Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2176
AUTHOR: Lethem, Jonathan; Rusnak, Karl
ARTIST: Farel Dalrymple (illustrator); Gary Panter (illustrator); Paul Hornschemeier (illustrator)
PUBLISHER: Marvel Comics
FIRST SERIAL PUBLICATION: 2007-2008
FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: 2008
After expressing his childhood appreciation for Steve Gerber’s and Mary Skrenes’s short-lived Omega the Unknown in his 2003 semiautobiographical novel The Fortress of Solitude, novelist Jonathan Lethem was invited by Marvel Comic to write a ten-issue limited series reviving the cult classic in collaboration with illustrator Farel Dalrymple. Lethem then announced that he would be co-writing the series with childhood friend Karl Rusnak.
The announcement of the revival of Omega generated a great deal of interest in the original series, resulting in the publication of Omega: The Unknown Classic, a 2005 trade paperback collecting Gerber and Skrenes’s original run. However, the announcement also upset Gerber, who did not appreciate the character being used without his participation or permission. Later, Gerber and Skrenes met with Lethem and were impressed by his passion for the material. Gerber then retracted his objection, saying that he had “misjudged” Lethem.
The series was originally intended to be published in 2006, but was later postponed until 2007 because Lethem was awarded a 2005 MacArthur genius grant, an honor that put additional demands on the novelist’s time. The first issue of the revamped Omega the Unknown was published in October, 2007, and Marvel released another issue each month until the tenth was published in July, 2008. All ten issues were collected and reprinted in a single volume in 2008.
The series begins with Omega engaged in a battle with malevolent robots. The action shifts to Alexander Island, a teenager who is in a car accident on his way to New York City with his parents. Following the crash and before he loses consciousness, Alex discovers that his parents are actually robots. The Mink, a local superhero investigating the accident, realizes something mysterious is afoot and resolves to keep a close watch on Alex.
Alex awakes in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where his nurse, Edie Fallinger, decides to become his legal guardian. Later that night, robots attack Alex in his hospital bed, and Omega rushes to Alex’s side. However, Alex defeats the robots by shooting energy beams from his hands—a power Omega had previously displayed.
Following the attack, Alex moves to Washington Heights with Edie while a weakened Omega is taken in by Reverend Bell, a storefront preacher, and put to work in a food truck. Meanwhile, Daniel Greenspun, a robotics professor at Columbia University, receives a book about robotics that mysteriously melds itself to his body. The next day, Alex attends the local high school, where he realizes that he is remarkably advanced for his age. This endears him to Amandla, a fellow student.
When the Mink has his hand amputated, he discovers that nanotechnology was used with the intention of turning him into a zombie, part of a larger plan by the robots to infect all of New York. Looking for answers, the Mink captures Omega. However, while he is interrogating him, his disembodied hand escapes from the lab.
Confused about his origins, Alex returns to his former home in Pennsylvania, where he discovers a second copy of his parents and an outfit similar to Omega’s. When Alex returns to New York, he enrolls in Columbia University, where he befriends Fenton, a graduate student. Alex then discovers Professor Greenspun’s laboratory, where an entire robot army is being constructed.
At the Mink’s headquarters, Omega draws a comic strip explaining the origins of “The Omegas,” a group of supermen each tasked with defending a planet from an intergalactic robot menace.
When the Mink is called away to destroy his friend Councilman Fonzie Edgardo, now a deranged half-robotic monster rampaging through the city, Alex, Amandla, and Fenton use the diversion to infiltrate the Mink’s headquarters and free Omega. In the process, they find the body of Earth’s prior Omega, who was accidentally killed a few years before the invasion, leaving Earth defenseless until Alex is fully grown (thus the necessity of sending Omega the Unknown). Alex, Amandla, and Fenton eventually find a weakened Omega and return him to Reverend Bell’s church, where Omega shows the others how to counteract the “nano-bots” with modified salt.
Alex, Fenton, and Amandla return to Columbia and face off against Professor Greenspun and his robot army. While Alex uses his powers to destroy the robots, Fenton and Amandla dose the humans with the antidote. As Alex leaves to defeat the rest of Greenspun’s robot army, the Mink follows Alex. The two encounter the Mink’s errant hand, which has grown to a prodigious size. The Mink sacrifices himself to kill his hand, saving Alex. Fenton then analyzes the salt that Omega made and learns how to create more of it in her lab. Meanwhile, Omega fights his way to the robots’ base of operations, where he grabs Verth the Overthinker, an interdimensional observer who has been narrating the series, and uses him to create an implosion that destroys the robots’ base of operations.
Following the implosion, the salt antidote is distributed to all the food trucks and hot-dog stands in the city. The Mink is laid to rest, and Alex throws away his Omega uniform and begins rebuilding his robot parents. Ominously, however, the robots are seen still making deliveries. The series ends with a broken and shattered Omega (who has somehow survived the implosion) living with the homeless people below the subways, haunted by his adventure.
•Titus Alexander “Alex” Island, a protagonist, is a young, isolated teenager who is orphaned and left in New York City. He soon discovers that he is an Omega, a member of a superhuman group tasked with defending Earth from robotic invaders.
•Omega the Unknown, a protagonist, is a silent superhero from another planet with a mysterious relationship to Alex.
•Rex Kansur, a.k.a. the Mink, is the resident superhero of Washington Heights. He seems more concerned with publicity than heroics, but he is eventually redeemed by sacrificing himself to save the city from his own monstrous disembodied hand.
•Amandla is a classmate of Alex. She initially acts as Alex’s guide as he adjusts to New York City. She becomes Alex’s streetwise sidekick in his mission to save the city from the robot hordes.
•Frances Fenton is a graduate student at Columbia University who helps Alex in his mission to save the city from the robots. At the end of the series, she helps synthesize the salt used to repel the nano-bots.
•Verth the Overthinker is the omniscient narrator of the series. He is depicted as a giant bald head and hands and claims to be made of “Doesn’t Matter.”
•Edie Fallinger is a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital who becomes Alex’s guardian following his “parents’” death. She briefly dates Rex Kansur.
•Alfonso Edgardo, a.k.a. Fonzie, is a city councilman and childhood friend of the Mink, who helps the Mink in his varied public-relations campaigns. He is later infected by nano-bots and is killed by the Mink after being turned into a monstrous cyborg.
•Professor Daniel Greenspun is a robotics professor at Columbia University. He is infected by nano-bots early in the story and tasked with creating a robotic army intended to conquer Earth.
While many of Dalrymple’s figures may seem austere, he demonstrates a great ability to create illustrations that are evocative of New York, blending the realistic city and the surrealist events of the text into a single urban landscape. At times, Dalrymple takes great care with these backgrounds, though they frequently disappear during action sequences in order to emphasize the foregrounded action in the frame. This aesthetic approach is broken twice within the series: once in issue 6 when colorist Paul Hornschemeier creates a Mink comic that imitates the art of the Golden Age and once in issue 7 when Gary Panter creates a strangely primitive, six-page comic said to be drawn by Omega himself.
Reflecting its taciturn hero, the series both begins and ends with completely unnarrated passages in which the art is allowed to tell the entire story. The first issue begins with two textless pages that depict Omega battling villainous robots in the woods. For two more pages, there are narration bubbles, but no dialogue. Not until the fifth page of the first issue is there finally a line of dialogue. Even more shocking, the entire tenth (and final) issue of Omega the Unknown is told without a single line of dialogue or narration.
Dalrymple makes two explicit nods to Jim Mooney’s art in the original Omega the Unknown series, re-creating both the sequence in which the young protagonist witnesses his robot mother’s head melt and the image of a young man lying near death in his hospital bed, two moments that Rusnak and Lethem consider the respective surreal and emotional hearts of the original Omega the Unknown series.
Taking his cues from Gerber and Skrenes’s Omega the Unknown, Lethem’s series seems concerned with the anxieties of adolescence. The silent eponymous hero is twinned by Alex Island, an alienated and orphaned teenager baffled by the onset of superpower—an apt metaphor for puberty and the onset of adulthood.
However, Lethem is not simply rehashing the same story that Gerber and Skrenes wrote; he intended Omega the Unknown to be partially a parody of the superhero comics he grew up reading in the 1970s. While Lethem preserves the central theme of the original Omega the Unknown series, he also includes several elements meant to mock the cosmology and concerns of the era. The most apparent of these is the presence of Verth the Overthinker, an omniscient being of Doesn’t Matter meant to parody Marvel’s dispassionate Uatu the Watcher, a staple of Silver Age and Bronze Age comics.
To Gerber’s original themes, Lethem also adds a strong criticism of consumer culture, particularly of the rise of faceless corporations and their threat to smaller, local businesses. It is surely no coincidence that the evil robots of Lethem’s story spread their plague through a fast-food restaurant and a package delivery company that strongly resembles UPS or FedEx, nor is it coincidental that the chemically altered salt that can be used to counter the effects of the robotic technology is distributed through a local network of food trucks and hot-dog carts. The Mink’s obsession with publicity and his overreliance on his legions of Mink-Men to assist him can be read as Lethem’s disgust with Marvel’s and DC’s constant franchising and commercialization of the superhero genre.
Lethem’s Omega the Unknown is the work of a fan, a loving (though not entirely uncritical) tribute to an age past. For while Lethem’s Omega the Unknown is undeniably influenced by Gerber and Skrenes’s original series, it also owes a great deal to other Marvel Comics of the 1970s. Lethem borrows the set-up of the original Omega the Unknown, but he also populates the comic with both the cosmic elements and social concerns that were hallmarks of the comics he grew up reading. Throughout the series, one can see Lethem walking a fine line between being loyal to Gerber and Skrenes’s creation and providing his own interpretation of the story. While Omega is largely unchanged, Lethem made a conscious effort to recast the teenage lead, changing the character from James-Michael Starling to Titus Alexander Island. Similarly, Lethem chose to keep the gritty New York setting of the original series, though he did relocate the story from Hell’s Kitchen to Washington Heights.
While Lethem does seem to set his comic within the continuity of Marvel’s Earth-616, other Marvel properties are conspicuously absent within the series. Aside from a brief mention of the Avengers, Omega is the only preexisting Marvel character that Lethem chooses to use. In the place of these better-known heroes, Lethem creates his own hero: the Mink. By putting Omega and the Mink side by side, Lethem manages to critique how Modern Age superheroes are marketed while still embracing the nostalgia of the way superheroes once were.
- Dalrymple, Farel. Pop Gun War (2003).
- Gerber, Steve, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney. Omega: The Unknown (1976-1977).
- Gerber, Steve, and Val Mayerik. Howard the Duck (1976-1979).
- Kirby, Jack. New Gods (1971-1972).
- Davis, Ray. “High, Low, and Lethem.” Genre 42, nos. 1-2 (Fall/Winter, 2009): 61-78.
- Lethem, Jonathan. “Identifying with Your Parents.” In The Disappointment Artist. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
- Lethem, Jonathan, and Karl Rusnak. “Into the Unknown: Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak Reflect on the Original Omega.” In Omega the Unknown. New York: Marvel Comics, 2008.
- Rossi, Umberto. “The Difficult Art of the Remake: Jonathan Lethem’s Omega the Unknown.” In Translating America: Importing, Translating, Misrepresenting, Mythicizing, Communicating America—Proceedings of the Twentieth AISNA Biennial Conference Torino, September 24-26, 2009, edited by Marina Camboni, Andrea Carosso, and Sonia di Loreto. Torino, Italy: Otto, 2010.
Omega the UnknownCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes & Superheroes, First Edition Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press