Saturday, November 22, 2008

PROPAGANDA Reviews: Umbrella Academy by Gerad Way & Gabriel Ba

Umbrella Academy Volume 1

By Gerard Way & Gabriel Ba

UA cover

When I last reviewed Umbrella Academy here it was on the basis of two issues and I concluded that:

Way spends the two issues I’ve read throwing as much weirdness as he can muster at the reader and although I did enjoy it there’s an energy in the book that just didn’t properly connect for me. It’s almost as if he’s trying far too hard to fill every page with some strangeness or other. Maybe the subsequent issues will improve; maybe it will connect a little more then. But, despite all of the obvious problems with the book; the lack of originality, the formulaic plot, the bloody obvious lifting of ideas, concepts and characters from other writers, I found myself enjoying it in much the same way I enjoy a good episode of something like Heroes - big, dumb hokum. Umbrella Academy is just the same, it’s a fun little comic.

I’ve now sat down with the collection of Volume 1 and I’ve got to say it’s the best Grant Morrison book I’ve read for a long time. I mean that not as a snipe, but as a fullsome compliment. Because what didn’t connect last time quickly snapped right into place this time and I found myself wondering what I found so disconnected the first time around. It really was that good, this first book by Gerard Way. It may be fairly obvious where he’s taking inspiration from, but the story is so much fun, such a great ride that you really don’t mind at all.

The quirkiness, the humour, the masterful way Gerard Way tells his story; seemlessly intercutting across time and never letting the pace slacken but never crowding the reader with too much at any time. All of this makes it seem amazing that we all doubted he could do it, this rock star playing at writing comics. Way has drawn from a host of influences but adapted them, utilised them well and the end result owes much more to Way’s own creative drive to do it on his own terms than merely a additive affect of those influences.

It starts with a team born to weirdness. After witnessing the (literal) birth of the Umbrella Academy we jump ten years and a fledgling team reappears to battle the Eiffel Tower (it’s not a tower, it’s a spaceship) and Zombie Gustav Eiffel. Wacky just doesn’t begin to cover it at this point and you just realise this is a book to just go with the flow on.

UA 5

(Zombie Robot Gustav Eiffel. But of course. Art from Gabriel Ba. The Umbrella Academy (c) Gerard Way. Published Dark Horse)

Another 20 years on. The Umbrella Academy has disbanded in acrimony. But the death of their “father” brings the team back together. But this has been foretold and everything, from family reunions, lost loves, chimp manservants, a future self coming back to the present day as his 10 year old self - all of it points towards the apocalypse happening any day now.

And in the race to avert this coming apocalypse we get at least some of the questions answered: why Spaceboy went from 10 year old boy to man’s head on mutant gorilla’s body? where the time travelling 10 year old went? why a chimp? what happened to number 7 and why she may not be as lacking in special abilities as her “father” always said she was.

UA 3

(Spaceboy, Talking Chimp manservant, dead fathers. That’s the world of Gerard Way’s head for you. The Umbrella Academy (c) Gerard Way. Published Dark Horse)

My enjoyment of the Umbrella Academy isn’t just in the plot and the story. It’s everywhere, on every page. A host of quirky little touches abound here, from the playful chapter titles to the throwaway extras at the end of the chapter. Everything may, or may not be important to the longer story. It’s little touches with the art as well, such as the moment we see the babies for the first time and all seven of them have teeny masks on. Something about this panel just boils down the essential wonderful strangeness of the book for me. Why masks? Is it important? Was it in the script or did Gabriel Ba throw it in there as a gag? We’ll never know, but it just works, brilliantly and effectively to emphasise how delightfully weird it all is.

Umbrella Academy babies

And whilst we’re mentioning the artist; Gabriel Ba’s artwork is equal to the task of seeing Gerard Way’s weirdly wonderful tale onto the page. He’s doing incredible things with the pages and there’s not a single page, not a single panel where the art doesn’t just work brilliantly.

I mentioned the obvious Grant Morrison influence earlier. But the major influence, both on the writing and the art and even the very concept is Mike Mignola. The whole idea of the Umbrella Academy and it’s collection of strange and grotesque characters is very similar in style and tone to the world of Hellboy. But whereas it took Mignola a while to find his feet with his creation, Way and Ba appear to have hit the ground not just running, but dancing a jig and throwing in a few jumps at the same time.

I believe the writer has some album or other to get done with some band he’s in. But once that’s over with he’s back on tour and back writing comics. I see a long future in comics for him at this rate.

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