Joe Kraus's Reviews > Omega the Unknown

Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem
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really liked it
bookshelves: comics-graphic-novels

Jonathan Lethem has made a career of giving “low brow” material literary attention and, conversely, of bringing seemingly disposable pop cultural references into work that’s as excellent as any literature anyone’s writing. He’s like the kid who wears a tuxedo t-shit to the prom (and pulls it off), and he’s also the guy who, wearing a real tuxedo at a literary soiree, accessorizes with tennis shoes. (That’s a metaphor, by the way – he has done neither to my knowledge.) In other words, the line between silly and profound is surprisingly thin for him. It’s hard to know where his ambitious literary output ends and his see-how-this-shit flies experiments begin.

At some level, he may be saying the line doesn’t matter. If a thing is good, let it be good. He speaks glowingly about how the original Omega the Unknown comic book prepared him for life as a committed reader in an interview appended to this comic book. Phillip K. Dick matters as much as F. Scott Fitzgerald in his world (I don’t immediately remember him mentioning Fitzgerald in this context, but he’s representative), and he doesn’t apologize for that. Anything that makes the mundane into art, whether a superhero, a literary theory, or a rollicking good tale, pushes toward the same end: it helps us see the contours of some of the stories that describe, without containing, our otherwise seemingly small lives.

If that makes any sense at all, let it stand as the frame for my reaction to this comic book. And comic book it is, not graphic novel. A sheltered, nerdy high school kid loses his parents in an auto accident (and they turn out to have been robots all along) and then he manifests a connection to a mute superhero from outer space. There’s something about a cabal of robots trying to take over the world. Something about a pretentious well-marketed crime fighter named the Mink. And something about the Mink’s hand being taken over by nanobots, amputated, and growing into an independent menace or crime fighter of its own.

Parts of this are very funny and, if you squint, postmodern in the sense that they acknowledge the narrative structures of which they’re a part. We get reminded, always cleverly, that this is a comic book, that we’ve seen characters like these before and that our authors intend to use our familiarity with the genre as part of their work with the story before us.

Things get incoherent at times, but that’s part of the genre. I think my own confusion came half from not being sufficiently fan-boy, and half from the story’s deliberate playing with narrative. If it weren’t confusing, it seems to say, it would be too accessible, not enough of a vehicle for an adolescent (or an adult clinging to the residue of adolescence) to take for his – it’s almost always his, isn’t it? – own.

So, I admit I’m split on how to feel about that element of the narrative. I love it when we see the renegade hand following its own agenda – that could be worth the price of admission alone. And I love it when we get the backstory of an earlier Omega champion who, overwhelmed by the expectations that he’ll save the earth from interplanetary robots, dies a disappointing quasi-suicidal death. And I certainly like the core story of Alex as he tries to fit into an inner-city high school that regards nerds the way English hunters regard foxes. I just don’t always like the way those stories come, or don’t quite come, together.

My biggest complaint about the story, however, is with the artwork. Dalrymple’s drawings grew on me a bit as I read, but they seemed the wrong style for this work. I understand that others enjoy it, but it feels generally passive to me. The lines are thin and sometimes shaky, and it undermined the boldness of the concept. Given that, and given that Lethem, conscious of the comic form and conscious of the power of silence in a story about a mute superhero, the artwork is crucial. (The final chapter is actually wordless – a beautiful concept that I’d like more if I enjoyed looking at Dalrymple’s work more.) Pictures carry more emotion here than usual, yet it’s often tough to find that emotion. I’m struck that Omega himself is scrawny, but his scale seems off. He’s carrying the weight of several worlds, and he’s doing so without the capacity to speak. I don’t see that struggle on his face. I see only a persistent confusion, a persistent smallness that never quite reveals the grand showdown the larger story implies.

Still, this one is worth a look, enough so that I may be re-reading it in a year or two. Lethem is as significant an artist as we have right now. He may be in tuxedo t-shirt mode here, but any time he shows up to a party, you’re going to want to sidle over to him and hear what he has to say.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 27, 2016 – Finished Reading
September 28, 2016 – Shelved
September 28, 2016 – Shelved as: comics-graphic-novels

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