Why you should be reading The Umbrella Academy.

Last week we got the exciting news that Gerard Way's Dark Horse comic, The Umbrella Academy, will be heading to Netflix as a live action series. As a huge fan of the comic, and Way's writing in general, I thought I'd talk about my personal history with the series and what makes
The Umbrella Academy one of the best series modern comics has to offer.

What follows is the story of how I almost wrote it off completely.

It starts with me as a teenager


I was 15 or so when I first heard the phrase 'emo'. Initially, I was unsure what to make of this new word and all the connotations it seemed to carry with it, but it wasn't long before the phrase wormed its way into my teenage vocabulary. No sooner had I come to terms with this strange new concept than I was confronted with a deluge of emo rock, in all its high pitched, hard-rocking glory, belted out by black-haired boys in impossibly-tight jeans.

During these glory days of emo rock, bands didn't get much bigger than My Chemical Romance; in high school, it wasn't long before my whole class were hooked on their hit album, The Black Parade. My whole class excluding me, that is.

The clothes, the hair, the bombast: my white-bread, Christian rock sensibilities just couldn't handle it all. It wasn't long before I wrote the genre off completely, vowing never to dip my toes into the monotone world of emo rock. Just hearing the letters MCR - shorthand for the above band of Black Parade infamy - became enough to make me roll my eyes in dismissal.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

Years later, a friend, although I can't recall who, recommended I check out a comic called The Umbrella Academy. The discovery that the writer was MCR's frontman, Gerard Way, almost stopped me from checking it out. Almost. Fortunately, the book's fantastic art -- provided by Gabriel Ba with colours by Dave Stewart -- was enough to make me put aside my teenage vendetta and give the book a try.

I will be forever grateful that I did; six issues later and I was a convert to the cult of Way.

So, what is it exactly about The Umbrella Academy that allowed me to recalibrate my opinion of Gerard Way from the skinny-jean-clad singer of that band I hated, to a formidable writer and comic book heavyweight?

Well... that might take a little bit of explaining.


No Tourist


As comics luminary and lovable kook Grant Morrison writes in his introduction to The Umbrella Academy's first collected volume, Apocalypse Suite, ' ...Gerad wasn't a celebrity tourist in the world of comics - he knew them and loved them, and had clear ideas about where he wanted to take them.'

You don't have to take Morrison's word for it either. A quick flip through the volume's pages and it will become obvious that Way is a lifelong fan of the medium, not just some hack trying to leverage his celebrity status to fulfill a misguided childhood fantasy.

The first thing that will hit you when you start reading The Umbrella Academy is how insanely well written it is. Almost impossibly so. This is Way's first published comic and yet he breezes into it like he's been writing them forever. The script is tight, the characters are engaging and the ideas are polished. Best of all, he seems at home playing in the comic book world without ever getting too comfortable.

Right from the the first volume's opening pages - which features a glorious splash of a brawny
wrestler diving elbow first onto a Rigelian Space squid  - it becomes clear that Way has a strong grasp on what makes the superhero genre so exciting.

His very premise, which involves gifted children trained to become superheros by an eccentric millionaire, reeks of the familiar (namely Marvel's X-men) but immediately differentiates itself through its time-twisting setting and unique cast of characters.  Throw in everything from Viet Cong vampires and chimpanzee cops to a death cult orchestra and zombie robots, and it's clear The Umbrella Academy stands apart as a truly unique beast in an over saturated genre.

Possibly even more impressive is the fact you will find all these crazy, bold ideas, neatly contained in two story arcs that are equal parts chaotic and coherent. It's everything weird you know and love about Morrison's writing only with an accessibility that the Scottish scribe has never really been able to provide.

The embedding of kabbalist mythology and pseudo-philosophical ideas in a lot of  Morrison's work (such as The Invisibles or his run on Batman) can prove daunting to even a veteran comic-book reader. This is not aided by the fact that Morrison never feels a need to explain or unpack these themes.

Way does something very similair, only with one key difference: the themes he embeds within his work relate to the superhero genre itself, something most people are at least partially familiar with. Way's work becomes a playground where these tropes and ideas are explored, remixed and rebooted.


 Who are The Umbrella Academy?

 

The Umbrella Academy tells the story of the Hargreeves 'family', a rag-tag team of gifted children brought together to save the world by an eccentric old man. On the surface it may seem like ground which has been well-trod by the likes of the X-Men (as previously mentioned) or Doom Patrol, but it's what lies beyond this premise that makes the book so damn special. 

Way's cast of characters, all brought to life by Ba's fantastic art and Stewart's emotive colouring, showcase this perfectly. Although some of these characters are modelled strongly off existing tropes - such as Diego, alias "The Kraken", who serves as the family's oh-so-serious vigilante crime-fighter a la Batman - each is given enough detail and nuance to make them feel new and fresh.

It's things like Luther , also known as Space Boy's, gorilla body or The  Kraken's missing eye. Hell, it's all the small details like these that really help to bring the cast to life.

Take for example Klaus, alias "The Seance" and the family's resident telepath/telekinetic. Klaus is unable to use his powers unless he has bare feet, and has the words 'Hello' and 'Goodbye' tattooed to the palms of his hands.



Unlike a lot of other psychic characters, who usually struggle with and are sometimes even resistant to their telepathic abilities, Klaus seems very at home with his powers and uses them without concern or hesitation. Rather then a person burdened with great power, the abilities function as an integral part of Klaus; simultaneously a reflection and extension of his personality. In this way, the Hargreeves family aren't walking, taking superpower repositories, but instead are fully realized people with their own nuances and personality quirks. 

Although they might all share the same last name, the Hargreeves' don't really have much else in common, and it shows. The team are always fighting and bickering amongst themselves, which usually leads to trouble - like almost bringing on the end of the world in Apocalypse Suite.

It doesn't take much time in the world of  The Umbrella Academy to realise that these character's aren't a team of superheroes, so much as they are a group of flawed people who are forced to work together.

Broken Things


This brings us to what is - in my opinion anyway - one of the great strengths of Way's writing, and a throughline permeating his entire body of comic book work: his affection and hope for broken people. It's the simple idea that the fuck-ups and outcasts of the world can get their shit together long enough to do something meaningful which makes his work so intoxicating to me.



Kraken and Spaceboy might continually butt heads, but they still work together when push comes to shove. Sure, Klaus might be off his face on drugs half the time but that doesn't mean he can't still save the day by stopping a meteor with his telekinesis. 

Time and time again in Way's work you will find instances like these, where characters - whom others within the narrative have written off - will step up and rise to a Herculean challenge. 

Throughout all the chaos, weirdness and brokenness, there is always hope. 

If teenager me could see me now...


My signed copy of the first volume of The Umbrella Academy is one of my most prized possessions. Every time I glance at it I am warmly reminded of the time I got to see Gerard Way speak at the Sydney Opera House a few years ago. 

I only got to meet him for a second while he signed my book, and he was clearly very jet lagged, but his kindness and sincerity shone through regardless. He even seemed genuinely grateful when I told him how much I enjoyed his writing, even though I was just one of a huge crowd who all felt connected to his work. 

It was a short exchange, but it meant a lot to interact with a creator I have so much admiration and respect for.


So... does that mean you're an MCR fan now?

 

Well, I'm not about to go out and buy My Chemical Romance's back catalogue, but you can be damn sure I will be first in line to pick up any comic that features Way as a creator. His comics aren't just simply "good"; within their brightly-coloured pages, you will find on full display everything good about comics in general. The Umbrella Academy TV series is due to hit Netflix in 2018. I have no doubts it will be stellar, but you really should do yourself a favour and check out the source material before then. 

For the love of God, please don't make the mistake I almost made and discount this comic due to its connection to the heavily-stigmatised genre of emo rock.

I promise you, you won't regret it. I sure don't.

- Christof   



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