Comic Book Review – The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

The Umbrella Academy (issues #1–6) by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá

One of the great things about all the comic book blogs is that it represents a diverse collection of readers and tastes when it comes to comic books. In this way, I can see what might be of interest before I spend my hard-earned money on my entertainment – this blog should indicate that I love reviews, even if mine aren’t particularly good or different. Of course, the blogosphere isn’t perfect: there are many times when I’ve ignored the enthusiastic posts of someone pimping a book they love because I’ve tried some things that have been recommended and not gotten what all the fuss was all the about. The Umbrella Academy was another entry in the list of things that some people like. However, it kept on coming up as ‘a good thing’ on too many posts from different people. Even I can’t ignore that amount of noise – and I’m glad I didn’t.

The Umbrella Academy doesn’t initially sound like an interesting prospect – the first book from the lead singer of a band I’ve never listened to (My Chemical Romance). However, Wikipedia reveals that he wanted to be in the comic book industry, and he has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, so he’s not just a visitor from another field of entertainment who wants to indulge his inner geek. And he lists Grant Morrison as his main influence, which is a good thing in my book – the title of the first comic is practically a tribute to Grant’s Doom Patrol: The Day The Eiffel Tower Went Berserk.

The story tells of seven unusual children (of a larger number) born on the same day to women who weren’t expecting it, who are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves and trained in the use of their powers. The first issue tells of a tale from when they were ten years old and saved Paris, before jumping ahead 20 years to the death of Hargreeves and seeing The Umbrella Academy when they are older, and the threat that arises by their coming together for Hargreeves’ funeral and how the team interact with each other now.

The ‘school for gifted kids with a kindly old man’ concept sounds like the X-Men but there the similarities end – this is more like Doom Patrol, a precursor to the X-Men, with the strangeness of the heroes and the battles they fight. However, I think the influence of Grant Morrison’s Zenith can’t be ignored, with the idea of kids with powers growing up and doing different things and what happens when they come together (although I could be biased, because Zenith is one of my favourite Grant Morrison books).

The book isn’t just about influences and weird stuff (such as Spaceboy, the leader of The Umbrella Academy, having his head transplanted onto the body of a gorilla and now living on the moon); it’s an entertaining story, but it is also about people who grew up together and have a lot of history but don’t necessarily get along; it’s about feeling isolated even in a place where being strange is okay; it’s about discovering who you are and facing up to it. There is emotion and feeling behind the fight scenes and the violence.

For a first-time writer, Way seems to have arrived fully formed – his narrative captions are a delight to read, concise yet informative, his characterisation taut and his handle on plotting and storytelling is almost perfect. He is helped by having the right artist for the job: Bá. Everything he is asked to draw, Bá handles with poise and moody flair. Hints of Mignola percolate through the book, with use of shadow, but there is a cartoonier edge, a sense of fun that bubbles to the surface and brings everything to life. Although James Jean’s hauntingly beautiful covers are a delight, Bá’s art is the best medium for the adventures of The Umbrella Academy.

I’m really happy that I decided to pick this book up because it was a fabulous read – it’s turned me into one of those bloggers enthusing about a comic book. I’m delighted that there will be more stories from Way and Bá (The Umbrella Academy: Dallas is currently ongoing) because the scope for further adventures is seemingly unlimited – what stories are there to tell of the 20-year gap? How did The Horror (number 00.05 of The Umbrella Academy) die? What will happen now that Hargreeves is dead? Read The Umbrella Academy – you won’t be sorry.

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