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What Is This, Anyway, Screw Steve Gerber Week?

by  in Comic News Comment
What Is This, Anyway, Screw Steve Gerber Week?

Given the fact that their scheduling problems have become Paul O’Brien’s new white whale (well, other than ADD and the Comics Journal’s love of basoon solos, I guess), I doubt that this is intentional, but still; it is odd to see two new series featuring Steve Gerber’s most personal creations coming out in the same week; the so-long-in-coming out it may have taken longer than Gerber’s run on the book got Omega the Unknown, by award winning novelist Jonathan Lethem and indie stars Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier (has there ever been an art team with harder to spell last names?); and the so far out of leftfield I had no idea it existed until I walked in to the shop and one of the guys who runs the place shoved it in my face that it existed Howard the Duck, from the suprisingly well suited team of Ty Templeton and Juan Bobillo; so, never mind all the semicolons, here comes the reviews!

Omega the Unknown is a really weird book to do a revival of. The original series, by Gerber, co-writer Mary Skrenes, and artist Jim Mooney “unfinished dream”, as Lethem and company put it in their dedication to the original creative team on the first page, or an interesting failure, given your perspective. I tend to think of it as a bit of both, but more of the former, if for no other reason than that it took forever to go anywhere, and didn’t start until the final issue. The original team was meant to tie up the whole thing in the pages of the Defenders (it was even advertised in the letter page of the last issue), but that didn’t happening, and another writer wound up finishing the story instead (I forget who; I want to say David Anthony Kraft, but I also remember seeing Steven Grant attached to it, and I’m too damned lazy to actually check. Surely one of our know it all slobs knowledgable, hygenic readers can clear it all up in the comments section anyway. That’s interactivity for you; doing my own research for me since 2001.

Anyway, besides the fact that it’s a Steve Gerber comic from a time when he was to the mainstream comics scene what someone like Grant Morrison is today, the series has remained interesting despite it’s sad end because it was so ahead of its time. The slow burn plot movement, the attempt to do something different with the superhero genre (so much so that it is more than a little reminiscent of the “Mature Readers” comics WildStorm was putting out for awhile that were meant to be thrillers or action/adventure stories with superhero trappings than an actual superhero comic), the examination of themes like violence and indentity; all of these things are more or less common place in comics now. Hell, Peter Milligan has made a carrer out of similar work. But this pretty startlingly different from what else was coming out at the time. Couple that with the fact that, while he was a solid cartoonist who could tell a story, Jim Mooney was not the most dynamic artist in the world (and he was jostling for space on the shelf with John Buscema and Barry Windsor Smith at the time, among others), and you can see why it didn’t fly way back when.

All of that makes the idea of anyone doing a revamp of the book an odd proposition indeed; it’s either something you’d really want to do or a copyright renewal kind of thing. In this case, it’s the former, at least from everything Jonathan Lethem has said.

I think there’s something admirable about that; when he let his geek flag fly, Brad Meltzer wrote a big DCU crossover and a Justice League run (okay, and Green Arrow). Lethem went for a Marvel character with one of the shortest runs this side of Dakota North or Night Cat. I can also see how it’s appealing in the sense that the characters are in a tabula rasa state; I can even see the whole “unfinished story” appeal; that’s at least part of the reason why the New Gods keep being revived, even if they never seem to catch on.

Steve Gerber didn’t quite see it that way, as you can read here among many other places. He backed off from his original stance of Lethem being “an enemy for life”, probably after Lethem gushed about the original series, but I can see why he’d be so pissed, because Marvel reviving the book (no matter who was writing it) was part of a bad creator rights history between them.

All that said, Lethem’s cred as a novelist (even if I never did finish Fortress of Solitude during that month I checked it out of the library) and the novelty of anyone, at all, trying to reive Omega the Unknown piqued my interest. Two years ago. It’s nice to finally see the book out (probably as nice as me finally getting to the point of the review here), and even better that it’s interesting.

The problem with doing a re-launch/vamp/imagining (whatever phrase you like the most, really) of such an obscure character was pointed out pretty well by Paul O’Brien in that link I provided a couple paragraphs back; you run in to the trouble of it being pointless if you stray too far from the original (like doing the secret origin of Michael Myers), and being redundant if you’re too close (like doing a shot by shot remake of Psycho, for instance).

Lethem toes the line pretty well here. There are definitely echoes of the original series here; beyond using most of the set up, there’s the general, purveying sense of weirdness and ambiguity; we have no idea if Omega is a hallucination or if he’s imagining everyone else (something Lethem makes explicit); the fact that the book is meant to only last ten issues this time leads me to believe there will be an ending this time, which is reassuring, even if I am a fan of “weird for weird’s sake”. Although it’s also sucky that he’s getting something Gerber and Skrenes never did, I guess having a genius grant affords him that much. He throws in just enough of his own ideas, from what looks like a government conspiracy plot, to the completely self serving superhero the Mink, to a doctor who has no analogue from the original series, that you can justify his using the original property on storytelling grounds, if not on any other.

The art from Dalrymple and Hornschemeier (seriously, couldn’t they have at least thrown in a Scott Williams or a Paul Smith, just to give me something easier to type?) adds a lot to the book; I’m pretty confident in saying that it looks like nothing else Marvel is publishing right now, and probably anything they ever have. It’s certainly the only Marvel comic I can think of where the art owes more to R. Crumb than Jack Kirby. Omega and the other fantastic elements in the book seem really out of place; normally, that’s an annoyance in a superhero comic, but it fits in the with the general tone of the book of something not being right here. 

Unlike pretty much every mainstream artist working for Marvel and DC, I can’t readily name any of Dalrymple’s influences, other than a vague resemblance to what I’m familiar with of Crumb’s work. It doesn’t remind me of any of the alt-comics heavy hitters I’m familiar with, other than a slight resemblance to Adrian Tomine’s work, but since I can’t think of why I draw that inference other than some vague inkling, it can’t be that strong. It’s scratchy and shaded enough to fit in with Jeffrey Brown, but doesn’t have his– unique approach to figure drawing. I’ll be nice and leave it there (especially since I’ve only read his titanically funny mini-comic self parody, Be A Man; maybe he doesn’t always draw like that).

That was more of an excuse for me to name drop all of the alt comics guys I’m familiar with (Clowes Ware Burns Spiegelman Thompson purple monkey dishwasher), really, but you can also take it as my saying that Dalrymple’s art is as idiosyncratic as his name, if you choose. Hornschemeier (seriously! Why couldn’t they hire Dave Stewart like everyone else) provides colors that pull of a muted palette without being too muddy, which ain’t easy, from what I’ve seen, and compliment the pencils beautifully. The lettering (I assume Darlymple did it himself, although he isn’t credited) even helps the book stand out from the norm, eschewing the flash and computerized slickness of mainstream comics for something that would be more at home in a self published comic. 

Lethem’s scripting deserves more comment than I originally gave it. Being the latest, and quite possibly the most prestigious, novelist to make his comics debut (I’m pretty sure this is the first comic he’s ever done), it’s interesting to see how he handles the transition from prose to sequential art, especially since prose writers like Brad Meltzer have been hammered in part because they seem to be trying to write novels in every single panel with a caption in it.

He doesn’t appear to be overwriting here, although maybe that’s where Karl Rusnak, who’s credited under Lethem, comes in. There are some narrative captions, which only appear when Omega’s around, interestingly enough (he was mute through the most of the original series, from what I remember). Co-lead Alexander Island does all the talking, which makes sense, as he’s taking on James-Michael Starling’s role in the original series; the super intelligent kid with zero social skills tied to Omega, with two young women watching out for him. He’s a big part of all the mystery, so it’s an interesting idea to keep us out of his head.

This was a good start to a longer story. Despite the murky ethical issues and the long wait, I’d say it was worth it; at the very least, I want to pick up the next issue to see what’s going on. The Howard the Duck revival is a different animal though, and not just because… well, he’s duck.

In one way, I liked this comic a lot more than I expected to. That’s not saying much, because as I mentioned about ten years ago, when I started writing this, I had no idea it existed until one of the guys who runs my LCS waved it in my face and said “You know you want it.”

I’m not sure if he was being sarcastic or actually remembered me telling him about the fact that I’d read the MAX Howard mini, but I decided to prove him right, despite the fact that I’m pretty much of the opinion that no one should be writing Howard but Steve Gerber. This one can’t even have the appeals of Omega behind it; while Gerber didn’t get to give the series an ending, he did do quite a bit with the character, and I thought left him in a decent place at the end of his last run.

That said, short of getting Evan Dorkin (or, if they really wanted to go crazy, Johnny Ryan), Ty Templeton’s probably the best writer for the job, and not just because he wrote a short story featuring the character in a Civil War one shot, of all things. He has a good sense of the absurd, which is key to Howard’s adventures, and captures Howard’s alternating misanthropy and bemusement with us hairless apes and our stupidity (as well as the occasional moments where he shows he’s not such a bad guy under all that cynicism) well. Beverly seems in character, too, or at least much character as Gerber ever gave her. She’s not a bimbo, but she does some things that make it seem like it some times, all while still seeming like the kind of woman Howard would want to spend his time with. Quite why their interspecies/interdimensional pairing has never bothered me finally strikes me as odd; perhaps all of the tolerance I was taught by the liberal education system as a youngin’ paid off. Also, Gerber never really showed them having sex or anything. Not even in the MAX comic. Although they did shower together. Again; I was perfectly okay with that.

So, Templeton hit the right notes here. Juan Bobillo’s expressive art, always a joy on She-Hulk, translates well to a comedy book without a single green female lawyer in sight; this may very well be the comic he was born to draw. The story even worked better for me than it did Burgas’s (who offers his review below me) or everyone’s favorite Scotish racounter/wrestling question answerer, Iain Burnside.

Well, at least I thought I did. The more I think about it, the less impressed I become. Beyond what Templeton and Bobillo (along with inker Marcelo Sosa and colorist Nestor Pereyra) bring to the table, I think a big part of my enjoyment of this book is that I was literally expecting nothing from it. The fact that it read a lot like a Gerber Howard comic impressed the hell out of me.

That’s the problem with it, though; it’s like a Gerber Howard comic, in the same way that Astonishing X-Men is like the Claremont comics Joss Whedon (and I, admittedly) read at an impressionable age; it gets all the surface details right, but lacks the verve of the original comics it’s emulating, and no how much the current creators are able insert their style in to the mix, there’s no escaping that. It’s not a bad comic; it’s got a loopy charm to it, which is worth something when so many other mainstream comics are having to so rigidly tie in to the current company line. But I haven’t really been able to enjoy this book as much as I did when I read it since I stumbled across the cover band analogy. Hell, it made me like Astonishing X-Men less, and I didn’t think anything could do that.

It’s not a bad comic, either as a Howard story or on its own merits. I may even buy the next issue, to see if Templeton can get this thing moving. It’s just disappointing in a way I wouldn’t expect out of a non-Gerber revival of Howard, in that it is not excruciatingly awful. Which is a step in the right direction, I have to say. But, you know, as far as the questionable revivals, both ethically and legally, of Steve Gerber creations go, I’d say the one by the acclaimed novelist was the better read this time out. Maybe Templeton can close the gap next time out. Because it’s totally fair to compare the two books based on the criteria that they were both created by Steve Gerber. Really!

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