Even though you’ll surely power through The Omega Men‘s 12 issues as quickly as possible, always motivated get to the next page, you’ll never truly be finished with its story. The Omega Men sticks with you far beyond those last lines and that last panel, asking more questions than it answers. It poses “truth, justice, and the American way” as fluid realities that can be manipulated, contorted, and distorted. This DC Comics series constantly asks the reader what the greater good is, where the line is drawn. It’s incredibly rich and detailed, filled with darkness, questions of morality, the dangers of absolute power, and the ramifications of societies built on violence. It’s also a Green Lantern space adventure story with cool characters and rad action, by the way.
Tom King, Barnaby Bagenda, and Romulo Fajardo Jr. took an old cast of Green Lantern comic characters and turned them into a (at times heavy handed) metaphor for the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. That is apparent from the opening pages, which feature a grainy video of The Omega Men executing Kyle Rayner in front of a banner featuring the omega symbol. The thing is, there’s more to this book than that. Yes, it perfectly sets up parallels between the current conflicts around the globe with terrorism and these aliens races battling a tyrannical government. Yes, it makes you sympathize with those whose homes happen to be sitting atop a precious commodity, be it The Omega Men‘s Stellarium or our world’s oil. It does all that, but perhaps more importantly, it asks questions about the meaning of truth, facts, God, and self. It asks these questions and then clearly says, “This is only a comic book. You’ll have to look at yourself for the answers.” I mean that literally. It ends with (spoilers!) Kyle Rayner, not dead, explaining comic books.
Each chapter (or issue, depending on whether you read it monthly or in the collected form) ends with a quote from philosopher William James. These quotes are often deep and not easy deciphered when removed from their original texts. But in the context of The Omega Men, these quotes perfectly reflect the battle of religion and truth that Kyle Rayner is facing. It’s this sort of bookending and dissection that makes The Omega Men DC Comics most layered and nuanced series since Watchmen. That’s not a statement I make lightly, and I’m certainly not saying it just because there are quotes from a famous philosopher peppered throughout the series. No, The Omega Men, like Watchmen, is about questions. When it comes to war, what place does truth and religion have? Are there even good guys and bad guys? The answers are not easy. The Omega Men doesn’t lecture you. It enlightens you and then says, “So, what do we do?”
Kyle Rayner is kidnapped by a group calling themselves The Omega Men. They fake his execution and hold him prisoner while slowly trying to rally him to their cause, which is essentially a fight against a governing body that sees their various races as pesky natives. From there, things get complicated. The Omega Men are not the bad guys, but they are certainly not heroes. Not by a long shot.
Tom King uses Alpha and Omega as two opposing forces: life and death. The beginning and the end, so to speak. They are gods to these alien societies, which view reality in terms of clear-cut rights and wrongs, operating under the “You are either with us or against us” mentality. Kyle Rayner—fittingly, the White Lantern, who has control over the entire emotional spectrum—refuses to see things this way, even as he wears a cross and often invokes our own Earth-based religiosity. He’s at times hypocritical and deeply flawed, because the situation is so complicated. Rayner’s own faith, will, and reality are constantly being challenged, not only by The Omega Men, but by his role as a Lantern and superhero. The story ends with him carrying many scars, both emotional and physical.
The density of the storytelling is owed largely to Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo Jr, the series’ principal artist and colorist. Bagenda often uses a nine-panel grid style, which pays off hugely on the last page of the series. In The Omega Men, the structure of the comic becomes insanely important; the fact that Bagenda never allows them to break out of the panels is key to the story. It’s only once you finish The Omega Men that you realize just how important every little detail was, how Bagenda and Fajardo’s skill plays into every element of Rayner’s experience. The characters are often breaking the unbreakable—religious stones, magic shields, secret holding cells—but they are never able never able to break free from the story and structure that holds them. It’s a cage that confines them all, savage and civilized alike. This is a literal statement about comic books that is made in the pages of this series. That is some bold, yet strangely fitting, stuff to put in a Green Lantern comic.
King, Bargenda, and Fajardo, along with a few fill-ins here and there, use the comic book medium to layer The Omega Men so deeply that it requires multiple readings. It’s a big story that probably only works as a comic book, much like Watchmen. In order for The Omega Men to work as a story it has to be a super hero comic book. More than that, it has to be a Green Lantern story—maybe even a Kyle Rayner story, as he is the character who never really fit in and who so many fans rejected because he was not who they were used to. That’s what The Omega Men is: a story about when the pieces do not all nicely fit they way you want them to.
Now that it’s finished and collected into a single book, it’s clear that this is one of the most important books DC Comics has published in years. Decades, maybe. The Omega Men pushes what a superhero comic can be and embraces the roots of science fiction in asking what it means to hope for a better tomorrow. What are you willing to give up now for that better future? What or who are you willing to sacrifice? How much of yourself will you lose in the process? These are the questions that The Omega Men leaves you with, and the answers won’t come easy. Whether you are a Green Lantern fan, a science fiction fan, or just a fan of expertly crafted literature, The Omega Men is a book you should experience.
Images: DC Comics
Benjamin Bailey writes for the Nerdist and can be found on Twitter talking about Godzilla, comic books, and hardcore music.