Unlike almost any other form of media, comics force the consumer to take an active role in consumption. You dictate the pace. You can linger over panels, taking in detail after detail or you can run right through, turning each issue into a breakneck blockbuster. You know how characters sound and you think you know how they act. Maybe you have a headcanon for them. Maybe you ship characters. You’re a part of their world. You’re overseeing it. You’re an inactive God.
In the last few years, many creators have started to interrogate that relationship and in 2014 and 2015, readers have really been forced to confront their relationship with the comics they consume. More than almost any other book, Grant Morrison’s magnum opus, The Multiversity, is all about the act of creation and destruction that readers bring to every book they open and close. It’s about the life you give to characters in the books you read and the things they put in your head as a result. The Multiversity, however, is more of a thought exercise than anything else. It’s the meal you chew on all day. Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda’s The Omega Men is the gut punch that makes you throw up your lunch.
Drawing on his background in the CIA working with counter-terror operations, King places readers in an unfamiliar situation from the debut which almost acts as a counterpoint to Star Wars, Green Lantern or Guardians of the Galaxy. In The Omega Men #1, we don’t follow the scrappy rebels fighting an all-knowing empire. We’re with soldiers desperately trying to save lives from a terrorist group who has taken a hostage and plans to kill many more. Your relationship with the protagonist is complicated before they make their first appearance and that’s before you know their trump card, imprisoning upstanding former Green Lantern Kyle Rayner in their hold.
Everything that happens in The Omega Men #1 is intended to make you, the reader, feel ill at ease. Tigorr indiscriminately murders his way through a Citadel hit squad. Scrapps brutally guns down those in her way, sending as much of a message to her enemies as she does to the innocents who meet her gaze. More importantly, however, Bagenda utilizes a traditional nine-panel layout to evoke familiarity that is constantly disrupted by the protagonists. Every panel is meant to make you feel comfortable, safe with the actions of the Citadel right up until the moment Tigorr enters the scene. It’s a turning point in that first issue and it asks an important and defining question of the reader: who do you sympathize with?
See, that question sits squarely at the center of The Omega Men #2 and it acts as something of a thesis statement for the relationship between Primus and Kyle but also about the relationship between the readers and the protagonists. Primus knows what he’s doing. He’s going to try to break the stranglehold the Citadel holds by any means necessary but he’s accustomed to fighting a war by inches and he harbors no illusions about what he and the Omega Men are capable of. He knows he’s not a hero and he’s realistic about what he has to accomplish to take the fight to the oppressors.
King’s treatment of Kyle Rayner is some of the best since the New 52 launched and he uses that understanding to heartbreaking effect as a counterpoint to Primus objectivity. More than any of his fellow Lanterns, Kyle is a dreamer, someone who believes in the impossible and the best that every person is capable of. Making him a powerless hostage and bargaining chip in the Omega Men’s fight is the right way to take away agency from a character in an effective and illuminating way. Kyle wants to save people but, for now, he can’t and he realizes that he’s complicit in whatever Primus and the others do in pursuit of a better world. Kyle’s vastly in a similar position as the reader, powerless to impact what happens but, ultimately, forced to watch the death and destruction unfold around him.
The Omega Men #2 climaxes with a moment of abject despair which serves to crystalize the relationship between Kyle and the reader as both watch helplessly as the Omega Men leave hundreds of people to die. In any other comic, it’s a moment where the superheroes would swoop in, lay their lives on the line to save the unjustly imprisoned. In The Omega Men, it’s a toll in blood Primus more than willingly pays so he can steal a space ship. You watch, unable to act, unable to move and hoping only to hold onto what’s important as those with the most power do the least good.
On the final page of The Omega Men #2 (showcased above), Kyle tries to hold onto the only morality he thinks he can, blending blood from a recent wound onto his captors’ symbol to form a source of comfort he no longer knows if he has earned. It’s a scene that shows the book’s themes in microcosm. How long can you hold on to what you value when you fail to act? Is it enough for the righteous to simply play witness to atrocity? There’s no easy answer in Kyle’s action and readers should be left to ponder the answers for themselves but it’s certainly some of the headiest questions asked by a comic this year. Let’s hope that this is a book that can keep asking these kind of tough questions for a long time to come.