Deeper Space: How ‘Omega Men’ Stands Apart [Sci-Fi Week]
2015's The Omega Men tells the story of a group of freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on who you’re talking to) in a section of deep space called the Vega System who have taken White Lantern Kyle Rayner as prisoner. This is all part of their big plan to once and for all tear down the oppressive government that controls their star system.
Over the course of 12 issues, the book by writer Tom King, artist Barnaby Bagenda, and colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr, brings hard looks on corruption, how the very things that should be enriching or protecting people can rot from the inside, and the assumption that anyone fighting against an evil is then inherently good themselves.
Now out in trade paperback, the collection also happens to be one of the more fascinating sci-fi graphic novels of the 2010s.
There are several themes in the series that play on elements of our own world, and while organized religion (and how it is corrupted) gets a particular focus in the series, even more prevalent is the larger idea of faith --- faith that people can be saved, faith that betraying your ethics may be worth it, faith that forgiveness is always an option.
For the most part, those in power who hold such ideas are shown as hypocrites, but Tom King has a knack for avoiding framing any of these ideas as inherently right in our main characters, either. After all, no matter how charming or sympathetic our band of misfit freedom fighters are, the rebels are not necessarily the heroes just because the people they’re trying to take down coldly slaughter their own civilians.
A crucial element to what makes the book special is how not DC it feels. It reads more like an Image series than anything else. As a sci-fi story, it brings quiet, contemplative moments set against scenes of violence with consistent motifs of prayer and mantra woven through the dialogue. It was allowed to be unlike anything else DC Comics has put out recently.
And there’s also the matter of how little recognizable DC stuff is in this series. When I say the book is set in deep space, I mean deep enough that it’s out of the Lantern Corp’s jurisdiction... and those jerks are pretty much everywhere.
This story doesn't rely on ideas and images familiar to most superhero comic readers. Save for a few nods (for instance, references to Krypton’s destruction, and a subtle nod to King’s Grayson run), The Omega Men barely overlaps with any of DC’s other books. In a comics culture obsessed with continuity and crossover, that’s kind of incredible. A common fear for those jumping into DC or Marvel stories is of not being able to catch up. There’s an accessibility to a book like this, especially for those who are already fans of sci-fi comics, but not particularly pulled towards the Big Two.
For all of King’s big ideas about war and ethics and governing, the art is what takes those ideas and gives them nuance. Not enough can be said for line artist Barnaby Bagenda and his knack for capturing moments on panel. There are maybe a handful of panels in the whole run that I thought didn’t work, but that’s it. Like a cinematographer with film, finding those beats in a comic that create elegant flow and drive home the moments that matter is an art unto itself.
The nine panel page is a feature of this book (one of the more brilliant moments of the last issue actually addresses the layout, completely changing how I viewed the pages that came before it) and Bagenda knows how to make the most out of every single panel in those sequences. This is also a book that lives and dies on its lettering; Pat Brosseau ensures the dialogue never overpowers the visuals and the transitions never feel clunky.
For their part, guest artists Toby Cypress, IG Guara, and José Marzan Jr. bring their own style to their issues while keeping the tone cohesive. The color work from Romulo Fajardo Jr. and guest colorists Tomeu Morey and Hi-Fi plays with tans, oranges, blues, and greens throughout the entire book.
While there’s something interesting to reading the series digitally (the guided view on Comixology makes the nine panel pages almost film-like), I cannot recommend The Omega Men’s collected trade enough. Thanks to the entire series being put into one volume, there’s a real sense of completion. You’re getting one full story from beginning to end. Like Watchmen’s transformation in pop culture over the years, I could easily see building in appreciation now that it exists as one single epic graphic novel, rather than a collection of single issues.
If you enjoy sci-fi comics with a lean towards sociopolitical themes, The Omega Men is absolutely worth your time. You don't need to be a superhero fan to find your way in.