We’re six issues in on this series, and it still is defiantly avoiding the opportunity to stick to any sort of conventional storyline. It’s freaking awesome.
I’m loving the fact that it’s still almost impossible to get any idea what’s going to happen in this comic. This issue begins with the burial of fourteen-year-old Hugh Gold, who had been brutally slain by a gang of thugs at his high school in the previous issue. In most comics, grief and remorse might have been the order of the day in this issue. In most comics, readers might have seen characters gnashing their teeth, tearing their hair out, and railing about the injustices of the world. Instead, we see characters merely mumble to each other, “The look on their faces… so sad.” “Such untruths are awkward for me,” Alexander, our lead character replies, interesting without even any closing punctuation in his word balloon.
There’s so much going on in this comic that it almost defies any analysis. Is Alexander’s robotic indifference to the rest of the human race symbolic simply of his aspirations? Is it a sign that he’s just too smart or even mentally ill to engage with others? At times it seems Alexander is experiencing life as you or I might experience the events in a comic book. Is writer Jonathan Lethem making a sly comment about how comic fans experience the characters they read about? Should we see Alexander as a proxy for our fannish selves? Can we even see this as a reaction to the operatic emotionalism of a comic like Civil War?
If that is so, then is the surreal plot an attempt to subvert conventional narrative? It’s clear that the vaguely pathetic hero the Mink is in large part an attempt to present a deliberately hokey Marvel-style hero in a way that presents the character as he is “between the panels.” The Mink gets his great, grandiose moment on page three of the comic, screaming “someone will pay for this” at the rainy sky as he waves his hook at the heavens in anger. Of course, one lost hand is nothing compared to the real tragedy of the death of a child. But in a Marvel comic, the positions have to be reversed. The hero must be always greater and grander than any mere mortals. Rain must always fall on his head during tragedies. Photographers and police must follow him around, because he is a great man, at least in the same way that someone like Donald Trump is a great man.
So what does Lethem do soon after the Mink is done railing against the injustice of it all? We see the hand, arisen like a latter-day messiah, now grown bigger than a person’s head. And, in fact, the hand is indeed treated like a messiah, or at least a celebrity, which is darn close. A crowd gathers around the hand inside an empty building. Hundreds of people seem to be present as the hand, standing on two generic legs from one of the Mink’s henchmen, stands in front of the crowd, the moment pregnant with tension. The hand is a leader, a legend, a thing that has captured the attention of people everywhere.
Even the moments that seem to be normal have an odd feel to them. Alexander has managed to escape his high school hell and has started college early. He’s off to Columbia University, where a wide variety of unusual people seem to be affiliated. Dean of Students Quiller seems like an ordinary college dean, but his assistant, Fenton, has the strangest sort of banal but bizarre look about her. You can imagine her in real life being the sort of woman who stares at her shoes all day long and who spends all night blogging about some sort of bizarre pseudo-intellectual subject like, umm, funny books, perhaps. With her comments about “always being there” [at the Dean’s office], even more odd thoughts are generated. Is Alexander dreaming Fenton? She’s kind of an uber-geek, the sort of girl who might be imagined by a real hyper-intelligent child. Is she a figment of Alexander’s imagination or a real flesh-and-blood person? And what should readers make of the strange robotics lab that Alexander and Fenton visit together? The lab is amazingly depersonalized and depressing, a real analogue to a kind of mindless drone life that so many people will experience after college. Is Alexander imagining his future, or should readers see the lab as real in some way? This is, after all, a Marvel comic, so should the sinister vibe of the place be seen as symbolic of the fact that many comic readers postpone their youth in an attempt to live in a fantasy world?
None of this would work without the adept artwork by Dalrymple and Hornscheimer. Their gloriously primal art is full of ugly people and ugly moments. It provides such a stark contrast to the work in most Marvel books. The work has a very primal and hand-created edge to it. Even the panel borders are hand-done without the use of a straight-edge, which gives the book a very hand-crafted feel.
Omega The Unknown is a comic that almost defies analysis as a single comic. There’s so much going on in this issue, so much that may or may not have resonance when the book is collected in TPB form, that the payoff to most scenes won’t really be apparent until we get a chance to see the flow from issue to issue. Omega The Unknown is a dense, surreal and intense comic that will definitely reward multiple readings.