GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "U" - Page One

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cover by BaThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite 2008 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Gerard Way. Illustrated by Gabriel Ba.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Nate Piekos. Editor: Scott Allie.

Reprinting: The Umbrella Academy #1-6 (first mini-series), plus the Free Comic Book Day one-shot (2007-2008)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Recommended for Mature Readers

Reviewed Feb. 1, 2010 (re-assessed 2012)

Published by Dark Horse Comics

In entertainment, they call it "buzz" -- and there was definitely a "buzz" around The Umbrella Academy. A quirky, eccentric spin on super hero -- and pulp fiction -- staples, the first Umbrella Academy mini-series garnered a lot of good reviews. Some of that stemmed from a feigned surprise. The comic was written and created by Gerard Way -- an alt rock musician with the band My Chemical Romance. And a lot of readers expressed some initial skepticism given the uneven track record in comics of "hot" outsider talents suddenly announcing their desire to be a comics pro. Even Dark Horse editor Scott Allie (in an afterward in the original comics) suggested he was less than enthusiastic when the project was pitched (but given the way comics publishers fall all over themselves for properties with non-comics connections, one can take that assertion with a grain of salt). Of course one difference was that Way actually writes the comic...whereas many other such properties simply have the celebrity act in some vague "advisor" capacity.

Another difference, was, as mentioned, The Umbrella Academy started out pretty impressive.

The premise is that many years ago, a series of mysterious births occurred around the world, and genius/adventurer, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, managed to adopt seven of the children, most of whom manifested strange abilities, and he attempted to forge them into a super team. But Hargreeves was a problematic mentor/guardian, tending to regard the children as experiments more than people. Jump ahead a few years, the members of the so-called Umbrella Academy are adults, and have gone their -- sometimes -- bitter separate ways. The death of Hargreeves reluctantly reunites them for the funeral, and coincides with a bunch of events forcing the team to reunite and prevent what may be the end of the world.

Way has clearly imbibed a lot of comics works, and one can easily see influences in this series of U.K. writers ranging from Alan Moore (particularly The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and, if only in the premise of a team reuniting with a history of emotional troubles, The Watchmen) to Grant Morrison's run on The Doom Patrol. In fact, though Way is American, there's a decidedly British feel to the series and the eccentric, wry humour, and with the background being a kind of boarding school complete with school uniforms. Yet it's not entirely clear where the story is set (the city is just The City) and a passing reference to capital punishment further suggests an American locale (America being one of the few western democracy that still executes people) -- though since the world of the series isn't quite like our world, it's perhaps hard to draw too many conclusions. A member of the household is a talking chimpanzee -- which seems odd. But what's odder is whhen you realize that's not unusual...because the city is full of talking chimpanzees!

For the first few issues, the first series -- titled "The Apocalypse Suite" -- is a true delight. In some ways, Way almost does one better than Morrison or Moore. The wry humour is quite amusing, the eccentric and satirical ideas come at you fast and furious, as Way unleashes a colourful imagination. You are intrigued by the characters, the world, and by the oblique way the story is told -- even once we are in the present day, the history and background is being filled in piecemeal, where the significance of a cryptic reference might not become clear for an issue or two.

Artist Gabriel Ba has a rough, cartoony style that nonetheless suits the tone of the series, matching the mix of whimsy and woe, while presenting the scenes and action clearly. And it also reflects a further influence, because Ba's style clearly evokes a slightly rawer Mike Mignola (of Hellboy fame) and both Ba and Way clearly share affection for some of Mignola's pet imagery, such as gorillas.

The Apocalypse Suite never fully collapses and remains enjoyable. But it does start to lose a few shingles as it goes.

The problem with quirky and eccentric ideas is that they should be garnishes, embellishments to the story. But at times, there's a feeling here they can be a substitution. Way is so busy tossing weird things at us, he kind of neglects the underpinnings. Because it's a mix of comedy and drama, there's a sense that things that don't make sense can just be dismissed as part of the satire, or the homage. Such as the main threat where an orchestra of masked musicians intend to bring about the end of the world (told you it was quirky) -- which is fine when they're first introduced. But after a while you might ask, um, why? Who are these people? What's their motive? (After all, outside of comic book cliches, most people don't really plot the end of the world). One could even quibble about the science at points (I'm pretty sure "sonic vibrations" don't carry through a vacuum).

As well, the problem is, it's easier to start out weird and quirky, than it is to maintain it. For the first few issues, we can be pleasantly surprised. But as it goes on, we come to expect it, so it is harder to throw us that wacky curve. Likewise, the latter part isn't quite as funny as the first.

It also gets quite gory as it goes. Granted, Ba's stylized, cartoony art mutes some of the horror, but it's worth noting the story definitely strays into Mature Readers territory as it progresses.

The characterization is problematic. For one thing you can learn as much about the characters and their relationships simply reading some of the quirky extras (ala Alan Moore) such as excerpts from one of the team's tell all expose, or Hargreeves memos, as from the interaction in the comic itself. And oddly, sometimes such character descriptions don't really match the characters in the scenes -- and one can't decide if that's deliberate (telling us as much about the writers as the people they're describing) or whether Way is just having trouble capturing the personalities in the actual scenes. Although with a second reading, I do suspect that's Way's point -- that the real characters are more nuanced, less easily pigeon-holed, than the way others perceive them as being.

But the most sympathetic character...gets killed rather abruptly before the end! And part of that's because, like with Moore and Morrison, there's a feeling Way is intellectualizing his concepts too much. We're more intrigued by what happens to these eccentric characters...rather than we are involved in their fates.

Of course another catch is that, though a "mini-series", there was no secret made that this is the beginning of an intended long running series. So though it reaches a climax and the threat resolved, there are other threads left dangling. This then led into the next mini-series -- Dallas (reviewed below) -- filling in tthe background on the mysteriously returned 00.05.

As such, we're not really sure what open question is just meant to be a quirky, never-to-be-answered mystery (like the origin of the kids) and what is genuinely laying the ground work for a later revelation. And the fact that Way writes this as a side gig to his band also further muddies things. Though supposedly successful, and with further adventures promised...it's been months (years actually!) since the final issue of The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, with no sign yet when more adventures will appear.

Still, as often happens, a second reading a while later, tilts the balance a bit. Perhaps going into it now with a vague memory of dissatisfaction from my first reading meant my expectations were more manageable...and I enjoyed it more the second time, even though I can still concede my criticisms. The character/emotional stuff may not be as strong as it could be, but it is there, and the story is certainly well-paced and nicely eccentric (even as referencing and homaging cliches of the genre). Though I felt it began to run out of steam, if only a bit, and an exercise in quirk over substance -- more sizzle than steak -- it never approaches the borders of badness. Or boredom. But the problem with doing a series that is meant to be a play/riff/satire of genre conventions is that, for all its eccentricity, it does seem like a riff on ideas and themes we've seen riffed on before.

Still...Apocalypse Suite is worth a read.

This is a review of the series as it was serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: $__ USA.


cover by BaThe Umbrella Academy: Dallas 2002 (SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Gerard Way. Illustrated by Gabriel Ba.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Nate Piekos. Editor: Scott Allie.

Reprinting: The Umbrella Academy (2nd series, "Dallas") #1-6 (2008-2009)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Recommended for Mature Readers

Reviewed Feb. 1, 2010

Published by Dark Horse Comics

The Umbrella Academy was, in some respects, the hot, cult property of the moment. Written and created by rock musician Gerard Way, and heavily influenced by the likes of comics scribes Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, it's an eccentric, quirky spin on super hero conventions. Dallas is the second mini-series...though even that is marked by a quirky presentation. Although officially listed as "The Umbrella Academy: Dallas" -- the covers only say "The Umbrella Academy". So if leafing through the back issue bins, the only way to distinguish the first mini-series -- Apocalypse Suite -- from Dallas, is that Dallas is numbered simply #1, #2, etc. while Apocalypse Suite was numbered #1 of 6, #2 of 6, etc.

To further confuse things, though the two series have separate plots, Dallas follows directly from Apocalypse Suite (reviewed above), with the groundwork of the plot first laid in a sub-plot in the original series. Heck, inside the issues of Dallas, officially numbering notwithstanding, in the publishing fine print the issues are listed as 7, 8, etc., indicating Way himself saw the two series as a 12 issue whole.

Anyhoo...

The premise is that the Umbrella Academy had saved the world in the previous series, but not without consequence for themselves, and the erstwhile team/family is once more dysfunctional and drifting apart. Leader Spaceboy (he with his head grafted on a gorilla's body) just sits in front of the TV, getting fat. The focus of the story is 00.05, a team member who reappeared in the previous series after having vanished years before. 00.05 is still in a kid's body, and explained his disappearance because of his time travelling powers, but seems slightly sociopathic, possessing super human fighting skills...and is being pursued by mysterious strike teams. Turns out 00.05 neglected to mention that in his time travelling, he had been recruited -- against his will -- by a mysterious temporal policing agency, who send time travelling assassins to "correct" problems in history. Prior to returning to the Umbrella Academy, 00.05 had rebelled, sabotaging his last assignment -- and the time agency both wants 00.05...and wants him to finish his assignment.

That assignment? Well, the title should give you a hint: Dallas. Indeed, it's kind of an odd choice of title, as it means the reader pretty well knows where the story is headed long before it gets there.

Anyway, the ensuing story eventually involves the whole team, as well as some particularly violent, and psychopathic killers.

And the whole thing...left me mixed.

I remarked in my review of Apocalypse Suite that I liked it, but finished kind of ambivalent. And Dallas leaves me even moreso. The Umbrella Academy has gained a lot of praise and a cult fandom -- and it's certainly not undeserving of some of that. At the same time, flipping through the gushing praise on the issues' letter pages, one can't help noticing how many of the readers identify themselves as fans of Way's musical work (with the band, My Chemical Romance) many claiming never to have read a comic before in their lives. So, of course, this is all going to seem a lot wilder and fresher than to those who know Way is just riffing on Moore and Morrison, who were riffing on Englehart and Gerber, who were riffing on Lee and Fox, etc.

Dallas is trying so hard to be wild and bizarre, mixing comedy, the macabre, and a dollop of pathos, that it doesn't fully succeed as just a drama. There isn't much sustained emotion in it, as Way treats the personalities as subordinate to the quirkiness. In the first series, he touched on the idea -- albeit superficially -- that Kraken had a thing for the White Violin and Spaceboy for Rumour. Yet here, there is so little interaction between many of the characters, much of that is ignored (save a nice twist as to Rumour's motivation for her actions in the climax). And as wild and wacky as the ideas can be...they aren't necessarily that wild n' wacky. Way frankly seems to be straining a bit too hard to prove how self-consciously quirky and clever he can be (like the Mr. Pennycrumb bits). Perhaps because there's no longer a need to fill in the background (as there had been in Apocalypse Suite, giving that series a multi-layered plot) the story here is actually pretty simple, time travel notwithstanding. As mentioned, not only do we pretty much know where we're headed because of the title, but by the end, we don't even know why (symbolized by the temporal agents' motto: "It simply must be done!") Quirky? Sure. Also a convenient way to avoid actually having to come up with a plot that can withstand scrutiny.

At one point, the heroes dig up a body from a grave which acts as a pivotal plot point...yet I don't think there's any explanation for how that body got in that grave, or why.

And because of the thinner plot, it means things that are quirky at first, kind of get over used, such as a couple of bizarre psychotic killers who are weird and funny (and appalling) at first...but can get repetitious.

Gabriel Ba's art can be described most succinctly as Mike Mignola (of Hellboy) rushing to meet a deadline. That is, Ba's style evokes Mignola with its craggy lines, its raw energy, and similar aesthetic sensibilities and character designs, but is more rough and cartoony, and without the extra nuance of gothic mood. It's appealing enough, and certainly suits the tone of the series, the mix of action and comedy, horror and eccentricity.

The series is definitely worthy of a "mature readers" caution, with its over-the-top gore and violence. I had remarked in the first series that it moved in that direction toward the end. Here it starts that way, and just gets more extreme. It's as if Way and Ba are running out of real ideas, and are just substituting exploding heads and severed limbs for imaginative ideas and plot turns -- equating tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top violence with true quirkiness.

Although The Umbrella Academy is meant to be an on going concern, because Way has a day job (with his band) its publication schedule is uncertain. At least the series is structured as finite mini-series, so it's not like we're waiting for a resolution to the Dallas plot -- it does end, and answers the dangling questions raised in Apocalypse Suite. But Way has also begun introducing a minor sub-plot, involving a mysterious corporation, that never connects to the main plot and presumably will be followed up on when -- or if -- Way gets around to a third mini-series.

And so I close the book on the six part Dallas -- or the 12 issue Umbrella Academy saga (including Apocalypse Suite) -- vaguely unsatisfied. Lacking the underlining foundation of a dramatic core, of a plot that truly satisfies when you strip away the razzle dazzle, and characters that involve, The Umbrella Academy: Dallas is certainly a decent page turner -- but more something that you can flip through, rather than absorbs you emotionally and intellectually.

It's the bubbles more than a warm bath.

This is a review of the series as it was serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: $__ USA.



 
 

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