front of the New York Public Library that suggests a little knowledge is like entering a shadow. Dalrymple’s most manic scene is the full-page that opens section VI. There’s a palpable madness in the single eye, seen through a desk magnifier, of a robotics student as he works on an alien appendage. Section VII, drawn by the acclaimed Gary Panter, is a child’s nightmare of the devolving situation, primitively horrific in black, beige and blood red.
The original Omega is known for its overly ambitious caption narration, words that dealt with the metaphorical elements of the story in grandiose language (sample: “THE ENERGY—THE CREATIVE FORCE—COULD BE DISCIPLINED ONLY SO STRICTLY, HELD SEETHING IN CHECK ONLY SO LONG, BEFORE IT BURST FORTH—“). In staying true to this form, Lethem brings the story a new sense of literacy (“NIHILISM MAY BE THE SOLE BRAND OF SELF-ASSERTION THAT CAN’T BE PACKAGED AND SOLD BACK TO ITS ORIGINAL OWNER”) as well as finding an excuse to have some fun (“KILL OR BE KILLED, EAT OR BE EATEN, ENGULF AND DEVOUR… DON’T PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD”).
There are details galore to put together as one tries to make sense of the plot, not all of them welcomed by this long-eared reader. Robotic insects, tap-dancing street people and a giant, severed hand keep things complicated. A fictional fast food conglomerate plays an important role and Omega is taken in by a kindly old man who serves hot dogs and Italian ice from a street wagon. A pensive, over-sized bust in a park watches over all. Some of the comic turns here threaten to derail the story. Others are just part of some symbolic shtick. At one point, the starving Omega climbs a tree and grabs a bald eagle for his dinner.
Still we expect comics to be comic, even if they are about revenge and interplanetary destruction. Lethem and Rusnak have succeeded in taking the myth of a boy come to Earth to save a second planet (shades of Superman and Terminator!) from out-of-control robotics (Blade Runner!) and making it smart, intriguing and worthy of illustration. The last several brilliant pages share something important with the original: no chance of a sequel. Then again, in comics…..—Cabbage Rabbit