To date, much of the buzz surrounding DC Comics June mini-relaunch has focused on the stylish teens of Gotham City or the epic adventures of the classic Justice League heroes. But if Tom King has his way, the breakout stars of the month will be a down and dirty team of space murderers.
On June 3, the writer and artist Barnaby Begenda launch “The Omega Men” — a brand new take on the cult sci-fi team created by Marv Wolfman and Joe Staton. Freedom fighters with a drastic sense of right and wrong, the team kick started their mission this week in an eight-page story where they murdered White Lantern Kyle Rayner in a style reminiscent of the videos dispatched by terrorist groups on earth.
Tom King’s take on these characters may seem straightforward, but as the writer — who has a background in the CIA and comics experience under his belt from co-writing DC’s spy hit “Grayson” — spoke to CBR News, he spelled out why “The Omega Men” is not a political allegory as it eyes a one-year run filled with gray morals, inventive storytelling and twisted space hero tropes. Plus, DC shared an exclusive first look at the final first issue cover by Trevor Hutchison, who will provide regular work alongside variants by Toby Cypress.
CBR News: Tom, let’s start big and broad. “Omega Men” is a DC concept that’s been around for 30-plus years and has seen multiple iterations, but it’s also never been a massive, hit series. What was your attraction to playing with one of the cult properties in the DC Universe?
Tom King: My favorite comics — the comics I return to again and again — are comics where a writer takes an old, ignored, dated, silly, wonderful concept and modernizes it, connects it to the current time and place. [Alan] Moore’s “Watchmen,” [Mark] Gruenwald’s “Squadron Supreme,” [Jeph] Loeb’s Challengers of the Unknown, [Warren] Ellis’ “Nextwave,” even [Frank] Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” — they all sort of said, “What if we took this simple concept and took it seriously, what would that mean?”
Genius and handsome and also very handsome DC editor Brian Cunningham came to me with the Omega Men. He said DC wanted an epic, a cosmic, space-punk opera that would grow out of the original Omega Men concept and draw on my experience as counterterrorism operations officer in the CIA. I immediately thought of the above stories, about how I could ground the Omega Men the way those authors ground their stories, how I could make the kick-ass, visceral, profound and profane comics that got me into this medium. I tried to play it cool. I failed. They hired me anyway.
The series kicked off this week with an eight-page story featuring the death of Kyle Rayner. That’s a pretty big move to be making right out the gate. What does starting the series in such dramatic fashion offer your story — and what did the White Lantern ever do to you?
“Omega Men” has high stakes. Characters will die. In the beginning, and in the end. This is not a story where you know who will win and who will lose. Every person in the book is vulnerable. That starts with Kyle. The question shouldn’t be, why Kyle? It should be, who comes next?
As for what Kyle personally did, let’s just say the sketch that came (late) with my copy of Kyle Rayner’s “Art for Artists Who Draw Only in Green” was not up to the standards promised in his Kickstarter. May be unrelated. But just saying.
To put it bluntly, does the Omega Men team’s complicity in Kyle’s death make them villains? If so, how does that affect the thematic shape of this series? Can you make us care about characters who have been responsible for the death of a fan favorite?
Complicity is such a nice way of putting it. I’d say they straight up murdered the poor Lantern.
In all honesty, I have no idea if the Omega Men are good guys or bad guys. I haven’t decided yet. I know there are characters in this book worse than them, and quite a few that are better than them. I know it’s my job to make my audience feel compassion toward these men and women, to help the audience feel that they could make the same choices the Omega Men make. That’s the point of this story, and maybe all stories. You think you’re so different from that other guy until you realize he’s the protagonist, too.
Beyond that, I feel that if I make the decision that the Omega Men are heroes or villains, the audience will sense it and go with me or rebel against me — react to my opinion. I’d rather have them react to the actions of these characters, let the audience make up their own minds. Maybe once they have, they can convince me what side to come down on.
Let’s look at the cast of the book who will be surviving. The Omega Men have had a wide range of team members over the years, and from that crop of candidates, you’ve selected four classic team members: Tigorr, Broot, Primus and Doc. What about these guys embody the core of what your take is all about?
The original Omega Men concept is the basic “Star Wars” formula — Rebels against the Empire, or in this case, the Omega Men of Vega against the Citadel. My take on that is to simply put just a bit of real world in it, twist the cliche, to say when rebels fight against the empire, they rarely fight clean. Americans against the British. Reds against the Russians. Iraqi insurgents vs. the “Coalition of the Willing.” Asymmetrical warfare exists because it works. The Omega Men are fighting an empire that is stronger than they are, and they’re fighting it any way they can — that “any way” will make all the difference. (But hell, we’ve all seen “Clerks.” Even the Rebels weren’t that clean.)
These four members of the Omega Men similarly each represent a twist on a classic cliche. They just refuse to conform to who they should be.
Tigorr should just be Wolverine, the tough muscle with the good lines; but if you read “The Omega Men,” he was actually a more talented leader and strategist than Primus. I wanted to look at that contradiction, the tactical berserker genius — where did that come from, how does that serve him or hurt him.
Broot should be the gentle giant, the goofy “Groot-ish” comic relief. But he actually comes from a planet of extreme religious belief, a planet that secretly betrays that belief resulting in tragedy for Broot. I wanted to write not the gentle giant, but the gentle extremist, the gentle killer.
Primus should be that white, blond, muscle dude that existed at the center of every ’80s fantasy/sci fi/adventure concept — the bland hero surrounded by interesting monsters; but he’s actually a man full of doubt and deceit, a man who doesn’t yet have the confidence to embody that idol ideal. I want to mess with that confidence, see what happens.
Doc should be — well, I mostly chose Doc because I like the design of his head, and I wanted to write Wall-E goes to war. But I could probably come up with some fancy postmodern answer if you give me time.
On the other side of the coin, we’ve got some brand new characters making their way into the series. There’s the terrifically named Scrapps, and the sinister-looking The Viceroy. What do these new cast members represent in terms of your vision for the farthest reaches of the DC Universe?
These two are stolen fairly blatantly from my real life and thrown into the DCU to see what happens.
The Viceroy, who is the Citadel officer in charge of the Vega System, is taken from the worst parts of myself during my time in the CIA. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t been there, but there’s a certain (and certainly sinister) energy you get from being the representative of a great empire in a far corner of the Earth. It’s like a high. You sort of think you can change things. You can push on the world, and it will move, and if you push it in the right way, you’re the hero of every story. The Viceroy is addicted to this energy. He thinks he understands the people of the Vega system better than they understand themselves; he knows what’s good for them. I had that thought. I had it a lot. I’m not sure if I was always wrong. I’m not sure if being not sure about that is a good thing. So I put all this in him.
Scrapps, a brand new Omega Man, is basically me writing my daughter’s personality into a book. My daughter refuses to be anything but what she is. She will not conform to a standard I or the world try to give her. She’s going to dress in a pink princess dress and play in the dirt with a Black Canary action figure riding a pretend unicorn, all while yelling at her brothers (and me) to go to Hell. Scrapps doesn’t give a damn until she does. And when she does, if you don’t, you’ll probably soon be dead.
So the initial spark of story is the Omega Men being on the run for Rayner’s murder, but anyone who’s read “Grayson” knows that you don’t approach series with short arcs in mind. What can you say about your broad story ambitions for this title? How does this initial volley set the stage for what’s to come?
I’m going into this with the idea that I have 12 issues to tell an amazing and complete story. If people love it and they give me another 12, I’ve got more story in mind. But for now, this is a sprint; every panel and line has to serve the purpose of driving the action to that thrilling climatic moment in issue #12. I think of page 20 of issue #12 as the end of the world, and I’ve got to write a story worthy of that day.
That said, I’m in love with the idea of one-and-dones. They’re my favorite comics to write. So each issue will tell a complete story, beginning, middle and end, all while leading directly to the final day. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but this is a story about contradictions, so at least I’m thematically consistent.
I understand it that you’re going to be playing with comics structure in this series in a way that you haven’t before. How do you approach the visual aspect of comics making these days? What kind of formal techniques are you hoping to work into your toolbox on “Omega Men”?
DC and my insanely talented partner on this, artist Barnaby Begenda, are being kind/patient/gullible enough to let me write in the layouts for this series and to write the whole thing “in the boxes,” i.e. simple layouts where the art stays within the panel borders. What this does is give me a ton of control over the beats in the story, and also means I get to play a lot with matching form to content. With this technique, I can put thematic elements into the background and bring in some common (and a few uncommon) comic book tricks that will allow me to tell complicated stories with minimal exposition.
But that’s all in the weeds. Honestly, you’re not really supposed to notice any of that stuff. Your focus should all be on the story and characters. Everything I’m doing with layouts should serve the narrative, should make complicated background material easily accessible to our readers so that their attention is on the dramatic moments and not all the stuff we needed to put in to get you to those moments.
Overall, the cosmos of the DC Universe is chock full of various alien races, warring planets, secret factions and other diverse forces. That doesn’t sound too far from the world we know — or more particularly, the one you knew in your previous life with the CIA. How does the milieu of this book and the wide range of characters you can draw on synch up with the kind of human story you want to tell here? If you had to compare “Omega Men” with anything on Earth, what would it be?
I don’t think there really is a one on one analogy here. The Omega Men aren’t Al Qa’ida, and the Citadel isn’t America. That’s too easy and, frankly, too boring. I’m not trying to write allegorical fiction that comments on our current state of affairs. This isn’t “Animal Farm.” I don’t think anyone would get anything out of me using DC Comics characters to rant on about current affairs, even if I had a rant worth giving. To me, the best fiction avoids that kind of stuff. Those arguments are better made in essays and blogs. Fiction should attempt to portray emotions and moments that dig deeper than that, that can’t be told, but have to be shown.
What I am trying to do in this series is tell a space adventure story that will hit people on a gut level, where the audience can relate to the risks and blows that the characters take. To do that I’m going to steal elements of current and past events, moments that can bring the audience into the Omega Men, that make them experience the rusted texture of the bar the Omega Men hold onto as their ship comes under fire. Once the audience is in that ship, I don’t want them thinking, “What is this funny book writer trying to say about our current Middle East policy debate?” I want them to hunker down, look out at the stars, and feel what it’s like to need to fight back.
So far, all we’ve seen from your artist Barnaby Bagenda are some radical character designs, but with your plans for this book, I’m assuming he’s got his work cut out for him. What’s been your impression of how he’s tackling the pages of this story?
When I got the first pages in, I shrieked with joy, ran to the window, opened it, and yelled down to the street for a young boy to buy a turkey for good and loyal Bob Cratchit. Basically, I’ve been nothing but crazy impressed with his storytelling, his designs and his overall talent.
When I write, I put in stupid things like, “he’s angry, but hiding it under a sadness that is tinged at the edges with a slight jump of joy.” This is nonsense, but it has meaning to me, and (so very oddly) to Bagenda, who captures that exact look I had in my head. The way he draws makes me want to write more better. Very more better.
For people on the fence about trying out a book so unfamiliar to them, what’s the aspect of “Omega Men” #1 that you think serves as the element you put in to surprise people the most?
A lot of publishers have been using concepts built for DC to tell some of the greatest cosmic stories of the past few decades. With “The Omega Men,” DC is taking back its stars.
(Also, I’ll try my best to get Grayson’s abs to make a guest appearance, but I’m not promising anything.)
“The Omega Men” #1 arrives June 3 from DC Comics.
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