It seems like every year since 2009, there have been rumors or announcements about Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s “Umbrella Academy.” Either we get teased about the still-forthcoming “Hotel Oblivion,” or there are rumors of a movie, or something. This year, SDCC gave us a Netflix series, so it seemed like an appropriate time to do an Evergreen review of the limited run that started it all, “The Umbrella Academy: The Apocalypse Suite.” And with it, I wanted to take a look at the career of Gerard Way, the emo-frontman turned comic book curator.
Written by Gerard Way
Illustrated by Gabriel Bá
Color by Dave Stewart
In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-seven extraordinary children were spontaneously born to women who’d previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, “To save the world.”
These seven children form the Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower, piloted by the fearsome zombie-robot Gustave Eiffel. Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.
But let’s start with the book in question. Much like Science Fiction isn’t really a genre, but a setting or a collection of narrative devices used to tell stories, the presence of super heroics isn’t actually a good metric for the genre of a comic book. The release of the first “Umbrella Academy” TPB was marketed as the successor of the “X-Men,” or the “Doom Patrol,” but aside from the presence of superhumans, Gerard Way’s book has little to do with either of those traditions. The book has much more in common with family dramas, like “August: Osage County” or “Other Desert Cities.”
Aside from the first issue, which sets the stage, “The Apocalypse Suite” is primarily the story of a long-estranged family reunion and the subsequent drama. The superhero elements just serve to pressurize the situation and provide some action to set the emotional drama against. Like “August: Osage County,” the comic focuses on what the loss of the family patriarch triggers in the rest of the family. Also like the play, Way derives both dramatic and comedic elements from the resulting emotional clashes.
One of the reasons “Umbrella Academy” is so successful is because it draws on this broken family dynamic for the majority of its drama. While the sexual tension between adopted siblings is probably not a point of resonance for most readers, the rest of the family dynamic, from the uncomfortable stoicism of Spaceboy, to the class-clown antics of Séance, will feel familiar to a large segment of readers. The use of the ‘end of the world’ plot to pressurize the story helps keep the emotional drama from dragging and keeps the whole piece moving forward.
The superheroics are brilliantly drawn by Gabriel Bá, notable for his previous work on Dark Horse’s “Casanova” and, later, “B.P.R.D.: 1947.” Bá brings what I have always thought of as Dark Horse’s signature style to the book. It’s a dynamic mix of heavy blacks and stylistically rendered figures. A comic-noir feel that evokes books like Michael Avon Oeming’s “Powers” or Kevin O’Neil’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlment.” Not to mention a vast swath of titles in Dark Horse’s ‘Mignola-verse.’
The darker elements help with both the emotional tone of the piece, reinforcing the themes of grief and loss, while also playing up the tension of the impending apocalypse. Bá does a phenomenal job balancing the serious and comedic elements of the script, using the deep blacks to set the dramatic tone, while the stylized, unrealistic figures and faces play towards the humor. Dave Stewart’s colors here are also worth noting, particularly towards the end of the volume when the sudden absence of color, or at least the very minimalist use of it, help to finalize the climactic action.
A question that has been raised in various forums asks if “The Umbrella Academy” is actually good, or if it just capitalizes on the celebrity nature of its author? “The Apocalypse Suite” would go on to win the 2008 Eisner for Best Limited Series, and sold quite well in TPB, but it is hard to say for sure what exactly caused that. Certainly compared to other celebrity comic projects, “The Umbrella Academy” is superior in both narrative quality and artistic merit. Way would also go on to prove his comic bona fides with his subsequent limited “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys” and his later tenure as curator of DC’s consistently high-quality Young Animal imprint. These all point to “The Umbrella Academy” standing on its own, but it is still somewhat hard to predict if the book would have sold as well in 2007 if the author had not been the frontman of a very popular band.Continued below
No matter how you look at it, “Umbrella Academy” is a solid, if all too brief, book. Its similarities to well-paced dramas and distinctive art style have kept it relevant a full decade after its original publication. Perhaps more importantly, it paved the way for an influential voice to enter the industry. Young Animal is one of the most exciting and consistently good projects coming out of the Big Two. While I personally doubt we’ll be seeing the long-awaited “Hotel Oblivion” anytime soon, the upcoming Netflix series is very exciting, and re-reading where it all started was a real pleasure.