Monday, November 24, 2008

The Umbrella Academy Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite; The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 (of 6)

The Umbrella Academy Volume One: Apocalypse Suite
Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 (of 6)
by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba
Dark Horse Comics, 2007-2008

Garrett Martin: I don't think I could've been any more skeptical about The Umbrella Academy. Not just because it's written by a celebrity, but because that celebrity is the singer and primary songwriter for a band I don't like. My Chemical Romance's theatricality makes me dislike them even more than their overwrought music. I didn't even think the blinding awesomeness of Gabriel Ba (as integral to the success of the fantastic first album of Casanova as Matt Fraction) could make up for the guaranteed awfulness of Gerard Way's story. I never would've given this series a shot if it hadn't debuted on Free Comic Book Day. I'm glad I did, though, because it's so damned good it easily overcame my total lack of faith. I'm still shocked at how much I like these comics. The obvious Grant Morrison influence no doubt helps, but for the most part Way eschews both the grandiose and lachrymose tendencies of My Chemical Romance, making for a comic that's initially far less "emo" than I expected. Is it silly to think a musician would write comics like his songs? And what were your expectations?

Hillary Brown: I think you may not be giving the arch creation that is My Chemical Romance quite enough credit. I'm not necessarily the biggest fan (they get a little shouty for me), but I've enjoyed a song here and there, and I can recognize the way their fans interpret their songs as differing from the way they might be meant. That is: there are people who think the Smiths don't have a sense of humor or that Bauhaus is similarly dour. I wouldn't say MCR is in their league, but they're not entirely serious about their emotions. Aaaanyway. This is not to say I was less skeptical than you, despite hearing good things all around. I was quite skeptical and, therefore, quite happy with the results, which are fresh, funny, interesting, and well-paced. I also thought the art would be too angular for me, but I ended up really liking Ba's stuff and fairly quickly too. The tone throughout is pleasingly dry and rather British without skimping on action, and while there's a bit of initial frustration at one's own failure to grasp who's who immediately, it fades after an issue or two. This is not to say it doesn't have flaws. Much like Morrison, whom I hadn't thought of an an influence but clearly see as one now, Way could work a little harder on his exposition. It's a fine balance to strike, though, and you want to leave just enough mystery to keep things intriguing. On the other hand, if you start to look at the plot too closely, it begins to collapse, to demonstrate that, while its way fun as you speed along, you really shouldn't get out your magnifying glass unless you want to be disappointed.

GM: I like the headlong hurtle through the plot in the earlier issues, the piling on of ideas that aren't always thoroughly explained. But then I love Morrison, Kirby, and Silver Age non-sense, so it's expected I'd dig that. Apocalypse Suite, the first six issue mini-series and collection, is at its best in the early goings, when Way and Ba are setting things up, establishing this world, and spooling out all these great little ideas. They're not all particularly original (if the dude who created the first comic book talking monkey got royalties, he could buy and sell Dubai a thousand times over), but they're presented with such obvious excitement and love for the form that I can't help but get swept up in the rush. In fact, my interested started to dim slightly when the pace slowed down and the story became more focused. That also coincides with a tilt towards the sort of overemotional melodrama I expected, though, and so I can't tell which is more responsible for the book eventually running out of steam. Or maybe it was the graphic death of a character that never, ever should've died, ever.

HB: Ah, but the smartness of the series is its flexibility in time, meaning a) there are a lot of untold potential stories, b) the time spanned is wide, from childhood to adulthood, and c) this means, especially when you incorporate a time-traveling character, that no one ever really dies, which means you can get the impact of a great character's death without having all the drawbacks. There's still so much that remains to be unpacked, like what exactly happened to number five, and this is what makes me want to keep reading, the faith that they'll get to that stuff and do so in an interesting way. You really think it's melodramatic?

GM: Maybe not melodramatic, but when the plot kicks in it sways perilously close to the sort of morose and angsty self-pity you find in bad emo music. Granted the character that most embodies these traits winds up being the bad guy, more or less, and is defeated, so Way's not necessarily endorsing that non-sense. The primary source of the book's drama is built on that whole teenagery "I'm so different, nobody understands me" schtick, and it's a testament to Way's gift for pacing, dialogue, and inspired concepts that I still like Apocalypse Suite as much as I do. And that's a good point about the flexible narrative. The character whose death bummed me out so much makes an appearance in the first issue of the second series, Dallas.

Normally I ask if you're interested in reading future installments; well, we already have, thanks to a preview copy of the first issue of the next series. What did you think of that?

HB: I thought it was a little obscure but promising, which is probably the same way I would have felt upon reading only the first issue of this first story arc. It's definitely a series I could see myself following, if not month to month then at least in trades. I just kind of still think you're overstating the emo quality of Apocalypse Suite. I mean, is it more so than Young Avengers was? Okay. Maybe it is a little. Especially since the whole "music can help me express myself but also destroy the world" theme is in there. But it didn't annoy me, perhaps because of that recent Smiths/Cure dance party Mr. Brown and I played the part of the Smiths at. Mopey adolescent music must be in my blood or something. Would you keep reading, despite being more irritated?

GM: Don't get me wrong: I really like Apocalypse Suite. I'm just noting that it initially won me over in part because it lacked a quality I expected, but that gradually creapt in to an extent. It didn't creep in enough to derail my enthusiasm for the book, but it did temper it very slightly. It's still a really fun comic with a number of good ideas, an interesting team and family dynamic, and fantastic artwork.

I was worried that Way could be the type of writer who exhausts all his good ideas in one swoop, but the first issue of Dallas allayed some of those fears. It's not as immediately striking as the first issue of Apocalypse Suite, and the villains introduced at the end are maybe too much like something you'd find in Morrison's Doom Patrol, but it definitely left me looking forward to the next issue. The final note didn't particularly resonate with me; number 5's final line, and the situation that surrounds it, are just a little too common and generic, I think.

HB: Fair enough. I wasn't giddy with excitement over the cliffhanger ending of the new storyline's first issue, but it's still so much better than most stuff like this, and I may like it as much as I like the first trade of Doom Patrol, which is all I've gotten around to so far.

GM: Yeah, the cliffhanger isn't particularly compelling, if only because the whole "bad-ass character puts over the unseen but upcoming threat that we know absolutely nothing about by totally freaking out about it " thing has been done many times in the past (and damn, hopefully a better writer somewhere can come up with a far less clunky term for that).

What other stuff would you say is like this? Just wondering. And you should read more Doom Patrol. The first trade is great, but it gets even better. Morrison's last eight issues might be my favorite comics ever.

HB: Well, it has stuff in common with what little I know of The Prisoner and Harry Potter and Heroes and, I guess, most teams of younger superheroes. There's a lot of time devoted to digging into their particular talents and backgrounds. It's like you get to tell a bunch of origin stories, and who doesn't like origin stories? The question is whether they can maintain momentum after exhausting that stuff, and I'm not sure that they can, but I also don't necessarily feel like they can't. (Also: okay. I will read more Doom Patrol. Arm twisting not necessary.)

GM: True about origin stories. Notice my interest in Apocalypse Suite slightly abated once they hit the meat of the plot. Dallas will be the test of whether Way can make us care about these characters outside their initial concept and archetypes.

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