Comics You Should Own – ‘The Umbrella Academy’

Let’s take a look at this oddball classic that ended too soon! Who had “the lead singer of My Chemical Romance is a good comics writer” in the pool? ‘Cause I sure didn’t!

The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way (writer), Gabriel Bá (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), and Nate Piekos (letterer).

Published by Dark Horse, 12 issues (#1-6 of “Apocalypse Suite” and #1-6 of “Dallas”), cover dated September 2007 – February 2008 (“Apocalypse Suite”) and November 2008 – May 2009 (“Dallas”).

I guess I should put a SPOILERS warning up here, even though I don’t think there’s much that’s spoilery in here. Beware! Be aware!

Some years ago, when I was writing for another blog and had the time to write about my weekly purchases more, some people got the idea that I hate superheroes because I would often decry the superhero comics that DC and Marvel were publishing. I always had to point out that I love superheroes – I don’t know if you can read comics without at least liking superheroes a little bit, even if you’re the snootiest Art Spiegelman-reading hipster on Earth. My point was always that superheroes have been the dominant genre of comics for so long, and I’ve read so many superhero comics, that I would not accept just another standard superhero story in which the good guys and bad guys are vanilla but we accept them because they’re the same characters we knew in childhood. Superheroes can be more, and that’s all I want. DC and Marvel, of course, are generally (just generally, as there are exceptions) in the business of simply retelling the same stories, because those stories are comfortable, but I don’t have much time for that anymore and haven’t for decades. So when I want to read superheroes, I tend to look outside those two companies. I’ve never had any loyalty to a certain character, so it’s easy to go years without reading a new Spider-Man comic, for instance (and I love Spider-Man). What I want are superhero comics that try something different, and that’s how we arrive at The Umbrella Academy.

In many ways, The Umbrella Academy is a stereotypical superhero comic. That’s a feature, though, not a bug. In both stories, the world is in danger and only our heroes can save the day. World-saving epics can become tedious, but they are part-and-parcel of superhero stories, and it’s not the worst plot in the world. The team is made up of seven heroes, which is a fairly standard number in superhero teams, although, as we’ll see, there aren’t always seven people on the team. The members of the team have strange powers, and Way doesn’t delve into how they got them – they were part of a group of 43 babies born at exactly the same time on exactly the same day to single women who hadn’t shown any signs of pregnancy, and their mentor was only able to find these seven to adopt and train them. There are giant monsters, weird villains, time travel, and all sorts of trauma and tragedy, but in both stories, the world is saved, as you might expect. So. It’s a superhero story. But, as I noted above, the appeal of superhero stories is in the details and the ways it diverges from your regular superhero story, and Way and Bá do that a lot, so The Umbrella Academy stands out and becomes a Comic You Should Own.

First of all, it’s a bit weird. Now, if you think about it, all superhero comics are a bit weird, but we’ve been conditioned over the decades to accept that a billionaire whose parents were killed would of course dress up like a bat or that Mars was once populated with shape-shifting telepaths or that humanoid beings swim all over the ocean. Way gives us superheroes with expected powers, but with oddball twists to them. Luther is very strong, but his body was severely injured in the past and he now has the body of a gorilla. Diego is the Batman analog, but he’s more psychotic than Batman ever was. Allison is called the Rumor, and she can make things happen just by talking about them. Klaus is telekinetic with a sadistic streak. Number 5 never got name, and goes missing at the beginning of the series, showing up later having never aged. The Horror has Lovecraftian tentacles that extend from his belly, and he’s dead for most of the series. Vanya doesn’t appear to have any powers, but it turns out she might be the most powerful of all of them. Although there are seven of them, Way changes that a bit by killing the Horror almost before the series begins (in issue #1 we see them in action as children, but then we jump to them as adults and the Horror is already dead), taking Number 5 away for a while, and removing Vanya because not even their mentor/adopted father can see her potential. The world-ending scenarios are both a bit different than your standard superhero epic, too. In the first, the end of the world will come about thanks to an orchestra playing a devastating piece of music (hence the name “Apocalypse Suite”). In the second story, the world will end unless the team allows President Kennedy to be assassinated, but they face Number 5, who’s trying to stop his own older self from doing the killing (it’s time travel, and it makes a lot more sense than a lot of time travel stories). Way also channels the best Silver Age writers, Robert Kanigher and Bob Haney, as well as Grant Morrison (one of the team’s battles takes place in “Morrison Park”) by giving the heroes things to fight that are just a bit out of the ordinary – the Eiffel Tower, flying killer robots, oddly-dressed time agents, the Abraham Lincoln statue in Washington, D.C., and two assassins wearing large Mardi Gras-style heads. Critics might point out that it’s weird for weirdness’s sake, but in superhero comics, the weirder the better, and Way understands that. His world is populated by chimpanzees who work alongside humans, wearing clothing and talking in complete sentences, so why not give the group some bizarre things to fight rather than just your garden-variety supervillain? Finally, Bá’s art, while stunning, is weird for a superhero book. Most artists working on a mainstream superhero book fit into a very narrow lane of style, and anything outside of that is dubbed “strange.” Bá is a brilliant artist, who can easily do superhero books if he wanted to and if anyone wanted him to, but DC and Marvel are perhaps too risk-adverse to do so. Dark Horse and Way weren’t, however, and Bá gives us a bizarre world with odd characters and terrific action. I’ll get back to the art, though, in a little bit.

Second of all, Way does something a lot of superhero writers ought to do – not only acknowledge the weirdness, but think about how the “reality” of this superhero world would work. Too often, we get superheroes in as close to the “real world” as writers can get, and while that can certainly work (see The Ultimates, for instance), it also feels forced far too often. Way thinks, not about how the “real world” works, but how the world of the Umbrella Academy would work. So he thinks about the details, and what we get is a fuller, more nuanced world. The kids are separate from society, true, and so we don’t see quite as much of this world as we might (and, as we’ll see, the series is a bit truncated, so perhaps Way had more plans for the world), but simply the way he adds intelligent chimps to the society (they fight in Vietnam, after all) acknowledges that this is not necessarily “our” world. Other little touches bring the world to life – the cars that Bá designs look like relics from the 1950s and ’60s, the police uniforms look slightly … foreign (Bá is Brazilian, so maybe that’s it), and the white straps the police wear diagonally over their chests always, to me, seems the tiniest bit fascistic. Way doesn’t shy away from the horror of having superheroes in the world, either. Agnes, the waitress at the diner that Number Five frequents, is the best example of this, as she witnesses Five killing two assassins sent to kill him and is later kidnapped by Hazel and Cha-Cha and forced to watch those two commit unspeakable acts of violence against more than a few people. She’s unbelievably traumatized, and with her, Way shows that despite the weirdness, there’s a human cost as well. Way never forgets that superheroes and their foes are inherently violent, and most people don’t see that kind of violence in their lives and don’t know how to process it.

Of course, a lot of superhero comics traffic in internal conflict among the members of the group, and Way does that as well. In this comic, however, he goes a bit further than your usual superhero comic. The babies are adopted and raised by a martinet, Reginald Hargreeves, who is teased as an alien early in the book but which is another plot thread that never exactly comes to fruition. Hargreeves is a horrible father figure, because he’s more concerned about training the kids to save the world rather than teaching them how to be useful in society. Way makes it a running joke that the media in the world is always wondering exactly what the world-ending threat is, even though the kids stop the Apocalypse twice in two stories, but the point remains – if you’re always planning to save the world, what else is there? So the kids are wildly unskilled in anything but superheroing, and Way does a fine job showing how tragic that can be. Luther wants to be called Spaceboy all the time because he’s always defending the Earth, living alone on the moon so he can be the early warning system. He was wounded horribly in the past and Hargreeves grafted his head onto a gorilla’s body, which of course is absurd but in Way’s hands becomes a dire tragedy, because of course he can never have a typical life. He’s in love with Allison (Number Three), and while Way doesn’t go very far with it, the slight incestuous overtones (they’re not related, but they grew up together as “brother” and “sister”) make it a bit uncomfortable, even though she’s probably the only person Spaceboy could ever be with, as she understands his life better than any non-superhero could. She’s dealing with own problems – a divorce and the loss of custody of her daughter, a marriage and child she never told her “siblings” about, because why would she want that craziness infecting her domestic life? Of course it all comes crashing down, because superheroes rarely get happy endings. Diego is psychopathic, a more extreme Batman, and of course no one really likes him. Klaus (the Séance) is disturbed in different ways than Diego, but he’s still dangerous. Number Five is hiding secrets, which almost cause the world to end. And Vanya is rejected by her family because she doesn’t appear to have any special talents. First, her adopted father treats her like dirt, and then she leaves the “family” and writes a tell-all book about them, which doesn’t endear her to her siblings. When she returns to warn them about the Apocalypse orchestra, she has the misfortune of meeting Diego first, and he rejects her again, which makes her decide to take the Conductor up on his offer to destroy the world. Such fragility can seem foolish to well-adjusted people, but Way does a nice job showing how beaten-down Vanya was, even as her father may have done it to keep her from her full potential, as she becomes supremely powerful after the Conductor experiments on her. The idea of dysfunctional superheroes is not new, but Way twists it in clever ways to keep the team interesting even as they’re never particularly likable.

Bá’s art has a lot to do with making this an exceptional superhero comic. As I’ve often noted, action scenes are very hard to get right, and while many critics decry the mainstream superhero artist because they’re slick, it’s a lot harder to make an action scene look good than it is to show people sitting around a table whining about how their lives suck. I appreciate superhero artists who can make action scenes work, but too often, many superhero artists sacrifice style for utilitarianism, and their work becomes whatever “house style” is prevalent at the company they work for. The lack of idiosyncrasies in mainstream superhero art is what holds it back, not the actual act of drawing superheroes. Bá doesn’t have that problem, as his art is a particular style that is all his own (he shares some characteristics with his twin brother, Fábio Moon, but Bá’s style is slightly more angular than Moon’s is). The very first page of The Umbrella Academy shows this style in all its glory. “Tusslin’ Tom” Gurney is about to apply an atomic flying elbow to the space-squid from Rigel X-9, and Bás draws the wrestler as cartoonishly large and oddly disproportionate, with his giant arms and thick torso surrounding a relatively small head and supported by relatively spindly legs. The space-squid is an alien nightmare, with large rows of teeth and giant tentacles, and Bás uses blacks well to highlight its horror even as he makes sure the light is reflecting off both Tom and the squid in logical ways. Bá’s depiction of Tom is relatively simplistic, but he shows his attention to detail with the spectators, who wear different kinds of clothes and are strongly delineated even though they don’t really have to be. Bá’s use of blacks is stellar throughout, as he often drops holding lines and substitutes black chunks to deepen the shadows and add subtle texture to the machines and buildings of the world. His design work is terrific – he takes the time to show us both the splendor and the decay of this world, with nice details on the buildings showing those that have been kept up and those that have been allowed to rot. The world of The Umbrella Academy has some quirks, like the cars (as I noted above), which Bá drop in subtly throughout the series. The machines are also clunky and Frankenstein-esque, making them brutal and domineering, so that scenes like Vanya’s transformation in the White Violin all the more terrifying. Bá’s attention to details also mean we get superb and occasionally horrifying splash pages – in issue #1, we see Paris, with the ominous shadow of an insane Eiffel Tower falling over it, making it look far larger than it actually is. In issue #2, we get foreshadowing of the Orchestra Verdammten’s rampage, as Number Five stands over an utterly horrific street scene, and Bá does a marvelous job showing the carnage. In issue #5, the police are interviewing Agnes about the massacre at the diner, and Bá once again draws the carnage wonderfully, using black splotches to show how much blood was spilled even though we never see the actual fight. In the first issue of “Dallas,” we get a wonderful drawing of Abraham Lincoln spewing flames and the kids (it’s a flashback) trying to fight it. In issue #2, we get the absurdity of Hazel and Cha-Cha, dominating the splash in their ridiculous masks, while in the middle of the page is the poor diner owner, sans arms and legs, spilling the secret of his pie (he had foolishly told them they’d have to cut off his arms and legs before he’d tell them the secret, and Hazel and Cha-Cha took them at his word). Bá, naturally, doesn’t just to amazing work on the splash pages. When Number Five and Dr. Pogo fly over the city in issue #4 of “Apocalypse Suite,” Bá gives us amazing street scenes of humanity in all its squalor, juxtaposing hookers fighting and garish neon advertising sex shows with an elderly woman tending her roses, and does far more to show why people deserve saving than any writing could do. Just after this scene, there are two terrifying pages of Vanya turning into a supervillain, and he mixes musical notes with blood vessels on a black background on one page, and then draws Vanya’s face, eyes insane and smile too wide, on the next. In issue #5 of “Dallas,” they fight a giant mummy in the Vietnam jungles, and it’s as silly and scary as you might expect. Bá, despite his somewhat angular style, can do action scenes as good as anyone, packing the panels with details but never losing sight of the bigger picture, and choreographing the action beautifully so that we can follow characters as they move through the panels and pages. He gives us an excellent sense of scale, so that we’re always aware of how big the stakes are without losing the individuals in the action. He’s very good at violence, too, so we also never forget that these fights can cause a lot of damage, both to property and, more importantly, to people. The violence in The Umbrella Academy is never sanitized, which makes what happens to the characters that much more powerful.

Like a lot of artists of his style, Bá doesn’t use a lot of hatching or extra line work to create his characters, but he’s still able to get across a great deal of emotion through his minimalist style. He shifts eyes just slightly to show any number of emotions, and he even occasionally elongates body parts to show either an emotion (surprise, for instance) or to warp our perspective just a bit. He uses thicker lines around eyes and mouths to accentuate them, but he doesn’t hatch the characters’ faces to add worry or happy lines. With someone like the Conductor, for instance, he is even more minimalistic, as the villain wears a mask that cuts down on even the little bit of expressiveness Bá uses with the other characters. For the Conductor, as well as many other characters, Bá uses body language, as the Conductor is a slithery fellow who seems to flit about the stage, making his crushing transformation of Vanya all the more evil, as he seemed almost a jolly supervillain prior to that. When Spaceboy gains weight and gives up at the beginning of “Dallas,” Bá exaggerates the weight gain and draws him almost as ooze, sitting on the couch, his tiny head almost lost inside his containment suit. Hazel and Cha-Cha wear giant masks the entire time they’re in the comic, so we never see their true faces, but first of all, the masks convey a lot of their personalities because Way makes them fit the masks, but the way Bá draws their bodies shows how dangerous they are, so even though they have silly masks on, no one ever underestimates them. Bá uses thick black smudges and exaggeration to show the emotions of the characters, and he does it brilliantly, giving the characters more nuance and working well with Way’s script.

One the biggest disappointments about The Umbrella Academy is that there isn’t more of it. Way obviously had at least one more story in him, but the series ended after these twelve excellent issues. I don’t know if sales weren’t there or if one or both of the creators didn’t have the time, but the book went off into limbo, and Way did very few comics for almost a decade before joining up with DC to launch the Young Animal line. I imagine Way and Bá own the series, so perhaps they can revive it, but until that day, we have these two arcs. Which is pretty cool. The Umbrella Academy has been collected, obviously, and that’s a fine way to enjoy it. I could have sworn there was a big collection of the entire series, but I may have imagined it, because I can’t find any trace of it. It seems like that would be a smart move on Dark Horse’s part, but until then, you can get the two smaller trades, linked to below (remember, if you use those links to buy absolutely anything on Amazon, I get a small piece of it!). If you like superhero comics (like I do) but are a bit disappointed with the staleness of many modern superhero comics from the Big Two (like I am), check this series out. It has so much cool stuff in it!

7 Comments

  1. Swario

    I remember buying the first volume in tpb after reading good things about it. It surprised me that Gerard Way was a skilled writer. I think it might have also been my first comic with art by Gabriel Ba. I loved everything about this comic and it’s the book I grab for when I want to read something superheroic that isn’t terrible.

    (You know the feeling. You want superpowers and world-saving goodness, but you also want something GOOD.)

    I read the second volumes in single issues as it was being published and it was my most anticipated book during its run.

    I read everything I can by these creators simply based on the strength of this comic. I have yet to check out any of the Young Animal comics but my local library has them available digitally. It’s something I’ll be checking out soon.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Swario: I didn’t know who Way was when this first came out, so I didn’t really have an opinion about him. But yeah, he was better than I thought simply based on the fact that he had barely written any comics before this. And Ba is great, always.

  2. Simon

    Maybe-from-the-library because life’s short, right?

    – “babies born at exactly the same time”

    RISING STARS or FREAKANGELS?

    – “Luther [has] the body of a gorilla.”

    ML or MLK?

    – “Diego is the Batman analog”

    ZORRO or BATMAN?

    – “Number 5 never got name”

    THE PRISONER or PEANUTS?

    – “DC and Marvel are perhaps too risk-adverse to do so”

    Isn’t it also their rigid readership and retailership made them so?

    – “the media in the world is always wondering exactly what the world-ending threat is”

    Just as with the Y2K bug?

    – “[Luther] can never have a typical life”

    Isn’t Tragic-Big-Guy a cliché from THE FF to DOOM PATROL to PROPHET?

    – “a big collection of the entire series […] would be a smart move”

    Aren’t people more likely to try a first arc than an omnibus?

    1. Greg Burgas

      Simon: Sure, Spaceboy is a bit of a cliché, but it’s a good cliché, and a good writer can make it work.

      Maybe people would be more willing to get one arc, but the omnibus would only be 12 issues, so it’s not like it would be out of the realm of possibility!

  3. Oddly enough, I have the first two issues of both minis, but that’s it.

    Other than the FCBD issue that DH did…whatever year, that was the first story of the Umbrella Academy. I read that story, and I thought it was fucking fantastic. The first two issues of UA1 didn’t have that same “oh my god, this is so awesome” to it, but it was quite damn good. I gotta get around to reading it all at some point. I think the library has at least the first trade (although they might have just the second).

    I listened to the My Chemical Romance Danger Days album because of this, I think, and that was actually pretty cool stuff.

    Apparently, Way wrote some comics for whatever it was that Hart Fisher published in the mid-90s, and was also on one of those Maury or Sally Jesse or whatever type shows with Fisher at some point in that time period. If I can find the Bleeding Cool post about it, I’ll link to it.

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