This Year’s Finest 2015: The Omega Men Awaken

Many reason are given why we should not pray. Others give reasons why we should pray. Very little is said to the reason we do pray. The reason is simple, we pray because we can’t help praying- William James

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Over Labor Day, I got the news of an acquaintance first child being born. His first & middle name; William James. I made the inquiry if he was named after the famous philosopher/psychologist. In a room full of people, including a middle aged women that’s been watching Jeopardy everyday for more years then I’ve been alive and a recent graduate of a doctorate in psychology, I was the only person who knew who William James was. I only knew who William James was for one reason, Tom King & Barnaby Begenda’s Omega Men, the smartest and most creative new series in comics. 

Freedom is only necessity understood-William James

Writer Tom King got his start on DC Comics surprisingly brilliant Grayson co-writing with veteran cartoonist Tim Seely that re-imagined the OG Robin as a secret agent for Spyral. Even though King was co-writing, you could clearly see his influence on the series in story structure and plotting that was not only unlike anything Seely had done prior, but moreover was like nothing else in comics. Issues like the infamous Futures End tie-in would have stories that could be read in reverse, they’d feature surprising plot twists hiding in plain sight and occasionally,  it would unfold and explore extremely profound philosophical concepts with a degree of subtlety and sophistication. When King was announced as the writer on DC Comics Omega Men series with artist Barnaby Begenda, it seemed like a weird choice. Grayson would go to some weird places but cosmic was a whole other ballgame. King had worked for a clandestine secret agent organization and even though the connection between that personal history and Grayson is probably a bit overstated, yet Grayson’s concept and setting felt pretty far from the space opera that was hinted towards in Omega Men. Meanwhile, artist Barnaby Begenda was a almost completely unknown quantity, a cartoonist from Indonesia that had only done comics work for a European company called AI and some Evil Dead books. Moreover, The Omega Men themselves  are one of the more obscure properties from a comic book publisher full of obscure properties, having been a spin off from Green Lantern for a 38 issue of comics in the 1980’s followed by four separate appearances in DC miniseries. This was a comic book property that had only appeared in eight series in total with only one of those series being their own within a twenty two year period being reintroduced by a writer with one ongoing co-writing credit and an artist making his debut in American comics. By all accounts, Omega Men looked like a long shot. Then DC released an eight page preview for the series and all doubts were laid to rest by completely defying expectations.

Were all ready to be savages in some cause. The difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause-William James

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The Omega Men preview was eight pages of nine panel grids made to look like a home video recorded by the Omega Men slitting the throat of Kyle Rainer. It was brutally visceral and immediate yet filled with suspense and tension as who appeared to be the Omega Men’s leader at the time, Primus, speaks directly into the camera exasperated with the treatment of his people by “The Citadel” the tyrannical governing body that oversee’s their galaxy. At times, Primus appears to be rambling, at times he sounds lucid and throughout he is clearly upset and exasperated. It’s was a brilliant way to introduce the series, it’s actors and aesthetic while still creating an incredibly effective reading experience. It’s still one of my favorite single issues of the year and was a perfect use of the limitations in pages that the preview format provided. Most of the DCYOU previews were good at doing exactly what they were supposed to do, they gave readers a rough idea of who the character’s were and what the story would be about. Omega Men did more then that, it created a fully functional story that jumped the reader right into the action while building a mystery. The rest of DCYOU was trying to introduce readers to it’s new books, Omega Men was already utilizing the medium of comics in a way that was singular and brilliant.

If this life be not a real fight in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success it is no better than a game of private theatrics from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight–as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our identities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem-William James

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While Omega Men hasn’t quite matched the sheer rush of it’s preview once it got to the series, it ended up doing more than that by creating a complex political space opera. Writer Tom King has said that Omega Men is based slightly off the British Empire and the use of William James quotes at the conclusion of each issue points towards some semblance of a wider concept, but trying to pinpoint any overarching allegory of the series is a fools errand as it seamlessly blends themes of geo-politics, philosophy, sociology, colonization, war & religion. Omega Men isn’t about any one of these things individually and it doesn’t announce these themes but instead, naturally weaves them all together as a part of the larger narrative. Omega Men is about how politics, philosophy, religion & war are all interconnected as a central tenant to the experience of personhood and society, showing the result of having all of those things become corrupted and agents of violence. The violent reaction of the Omega Men is a natural byproduct of that violence that agents of power used in corrupting signifiers of humanity for their own end. But maybe the brilliance of Omega Men comes from how nothing is implicitly stated, it’s all subtle.  Omega Men’s themes are interwoven seamlessly into the overall narrative. When Omega Men specifically approaches these themes, such as the corruption of religion in issue #5, it’s entirely within the context of the story and characters and makes for an issue that is as touching and emotionally effecting as it is poignant. King & Begenda aren’t stating their truth, they are trying to discover it with the reader within the context of the books narrative.

When a religion becomes orthodoxy, it’s days of inwardness are over; the spring is dry. The faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets their turn-William James

From Omega Men #3 by Barnaby Bagenda

That subtle brilliance extends to it’s use of structure and visual narrative. King & Begenda utilize the traditional nine panel grid style to zone in on  key details and manage the stories pacing. Sometimes, a nine panel page will focus exclusively on one character talking to themselves, in conversation or practicing what they are going to say someone else, other times it will use each panel to show a continuous action sequence while in others, it will be utilized for time lapsed narration by contrasting past incidents with current events in the story.  King & Bengenda utilize the format for maximum efficiency and are able to mine more story and themes out of one single issue then many series often do in an entire arc. That also helps in making each instance of them going away from the nine panel grid feel that much more expansive and epic. It gives power to the usage of larger panels and full page spreads at a time in the medium where they feel common place and it helps make every single issue of Omega Men a dense entertainment experience, worthy of multiple readings.

The “Sentimentalist Fallacy” is to shed tears over abstract justice and generosity, beauty ect. and never to know those qualities when you meet them in the street because the circumstances make them vulgar-William James

From The Omega Men #1 by Barnaby Bagenda

In those ways, Omega Men is highly complex but like everything else with the series, the complexity is never in your face. The more you engage as a reader in the book, the better it becomes. That’s why when Omega Men was initially cancelled, the fan reaction was so strong that it caused DC to bring it back in spite of underwhelming direct market sales. In a lot of ways, Omega Men is a tough buy in for consumers; it deals with highly complex themes, it’s unique in it’s design and structure, it never announces any of that and it’s using obscure characters. But the strength of the fan reactions also tells a different story about how much  readers have invested in Omega Men and that’s because it gave those readers so much to latch on to. Omega Men isn’t the type of book where you buy it for your favorite character and it’s not the type of book that you sit around and play armchair PHD in picking apart it’s symbolism. It’s a comic you immerse yourself in; it’s an experience unlike any other.

Compared to what we might be, we are half awake-William James

The Omega Men is comics past half awake.

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