Omega the Unknown #9

What a bizarre and fascinating comic this is!

Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple's "Omega the Unknown" has reached its penultimate issue. What began as an almost note-for-note retelling of Steve Gerber and Jim Mooney's "Omega the Unknown" #1 has become, by this ninth issue, something completely unique in the Marvel Universe. I think this comic might give a stereotypical "Marvel Zombie" -- the fan, not the flesh-eating fictional character -- an aneurism. It's so unlike anything coming out from Marvel these days, and it looks so different from the typical superhero comic, that a reader might pick it up and find it completely baffling. But the beauty is in the befuddlement, and as strange and off-beat and unconventionally-paced as this series has been, it's been one of the most thrilling mainstream superhero comics of the past year. Not thrilling as in, "I wonder if Spider-Man is going to rescue that kid in time? Will Doc Ock kill Aunt May before Spidey returns home?" Thrilling as in, "I can't believe Lethem and Dalrymple are allowed to do this kind of story in a Marvel book. And what is the deal with the Mink, anyway?" The thrill comes from the audaciousness of the artistic performance here--from both Lethem (with the help of co-scripter Karl Rusnak) in the writing, and Dalrymple (with the help of colorist Paul Hornschemeier) in the illustrations.

Take, for a good example of what makes the artwork special, the first page of issue #9. It's a typical superhero trope -- the moment the hero dons the costume for the first time. Take note, of course, that this is issue #9, and it's the first time the real hero -- the protagonist, Alex -- has put on the Omega costume. The other Omega (the Unknown one) has been zipping around, blasting robots, and hanging out in the back of food service trucks for months. But Alex is the real star of the book, and here he is, taking the heroic spotlight on the first page of this issue. Here's how Lethem and Dalrymple frame it (I don't know how much was specified in the script, so I'll credit them both, with the understanding that Rusnak and Hornschemeier hover over both like guardian angels of narrative greatness): they have the whole scene take place in the bathroom. That undercuts any possible heroic cliche right there.

But more than that, Dalrymple draws a prominent bathroom sink jutting out, at eye level, partly obscuring our view of the female lead, Amandla (who, by the way, looks nothing like your typical female lead in a comic book story. She looks like a real human, not a plastic hormonal fantasy). It's not some kind of sleek, futuristic sink, either. It's just a mundane, detailed drawing of a plain sink. Attracting a lot of attention from the reader. That sink isn't some grand symbol about life--representing how Alex's life is going down the drain. It's not a metaphor for Alex's relationship to hygiene. It's just a regular sink, but it's prominence grounds the strange, supernatural, space-operatic occurrences in this comic, and since every page contains something equivalent to the sink (a fire hydrant here, a cracked sidewalk there, an unmade bed, window treatments) "Omega the Unknown" becomes about characters moving through a banal world which just happens to be filled with weirdness.

In addition, the tone of this comic is not mock-heroic, or parodic, or even ironic. It's quintessentially surreal. Realer-than-real. The real world, but with all of its strangeness filtered through comic book customs. The Mink, a maniacal, ego-driven, franchised-to-the-max "superhero" ends up fighting an enlarged clone of his severed hand. You don't see that every day.

That's one of the things that makes this comic so much fun: it's filled with moments that are unlike anything you've ever read in a superhero comic before, and the blending of Dalrymple's expressive and starkly unheroic style with Lethem's intelligent, off-kilter script makes for a truly thrilling experience because I have no idea how this series is going to end. And I can't wait to find out.

If you've missed this series for whatever reason, I implore you to check it out when the collected edition premieres. If you're willing to embrace the surreal implications of the superhero genre, I think you'll find a lot to love here.

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