You could be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t really many places left to go with superhero teams. But with The Umbrella Academy, what might at first appear to be a mixed homage and pastiche of the X-Men, quickly develops a life and character of its own in the hands of Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba.
Way’s setting has been forming for years. While he’s more widely known for his music career, this comic book series has been bouncing around his head for many years. This shows as it spills out onto the page, a fully realised concept of extraordinary depth. While Way is introducing us to his characters, using a bit of history and their relationships with one another, the spaces between the speech bubbles drip with words unspoken – a tangible past that Way can dip into without the baggage of further invention. This should be a set text for anyone looking to learn to write convincing, fully-realised worlds.
Way’s super-team were pulled together as a group of abandoned babies, thought to have the potential of unusual special powers. Rounded up by a professor keen to research and exploit their differences, the children are brought up and trained at his Umbrella Academy.
By the time we catch up with them, they’re a dysfunctional group of twenty-somethings. One lives a solitary life guarding Earth from the Moon, another has spent a lifetime trapped in the future and has only managed to return in the body of a schoolboy. Others have quirks and character flaws that provide a rich vein of material for Way to write around.
This first story demonstrates how the team’s dynamic works: imperfectly. One of the group is a girl whose only gift appears to be an exceptional ability on the violin – something few superhero teams have call for. However, she’s kidnapped and genetically altered by a conductor who’s discovered a musical score that can bring about the apocalypse. As she succumbs to the music and usurps his conductor role, the Academy are pitted against her, fighting one another and ultimately having to save the world from themselves.
Ba’s artwork captures the tone of the piece perfectly. This is comic book stuff, and Ba’s style gives it the look and feel of an animated series. It isn’t aimed at kids though – there’s plenty of blood spilled and the characters have a sophistication and complexity to their relationships that wouldn’t be appropriate for a young age group.
Despite this cartoonish feel, Ba’s illustration reflects the story’s depth with an undercurrent of menace. You can tell from the faces, clothes and expressions that these guys aren’t your everyday heroes. It’s a potent cocktail of styles that brings Way’s characters and situations to life.
With this mix of bold characterisation and hidden depth, The Umbrella Academy is a stunning debut that looks set to continue in strength – well worth your time and money.