In this podcast excerpt with National Humanities Center Director Robert D. Newman, award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem discusses how he came to understand of the power of fiction in our lives through the short-lived Marvel comic book series Omega The Unknown. Lethem describes how the unconventional storytelling in this comic book, focusing on the ways that superheroes shape the imaginations of young readers, continues to inform his own approach to fiction.


Robert D. Newman: Can you give us an example of a Humanities Moment for you, where you became a vessel for the tradition of the humanities somehow, that it flows through you and enables you to create something new and wonderful?

Jonathan Lethem: Well, I’m going to pick something that may seem a little odd in this context, because it’s normally regarded as a sort of disposable item, but there was a comic book when I was a kid that I was obsessed with called Omega the Unknown. And it was a very strange and awkward comic book, in some ways it was unfinished. It only lasted for ten issues, and it started to map out a really marvelous, ambitious story, but it ground to a halt almost as if it didn’t know how to continue.

Of course, it was also a commercial flop. And at this time, there were very few people working seriously with the iconography of superheroes to make anything that anyone regarded as particularly worth preserving or talking about. They were sort of dime-store items. And ten, fifteen, twenty years later, you had creators like Alan Moore come along or Art Spiegelman, really remarkable creators, Lynda Barry and Dan Clowes, who renewed the sense—or in some ways opened up for many people for the first time—the sense that actually graphic literature could be literature, that it was of lasting value, and that the form had innate properties that were not only interesting, but they conveyed a unique power, and in the right hands they could become true art.

And I guess I was primed, I was predisposed to respond to this assertion. And so I was very welcoming, I was very excited at the way that book stores and librarians and critics began to embrace the power of this form. And so, then, in a kind of wonderful—I won’t call it ironic, I guess I will just say, kind of sweet full circle opportunity—Marvel Comics came to me and asked me to write something for them. The people working in the traditional comic book industry had read Michael Chabon’s novel, and they read my novel, and realized, well, novelists are kind of warming up to us, what if we try to bring them in, into the fold? And so I was asked which character out of all of Marvel’s would I like to write, and I think they might have been expecting me to latch on to Spiderman or some other totem in the culture, some other major figure, but I said, “Well, what about Omega the Unknown?” And I got to go back and sort of reconstruct this lost character who had been more or less forgotten, even by the tradition that had given rise to him.

And so I wrote a limited series that was bound and published in hard cover as a kind of graphic novel about Omega the Unknown, who had spoken to me and stirred me in this way that was sort of ahead of its time, because I felt that what those issues had suggested to me was the kind of artistic possibility that I’d seen fulfilled in these later examples, and so I tried to bring Omega and his awkward little story into a kind of fulfillment in turn.

– Jonathan Lethem (Novelist)