Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse Comics, 2007-2008). Six-issue miniseries, $2.99 each.
By Alex Boney
My initial interest in The Umbrella Academy had nothing to do with the fact that Gerard Way is the lead singer in the pop/indie/emo band My Chemical Romance. Not that there’s anything wrong with Gerard Way or My Chemical Romance; The Black Parade is a very good album. But since the series was first announced (and well through its publication), all the reviews and press buzz around the series focused on Way’s vocal work and his crossover appeal—neither of which have much to do with the actual comic book series. What drew me to The Umbrella Academy were two things: 1) It’s a Dark Horse comic book, and Dark Horse has been publishing some of the most interesting comics I’ve read in the last few years, and 2) many early reviewers were comparing the series to Grant Morrison’s late-80s/early-90s run on Doom Patrol, and Morrison had actually spoken favorably of the parts of the series he’d read. So I decided to try it out and see if the book lived up to the hype. What I found was a pleasant surprise: This isn’t a work of some polished, long-undiscovered prodigious novice, but it is a very fun, well-crafted escapist fantasy story. And these days, this is indeed distinctive in mainstream comics.
The Umbrella Academy is difficult to summarize without sounding outlandish. I suppose this is part of its appeal. When you’re hesitant to describe a boarding school run by an alien disguised as a British millionaire who hopes to avert the end of the world by adopting and training a group of seemingly parthenogenetic children born with extraordinary powers at the exact moment when a wrestler delivered an atomic flying elbow to a space-squid…when you’re a little embarrassed actually writing it, but you love reading it, you know you’ve found a mix worthy of at least a cursory perusal. The Umbrella Academy has all the absurdity, vibrancy, and energy of 1950s/60s-era DC and Marvel comics, but Way and Gabriel Bá inject their project with enough modern sensibility and attention to craft that the story is able to bridge the gap between the Silver Age of comics and the 21st century. While Way borrows (even outright steals) elements from familiar team books such as X-Men, Challengers of the Unknown, Doom Patrol, and even League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, none of the final mix feels derivative or stale.
Although Gerard Way’s contributions to The Umbrella Academy have received widespread notice, Gabriel Bá is at least an equal reason for the book’s success. Bá’s panel compositions and progressions are highly kinetic, largely due to constantly shifting perspective. He also maintains an effective, consistent balance between cartoony and realistic styles—something that is incredibly difficult to pull off but the only way such an absurd story could be told. His style is reminiscent of Richard Case’s and Philip Bond’s—both of whom illustrated highly-experimental and influential Vertigo series in the mid-90s—and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s, but Bá’s backgrounds and panel props are more detailed and his characters’ forms are more individually distinct.
There are so many ideas working simultaneously in The Apocalypse Suite that it becomes easy to get swept up in the story and to lose the details. But like the symphony that forms the book’s climax, the overall story wouldn’t be nearly as effective without over-the-top individual details, characters, and incidents. When the Eiffel Tower, commandeered by Zombie-Robot Gustave Eiffel, attacks Paris before blasting off into space (issue #1), it’s baffling and hilarious at the same time. And when an appreciative Parisian mayor gives the kids the key to the city and declares “ice cream for everyone” immediately afterward, the tone and pace are set for the series. It’s an unrelenting whirlwind that accurately captures the flow of a rapid-fire modern media age. The fact that the modern-day team is coordinated by a talking chimp makes perfect sense in the context of the Umbrella Academy world.
The Apocalypse Suite isn’t all sun, fun, and good cheer, though. Part of the reason why the jokes and witticisms don’t get old fast is that Way also writes (and Bá draws) a deep pathos into the characters. Sir Reginald Hargreeves, the man who adopts and trains the children, is a horrible father-figure. He really doesn’t care much for the children beyond his use for them as tools in his grand plan. As we learn beginning with the second issue, the children grow up to be unstable, dysfunctional adults who rebel against the Academy in various ways. By the time the modern story begins, it’s clear that these are young adults with serious issues who don’t want to be working together and certainly don’t want to be saving the world. Despite the fact that the children are initially named according to the order in which Hargreeves found them (Number 1, Number 2, etc.), the characters are all well-defined. This is especially true in the series’ individual issues, which include character descriptions told from different perspectives. Hargreeves provides his assessment of the children in the first issue, Vanya Hargreeves (Number 7) provides her point of view in the second issue, an enemy named Dr. Terminal gives a run-down in the third issue, and so on. These pages are not included in the recently-released collected edition, which is unfortunate for a reader who hasn’t read the original issues. But at a time when all periodical comic book stories seem to be written solely for the inevitable trade paperback, it’s refreshing to have a reason to buy individual issues again. The single issues of the series are well worth tracking down.
The Umbrella Academy feels like a story out of place in modern comics. It seems like it would be more at home in mid-90s Vertigo or in Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line. But this, too, is a reason to read the book. There really is nothing like it on the shelves right now. Perhaps this is indicative of what Dark Horse Comics has become. The Umbrella Academy is as unique as The Goon and Hellboy; these books are nothing like each other, but they’re nothing like anything else either. They provide idiosyncratic stories and voices and worlds that make reading comic books enjoyable. The Apocalypse Suite isn’t a work of genius, but it did my make my brain click and pop like few other books have this year. In this way, it’s absolutely worthy of the Eisner Award it recently won for best limited series of the year. I hope Way and Bá have more stories under their belts, because I’m looking forward to returning to the world they’ve created.