Break from the Bat Special: The Omega Men

I appreciate the advice, Viceroy, I do. And I hope you can appreciate that I reject your distinction. That somehow they’re savage and you’re not or we’re not. I’ve been a Lantern for years, served with every race and species. Everyone is savage. Everyone is civilized. We’re all the same. In the end. I’m not afraid of becoming them, Viceroy. I’m proud to say, I already am them.

– Kyle Rayner

The end is here, and as I loved this book from before its first issue, I feel like I should say something about it. I could talk about nine-panel grids and William James, or the best Green Lantern story as an analogue to Earth’s raw, bleeding Middle East. I could talk about the entertainment business and a diamond of a book thrown out with the trash because people can’t see it’s beautiful. Or I could talk about how one time, just once, that diamond got to stick around because its beauty had a louder voice than the sales data.

All of that’s fine—the poetry of unexpected greatness, the triumph of fantasy over reality. But all of that’s been talked about for over a year now. None of it really tells you why you should read this book, and some of it’s misleading to those of you that don’t spend all of your free time trying to tease profound meaning out of pencil lines and word balloons. Sure, there’s a Green Lantern, but this isn’t the ring-slinging adventure most Lantern fans are after when they think of their beloved Corps. And the story of this book’s stayed execution should make any comics fan smile, but it’s meta—it doesn’t tell you why you should read The Omega Men.

An old hope


On its surface, The Omega Men is a lot like the Star Wars saga—a fascinating, science-fiction revolution brought to life with exotic locations, bizarre aliens, and memorable characters. The evil, imperialist Citadel brings a cruel order to the planets of the Vega system, but the rebellious Omega Men rage against their cruelty. Against the odds, they overthrow the Citadel and cast off their bonds with the help of conscripted Lantern Kyle Rayner. You can read the first several installments and stay on that surface, enjoying the vistas and the voices, but before long, things change. Whereas Star Wars—at least the Star Wars that counts—offers characters who won’t let you down, even when you were sure they would, The Omega Men‘s band of rebels disappoints you time and again, a persistent reminder that war rages not in our orderly ideals, but in the mess of reality. Lucas taught us that incorruptible men can conquer oppressive evil; King teaches us that the only way to regain what’s been taken from us is to become unworthy of it—that in the end we cannot really get it back, but only take control of what’s replaced it.

Beautiful disaster


So why should you read The Omega Men? At the risk of oversimplifying, because it’s beautiful. There is beauty in self-discovery, in being made to ask yourself uncomfortable questions whose lack of easy answers forces you to reevaluate how you look at the world. There is beauty in tragedy, and this book thrums with the sorrows of being alive in a harsh world. But there is also beauty in adventure, and for all of its weighty themes and literary significance, The Omega Men is a masterfully-told space adventure glowing with the passion of its team of creators. I have seen no other book before or since that offers such a complete artistic package, with such attention and care.

The series is known, at least in part, for its use of the nine-panel grid, which King employs to amazing effect. Dialogue split over many panels provides natural beats between phrases, moreso than simply dividing the same text up into separate balloons. Merged panels and spreads are used sparingly and deliberately, slamming the brakes on the nine-panel pace and commanding your attention when they do appear. Pages featuring a full nine panels take on an almost animated quality, with subtle emotions surfacing through facial expressions, posture, and gestures. The fourth installment, thanks to guest artist Toby Cypress, introduces a gradual departure from the confines of the grid as the narrative pauses for a look back, memories swirling in front of your eyes as they circle each character’s mind—the past reduced, as it is in real life, to a series of strong impressions rather than a detailed, animated account.

The grid was King’s idea, but artists Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo, Jr. work masterfully within the framework. The directing and pacing of the story are moored in the grid, but Bagenda’s distinctive character aesthetics, breathtaking locations, and creative perspectives—all made alive by Fajardo’s highly-detailed colors—make The Omega Men’s artwork as beautiful as it is functional. Their collaborative process—in which Fajardo applies color to Bagenda’s pencils directly rather than on top of ink—produces finishes more akin to paint than what you see in a typical comic. The pencils are intricate where they need to be, but Bagenda keeps things as spare as he can—most noticeably on faces and lighting effects. Fajardo then introduces the more subtle touches with color variation.

When Cypress takes his turn, the aesthetic shift is jarring. His faces and figures are exaggerated—distorted—and their place in the larger artistic context of the series only makes the distortion more pronounced. It’s confusing, and ugly, and yet absolutely beautiful, like the blue notes in a Coltrane solo. The book needs something different to distinguish this unique chapter from the rest, and Cypress delivers. In the wider scope of the book, I can’t help but marvel at the barbarism so gorgeously depicted in Bagenda’s pages while Kyle’s nobility and childlike trust is here depicted with such ugly beauty by Cypress.


Alpha and Omega

Each issue of The Omega Men started with a striking cover by graphic designer Trevor Hutchison. The team was going for “defaced propaganda posters,” and Hutchison did amazing work with gorgeous fonts and colors, many of his images pregnant with symbolism tying directly into the story. I can’t imagine any other covers on this book. They’re the perfect herald for what waits inside—a solemn promise of which each issue is the fulfillment.

Letterer Pat Brosseau deserves his share of praise, too. His work is free of obvious problems, like tangent lines (thanks to Taylor Esposito for the education) or typos, but his impact goes far deeper than that. His font choices for characters with distinct speech (like Omega Men Tigorr and Doc) fulfill their secondary purpose of setting dialogue apart and tying it to particular speakers, but without sacrificing their primary purpose of legibly conveying narration and conversation. I love what he uses for the credits pages and data overlays, too–it manages to look very sci-fi without being bland or generic. To be honest, my biggest disappointment with the collected Omega Men is that Brosseau was seemingly not involved with the lettering on the paperback. I find the interior fonts far less attractive than what Brosseau uses in the actual story pages, and the trade has new titles on each issue’s credits page, set in a completely different font than (with only superficial similarities to) the credits themselves. There are also quite a few typos in the new text. It’s a shame that the collection’s editors couldn’t bring in, or at least get font specs from, Brosseau.

We love what we want to save. And we want to save what we love.

The Omega Men is a fascinating story, but so is the story that surrounded the series. Like several other titles in the DC You initiative, its cancellation was announced just a few short months after its debut, due to low sales numbers. I—and apparently a lot of others—grieved at the speedy demise of something so special, but then the unfathomable happened: Jim Lee and Dan DiDio rescinded the cancellation, giving the fans (and the creative team) the original twelve issues that were promised. A cynic might say that they were pursuing King for the Batman gig, and that they took the hit and gave him his twelve to help sway him. Whatever their underlying reasons, The Omega Men was allowed to continue in all of its fullness, and it is now collected in the volume before us today.

But you shouldn’t read this book because DC saved it from a premature end; there are lots of books that defy poor sales with equally poor quality. You shouldn’t read it because someone tells you it’s the best Green Lantern story ever; maybe that’s true, but your mileage may vary. You shouldn’t read it because everybody else is doing it; there’s no accounting for taste. No, you should read The Omega Men because it is one of the finest, purest expressions of this art form that you’ll ever see. Read it because it will entertain you and delight you. Read it because it will challenge you. Read it because it will change you. May it please Omega.

SCORE: 10/10