Posted by Don MacPherson on January 1st, 2008
The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #s 1 & 2
Writer: Gerard Way
Artist: Gabriel Ba
Colors: Dave Stewart
Cover Artist: James Jean (Gabriel Ba for #1 second print)
Editor: Scott Allie
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $2.99 US each
The biggest factor that’s gone into the marketing of this property is the participation of music star Gerard Way. Personally, I don’t know the difference between My Chemical Romance and the Chemical Brothers, so that other-media fame isn’t a lure in my book. The greatest strength of The Umbrella Academy is the incredible balance between the surreal Silver Age wonder of the concepts and the heartfelt emotions that drive these bizarre characters and serve to bring them down to earth. Way and Ba’s collection of oddball, dysfunctional heroes represent a delightful slice of the creators’ imagination, but they prove to be compelling, fragile souls as well. They have power in droves, but happiness seems to elude them. One can recognize elements from the dynamics of how their family functions (or doesn’t) in one’s own life as well.
Years ago, the enigmatic and brilliant Dr. Reginald Hargreeves, AKA Monocle, discovered that a handful of extraordinary children with incredible powers were all born at the same moment. Looking far and wide, he finds seven of their number, adopts them as his own and establishes the Umbrella Academy to train them to fight evil and protect the world. Those seven children did just that, but they also grew up and grew apart. Now, they’ve reunited after learning that their taskmaster and the man they knew as their father has died. But their reunion could spell doom for the world, as it serves as a catalyst for a new threat.
Gabriel Ba’s work on this title is vital to the success of the storytelling. Mind you, that’s true of all comic art in the medium, but Ba’s designs, simulated motion and facial expressions so capture the multiple moods of the script incredibly well. His line work and designs put me in mind of Mike (Hellboy) Mignola’s art, but other influences seem to jump out at me as well. The more exaggerated lines and reactions are comparable to the work of Keith (52) Giffen, for example, and other elements remind me of the styles of such artists as Eduardo (100 Bullets) Risso and Daniel (Loveless) Zezelj. Those latter elements are darker ones, which serve to balance the odd and even goofy looking celebration of the surreal qualities of the super-hero genre. Ba adapts his style in this title to serve the moment, relinquishing more exaggerated designs when a quieter, emotion-driven moment calls for a more grounded look. At the same time, he ensures there’s no sense of inconsistency in the visuals.
James Jean is a much lauded (and deservedly so) cover artist, but he’s not known for work on super-hero titles (though he’s done some). That will change with the covers for The Umbrella Academy. He captures the zaniness of the central characters but also the melancholy and drama that serve to draw the reader in further to the unusual story. He immerses his cover art in muted or dark tones that further reinforce the sadness and damage that define the protagonists.
Way’s campy character concepts are thoroughly entertaining in and of themselves. The notion of a heroine who can change reality just based on her suggestion should be ludicrous and impossible to manage, but Way manages not only to make the idea work but to make it sing. The Orchestra Verdammten and its nihilistic Conductor? Brilliant, just like an undead French engineer/architect and a haunted landmark. One can’t help but smile when faced with such unrestrained invention. But what makes The Umbrella Academy more than just an amusing distraction is the surprisingly grounded tone in the characterization. Spaceboy’s resentment for his family, Kraken’s anger… these elements and more help the writer to achieve the seemingly impossible: to present the heroes as people rather than one-dimensional powerhouses.
I think the one flaw in Gerard Way’s general approach to presenting these characters and concepts to the reader is his choice to name them by number as children and dress them all alike. It is a bit confusing when we first encounter the members of the Academy. As adults, they’re identified and defined much more clearly, but there are fleeting moments of confusion when the reader works to connect them to their youthful counterparts in the flashbacks.
I know the fourth issue of this limited series hit the stands a couple of weeks ago. So far, I’ve only got my hands on the first two issues, but that’s a temporary situation, I assure you. The Umbrella Academy is what might have arisen had Mignola and Grant (Batman, The Invisibles) Morrison collaborated together to craft The New Teen Titans back in the 1980s instead of Marv Wolfman and George Perez. 9/10