Monday, November 8, 2010

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

Writer: Gerard Way
Artist: Gabriel Ba
Collects: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #1-6, two page internet preview story, Free Comic Book Day 2007 story

Holy hell, talk about defying my every expectation.

Listen. Between you and me? There was absolutely no reason for this to be any good. It's written by a singer in an alternative rock band. I've little experience with My Chemical Romance aside from hearing a song or two that I thought sounded kind of cool, but even if they're the best - or worst - band going, there's a difference between writing music and writing comic books. Besides that, the track records for any comic book written by a musician of any kind is piss poor. Remember those Insane Clown Posse comics? No? Good, you must have blocked them out of your memory. Couple this with the fact that I had never heard of the artist before and man I thought this was going to suck harder than a cheap hooker; Grant Morrison giving it praise is why I ultimately took it out for a read.

I'm sorry for not giving you the benefit of the doubt, Gerard Way; at the very least, you've proven you can put together a good comic.

The story starts with seven kids with extraordinary powers being born after a wrestler drops the atomic elbow on a space octopus. The seven are taken in and adopted, later becoming a dysfunctional family and superhero group, the Umbrella Academy. After seeing their first adventure, we jump forward twenty years. They've all grown up, one of their number is dead and by this time the team has long since disbanded. But now, their adopted father has died and the apocalypse is on the horizon. The remaining members of the team need to put their differences aside and reunite if there's any hope for the world.

First off, it's easy to tell Gerard is a fan of Grant Morrison. More than once this comic reminded me of the style of rapid fire ideas that can make Morrisons comics the most interesting thing to hit a page. From a living white violin with the power to bring the apocalypse through song to the Academy fighting an insane Eiffil Tower piloted by Zombie-Robot Gustave Eiffil, this comic is just bursting with the kind of insane fun that draws me in every time. He's also got a knack for writing a bit of dark humor here and there, which is more than welcome; juxtaposing an "isn't this worth fighting for" speech against a seedy streetcorner with triple X signs and hookers fighting next to a homeless guy is just morbidly hilarious.

To my surprise, it's all very well written. Way manages to craft some believable drama in the midst of the insanity, with the different relations between the dysfunctional kinda-sorta-not-really-a-family bringing some emotional weight to the proceedings. None of them are actually blood related and within the dynamic lie grudges, chaffing personalities and serious dysfunction. Some members get along well while others might come to blows. Way manages to make us feel like we know the members of the Academy fairly quickly, which I think is high praise. By the end, it's easy to be attached the the team and their insane world. It's even easier to want to see what might be next.

If Gerard Way is not a comic fan, I'll be surprised, because there are aspects to this comic that seem to homage some of the greats. Late in the book, when attempting to piece things together, The Kraken meets with a very Commissioner Gordan-esque inspector. The scene feels like a reference to Batman, right down to Kraken disappearing while the inspector is still talking. The team itself - including the power sets and general looks - feels very much like an homage to the Doom Patrol; hell, the fight with an insane Eiffel Tower made me think of the Painting That Ate Paris from Morrisons Doom Patrol run. Also, some character interactions remind me of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. By that, I'm thinking largely of the rivalry between The Kraken - a hot headed brawler who doesn't like taking orders, just like Raphael - and the team leader Spaceboy, who reminds me of Leonardo of the Turtles, only far more interesting (lets face it, Leo can be kind of a bland cliche of the stern leader just as often as he can be awesome). Some of it's probably intentional, some of it might not be, but it's nice regardless.

I mentioned earlier that I'd never heard of Gabriel Ba before and that's true, but I'll remember him from now on. His art is at times a bit too blocky for my liking - not really a fan of that sort of style - but he clearly has an eye for detail and skills in telling a story with art. The details in his art can convey as much about the story as the words. To elaborate on that a bit, one thing he did I liked happened midway through the first issue when we jump ahead twenty years to the time period the rest of the comic takes place in. The first thing we see is Spaceboy. In the twenty years since, his head has somehow been grafted onto an apes body. There is no exposition explaining this, the comic just moves forward; instead, in the background, we see newspaper clippings that give you everything you need to know about what happened without any exposition. Good stuff.

Also included in the collection is a two page story that was put up on the internet as a teaser of sorts and the Free Comic Book Day offering. The former is nice to see included - though it may be non-canon - but doesn't offer much. The FCBD offering, however, holds more value. Seeing as it takes place before the Umbrella Academy originally broke up as a team, it offers a look at the group in their prime, something we didn't see at all in Apocalypse Suite proper. It's very much in the same vein as the main series and I'm glad it was included. To round it off, there's a sketchbook section at the back, showing a lot of the original concept art of the series numerous characters. It's worth a look to see how the designs evolved prior to the project.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

Man, was this a great read. This was definitely a surprise in regards to how good it is; I'd heard the praise, but I couldn't believe it until I'd seen it. It's great folks. I'd recommend dropping the coin - followed by the Atomic Elbow Drop - as soon as possible. No hype; it's just great comics. I'll be back for Dallas and whatever else Gerard Way feels like writing.

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