Lethem Exits the Unknown with "Omega"

Award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem and acclaimed cartoonists Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier's revival of Marvel's cult classic "Omega: The Unknown" wrapped this week with issue #10. The New York Times bestselling writer shared with CBR News some thoughts about his first foray into comics with and specifically about the prospect of more omega-sized adventures.

Originally created in 1975 by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, "Omega: The Unknown" was the story of a mute, reluctant superhero from another planet and a 12-year-old boy with whom Omega not only shared a strange destiny, but also a common enemy -- a legion of robots and nanoviruses that were 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 the comic in his own semiautobiographical, genre (and gender) bending novel, "The Fortress of Solitude."

For those considering picking up Letham's collected "Omega: The Unknown" in Premiere Hardcover come September 10, the writer offered this selling point: "A superhero who really doesn't know the first thing about our planet is nevertheless forced to perform an important intervention on behalf of a human boy, whose fate is tied up with the fate of the universe. Neither of them is particularly ready for life in New York City, which is too bad for them."

Lethem, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 (an award popularly known as the "genius grant"), laughed off the notion that "Omega: The Unknown" was bigger than your average superhero comic book and was in fact rooted in deep philosophical thought and an attack of societal norms.

"I'm never thinking about what I or my characters might have to tell to 'society.' It just isn't a term I think in," Letham said. "The story has some themes, I guess: conformity, franchising versus the small businessman, mediated versus 'real' experience, etcetera, but those are pretty much just what sneaked in when I wasn't looking. In writing it, I concerned myself primarily with the character and material directly -- teenagers with problems, evil robots, corrupt and borderline-autistic superheroes, hamburgers, that sort of thing."

Lethem is very pleased with his and Dalrymple's final product, yet in many ways, the outcome was quite different than what he would have imagined at the outset. "I felt the series growing and expanding and finding its range increasingly through the second half and all of my favorite issues are crowded towards the finale," said Lethem. "And I suspect, or at least hope, that the cumulative effect of the complete ten chapters is going to be even more satisfying for readers, and for me to reconsider."

The writer also said he has received only limited feedback about "Omega," except for a few of his friends, who are comic book fans. "They have been very complimentary, but what else are friends going to say? I haven't been in very many situations where comic book readers could find me to give me direct feedback, not yet anyway," he teased. "And book readers, those who read my novels, but aren't denizens of comic book shops, are mostly still in the dark about it. That's going to change when the collection hits the bookstores in October, I hope."

Originally solicited as a "graphic novel in 10 parts," Lethem stands by the decision to release the series as a monthly miniseries as opposed to a traditional graphic novel. "All along I wanted to work in the form and context of the traditional comic book," he said. "I write novels regularly, and this was something different."

Without spoiling the conclusion in issue #10, Lethem said he was happy to leave it open enough that Marvel could do more Omega stories if they wanted to -- or if there was the demand. "But it won't be continued by me," confirmed Lethem. "I've always been fascinated by the fate of comic book characters as they wander through one set of creative hands to another, and if Omega stood that chance now, I'd be pleased."

Lethem said there were no plans in place, at the moment, to write more comics. "I really was tremendously lucky to enjoy the collaboration with these artists, and the particular set of circumstances that led to this work would be difficult to duplicate," he explained. "I've been spoiled, perhaps. As for other characters, I don't have any I'm particularly fantasizing about writing, but I'd probably be more inclined to do a supervillain than a hero."

In closing, Lethem teased CBR readers with a glimpse into the world he is creating for his yet-to-be-named next novel. "It is coming together, and it should be published in the fall of 2009. It still doesn't have a title, but I can tell you, it's set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it's strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it's long and strange."

"Omega: The Unknown" Premiere Hardcover, with covers and pencils by Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier, is scheduled for release on September 10.

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