COMICS: John Reviews “The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1” by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba

Cover by James Jean

Cover by James Jean

Chances are that if you follow the comics industry or you listen to My Chemical Romance, you’ve probably heard about The Umbrella Academy by now.  If you haven’t, I’ll enlighten you a bit.  The Umbrella Academy is the first major-release comic written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way (and drawn by Gabriel Ba.)  What does Gerard Way know about comics, you ask?  More than many musicians.  Prior to his success as the lead singer of MyChem, he worked as an intern at DC Comics.  He also was lucky enough to have several brainstorming sessions with comics legend Grant Morrison (who wrote the introduction to The Umbrella Academy Vol. 1) The comic was released by Dark Horse Entertainment, the leading “independent” comic publisher (trailing a distant third behind Marvel and DC overall.)  Also, just to be clear – there is no audible component, which is great if you can’t stand MyChem (I certainly can’t.)

Now that you know a little more about it, I’ll get to the actual synopsis and review.

The Umbrella Academy is the story of a genius professor (who is, in fact, an alien) and his seven adopted children, each one born with an exceptional superhuman ability.  As children, they stop the Eiffel Tower from going on a murder spree (incited by Gustave Eiffel, who returned from the dead as a zombie-robot.)  The team disbands roughly ten years later, and the siblings reunite ten years after that only to mourn the loss of their adoptive father.  Their reunion sets events in motion that will ultimately destroy the world, unless remaining members of The Umbrella Academy can put their differences aside and fight like a team again.

While the story is fairly comic-book-standard and features the requisite three-act structure, where Way really shines is in his creation of rich, interesting characters.  Spaceboy (Powers: flight, super-strength, impenetrable body armor,) Rumor (power: probability control.  When she says “I heard a rumor…” it becomes reality,) Kraken (power: peak physical condition and adept at combat,) Seance (power: communicate with the dead,) Vanya (power: affect reality through music) and my personal favorite – Mr. Pogo (power: super-intelligent chimpanzee) are breaths of fresh air in a genre populated largely by clones of the same old archetypes.  And while we’ve seen talking monkeys with genius I.Qs before, Mr. Pogo’s mannerisms manage to separate him from the likes of Detective Chimp (another personal favorite.) Each character has his/her own idiosynchracies and movtivations, and the interplay between characters is frequently more interesting than the plot.  The Umbrella Academy has enough story and marketing potential to warrant a cartoon on Adult Swim, though the comic/graphic novel is clearly its intended and rightful medium.

If the writing was a mix of brilliant (characters) and blase (plot), the art is nothing short of spectacular.  Gabriel Ba lends an aesthetic that makes The Umbrella Academy seem like a mixture of classic X-Men, The Incredibles and Invader Zim, with touches of Death Note and Beetlejuice thrown in for atmosphere.  As impressed as I am by Ba’s inks and pencils, I’m even more blown away by superstar colorist Dave Stewart’s ability to make me stop reading and just appreciate how pretty each page is.  He has a history of transforming books I like into books that truly amaze me (The Spirit, Justice League: The New Frontier) and this is no exception.  I truly think I would not have enjoyed the book nearly as much without his brilliant use of colors to bring a vibrance not normally seen in a goth/emo/etc. style.  Additionally, cover artist James Jean (who has won Eisner awards for his Fables covers) nails the opposite end of the spectrum from Stewart’s bright boldness.  There’s an almost ephemereal, dreamlike quality to each issue’s cover, as if you’re seeing exactly what sprang from Gerard Way’s mind as it came to him.  It almost makes me want to hunt down the back issues for my collection.

All in all, I think that The Umbrella Academy is an impressive first work for Gerard Way and an entertaining piece of media for comics fans and MyChem fans alike.  Dark Horse set Way up with every independent comic creator’s fantasy lineup of artists, and they carried his story from average-with-potential to gorgeous-with-potential.  Hopefully the success of the first volume of The Umbrella Academy will afford Way a chance to work on his plot construction, as it is the only aspect of this otherwise-exceptional series that falters.

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