12.07.2008

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

I’m a bit late getting on the Umbrella Academy bandwagon. Lots of other comics readers in the know have been touting its virtues for some time now. I actually got the trade when it was released, but it’s been sitting at the bottom of my read pile ’til this week. I’ve been working through the great podcasts the boys over at Major Spoilers have been producing and when I saw they would be looking at Umbrella Academy in their next edition (actually their July 15 edition, I am just behind the times on so many levels) I finally yanked it out and gave it a look. Man alive, am I sorry I put it off. This miniseries was a blast and a half!

It comes as no surprise that Grant Morrison provides the introduction for this collected edition; the mad genius of Morrison’s early Vertigo work was clearly a big influence on writer Gerard Way (which he readily admits in interviews). The heroes of this fractured tale include a space hero with the body of a gorilla and a sixty-year-old time traveler trapped in the body of a ten-year-old boy. Their parents are a disguised space alien and an ambulatory mannequin. Amongst the enemies they face are flying robot heads belching disintegrating death, an insane Conductor who yearns to orchestrate the apocalypse, and the Eiffel Tower itself, which comes to life and begins slaughtering its visitors. The Umbrella Academy is the most successful blending of superheroics, surrealism and silliness since Morrison’s legendary run on the Doom Patrol.

Consider the high concept behind out heroes' origins: 43 babies are simultaneously born around the world to 43 shocked mothers via immaculate conception. They either die or are abandoned. Sir Reginald Hargreeves A.K.A. the Monocle, “world-renowned scientist and wealthy entrepreneur” manages to track down 7 of these strange miracle babies, and adopts them with the intention of raising them to be superheroes.

As time progresses, the Monocle proves to be a much more effective taskmaster and field general than a dad. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have a paternal bone in his body. As a rule, he only refers to his gifted children as numbers 1-7, and he has no compunction about flat-out telling his non-powered seventh protégé Vanya that “there’s just nothing special about you.” By the time the story catches up to the present, the disillusioned Umbrella Academics are aged 30 and no longer a team: one brother is dead, another is lost in time, and the rest have gone their separate ways.

Way uses the tried and true plot device employed by many an indy drama to draw his fractured family back to the Academy: the sudden death by heart attack of the Monocle. It turns out that very few wounds have healed with the passage of time and the dysfunctional family seems to pick up their various grievances where they left off years before. Tragically, Vanya is still made to feel the outsider by her siblings, which is a turn that will have tragic consequences not too far down the road.

If there’s one criticism I could level at Umbrella Academy, it's that I hope that as Gerard Way develops as a writer he understands that there’s sometimes a fine line between righteous indignation and overbearingly whiny self-pity. To invoke comedian Artie Lange, there are a lot of “Wah” moments in this mini: “Wah! My daddy didn’t love me enough” “Wah! My adopted sister doesn’t wanna go out with me!” “Wah! My father stuck my head on the body of a gorilla” Well, okay, maybe we’ll let that last one slide. All this angsting and drama might be more palatable if the heroes were teenagers, but they’re all entering their thirties. Shouldn’t they have gained a little perspective by now? At some points I wanted to reach into the comic and grab some of these characters by the shoulders, shake em around a bit and tell them to grow a set and stop being such crybabies.

But enough grousing-- back to the unbridled heaping of praise! Let’s talk about the phenomenal Gabriel Ba, who as far can see is the absolute perfect artist for this material. His art is stylized without being overly-cartoony, incredibly imaginative and successful at combining all the bizarre elements Way feverishly worked into his script and convincingly making them co-exist in the same startling world. There’s so much great stuff to look at here, the word balloons sometimes just seem like merely a special added bonus. I took such a liking to Ba’s style, I immediately placed my order for Casanova, the espionage book he did for Image with Matt Fraction.

Like Grant Morrison before him, Gerard Way is absolutely bursting with ideas, so much so that there are throwaway lines and unresolved plot threads that could fuel future Umbrella Academy epics for years to come. There is, of course, the question of the children’s birth: how did they come to be born and what was the fate of the other 36 babies? And if they were born all over the world, why are they all Caucasian? And what the heck does a burly wrestler defeating a giant squid alien in the ring have to do with it? Also, the fact that Hargreeves was an extraterrestrial was mentioned just once in this book, and then never brought up again. Happily, although Way is presumably quite busy with his day job (from what I understand he bums around playing in a band), he is already hard at work on the sequel miniseries Umbrella Academy: Texas, in which we will very likely learn more about Number 5 and his time-tossed misadventures. Pick up the first issue (released last week) and this trade and you will be all up to speed on the most imaginative and fun superteam to come along in quite some time. And if you consider how many superhero teams there are glutting up the market, that’s really saying something.

Rating: 9.5/10

1 comment:

Shem said...

Finally you review something I've actually read. I picked this one up when it came out just for Ba's art -- I wouldn't know Gerard Way from the Appian Way, but I'd already read Casanova and knew I wanted to see more from that guy. Good thing it turned out that Way can write too.

If you like Ba, you also ought to keep an eye out for his equally talented brother, Fabio Moon (who did the second "album" of Casanova with Fraction). Moon's art is a little wilder and less detailed than Ba's, but no less great in its own way.