I started reading The O Men without any expectation for what I’d be reading. This series has existed under my radar, so I had no pre-judgments about its quality. I had a vague thought that the book might be in some way a take-off on the X-Men, or that it have some sort of supernatural elements. Instead, I found that this is a very unique, thoughtful and intelligent take on super-heroes. It has nothing in common with the X-Men but a few small thematic elements, and has little or nothing to do with supernatural demons. The only hells in the comic are personal hells. Artist/writer Martin Eden has created a very different comic book, one that would sit very comfortably next to those slick four-color books that Marvel and DC put out.
The O Men is a black-and-white mini-comic, self-published by Eden. He occasionally releases an issue with a color cover, but the whole operation is strictly a DIY operation, completely driven by Eden’s ambitions and creative vision. He has complete creative freedom to explore the universe that he’s created. This means that The O Men is, by definition, different from any other comic book on the market because it’s completely driven by his vision and his ability to execute on the vision. Some creators, given that sort of freedom, can deliver comics that are self-indulgent and dull. The O Men is anything but dull.
The O Men is a very intense ride through Eden’s universe of super-heroes and super-villains. Violence in this world has intense physical and emotional consequences, and characters, heroes and villains both, die in particularly violent ways. Powerful men and women control the people who work for them, and alliances shift and change in the blink of an eye. Few people can be trusted, which is especially important in a world where trust can be a matter of live or death. Even Adam O, who organizes the heroes of the title, can legitimately be seen as evil; there’s a scene with him and the seemingly-evil Anathema that hints at a greater level of malice than is apparent at first blush.
The only real hint of the comic’s small press roots, aside from the smaller pages and black-and-white covers, is Martin Eden’s artwork. Eden is certainly no Jim Lee; his style seems at first blush to be unprofessional and amateurish. Eden uses very simple line work and very little shading in his panels. The art can politely be called minimalist and was somewhat off-putting for me when I started reading the comic. But the more I read of the book, the more the artwork grew on me. Eden’s simple line work helps to intensify the impact of the comic. Just as the story of the O Men reveals itself to be more and more complex the more one reads of it, so too does the impact of the art increase, the more one sees of it. By the end of the series, I found it hard to imagine the art in this comic looking any other way than it does.
The O Men is a hard comic to review. All the shifting alliances and complexity make it hard to describe specific scenes without ruining any of the key scenes. I want to give readers a taste of the flavor of this comic without giving away a whole lot of spoilers. The intense complexity of this series kind of belies a direct look at it.
Maybe I can take one issue out of context to give you a feel for the book. I should warn you that there are spoilers for this particular issue in this section of my review, but I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the larger storyline. The O Men #24 is an issue set slightly outside the setting of the other issues. The main characters of the series live and operate in Eden’s native England, but this issue features a team of American heroes, the USAviors, seen through the eyes of team member Sugar. The USAviors are an Avengers-type group, featuring America’s best and strongest heroes, dedicated to saving the planet. USAvior member Sugar narrates this issue, giving readers her subjective view of what she and her team are encountering.
When we first meet the team on page one, this issue has the feel of a standard superhero story. As Sugar says, “Things are looking bad. Almost all of the USAviors have been incapacitated by an evil universe devourer. New York is about to be demolished. Millions… and then billions will be wiped out. Well… I did say almost all of the USAviors. He kinda forgot Underdog. Hoo boy, did he forget Underdog.” Underdog, a leather-clad man of mystery, then flies to confront the villain in one panel; in the next, readers see the villains’ giant head on the ground while the heroes walk away from it, satisfied.
With this wonderful first page, Eden has set readers up for what’s about to come. For people who have read a lot of super-hero comic books, such a set-up makes us feel comfortable, like we have a good idea of what’s going to happen in the rest of the book. Instead, he slowly subverts the warm and comfortable feel of that page with what happens further on in the issue.
On pages two and three, Sugar sits and relaxes, enjoying a New York sunset. Fellow member Hootfoot stops by and the two chat about how they couldn’t stop the tragedy of 9/11. A nice quiet interlude, further setting up the story. The next pair of pages present another traditional Avengers scene: new members are inducted into the USAviors. Sugar doesn’t know them and hates them on sight, but one of them, Cassandra, has a frightening vision of what might happen if the team goes to England: “don’t go to england. Whatever you do, don’t go to england. You’ll all DIE.” Again, Eden subverts the normal with a touch of spookiness. Still, as anyone who loves super-heroes might think, this is just another prediction that will be overcome by the great, heroic USAviors.
Page six brings another charming interlude, a kind of parody of the JLA/Avengers crossover, with a full-page panel that’s a direct take from that story. Pages 7 and 8 are a kind of take on Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman: For All Seasons: Sugar returns to visit her parents on the bucolic farm that she grew up on. The scene concludes with a hug and kiss from her mother. What could be warmer or more comfortable than a kiss from one’s mother? At this point, Eden has drawn his readers deep into their comfort zones. Aside from Cassandra’s frightening vision, the story to this point could have come directly from any issue of any random Marvel or DC super-team. In the second half of the story, however, Eden subverts that feeling.
Sugar’s narration helps lead to the feeling that things aren’t as nice as they seem on the surface: “I thought I’d check in on Cassandra in the Infirmary. I don’t think anyone else in the team has bothered. That’s the way it seems to go here. Every man for himself.” The USAviors aren’t a team of heroes. They’re a group of individuals who just happen to work together. While in the infirmary, Sugar notices another teammate, Girl-7, looking in on yet another member, Kamikaze, who has been placed in a straightjacket and is repeating the same phrase over and over again: “Where is she?” It’s a spooky and unnerving scene; what happened to turn this hero into a raving lunatic?
Sugar winds up on monitor duty with one of the new members, Superbman (cute name, huh?), who bores her by telling her his origin for two hours while also hitting on her. Bored and frustrated, Sugar wanders away and wanders down a hallway. She hears a noise, opens a door, and finds Hotfoot in the middle of having sex with teammate Elite. Quickly closing the door and turning around, Sugar comes face to face with Underdog, who spooks her out: “That’s one guy I never want to get teamed up with. I wonder what he looks like beneath the mask? Maybe I don’t want to know. And the smell. The horrible smell. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is…”
In the space of five pages, Eden has subverted what he presented earlier in the issue. Readers are moved from a feeling of warm comfort to a feeling of extreme discomfort. When Sugar overhears Girl-7 talking with Doctor O and volunteering the help of the USAviors to help battle a threat his team faces in England, we know that things will shortly go downhill. How quickly and badly they go downhill is a shock, as the power and evil of the threat they face in England clearly takes everybody off-guard. The team’s weaknesses become their undoing, and the team meets a horrifying fate.
Hopefully, this sketch of one issue gives you a small feel for what the rest of the series is like. The biggest difference between this issue and the rest of the issues I’ve read is that issue 24 has some light-hearted and fun moments. If there’s one complaint I have about The O Men is that Eden delivers an awfully unrelenting dark vision here. At least in the issues I’ve read, there’s very little humor or lightness in these stories. The series is extraordinarily well-written and thoughtful, but it isn’t extraordinarily fun.
The O Men is a grim rollercoaster of events. It’s a comic full of mysteries and personal horrors, of shifting alliances and terrifying secrets. The O Men is a comic where lies lead to unexpected consequences, and truths can be even more dangerous than lies. It’s not a cheerful world, but it’s an extraordinarily well-created world, and wonderfully reflects the vision of its creator, Martin Eden. The only shame of The O Men being a digest-sized black-and-white self-published comic is that it has a limited circulation.
In this summer of Infinite Crisis and House of M, where death is temporary and evil banal, it’s great to be reminded of the true power of comic book heroes. Martin Eden has created a superb comic book that shows the real power of the super-hero concept.
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