Image Credit: Gabriel Ba
Over the past year, I’ve gone rogue from Academia. Long story there. Back when I taught, a big question that a lot of my students had was: “Are graphic novels literature?” My response was always yes. Graphic novels—as I would assure my students—are literature. We need to start treating it like it is. Superhero narratives (what comics traditionally contain)—are under the umbrella of speculative fiction, which is writing that bends the laws of reality. It’s a genre which can incorporate magic, futurism, and even horror.
This week, I re-read Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite. I have never read anything like this. I’m so excited that Netflix has made this into a series. I have not watched it yet, but I fully plan on doing it. I wanted to re-read Apocalypse Suite and the second installment, Dallas, before doing so. I first read this in 2011. It was my gateway graphic novel into graphic novels, and a really good one, at that. While I had read comics as a kid (at five, I planned to grow up to be Wolverine), I hadn’t read any in about fourteen years prior to reading this. I don’t quite remember why I bought it, but I’m really glad that I did. Penned during The Black Parade Era of My Chemical Romance, this is Gerard Way at his best (Dallas, the second installment is even better, I promise), with illustrations by Gabriel Bá, whose work creates a chaotically beautiful dreamscape for the piece. This story is seven parts family drama, six parts superhero comic book, one part post-apocalyptic nightmare, one part film noire.
The story starts out with forty-seven children (43 in the show, as per my research), who are all born to women who were not pregnant when the day began. Of these forty-seven children, seven are found by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a rich scientist who is secretly a space alien. He calls them the Umbrella Academy. The story line jumps to years later, and Hargreeves has recently died. By now, the Umbrella Academy has broken up and all gone their separate ways. Number One (Luther also known as Spaceboy), once the leader, is now part monkey and living on the moon. Number Two, (also called Kraken and Diego) who knows where he’s been, but he’s ready to pick fights with everyone. As per his own words, he’s been “picking bullets out of (his) shoulder and throwing nut jobs in the clink.” Number Three, Rumor (Allison) has just gotten divorced. It’s implied that her superpower (the ability to make things true by saying it) has caused her to lose custody of her young daughter. Number Four AKA Séance (Klaus) is addicted to speed and living in the comatose ward at Sunnyside Insane Asylum. Number Five has been thought to be dead for about two decades, although he’s returned in time for the funeral. (Number Six, Ben, is dead. Not much is said of him, although it’s implied that his death is what caused the break up of the Academy). And then there’s Vanya. She’s the only one of Hargreeves’s special pack of kids who shows no special talent. She plays violin and is on the outs with her family after she penned a tell-all.
Number Five has arrived to tell the Umbrella Academy that the world is about to end in a few days. He doesn’t know how. Vanya, after getting in a fight with Kraken, becomes involved in the Orchestra Vandammten—and The Apocalypse Suite, which is an orchestral piece that will cause the end of the world, if played all of the way through.
It’s a book that’s soaked in brightly colored inks, blood, and black coffee. Gabriel Bá’s artwork jumps off of the page, drawing readers deep inside of the world of the Umbrella Academy. Gerard Way’s storytelling is unapologetically bizarre, and therefore wonderful. The characters are all deeply flawed. It brings in a very human element that is central to the work. Even when robots are attacking a carnival, or the Eiffel Tower turns out to be a space ship, it’s the characters who drive the plot, all of the way through. If you are looking for something that’s fresh and creative, or have wanted to read a graphic novel and are looking for a good place to start, or even if you’ve never wanted to read a graphic novel, you should read this graphic novel