The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite
Gerard Way, writer
Gabriel Ba, artist
Dark Horse, 2008
When you think of how many indie superhero titles are abject failures of imagination and innovation, The Umbrella Academy becomes all the more impressive. I’d imagine that as with most creator-owned superbooks it’s the product of a life-long love of Marvel and DC (and by now, ’90s Image). But most creators who are thusly smitten wind up barfing out some dishwater-dull origin story involving types rather than characters and fixated on producing iconic moments for copies of copies of copies of icons. Writer Gerard Way, who as the lead singer of My Chemical Romance can’t even claim that doing comics is all he’s ever wanted to do creatively, is beating such people at their own game. He’s produced a weird, sad comic about superheroes, with sophisticated pacing that trusts in the intelligence of the reader rather than insisting on serving them nothing but what they’ve already seen. Essentially, the seven members of the Umbrella Academy are to their adoptive father Hargreeves what Michael, Janet et al were to Joe Jackson, with similarly dispiriting results in terms of the disconnect between talent, even talent used optimally, and happiness. There’s no happy ending for them, either. It’s superheroing with sharp edges.
He’s done this with the help of Gabriel Ba, whose work here reads like a cross between Mike Mignola (perhaps enhanced by the presence of Mignola’s longtime go-to colorist Dave Stewart) and The Incredibles. He’s produced solid character designs (based on concept sketches by SVA grad Way) that transition well between superhero and soap opera, he frequently draws his panels utilizing zesty, infrequently used angles, and his action is coherent and dynamic. For his part, Stewart is brilliant as always, throwing huge splashes of eye-melting colors (oranges, pinks) into the mix in a way that’s both exciting and slightly alienating–much like the comic itself.
Now, to be sure, the characters themselves are more sketched than fully rendered at this point. And I’ve heard criticism that the thing reads like a Grant Morrison Doom Patrol tribute album, though not having read much early Morrison I can’t comment on that. But from where I’m standing this thoughtful, engaging work all around.