Why I love 'The Umbrella Academy'

Article by James Stone

I would like to take you on a weird and wonderful journey, just like The Umbrella Academy has for me over the last 12 years. To begin this story, we need go all the way back to 2006, when I was a 22-year-old emo who became obsessed with the album "The Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance.

It was at this time my father was diagnosed with lung cancer and the album became my escape from the world. Being 22 I wasn’t a kid, but, having never been personally affected by something like this before, I felt like a child, lost without a clue of what to do. I would listen to the album on repeat, memorising every word to the Dark, Heavy and emotional melodies and relating to the stories being told. I remember going to see MCR live at Wembley Arena and again at the Download festival in 2007, seeing the emotion on thousands of fans faces and realizing that I wasn’t alone.

Somewhere in the midst of all this I read an interview with the lead singer, Gerard Way, in a music magazine, more than likely Kerrang. It was here that I first learned about his next venture, a comic book called The Umbrella Academy. The 2005 release of Sin City had resurrected my childhood obsession with comic books, so hearing this news got me very intrigued.

At this time in my life "The Black Parade" was the most impactful piece of music I had ever heard. Could the man responsible for that deliver the same sense of escapism, that my mind so desperately needed, in a comic book? I didn’t know just yet but I was optimistic and was eagerly awaiting more information and its release.
Eventually in late 2007, The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite Issue #1 was released, followed by a 5 further issues, released on a monthly basis. Living in a rural part of England meant the closest I could get to a comic book store was Borders or W.H. Smith. It wasn't until the middle of 2008, therefore, when the collected 6 issue trade paperback version was released, that I managed to get my hands on a physical copy.

Having built this book up in my head for a year it's an understatement to say my expectations were high. This was a very dangerous place to be in, as it happens all too often. You wait for something, get excited and build up an image in your head, only to be disappointed because it's not quite what you expected.

This was not one of those occasions.

From the opening page of issue 1 "The Day the Eiffel Tower Went Berserk" seeing a giant octopus being given an atomic flying elbow in a wrestling ring, I could tell this book was for me. This was The Umbrella Academy telling the audience it was no ordinary super hero comic.
APOCALYPSE SUITE

The Umbrella Academy Volume 1 is called "The Apocalypse Suite" and consists of 6 22-page issues created by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, and published by Dark Horse comics. Gerard Way is the sole writer on all 6 issues, with Gabriel Ba providing the art.

Gabriel Ba is now an Eisner award winning artist, however his work on De: Tales through Dark Horse comics in 2005 also earned him and Eisner nomination for Best U.S Edition of international material. His style from issue 1 of "Apocalypse Suite" to issue 6 of Volume 3 "Hotel Oblivion" has remained unique and consistent.

What I like in particular about his style is how much this feels like a comic book. You can sense the time and effort that has been put in to each panel; from the emotional reactions on facial close ups, to the details on a city-wide shot. With the development of digital art there are many comics with such a 3D design, they almost look like an adaptation from screen. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but I feel some comic books are being drawn so they can easily transition to TV or film, using the comic book industry as a back-door pilot. I would be very surprised if at any time during the creation of The Umbrella Academy if Way or Ba even considered how this would all look on screen. This isn't to say the ambition to move into another medium wasn’t there, but I don’t feel it impacted on any of the creative decisions they made.
When "Apocalypse Suite" was released Gerard Way was a complete newcomer to the world of comic book writing. However, if you ever listened to any of My Chemical Romance’s 4 studio albums then you will know that Way is no amateur in telling a story. From the opening to issue 1, as we start to learn about the universe and the stories to come, you are sucked straight in. Gabriel Ba’s ability to structure a page and flow the story from panel to panel is complimented beautifully by Gerard Way’s ability to build the dialogue up, making you want to keep turning from page to page.

So, what is The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite about? I'm not going to spoil this book in any way, as I truly feel it's something you need to experience for yourself. I will, however, tell you the basics you need to know, to see if this is the book for you.

The story follows a dysfunctional family of super heroes who, after drifting apart, are reunited for the funeral of their adopted father. Oh... and to save the world from complete destruction.

This is not your ordinary Super Hero comic book, though. Yes, our main characters have powers, but that isn't what drives this story along. What Gerard Way does is break down each family member to their core, to give us a story about who they are as individuals. We explore what makes the family members different, what caused them to drift apart and the struggles it takes to bring them back together.
DALLAS

Apocalypse Suite was well received by critics and fans alike, eventually winning an Eisner award in 2008 for Best Limited Series. This success meant we didn’t have long to wait for the arrival of volume 2, "Dallas."

The second story picks up almost immediately after the finale to "Apocalypse Suite", with another 6 issues. The plot centres around our family travelling back in time to 1963 to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

After some slight rehabilitation, the siblings still have long, deep seeded issues with each other, and we continue to follow their ups and downs.What I love the most about "Dallas" is that it makes me feel like they never left. The flow of the story and the sibling rivalry is consistent with "Apocalypse Suite", not giving us any plot holes or moments that make you question the status quo.

"Dallas" didn’t receive an Eisner award like its predecessor, but in 2009 Umbrella Academy did receive another nomination for best Graphic Album Re-Print. Awards are not a measure of success, in my opinion, as the true merit of accolade is how the audience feels. I can honestly say that "Dallas" was as good, fun and even slightly crazier, which complimented "Apocalypse Suite" beautifully.

In 2009 the announcement came that volume 3 was in the works and it will be called "Hotel Oblivion." I would love to sit down with Gerard Way and discuss want went on between 2009 and 2018 when the book was eventually released.

By this time social media became the forefront on news, and intermittent reports from Way would reassure us that the book was still ongoing, but that he needed to focus on his music. During this time there was a new My Chemical Romance album before the band broke up, and then got back together.
HOTEL OBLIVION

Eventually, in October 2018, "Hotel Oblivion" issue 1 was released. Taking a time jump of a few years, we followed each family member after the events of Apocalypse Suite and Dallas. The siblings were carving their own path in the world, trying to move on, while some characters from their past just wouldn't let them.

Almost 10 years had passed and it was absolutely incredible to see The Umbrella Academy back, with Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba once again at the helm. Nick Filardi is the colorist on volume 3 who manages to somehow brighten the feel of the book, while maintaining the same atheistic of Volumes 1 and 2. Filardi’s work can be seen throughout multiple Marvel and DC comics including the recent run of Nightwing (another personal favorite series of mine).

"Hotel Oblivion" is jam packed with everything that I fell in love with in the first two volumes, and more. We are taken to lots of new locations, with some beautiful settings. We get to see the children again on their adventures, with villains galore along for the ride. My belief is that The Umbrella Academy is one of the best comic book series to have ever been produced, and "Hotel Oblivion" is another classic instalment of an incredible series.
One of the beautiful things about these books is how they made me fall in love with Super heroes again. The stories deconstruct the characters in such a way, that you start off intrigued by this group of dysfunctional people with powers but, by the end, you love each and every one of them. This felt like almost the polar opposite to the likes of the Watchmen, where I found myself loving who the heroes were, and loathed who they eventually became.

The Umbrella Academy came into my life at a very important time. The subject matter was so relevant at times that I felt like this book was written entirely for me. I know I can't relate to someone who has the ability to travel in time, or someone who has super strength, or is able to talk to the dead. What I related to was their human emotions, when dealing with the loss of their father. A huge part to the stories of these characters is focused on their emotions and dealing with real life situations. It doesn’t matter what powers you have, we all feel, we all cry, we all laugh and that is something anybody can relate to, and will take away from these books.

If you are still with me then you will notice there is something I haven't mentioned. That’s right, a little known company called Netflix released a 10 episode TV series of the same name, in February 2019.

I managed to binge watch this series within about 2 days and I loved every minute of it. The thing that surprised me was that the variations the show makes away from the comics didn’t bother me. I have experience with TV or movies making changes to the source material that I don’t like. The Walking Dead is a prime example. Killing off Andrea and, more recently, Carl are 2 scenarios that annoyed me and I feel they also harmed the show.  

NETFLIX TV SERIES

The Umbrella Academy on Netflix does take some big liberties with the source material, but they pay off. I can't think of any changes made that harm the legacy of the characters, or the direction of the show. In the books Child Number 6 is dead, and that is that. In the TV show he is a regular character who communicates with Klaus Number 4, as he has the power of speaking with the dead. I quite like this and it actually played well into Klaus’ already crazy persona.

Diego, the number 2 child, has a friend Detective Lupo in the books, whom he works with investigating crimes. The TV show has changed Lupo from a man to a woman and created a romantic back story. This again does not bother me, as it enhances Diego’s personality and gives him an added dimension. It makes you think that he isn't just a serious, tough as nails crime fighter who only looks out for himself.

The TV show mainly follows the story arc of "Apocalypse Suite"; however, they do sprinkle in some elements of "Dallas" like Klaus going to the Vietnam War. Hazel and Cha Cha, a pair of time travelling bounty hunters, also appear in the TV series, but don’t appear until Volume 2 in the books. Their characteristics are altered and they have very different personalities on the show, compared to the books, but again I don’t mind. This is largely down to the on screen pairing of Mary J Blige and Cameron Britton, who complement each other's style perfectly.

There are two elements to this show that stand out the most, the cast and the music. Firstly, the cast has been assembled almost to perfection for the characters. Each actor has embodied the different personality and all deliver really stand out performances. I challenge anyone not to cry in episode 4 when Diego goes looking for Detective Patch at the motel, and it feels like Klaus was written solely for Robert Sheenan to play.
Major credit must be given to the casting department on this show, because they have assembled not only a pitch perfect group, but all of them are relatively unknown. The top of the bill has to be Academy award nominated Ellen Page who plays number 7 Vanya. Tom Hopper who plays number 1, Luther, is best known for his role as Billy Bones in Black Sails and 4 episodes on Game of Thrones as Dickon Tarley. With the current media circus surrounding who will be playing the next Batman, I can't help but look at Hopper and think he would make a good candidate.

Number five in the comics is only 10 years old, so bearing in mind the central role the character has throughout the story, it was sensible making him 13 in the TV series. Those extra few years can make all the difference in getting the acting talent required. The young actor they enlisted was Aiden Gallagher who came through the Nickelodeon channel and had previously appeared in 84 episodes on the very popular show Nicky, Ricky, Dicky and Dawn. Having watched that show a lot with my own kids, you could tell all 4 of the titular characters would move on to have successful careers.
Emmy Raven-Lampman is someone I have never come across before, and only a has few TV episodes to her name on IMDB. She appears to be a very talented find, and plays the role of Number 3 Allison very well, with some real range in her emotions demonstrated when dealing with the breakdown of her marriage, and ongoing separation.

The find of the show for me is David Castaneda, who plays number 2, Diego. With a number of TV and movie credits to his name, David is an experienced actor. Diego, AKA The Kraken, can be compared to Nightwing or Green Arrow,as a more vigilante type superhero. Fighting for justice alongside the police, but willing to go that step further than the law will allow. As a skilled fighter, it's here that David/Diego steals the show. His fight scenes throughout the series really stand out and meet the bar set by other shows, such as Daredevil and Arrow.

The second thing I want to praise is the music. There has been no expense spared, as every single episode is full of huge well known hits from bands like the Sex Pistols, to the Kinks, to Queen. They are not just popular songs used for promotion, but they are beautifully crafted into the story and enhance whats on screen, the way in which the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack did for the movie.

As you can probably tell I absolutely recommend reading the comic books and watching the TV show. Do you need to do one to appreciate the other? Absolutely not, they can be enjoyed exclusively, but for the full Umbrella Academy experience a recommend doing both.

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