Death has symbolism. Sometimes how you die can be just as important, if not moreso, than how you live. The last issue of The Omega Men cements the DC Comics series as one of the best superhero books ever, with a finale that has me wondering if it was meant to be an improvised explosive device all along.
You may think me crass for invoking the idea of an IED when talking about an American-made escapist entertainment but know that, straight up, The Omega Men was a series about the intractability of the Middle Eastern political quagmire. I scoffed when the book was announced more than a year ago. "Pfft, DC's trying to get some of that Guardian of the Galaxy heat," I mused, casting about for an explanation as to why a C-list space team was being resurrected. But that cynical line of thinking went away as soon as I read the first previews. There were no quips or mixtapes here, just the thirsty serrated edge of a moral dilemma.
Series writer Tom King grew a perfect little shard growing off the fractal crystal of the DCU. Omega Men invoked the company's publishing history in a masterful way, using the tragedy of Krypton's premature death as the spark for rabid precious resource lust. Ruled by the evil Citadel (also called Alphas) via a religiously fuelled form of political oppression, the Vega system is a stand-in for the Middle East. The oft-repeated phrase is supposed to echo the Arabic phrase "inshallah", which loosely translates to "God willing."
King took a member of a well-loved paramilitary superhero concept and placed him a situation where no amount of might, willpower or conviction could win the day. The fact that it was Kyle Rayner — the Green Lantern who never fit in, who fans hated because he wasn't square-jawed Hal Jordan, who mastered all of the cosmos' emotional spectrum — made it even better. He was a listener, a healer whose superheroism always led with compassion. But he couldn't triumph over a grim political reality that mirrors the real world.
The Omega Men ends the only way it could: with the lead characters' war against the Citadel having burned up the very ideals they were fighting for.
Kyle Rayner pleads with his erstwhile teammates to spare the Viceroy's life, preaching forgiveness in an example of the "don't sink to the bad guy's level" monologue so often seen in superhero fiction.
When Tigorr, the most animalistic and bloodthirsty of the crew, backs off from a killing blow, it seems like Kyle's entreaties have worked.
...until Princess Kalista kills the man who led the Citadel. After the shock fades, readers can still say that they feel OK with that. This was a bad man who did horrific things. He deserved to die.
After Kalista kills the Viceroy, it seemed like Kyle might at least have saved the souls of his other teammates, but even that is shown to be fleeting. The American military attache debriefing Kyle after his return to Earth runs down intel on the other Omegas and, to a one, they're all at the worst end of the moral political spectrum.
King's artistic partners — Barnaby Bagenda, Jose Marzan Jr, Romulo Fajardo Jr and others — brought the melodrama to life with expressive linework and precise design rigidity that nailed down the themes of the series. There's real weariness in these panels, as in the region the Vega system is modelled on. You can't call The Omega Men #12 a farewell issue because no one in it will fare well. It's the denouement of a mainstream comic that simultaneously indicts the easy Manicheism that the superhero genre leans on, while simultaneously recognising its value.
As a whole, the series is the kind of thing that, like video game 1979 Revolution, you could hand someone as an introduction to the legacies of colonialism and adventurism in the Middle East. There is no separation, Kyle says during the metatextual sequence end of the story. No separation between entertainment and politics. No separation between us and them. The average Westerner can look at the acts wrought by terrorists around the world through the distance of a computer or TV screen and think they are savages.
Yes, it's good to believe in the idea that we're better than our enemies. But sometimes that idea isn't enough. We are not always better. We are not exceptional. We can be in the same damnable place as those we despise, protected only by impeccable cultural blinders.
Usually, when a well-executed series like this goes away, part of me longs for more. Not this time. Its themes and ambitions feel fully realised. I don't even know if I could handle more, especially if it was mishandled in some sort of bastardised follow-up. This was a series about a superhero who loses faith. Most impressively, King doesn't have Kyle win it back in a comforting moment of triumph. Kyle leaves his crucifix and Omega Lantern symbol behind. The beliefs that brought him here are broken. Yet the problems of Vega are the problems of Earth. Where does he go next? Where do any of us go?