Jonathan Lethem Enters the Unknown with "Omega"

Author Jonathan Lethem's highly anticipated, long in gestation, revival of "Omega: The Unknown" finally hits shelves next week with covers, pencils, inks and letters by award winning artist Farel Dalrymple. CBR News spoke with the New York Times bestselling writer about his take on the Marvel Comics cult classic.

Originally created in 1975 by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, "Omega the Unknown" is the story of a mute, reluctant superhero from another planet and a 12-year-old boy with whom Omega not only shares a strange destiny, but also a common enemy – a legion of robots and nanoviruses that have been sent from afar to hunt the two of them down.

One of book's teenage fans was Jonathan Lethem, and nearly 30 years later, the celebrated author paid tribute to Gerber and Skrenes with multiple references to "Omega the Unknown" in his own semiautobiographical, genre bending novel, "The Fortress of Solitude."

As to why he would choose a relatively unknown character as the nexus of his first foray into mainstream comics, Lethem told CBR News, "Sheer and perverse adoration of the original. When Marvel invited me into their vault of iconography, I simply leapt at the icon that resonated most deeply with me.

"It didn't hurt that Omega had been laying in neglect for so long," Lethem continued. "I might have had trouble trying to utilize a character who'd been put through so many paces as Spider-Man or the Hulk, say. Omega seemed a resource of thwarted possibility, open to speculation, not plumbed-out."

Lethem, who featured his own Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill in both "The Fortress of Solitude" and "Motherless Brooklyn," says that New York was portrayed very realistically in the original "Omega: The Unknown," and was a major factor in drawing him to the book. "I always adored Marvel's setting so many stories in a 'realistic' New York in the 1970s, that being the world I knew growing up," Lethem explained. "The original Omega's great innovation, among others, was to commit even more scrupulously and extensively to letting the city become a subject in the comic book. And several of the characters went to a rather disastrous public middle school, which was my situation exactly when Omega was on the stands.

"Apart from that, it was simply the brilliance of Gerber and Skrenes' original story, especially in the first few issues, before it began to be derailed by circumstances and unsympathetic editing. Their notions of what might be done with ambiguity and complexity in a superhero comic were, needless to say, terrifically ahead of their time."

Lethem, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 (an award popularly known as the "genius grant"), drew comparisons between Omega and Shakespeare's Danish Prince of Darkness when asked what separated Omega from more iconic superheroes like Superman or Spiderman. "Omega sort of represents an X-ray of the existential condition of so many other costumed heroes, their dilemma at being the screen for the projection of fantasies of rescue, transcendence, and idealism," said Lethem. "In his hesitation he's a sort of Hamlet figure. And the radically contradictory and unfinished nature of his original story left him as a kind of icon of confusion, a cloud of dangling signifiers. This was something I thought I could take advantage of."

Solicited by Marvel as "a graphic novel in ten parts," Lethem says readers don't need a crash course in nanotechnology to pick up his10-issue miniseries. "No need to know anything in advance; I'm telling a full story, complete on its own terms, loading with references and even appropriations from the earlier story but ignoring it in terms of any sort of continuity," explained Lethem.

In the '70s, "Omega: The Unknown" was prematurely cancelled by Marvel after ten issues, leaving writer Steven Grant the unenviable task of having to tie up the series' loose ends more than two years later in "The Defenders" #76 and 77.

This time, Lethem says "Omega" has a definite beginning and end -- sort of. "Well, the ending is definite to me, though it doesn't happen to be one that would make a continuation impossible," Letham remarked. "I somehow don't expect further Omega stories, or at least not ones following directly from my ten issues. But I'd welcome that surprise, if somehow it was 'demanded.' It wouldn't be my work, if so."

Steve Gerber was so displeased that Marvel was re-imagining his creation, he launched his own website that featured a swirling logo and a tagline that read, "Omega the Unknown was created in 1975 by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes."

The prolific Gerber, who more famously created Howard the Duck, later backed off his "enemy for life" stance against Lethem, a story retraced in a 2005 LYING IN THE GUTTERS column by Rich Johnston, which you can read here.

As to how Lethem feels now that he has Gerber's blessing, Lethem offered, "That's a question for Gerber and Skrenes, not me."

Once described as "something of a hipster celebrity" by The New York Times, Lethem says he has no immediate plans to write more comics. "I'm devoting myself next to an ambitious plan for a new novel, which should take me a few years to write," explained Lethem. "After that, I'm hoping to revive Fig Leaf Man."

Now discuss this story in CBR's Marvel Comics forum.

Batman: Curse of the White Knight First Look Teases Gotham's Biggest Secret

More in Comics