Pulp Fictions: Jonathan Lethem's Omega: The Unknown and Nicholas Gurewitch's Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack
Although a hardcover edition of its 10-issue run was published in October, novelist-essayist Jonathan Lethem's audacious remake of Steve Gerber's original late-'70s series "Omega: The Unknown" deserves not to have its mysterious title taken quite so literally.
Lethem bravely puts the love of comics he chronicled in Fortress of Solitude into practice by rewriting the title he says most inspired that semiautobiographical novel. In Gerber's original comic, the titular alien superhero - "a nameless man of somber, impassive visage" - is connected mysteriously to a 12-year-old boy raised by robots. Gerber's deeply flawed series, set in Manhattan's then-sketchy Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, was a nearly impenetrable mish-mash of pompous narrative, incredibly annoying secondary characters, and a gratuitous parade of B-level Marvel supervillains. Gerber and co-writer Mary Skrenes left the series midway through its run before rejoining "Omega" for its two final issues.
Lethem (with co-scripter Karl Rusnak) follows Gerber's lead for about the first ten pages of his revision - up to the unforgettable sequence when the kid, here named Titus Alexander Island, receives a final piece of advice from his mother's severed head in the aftermath of a fatal car crash. Lethem replaces the random villains with the Mink, a Batman-like costumed hero whose highly branded persona embodies Lethem's critique of superhero franchising. Logic and closure are also finally delivered unto Gerber's garbled vision of two alien races battling for world domination in the streets of Manhattan and, via nanobots, the veins of its inhabitants. Lethem's "Omega" isn't above outright parody, either, especially when he introduces the "Overthinker," a satiric, surreal twist on Marvel's dispassionate Watcher.
Farel Dalrymple's illustrations and Paul Hornschemeier's colors are as astringent and innovative as Jim Mooney's original pencils were generically Marvel-ous. And O:TU II goes deliriously meta in chapter seven, when cartoonist-painter Gary Panter steps in to provide cosmically funky art for what's supposed to be an autobiographical issue of "Omega: The Unknown" drawn by the mentally deteriorating title character himself after reading the Mink's own hideously banal and hypercommercial comic.
What Lethem & Co.'s spin on Omega has in common with other revisionist books is a subliminally tacit agreement that superheroes are always psychologically damaged goods. Alex Island's stilted homeschooled syntax earns him an early diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, and Omega is (literally) alienated, affectless, and mute. (Conversely, the protagonist of Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn is a detective with Tourette Syndrome who can't shut up.) Like a director retreating to the silent era, Lethem likewise wraps up Omega elegantly with a chapter containing only eight words of dialogue and images suggesting that superheroes must inevitably be brought down to earth.
The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack
By Nicholas Gurewitch
The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack is about a hundred gag strips longer than Nicholas Gurewitch's 2007 collection, The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories. In addition to the extra-healthy sampling of Gurewitch's college strips and the syndicated work he discontinued in 2008 (most, if not all, of which is archived on his website), the new volume also contains unpublished work deemed by the artist to have been "too wordy," "too sexy," too tasteless, and so on. It's an amazing collection by any standard. Unlike the vast majority of strips in the genre, no two Gurewitch gags are quite alike. What they do share, however, is a bleak and morbid sensibility clothed in childhood nostalgia. You really wouldn't want to go there if it weren't so painfully hilarious.