NEW YORK – Author Jonathan Lethem was a big fan of the comic "Omega the Unknown" when he was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, and he was pretty depressed when the superhero vanished from corner store shelves.
Never fear. He'll see Omega in print again soon, because Marvel Entertainment is reviving the comic after 30 years — with Lethem writing the story.
"I was very devoted as a teenager to comic books," said Lethem, who recently finished a tour for his new novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet."
"I drifted to other kinds of reading, but I never lost interest in the medium."
Lethem joins a growing list of novelists such as Stephen King and Michael Chabon, who have shifted to work on comic books as the medium gains critical and academic respect and becomes more mainstream.
Marvel contacted Lethem after his book "Fortress of Solitude," which had some comic-book reverence, and asked if he was interested in doing work in the medium, said Marvel publisher Dan Buckley.
"We wanted to see what he was interested in, and he brought it up immediately," Buckley said. "Bringing this kind of talent to the room is fantastic. He knows how to tell a story, and his perspective is different from traditional comic writers."
Omega's not your average swashbuckling superhero. He's mute, for starters, and has a sort of psychic connection with a 12-year-old boy named James-Michael Starling, who moved to New York City with his family from "the mountains" to improve socialization skills after years of home-schooling. Trouble ensues, of course, and he meets Omega, the last surviving member of an unnamed alien race.
"It was an interesting challenge," Lethem said. "One of the things I concluded very quickly was that it's not a written form. My primary task was to provide amazing things for artists to draw."
The first six issues are in the can, and the series will have a total of 10, like the original, which debuted in 1976. No official release date has been given.
Suspense writer Greg Rucka works on several series for DC Comics, including "Batman," "Superman" and "Gotham Central." He also did a limited series called "52," about a year when Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman temporarily suspended their crusades, and a new superhero called Supernova takes over to save the world. Best-selling author Brad Meltzer worked on the "Justice League of America," for DC, and excerpts of his 2006 novel, "The Book of Fate," were included in the first issue.
Meltzer and his publishers also put excerpts of "Justice League" into the paperback edition of "Book of Fate," the first time a comic book has appeared in a novel, he says.
He believes the medium shouldn't matter, as long as the story is good.
"There has just been so much snobbery that has existed with comic books," he said. "We've got to prove that these things are equal."
Best-selling writer of "Nineteen Minutes," Jodi Picoult is the current author of the legendary Wonder Woman series at DC. She is only the second woman to ever write the series in its more than 60-year-old history. The biggest challenge for Picoult was tethering the character's lengthy past with contemporary issues and her own writing style.
"You don't want to go down in history as the one who ruined Wonder Woman," she said. "She comes with a history, and a very loyal fan base that doesn't want to see you mess around."
Other authors turned their creations into comic-book heroes.
Chabon, who wrote about cartoonists in his Pulitzer-prize winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay," chose to turn the novel's cartoon "The Escapist" into a a real graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics. His editor, Diana Schutz, helped him modify his thinking from chapters and sentences to panels. Schutz, a longtime editor, also works with authors Glen David Gold and Chris Offutt.
She said there are tremendous differences in the mediums, and writers often aren't used to thinking about the presentation of a story or the physical representation of their characters. But it can be taught.
"A good writer is a good writer," she said. "It really is just a matter of coming to grips with the different form, the different structure of the medium. Some novelists don't make a successful transition into writing screenplays, that doesn't mean they're not good. It means they can't think pictures very well. And comics are basically still movies."
Similarly, King chose to work with Marvel to develop his "Dark Tower" book series, instead of making it into a film or TV miniseries. The story is part Western, part fantasy and part adventure, and the comic centers on the story of Roland Deschain, a man who lives in a futuristic kind of world, and his quest to find the "Man in Black" and later on, the dark tower.
So far, the title has seen significant commercial success. More than 200,000 copies of the first issue, out in early March, were sold, by far the best-selling non-superhero comic in more than a decade. King hopes comic readers will find an exciting new story in the "Dark Tower."
"I'm a big fan of the medium," King said of comic books. "A different way to tell stories is always exciting. It's like being a kid with a chemistry set."
And comic book publishers are fans of authors with a loyal audience.
"The fan base helps grow the market," Buckley said. "It's an important initiative, bringing the best talent you can to the table and also seeing what new readers you can attract."
Marvel executive editor Axel Alonso said he loves working with novelists.
"They're a known quantity to me," said Alonso, who worked with Lethem on "Omega."
"I've read their books, I get a sense of what their dialogue is," he said. "I come to them for their voice. I'm not looking to duplicate comic books they read as a kid or on the racks. I want their unique style to come through."
And Buckley says there's plenty of space in the comic books to go around, so regular comic book writers and writer-artists shouldn't worry that their jobs are being taken away.
"We're publishing more than 70 or 80 titles a month. There's plenty of room for comic writers, TV writers, novelists, you name it," Buckley said. "The other creators are excited — yeah it's competition — but they understand it's great for us to get our name out there into the mainstream."