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Friday, July 18, 2008

Superhero symbolism: "Omega the Unknown" by Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak

I wrote a review of the ten-issue comic series Omega the Unknown, which is the remake of an old and strange superhero story from the 70's. While the original is just plain weird, this one I very strongly relate to. Anyway, I wrote the review for the review site The Factual Opinion. But I was planning on writing about the series here anyway, so I'm just going to go ahead and paste my review here. I highly recommend this brilliant series, for reasons which will become apparent, and recommend you keep a lookout for the collected edition when it is released in September.

Imagine you're walking through a street, when you see a guy in brightly-colored pajamas shooting laser beams out of his hands. Chances are, your first thought will be "What the hell am I looking at?". Once you get past that initial shock, your reaction will depend on how you tend to deal with the unknown. You might admire the guy, and want to learn all you can about him. Or you might pity him, and take him aside for some fashion tips. Or you might just start throwing rocks. You're probably not going to understand him, though.

Imagine you run into a person with Asperger's Syndrome. He is fascinated and proficient with specific fields, but not interested in other people. He takes things more literally than they are intended. He doesn't like being touched or making eye contact with people. His perspective is impressively analytical but oddly detached. Once you realize he's for real, how do you deal with such a person? You might be intrigued, and want to help him succeed in life. You might pity him, and explain what he's doing wrong. Or you might not be so charitable. But in any event, you're not going to relate to him.

Not coincidentally, the miniseries Omega the Unknown tends to evoke roughly the same reactions in unsuspecting readers. Open it up, and you'll find: characters and plot points which don't quite seem to fit together, a disembodied hand running around, narration which takes some effort to follow, objects which attach themselves to people and turn them into mindless drones, a sentient statue, and a distinctive style of sketchy artwork. The first thought is bound to be "What the hell am I reading?". And then it can go anywhere from admiration to loathing. But in any of these reactions, the reader is still a bit lost. Like the superhero or the autist, this story isn't trying very hard to be understood.

The main character is Titus Alexander Island, a fourteen-year-old boy who doesn't relate to people. He is analytical but naïve, and doesn't understand basic social rules. He is surrounded by many characters, and while he doesn't often express an interest in them they all seem to have something to say about him. He has admirers and enemies and helpers and everything in between, all for no more reason than that he exists. But there is only one person nearby who might possibly be like him. And that's the other main character. He is an equally strange, but more experienced man who has long since made up his mind about the world: He'd rather not be part of it. He never talks to anyone, and we don't really know what's going through his head. But it's clear there is some sort of connection between him and Alexander.

In the real world, that connection would be called Asperger's Syndrome. But this is a superhero story, and so we are given science-fiction explanations for the two characters. Why are they out of touch with reality? Why, it's because Alex was raised by robots and the hermit is a mute from another planet! And their destinies are tied together through the superhero order of "Omega". When you stop and think about it, this is not just random surrealism. Omega the Unknown is a metaphor, using the bizarre "anything goes" nature of superhero comics to tell a story which is -from start to finish- all about Asperger's Syndrome.

Everyone has to wake up and deal with reality, so the story starts with both characters literally crashing into our world from their respective bubbles. And the rest of the story is about how the world deals with them, and how they deal with the world. And Titus Alexander Island needs to deal with himself - starting out scared of his destiny, then trying to ignore it, and finally embracing it.

As in any superhero story, the world needs saving. But here the menace is not a cackling super-villain but the more subtle threat of homogeneity. Against these accidental paragons of individuality stands an army of normal people who've been sapped of their free will by nanotechnology. They get infected by all sorts of trendy adherences to pack mentality: jewelry, books about popular theories, fast food. Then they wander around, without any goal in life except eliminating those who are genuinely different. And just as Asperger people might bitterly challenge the general way of things, the superheroes fight the nanotechnology with a literal "grain of salt". (This comic does so love being literal about things.)

Hogging the spotlight more than the nanobots, but amounting to less, is popular superhero The Mink. He stages fights for the media, he makes messes while pretending to know what he's doing, he gets strength from artificial suits, he speaks in marketable catch-phrases. Everything Omega is, he is cynically pretending to be. But when he sees the real thing, he recognizes it instantly and gets scared. Right from the start, he's obsessed with Omega and Alex. He watches them, he studies them, he attacks them, he tries to control them, he prevents them from doing what needs doing. But he's never going to be like them, or be at all adequate next to them. The Mink isn't trying to accomplish anything, but his careless meddling could do real damage.

The narration itself is no less pretentious than the Mink. Not in the sense that what it says is wrong, because it's not; if you think about what's being said, it all makes perfect sense. But it is pretentious in that it adds absolutely no meaning to the story, while sounding as though it does. At first the second-person narration seems to just be an unusual style for an objective perspective, but a few chapters in the narrator is shown to be a character in his own right, called The Overthinker. He serves as the voice of rationalization, and is presented as an object of ridicule. I think he represents the tendency of Asperger people to spend time thinking about their situations as an alternative to actually doing anything.

Then there's the Nowhere Man, a little creature who gives an imaginary world to escape into. There is the politician, who might possibly have done some good for the heroes if he didn't only care about spreading his own ego around.

It is in this messed-up world, with all these destructive personalities and personified inclinations, that the Omegas find themselves. What drives the story is a question: Where the hell can they fit in? On the one hand, there's no one in the real world they can relate to, and it's a constant struggle just to be understood. On the other hand, the superhero group comes with so much baggage: having a name picked out by "experts", having to stand up as an example for their kind and as an inspiration for others like them, being mocked by the public even more than usual. Where in this crazy situation can the characters thrive? Are they ever going to effect real change on the people and society around them, or is that too much to ask for from two people? Will they ever be held up by the world as a shining example to be followed, or will the pretenders and mass herds always reign?

This is a bizarre story, to be sure. Even for superhero stories this is weird. Even by the standards of fantasy, you might think this is particularly detached from the real world.

Well, you'd be surprised. You'd be surprised.



Great insights Mory. I read the issues as they came out, and just this week picked up the HC, which is very nicely designed.

As a fan of the original series (the final issue, in which Omega gets shot to death by the police, blew my 10 year old mind) I find myself hoping that somebody will get around to interviewing Mary Skrenes, Gerber's co-creator on the book.


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