J.G. Keely's Reviews > Omega the Unknown

Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem
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it was ok
bookshelves: comics, reviewed, capes

As a child, Lethem was one of the many who were touched by a strange, singular, prescient comic called 'Omega the Unknown', which prefigured the psychological depth, realism, and genre deconstruction of the early Vertigo titles (my review here). As a successful adult, Lethem desired to return to the source of his inspiration, and to make it his own, which he certainly did, but I'm not entirely enthusiastic about the way he went about it.

Lethem decided to rewrite an iconic piece of cult comic history, but for all that he claims to be a fan of Gerber's, Lethem proved himself surprisingly ignorant of who Gerber was, and of what he represents in the world of comics.

Omega was canceled early because Gerber became involved in a struggle over creator's rights--one of the first such struggles in comics, and one which helped to pave the way for later authors and artists. But as the first to throw himself into the gears of the corporate comics machine, Gerber didn't fare well in his one-man revolution. He went bankrupt and never gained ownership of his creations, and so Omega, a work ahead of its time, was taken from him and the characters killed off summarily by another author.

When Gerber heard that Lethem was to reboot the series, he reacted with anger and disbelief that someone who called themselves a fan of his would conspire with the company that he fought with so long, a company that took away his creations. And now here's a young upstart who has decided to remake it, without so much as a by-your-leave. Gerber and Lethem later spoke, and Gerber softened his critique, realizing that Lethem was ignorant and starry-eyed. Like so many new authors, he was pleased enough with the idea of writing that he never thought to ask pertinent questions.

Perhaps his naivete is a defense of his actions, but I don't see how any author can hope to achieve anything when he is working from a fundamental state of ignorance. Perhaps if Lethem truly meant to honor Gerber, he should have asked him how the story was meant to end, and then work to give it some measure of the closure it deserved.

Instead, he chose to rewrite the story as a faux-indy comic, with the requisite awkward pacing, pop-culture references, and outsider art aesthetic. I must admit this last bit confused me somewhat, as Lethem didn't draw it himself, but chose a full-time artist. The level of art I saw here was reminiscent of the artist-creator, who must do double duty to retain control of his vision, and who we forgive for his primitive, idiomatic style. Yet the art here was less studied and charming than most actual indy comics.

I think accusations of 'hipsterdom' are thrown around too often, and meaninglessly, but I will say that any viable critique of the hipster movement is always based in the observation that some people take on the trappings of a group or idea in an attempt to borrow its allure, but without comprehending it, or achieving the same purpose.

So Lethem's book, even apart from the art, seems deliberately odd, as if aberration were a style, and not a natural inclination. Primitive artists develop an idiomatic style by coming to terms with their faults and limits, not by adopting an artificial limitation, which is what Dalrymple seems to be affecting, since I have seen other works of his which did have a singular, intriguing style. Perhaps this book is just the case of a rushed or incomplete experiment on his part, which wouldn't be much of an achievement, but it's better than aping outsider artists in an attempt to capture their mystique.

The book is reminiscent of many earlier comics--not merely Gerber's Omega--with familiar story, characters, and symbols from which Lethem draws freely. The conceptual exploration, deconstruction, and internal psychic progression of the story all resemble great comics like Shade the Changing Man, The Maxx, Madman, The Tick, or Cerebus, but while Gerber was writing those sorts of stories years before anyone else, Lethem is writing them thirty years after the fact.

I must presume, based on Lethem's ignorance about his favorite comic, its original author, and its meaning in the business, that he is naively reinventing the wheel. He failed to recognize that comics didn't cease evolving after Gerber, sitting and waiting for reinvigoration. The ideas explored in this rewrite have been done before, and much better. They have trickled out through the comics industry, and into other media, and the public consciousness, leaving Lethem rather late to the game.

Even after all that time, all the change in how people look at comics, and the introduction of comics as 'art', Lethem still isn't able to improve upon Gerber's original ideas. His writing doesn't have the power, the subtlety, or the sense of poetry. Gerber's characters were human despite being archetypal, while Lethem's are cliche (and rather dull) despite being absurd subversions.

But then, Gerber was trying to write around the limitations and expectations of comic books, trying to maintain his dark tone and introversion despite being forced to include the Incredible Hulk as a secondary character. This would naturally require him to come up with creative solutions, and carefully consider what he was doing.

Lethem, on the other hand, had no apparent limitations except the most destructive ones: his own. One would expect he'd do more to overcome them, being a Certified Genius, and all (having won the prestigious Macarthur Fellowship), but then, the grant is for potential, not for achievement; and like so many other winners, he has apparently done his utmost too keep that potential at a premium by refusing have it confirmed.

Lethem had little humor, despite numerous attempts (and endless references to the book 'rumblefish'). His giant stone author surrogate was transparent, dull, and convenient, and the issue where he gives the backstory in song was more annoying than it was clever. He renamed the main character 'A. Island' (ha ha) and quickly gave in to the temptation to write a brilliant boy in the same way as he wrote the adults, which Gerber danced around, but remarkably, never stooped to.

This book was redundant, and without charm, and to some degree, the arrogance with which Lethem tackled the project is insulting to comic fans, as if a successful literary writer could expect to simply enter a new medium and, without great deliberation, do it as well as men who spent their lives championing the form. Lethem doesn't do it that well, and doesn't do himself any favors by drawing comparison to earlier explorative writers who helped to redefine the comic book.

Steve Gerber died during the run of this reimagining, and it saddens me to think that he lived just long enough to see his own creative struggles drug out again, flaunting everything he tried to do for creators, all in the name of 'honoring' him. I know this wasn't Lethem's intent, but I don't think willfully self-assured ignorance is much of a defense.

Yet there is an irony to the fact that while Gerber's original run prefigured a new, revolutionary reading of comics that would change the way they would be written and thought of in our culture forever, Lethem has took this unpredictable, unusual book, and made it into a stylized story of unexplored symbols.

My Suggested Readings in Comics
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Reading Progress

August 26, 2010 – Started Reading
August 26, 2010 – Shelved
August 26, 2010 – Shelved as: comics
August 26, 2010 – Shelved as: reviewed
August 26, 2010 – Finished Reading
October 21, 2010 – Shelved as: capes

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Excellent argument, well said without sitting on the fence or stepping on people's toes. Especially upsetting people's rights in this mainstream lair plethora info called the Internet. Unfortunately, Artistic and liberal laws governing the "rights" of artists today should be covered, even if the current main stream artistic legalities are not noted within that court, state or circuit, etc.

Clearly, this is a moral issue and wether you are five years old or fifty-five, the original artist shouldn't have been copied. Art is original. Therefor, if he is making royalty rights or in civil court losing his underwear to bankruptcy, Lethem shouldn't of done it. It goes to state of mind. He got what he deserved, a fellowship and thank you for clarifying this between that and an award. It'll be his cross to bear. Especially if your a writer and have to a. Earn a living. B. contribute to society and especially what the vocation he is committed to doing and improving his game. It's called life.

If he was to join the main stream club of publishing, art, or book or whatever copy write laws and reinvented it under a guise,or a plea he is guilty of plagiarism and should be sued be the estate of the family if the artist is dead. No matter who you are, male or female, their is a decorum and conscience. We all have one, defense doesn't cover wrong behavior, it just eludicates your side legally.
If I was Lethem , I'd do a Clinton sweater time and bow out and take your talent, if he has any, and move to a place where nobody knows his name, and you don't slice your throat take on a different identity. He has children to be an example to. Not confuse liberty with liberalism, make money at all cost even if he runs out of inspiration and a contract he signed with his publisher to meet a deadline. I smell greed, and lack of integrity. He will after that debacle be is a " phantom pariah" in our minds if he continues to publish which he did. I am going to read his "dissident gardens. It'll be my first of his and I may be new to this genre, but he may redeem himself to me. But when I read a book, I always do two things. 1. Look at the photo and studio who shot it.
2. see his personal back ground. He doesn't look at the camera in the eye. If you can't look at someone in the eye and they don't do an Obama, which is look good while you know God is watching, he kinda slumps. After his prolific list of books, I'm surprised he lives in the publishing Capitol of at least the USA.

He needs a mother, not fans.

J.G. Keely Well, the sad state of comics is that the creators and artists don't get to keep the rights to their character, the rights are taken over by the publishing company. That's why Gerber left the comics industry in the first place. In that sense, Lethem isn't doing anything new--it's standard practice for a character to be created by a writer and artist, and then to be given to other writers and artists later. That's how the comics industry works. Any character you create at DC belongs to DC. It's a sad state of affairs, and there are people out there trying to change it, but it's not going to be changing soon.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)


There is a way, he has a bad attorney. I studied law and it's civil court aka " the lazy ass way of paper pushing" and fine print. I understand that this is a tort, but there is what is called a law library. You have to have a case and if it's sitting I the library of congress, it's got a way wether it's written or a Jodi Picoult ( total bitch, personal experience) attempt at wonder women.But, I see your point. Fine print and being young. I believe art and business don't mix. Billy Joel sang his heart out, original stuff, and lost it to a tort. I'm the type where if there is no law with your problem but you know you got ripped off, like they say as they slap the dictionary-of a- law -book at you day one and all lawyers have to start at the beginning, our mother country. England. If it isn't in the usa , we plead a case from their. If it's international, I'd have a field day. It's all in the researching & knowledge to settle this and win your right to be original. If we loose, what we call in law school a drama tactic, we use the press and the "right press". Not dirty , below the belt immature stuff" They do this because art isn't manufactured and in order for the publishers' to cover their rent and make money, they use the fine print to keep the revenue flowing. Accountant as a father, and I said no to business, as a career.

I didn't get to "painter's rights" but if Rachel ashwell sell splattered paint and uses her acumen to look original but cover her British and American rear business wise, then you have something. I just know right is right and wrong is a wrong wether it's in kindergarten or copying quotes from a book in a college essay, our conscience always tells us.
I smell a rat judicially.

His book will be my first. I'll see if he has any talent. I don't like Brooklyn. The histrionics of it are brutal and even their brownstones , which is why I personally wouldn't live in Brooklyn if it was free for life and without the nosey neighbors were quiet, too. Brooklyn writers, are...... Let's just say, I'm beginning to think why? And I have first hand knowledge.

Money isn't peace if your an artist. It may mess with your head and talent. Balance is the key.

Thanks for your kindness in responding, you are what siblings call " brother-comfort". I like your polite introduction of " ...not entirely enthusiastic on how he got there". You don't shame the dead, no matter what you are as a provider.

I' ll leave it at that, and, sir, (I hope your male), thank you for your rapid response, info. and privilege to read a fair, well stated argument without being too strong. I'm not as nice, but I have morals and I like art. This is injustice and greed. Paradox all over the place.

Thanks again for your time and I hope I quoted you correctly. Lisa

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