Hey, did you know that the frontman in My Chemical Romance also happens to be a big fan and writer of comic books? Yeah, as it turns out the kid’s also very good at it.
This article was originally published in Astromono on March 23rd, 2010. There are minor plot spoilers ahead.
Gerard Way writes and Gabriel Bá illustrates The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, one of the most interesting, smartest and hot-looking limited books of the decade, with a story that has already been optioned by Universal Pictures for a film adaptation.
The original run is divided into six parts which were published between September 2007 and February 2008, with covers by the inimitable James Jean.
Apocalypse Suite tells the origins of a dysfunctional family of superheroes, whose members carry extraordinary powers. Early on we learn that, in an unprecedented event and for no apparent reason, 43 children with supernatural abilities have been born spontaneously at the same time around the world, brought on by women who never showed signs of pregnancy.
Enter Reginald Hargreeves. Philanthropist. Multimillionaire. Alien. Adopting seven of the babies born on that day, he takes the lot to his mansion in order to “Save the World.” From that moment the story jumps 10 years ahead into the future, where we find the babies are now a team led by 01, the group’s oldest, who has superhuman strength and a boy scout complex that matches his constant need to be the hero of the day.
After 01 comes (take a wild guess) 02, the group’s rebellious knife marksman with seemingly perfect aim and an equally uncanny hatred of his older brother. The rest of the siblings are likewise numbered, continuing with 03, the girl capable of prevaricating, that is turning a false rumor true in front of your eyes; 04, the emo seance who can speak with the dead and use telepathy; 05, who mysteriously disappeared some years ago; 06, whose body is home to a tentacled beast and 07, the quiet girl whose only apparent skill is to play the violin, much to Hargreeves chagrin, who won’t waste an opportunity to remind her of what a failure she is.
Skip ahead some 20 years and now we see the kids go by their first names or monickers and some have changed radically, like 01 who now calls himself Spaceboy and has his head attached to a gorilla’s body. Oh and of course, he lives in space (any similarities are purely coincidental.) 02 is now known as The Kraken, a dark and brooding vigilante whose still salty about being the second in charge; 03 earned herself a reputation as The Rumor and is now a single mom.
These and more radical events eventually shake the group’s internal dynamic, but they’re just the tip of a very bloody iceberg, since some of the team’s members mysteriously disappeared and are now coming back bearing terrible news from wherever it is they returned from.
As you may have noticed, time-skipping is a very common narrative device in Umbrella Academy, giving small hints to explain the evolution of various cast members, many of whom hate each other, to the point that by the time we see the family members in their 30s the ensemble has all but dissolved.
With cunning skill, Way draws from many plot ideas seen in books like Watchmen and Identity Crisis to throw impactful twists at the reader. The story begins just like any take on a superhero adventure would — chock-full of explosions and comic banter left and right — but it slowly transforms into a deeper and realistic analysis of each main character, trying to see how each of them justifies their actions and copes with very real feelings. The book draws the reader in with the absurd action sequences it presents, but where it really takes its hold of you is when these kids talk to each other and say or do things that make you want to throw the book at the wall or even reach for something in the corner of your eye.
Gabriel Bá on the other hand is a Brazilian artist with a taste for simplicity. His style renders all of the book’s crazy action and complex scenery with lines that stand out over the color and facial expressions that look very simple, but achieve their purpose. The first volume of Umbrella Academy earned Bá an Eisner Award for “Best Limited Series” and rightly so, with a book that jumps at you and looks entertaining, making even the most somber and bloody scenes worthy of pausing for a minute to admire all the detail before moving on.
The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite is a must read for those in the market for an inspiring and creative story told in a sharp manner. Certainly there are depressing sights, some of which are marked by their excessive gore and blood by the gallons, but the core message is alive and well in every page: life is a big blot of gray, not black or white, even — or specially for — those who don’t easily fit in because of how different they are.
Reading this book you’ll find action, drama, good and bad decisions, but you’ll also see the ground work for the second arc which is even more entertaining. Highly recommended if you’re a comic book fan or if you’re just tired of reading Marvel and DC’s caped adventures. It’s a brutal ride that starts with an atomic flying elbow and ends with a milk carton.
Panels is a weekly column where I talk about one or three comic books I’m reading and why I love them or want to burn them. Read the archive here.