Friday, December 10, 2010

DOUBLE REVIEW - Omega the Unknown

Steve Gerber is best known for creating Howard the Duck, America's favorite cigar-smoking anthropomorphic mallard (which would later be turned into an atrocious film produced by one George Lucas). But in 1976, he also created a lesser-known but critically acclaimed comic book character called Omega the Unknown, whose eponymous series was cancelled after only 10 issues. Then, in 2007, Brooklyn-based novelist Jonathan Lethem, author of Fortress of Solitude, and a longtime fan of the original Omega series, re-visited the concept, with the help of artist Farel Dalrymple.

Lethem ran with the original high concept of the series, but quickly took the story in his own direction. Gerber was initially angered by Lethem's re-imagining of his creation (at that point, still licensed to Marvel Comics), even going as far as to publicly denounce the series on his blog. The two writers eventually came to an understanding — Lethem persued the series out of an unabashed love for the source material, rather than an attempt by the publisher to retain the original copyright, as Gerber had originally expected. While the story of Omega the Unknown begins similarly under both writers, these are ultimately two very different tales that only share the same initial pitch.


Omega the Unknown follows the story of a young boy — "James-Michael Starling" in the Gerber story, "Titus Alexander Island" in the Lethem version — whose parents are tragically killed in an unfortunate car accident. Also? THEY'RE ROBOTS, as our teen protagonist quickly discovers. Meanwhile, there is a super hero — whom we assume is the titular "Omega," based on his costuming — who battles evil robots somewhere on a distant planet. In both versions of the story, Omega's battle with the robots ends up on Earth, right around the time that our protagonist wakes up from a coma. James Michael/Titus Alexander is remarkably verbose upon regaining consciousness; his syntax and diction are both incredibly formal, and notably evolved well beyond his age. James Michael/Titus Alexander is then attacked by the same evil robots (yes, I know) during his stay at the hospital, whom he destroys with energy blasts that burn the Greek letter Omega into his hands. Meanwhile, his dreams are consumed by the battle between Omega and his evil robot enemies.

James Michael/Titus Alexander is eventually released into the custody of an affectionate hospital employee, and attempts to live a normal life in Manhattan. He attends a public school Uptown, and deals with bullies and other typical high school problems, all of which are exacerbated by what seems to be a high-functioning form of autism. Meanwhile, Omega also attempts to live a normal life in Manhattan, seemingly guarding James Michael/Titus Alexander, despite the impending presence of GERA (Generic Evil Alien Robot Antagonists).


Okay, so Omega the Unknown is a weird story in both forms. There's no denying that. Steve Gerber's version attempts to position itself within the greater Marvel Universe, with Omega battling established Marvel characters such as the Hulk, Nitro, Blockbuster, and Ruby Thursday. Jonathan Lethem, on the other hand, creates a shallow, arrogant, self-important stand-in super hero called The Mink to function as the tertiary antagonist (after the Evil Alien Robots, who are OBVIOUSLY the primary antagonists) (YES, I know).

The initial premise of both stories is undeniably enticing — what is the connection between our protagonist and the mysterious Omega? Throughout the course of both series, the relationship between the characters remains unclear. Steve Gerber realistically portrays James Michael's struggle as an intelligent and gifted (albeit strange and possibly alien) student in the New York Public School System, in a way that no other writer at the time would have dared. Jonathan Lethem honors this tradition in his re-imagining, himself a product of the New York Public School System. The way that James Michael/Titus Alexander deals with bullies and friends in high school is painfully realistic in both versions of the story, and his difficulty understanding human interaction is always endearing — you can't help but root for the poor kid. Meanwhile, Omega's struggle with blending in and functioning in a normal society while simultaneously observing and protecting the protagonist is equally fascinating — in Jonathan Lethem's version, for example, Omega takes a job working in a hot dog truck that parks outside of Titus Alexander's school, and his attempt to operate as a pedestrian while keeping a lookout for Evil Alien Robots is incessantly charming.


Unfortunately, neither version of Omega the Unknown delivers a satisfactory conclusion to its undeniably intriguing premise. Steve Gerber's title was cancelled before he was able to answer all of its looming questions — in his final issue, Omega is killed, while James Michael visits his childhood home and discovers additional robot copies of his robot parents. Comic book writer Steven Grant revisited the story in The Defenders in 1979 and attempted to resolve the relationship between James Michael and Omega the Unknown, but this ending was neither adequate nor in line with Steven Garber's original intentions.

On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem's modern re-imagining of the story did come to a finite and intended conclusion; however, without an understanding of Gerber's initial design, it still falls flat. After building to an epic and explosive climax, Lethem's interpretation of Omega the Unknown crumbles in the final chapter, which is rendered without any dialogue at all. While this may seem like an interesting artistic decision, it fails to provide the reader with an adequate understanding of the story in which s/he has invested; the plot is complete, but the story is not, and the resolution is ultimately disappointing. The reviewer read both stories on Marvel's Digital Comic database, and upon reading the final chapter of Lethem's Omega the Unknown, initially thought that there was an error in the web presentation of the story. The broad thematic strokes are understood, but the prevailing mysteries regarding Omega the Unknown and his relationship to Titus Alexander Island remain unanswered.


Story: 6.5

The story of Omega the Unknown as it is presented in both versions is undeniably fascinating. The struggle of the autistic orphan savant James-Michael/Titus Alexander as he attempts to blend in to his Upper West Side High School after discovering that his "birth" parents are robots is absolutely captivating. Those who would seek out such a graphic novel can easily relate to James Michael's/Titus Alexander's struggle (robots and all! Well, maybe not robots), and will readily empathize with his attempts to fit in. Unfortunately, both Steve Gerber and Jonathan Lethem are capable enough writers to draw a reader in — and then leave him or her hanging without any form of adequate resolution. It's nearly impossible to keep yourself from investing in this tale — but unfortunately, such an expenditure never really pays off.

Style: 7 (Steve Gerber) 9 (Jonathan Lethem)

As with most late 70s/early 80s comic book writers, Steve Gerber teases his story with brilliance and poignance, but the prose suffers from being unnecessarily verbose. At the time, the parallel method of storytelling was revolutionary — the stories of both Omega and James Michael are equally intriguing, and the relevance of their connection is the investment that keeps you reading. Still, Gerber's writing style is fairly standard for the time.

The re-imagining of Omega the Unknown was Jonathan Lethem's first attempt at graphic fiction. Even when his efforts fall flat, however, his ambitions remain admirable. For example, Lethem narrates a good portion of the story from the point of view of a statue in the public park across the street from the apartment in which Titus Alexander takes up residence; even when this narrative device fumbles (in one chapter, the talking fountain head attempts to form a punk rock band, a subplot which, while entertaining, greatly detracts from the main story), Lethem's ardor and creativity still carry the story (until the very end). Furthermore, the use of The Mink as a stand-in for all Marvel Comics superheroes takes the story well beyond standard work-for-hire superhero pulp and positions in its own fantastical and infinitely more fascinating world.

General: 6.5 (Gerber) 8 (Lethem)

While I don't regret having read the original version of Omega the Unknown — as I said, the way in which the story realistically handles teenage life in Upper Manhattan was quite impressive for the times — I couldn't help but feel ultimately unsatisfied with what began as a ravishing narrative concept. While I understand that this was not necessarily Steve Gerber's fault, as the series was forced into cancellation before he had a chance to resolve many of his looming plot points, it still left me with a negative feeling, despite the positivity I felt while actually reading the story. Jonathan Lethem's take proved much more satisfying and entertaining — even though the final chapter was disappointing, Lethem more efficiently illustrated his ability to explore and present the ideas behind the Omega the Unknown concept. Even if the ultimate product leaves the reader desiring more, Lethem's story is almost fantastic enough to forgive its unsatisfactory conclusion. Almost.

Overall: 6.5 (Gerber) 7.85 (Lethem)

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