Review: Omega Men: The End Is Here trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Just before I read Tom King's Omega Men: The End Is Here, I spotted a review that said the book didn't live up to its hype. Indeed, given all the great things I'd heard about Omega Men, not the least the outcry that saved this miniseries from cancellation halfway through, I wondered if it could really be that good.

Oh, yes.

Omega Men is a gripping, involved miniseries, starting with its provocative, ripped-from-the-headlines prologue and continuing through to its morally gray end. King brings the puzzle-antics and circular storytelling of Grayson to often pages-upon-pages of nine-panel grids, making for dense chapters that beg re-reading. In the sharp detail Omega Men gives both its heroes and villains -- a category often overlapping -- Omega Men is in some respects the closest a cosmic DC title has come to going toe to toe with Image's Saga. Obviously I haven't yet read DC's upcoming Death of Hawkman yet, but a bar has been set here for space-fairing stories -- really for DC titles in general -- that I fear few are going to be able to meet.

[Review contains spoilers]

King's Omega Men involves itself heavily in the religion of the denizens of the Vega system, but the conflict between the Omega Men and the Citadel goes well beyond religious differences to colonialism and enslavement and genocide. As readers our instincts are to root for the title characters, but King makes this wonderfully troublesome. From the outset, when the Omega Men seemingly carry out the televised murder of White Lantern Kyle Rayner, King drapes the Omega Men in the trappings of today's worst terrorists. Though the Citadel is proven to be most culpable, time and again the Omega Men -- through propagandizing, manipulation, and mass murder -- challenge our definition of what it means to be the good guys. King sets up a dichotomy where empathizing with the Omega Men causes us to put ourselves in the shoes of our worst real-life enemies, and that's both a difficult thing and the mark of good fiction.

Ultimately the readers' sympathies ought not be with the Omega Men nor the Citadel's Viceroy at all, but with Kyle Rayner, kidnapped and to some extent brainwashed (but not murdered) by the Omega Men. It is almost a pity that King included Kyle, in that he allows the reader to be somewhat above the fray by picking a "third side" as the book is wont to say, except that among everything else, Omega Men is also a damn fine Kyle Rayner story. For a book that creates so much of its own mythology, there's no concrete expectation that King should utilize Kyle as more than a handy boilerplate superhero (letting alone that much of the book should turn on a decades-old Superman story). But clearly King chose Kyle for Kyle -- his history including the infamous murder of his girlfriend Alex DeWitt, his tendency to fall for bleeding heart causes, his current relationship with Carol Ferris (King's a little off there but it's OK), even his life as an artist factors in. King even manages to make use of Geoff Johns's various Lantern Corps colors. Just as King has raised the bar on DC's cosmic stories, I don't by any stretch envy the next writer who uses Kyle Rayner and has to depict him as sensitively in the aftermath of this story.

Omega Men's last hanging, bothersome plot thread is that apparently the head of the "Galaxies Committee" in the DC Universe is an unnamed American military figure. King certainly brings home the book's themes of nationalism by setting Kyle's debrief with the US army and not with the Guardians of the Galaxy (whatever their status may be right now), but it's King's one creation that doesn't really jibe with the DCU as we understand it. The best news to be sure in finishing this book is that after Grayson and Omega Men, Tom King is not leaving DC but rather has moved on to arguably DC's highest-profile book, Batman; however, it seems unlikely King will follow this up there, and so for that matter unlikely he'll do so really anywhere.

Again, Omega Men is visually remarkable. Each issue begins and ends with the nine-panel grid, and King and artist Barnaby Bagenda mostly keep the pages aligned to this grid, usually preserving either the horizontal or the vertical even if some of the panels merge. An impressive exception is the fourth issue guest-drawn by Toby Cypress, which purposefully goes against form to underscore an issue spotlighting Kyle. There's a number of pages that repeat backgrounds (Tigorr and Princess Kalista's fight in the third chapter, for instance) where I imagine in digital they might have an effect kind of like Marvel's Infinite Comics or Mark Waid's Thrillbent.

As I sense is likely to become a theme for my now post-Convergence "DC You" reviews, if books like Omega Men didn't make "DC You" a success, I don't know what would have. At twelve issues (and also spanning, story-wise, a year), Omega Men offers an interesting outside perspective on "DC You"; while whatever else was going on with Superman, Batman, and the rest, it was a year that also included the events of Omega Men. Some of these chapters are so solid in and of themselves (the third, with Princess Kalista; the seventh, "on the run"; the tenth, war; and the eleventh, recruitment) that it almost makes me wish I could go back and read the miniseries in single issues. Yes, what you've heard is right. Yes, pick up this book. Yes, here's hoping something like this comes along again, and soon.

[Includes original and variant covers, and extras including sketches; commentary from the creative team, colorist, and cover artists; and a house ad.]
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  1. I loved Omega Men. The 9 panel grid page at the end of issue #2 where Kyle is staring into the mirror gave me chills. He's wearing a uniform with the the Omega Men symbol as he examines his neck wound. He begins the Green Lantern Oath. He can not look himself in the face. His neck starts to bleed and he uses the blood to trace the logo. He realizes blood will be spilled if he joins the Omega Men in the fight. He won't be saving lives, he will be taking them. He continues tracing the symbol in blood. In the final panel with the last line of the oath ringing in his ears, you realize Kyle has turned the Omega (Death) symbol into a Green Lantern ring. It is over his heart next to the gold crucifix around his neck. Even with whatever he will become in the war, he will not forget who he is. He looking directly into the mirror focused. When he realizes this, there is a slight smile and his eyes are softer but also clearer. Kyle is hero, helping the Omega Men will not turn him into a villain.

  2. I just got this in the mail last week, but haven't read it yet. Soon I hope. So excited!

  3. In total agreement here. This was one of the best comics from DC in a long time. I really hope this book becomes a perennial best seller for DC. It really deserves it.

  4. I'm still on the fence about this. I've heard literally nothing bad about this, but after reading King's first Batman arc I'm hesitant about the hype around this affecting my experience.

    1. Not super excited about King's Batman either, but he seems to excel outside the normal super hero tropes. Grayson, Sheriff of Babylon, Vision, Omega Men. Great stuff.

  5. I was really disappointed this was not reprinted as a hardcover. I'm not going to pretend I should expect something as prestigious as an absolute edition down the line, but I hope one day this entire 12-issue run gets some sort of deluxe hardcover treatment.

  6. I think this will become a classic. Now that more people are aware of it, thanks to King's increased profile, they'll be more willing to read it and thus discover what the rest of us have already. This is one of those comics that even though I have each issue I also want the collection. Its brilliance works on so many levels, not the least of which being the best Kyle Rayner and possibly Green Lantern story ever.

    I can understand people becoming hesitant about King's Batman, since it's a marked departure from Scott Snyder's popular take. But King has been presenting Batman as being on the defensive from the start, which is itself a breath of fresh air for a character who is usually depicted as being above any challenge. If that isn't the King who also wrote Omega Men, I don't know anything.

  7. Such a fantastic book, and one that really feels like it had its ending planned out from the start. It's really great that DC let this creative team finish out the series instead of throwing fill-ins to wrap it up.