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BOOK REVIEW

The last action hero

November 16, 2008|David L. Ulin

It's fitting that "Omega: The Unknown" (Marvel: unpaged, $29.99), Jonathan Lethem's first foray into comics, should come with a blurb from Michael Chabon. Chabon, after all, is the only other literary novelist I can think of who has made the jump to writing superhero comics -- with "The Escapist," which grew out of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Unlike "The Escapist," "Omega" isn't an original creation; it's based on a little-known Marvel series from the 1970s. (It lasted just 10 issues.) For Lethem, though, "Omega" was influential, helping to inspire his 2003 novel, "The Fortress of Solitude." He's a fan, in other words, as is his collaborator Karl Rusnak, and that's a defining factor in their "Omega," which also ran for 10 issues, in 2007 and 2008. Gathered for the first time in one volume, it is a strange and wonderful hybrid: a superhero comic that reads with all the ambiguity of fiction, set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood and -- like "The Fortress of Solitude" -- merging the fantastic with the most mundane aspects of teenage urban life.

The story has too many strands to summarize, including infectious robots, school bullies, a sentient statue, a fake superhero called the Mink and a race of ubermen (the Omegas) sent to protect truth, justice and the American way. That, however, is what makes it so much fun.

Indeed, Lethem and Rusnak continually push the boundaries, blending the sensibilities of comics and literature while remaining true to the dynamics of the superhero form. This is, perhaps, to be expected, given Lethem's own mix of pop culture credibility and literary pedigree. But what ultimately sets "Omega: The Unknown" apart is how quickly we forget about who wrote it and lose ourselves in its flow.

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-- David L. Ulin

david.ulin@latimes.com

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