Gerard Way wrote The Umbrella Academy. I open with that simple statement because on a superficial level, when you judge a book by it’s cover, that is the most obvious (if superficial) fact about these books.
In case you don’t know, Gerard Way is most famous for fronting alternative rock band My Chemical Romance. This is something of a polarising fact, as in my experience the band and their music invoke strong responses, both positive and negative. Personally, I’m not a fan of the band. Obviously, the graphic novel is not musical piece of work, but it is a creation of art nonetheless. The advice here is simple; leave your preconceptions, whatever they may be, at the door – come in and buy these books.
I say this with confidence, even gusto. I have been reading comics for over two decades. To give you an idea of scale; At any given point my pile of graphic novels that are waiting to be read totals over two grand in cost. It’s safe to say I’ve read a lot of graphic novels but I have never read a book that made me feel like this one did.
The cornerstone of any book of this kind is the characters. The reader is introduced to a high number of characters quite quickly, each unique and fascinating. The relationship between them is shown to us through a series of carefully crafted interactions. These really are the work of a master comic book writer, they are subtle but uncomplicated, done with reserved dialogue and imagery. The story itself is interlaced with the relationships so it’s revealed in parallel, again with real dexterity and texture. It’s this layer upon gossamer layer approach to creating the Umbrella Academy that drew me in until I was completely immersed.
The original artwork for the Umbrella Academy was created by Gerard Way, who’s first real creative medium was art. Although none of Way’s artwork was used in the novel, artist Gabriel Bá did recreate Way’s vision using it. This does mean a greater connection between the writing and artwork than usual. I found this allowed greater and faster access to the world Way has created, which due to its multiple layers and tangible intensity (at the emotionally appropriate moments) can be intimidating. The lining and wash colour bases felt to me that they removed the sharper edges of the book, allowing me to stay invested where I might have otherwise withdrawn.
A prime example of this is the central characters. Do not be mistaken, these are spectacular, weird, edge-of-reason characters. One of the central ‘people’ in this book is a gorilla in a space suit. It could easily be assumed that this kind of setup is somewhere between surreal and ridiculous. Isolated, either the writing or the artwork would be inaccessible, so far removed is it from the norm. The harsh, yet transparent personality of the character would be repellent in it’s own right, and the imagery of a gorilla in a space suit is just bloody silly. Bringing them together however, creates a splendid yet sad representation of the burden of expectation. It creates a troubled yet understandable person striving to balance his own emotional well being against the welfare of others, and the demand he feels within himself to do so. This harmony of ideologies is not something I have ever seen before.
Because of this balance, the Umbrella Academy has a certain serenity to it. The issues are fantastic and incredible (and incredulous), as are the characters, backdrop and subject matter, but more importantly the relationships are accessible and relatable. The dysfunction within the family at the heart of the book gives a tinge of sadness to its core. Higher human achievements as discussed in this volume also only come with sacrifice, and that sense of loss for purpose is ingrained throughout.
Ultimately, I recommend Umbrella Academy because I have never experienced a story as emotionally unique as this one. To truly ‘get it’ you will need to open your mind to a new experience, accept it as entire piece and reflect on it. This isn’t easy; an almost philosophical approach to reading a comic is an usual request to make of a reader. I truly believe it will be worth it, this is a very special read.
You’ll probably end up wishing the worst of throat infections on Gerard Way, on the off chance he’ll shut up and write more comics.
First published in 2012 for http://www.proudlion.co.uk