Written by: Gerard Way
Art by: Gabriel Ba
Published by: Dark Horse Comics
I had never heard of the rock band My Chemical Romance, so I was unfamiliar with Gerard Way when I picked up The Umbrella Academy. Granted, I’d have been a little wary of a rock star slumming in comics (it’s one thing for novelists or movie makers to do it—forgive my literary snobbishness), even if Way was a former intern at DC Comics.
The big picture of The Umbrella Academy is that some time ago, forty three children were born to mothers who showed no sign of pregnancy. Dr. Reginald Hargreeves adopted as many of these children as he could and formed the Umbrella Academy. Named 1-7, the seven maladjusted children, though trained to used their powers to be heroes, eventually go their separate ways only to reunite upon the death of their mentor in order to save the world.
The only way I can think to describe the book is Grant Morrison (think Animal Man or Doom Patrol Grant Morrison) meets Mike Mignola (Hellboy). There are two reasons for this comparison: the story and the art. Way crams many ideas into his story and characters, from the Eiffel Tower wreaking havoc on Paris, to robot zombies, to an orchestra whose music is literally a symphony of death. And that’s before you get to a super hero team whose every member carries with them the psychological damage of their institutionalized childhood.
In terms of art, Gabriel Ba’s (Casanova) intense and brooding art matches the melancholy that permeates the characters and book. The energy in his panels is like unfettered Mignola, managing to capture the absurdist elements to the story.
The team has moments of greatness and moments of fractured dysfunction in its history. In many ways, it reminds me of the church. Ostensibly its mission is to help people develop their gifts in order to bless mankind: form people into heroes/the way of Jesus. Sometimes this formation occurs despite the institution itself (and its teachers/leaders) as much as sometimes the well-intentioned, but flawed institution can knock people from their course. Some potential heroes become damaged or otherwise fall away from their faith or calling.
It’s difficult to grow through disillusionment with an institution. It’s easy to fall into cynicism. A cynic is a frustrated idealist, with the emptiness they so often experience being a symptom of their inability to let go of their idealism. Most people are idealists at first; but there must come a time in everyone’s lives when your ideals and your dreams must be measured against reality, where “what could be” and “what ought to be” is measured against “what is.” The false facades begin to crumble and those things which had been so solid and so true are not able to withstand the crush of practicality. What do we do when this happens? Even the best of people are but flawed vessels, yet flawed vessels are the only kind of person God works through. To quote Miroslav Volf, “I am not a Christian because of the church, but because of the gospel. However, it was only through the broken church that I received the gospel. Because of the gospel, I participate in the church.”
Sometimes the structure of our Umbrella Academies need to be torn down and rebuilt in order to make the necessary changes, to balance reality with ideals. They need to get back to the core of what they were meant to do and be about. This is the beginning of a new adventure, an uncertain time fraught with error and, simply speaking, new mistakes must be made. If there is to be any room for growth one cannot be afraid of their own fallibility. Mistakes mold and shape us if we learn from them. The lessons rarely come easy and at times can be quite frustrating. Heroes take up the challenge.
The ending of the series didn’t quite pull together, wrapping a little too neatly (as if Way had written himself into a corner yet didn’t want to trash any of his precious creations). On the positive side, The Umbrella Academy bubbles with refreshing creativity. A juggernaut of ideas thrown at the reader (and heroes)—both vaguely dark, yet incomplete—with equal parts angst, sadness, and heart.