Thursday, September 20, 2007

Umbrella Academy

Something about the Umbrella Academy story in Dark Horse's 2007 Free Comic Day issue intrigued me. I can't quite pinpoint what it was, but I suspect it was the combination of an interesting concept with stylistic artwork. In any event, I was eager to see the first issue of the "real" comic and picked it up yesterday.

The first thing that caught my attention was actually the inside front-cover. It has small, but clear, illustrations of what seems to be the "main" cast with short descriptions of each of the children. But what caught my attention was the small line that said from the personal notes of Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a.k.a. The Monocle. The name sounded familiar. "No -- that can't be right! I must be mis-remembering. Let me Google it really quickly..."

But, it turns out that I was wrong. But only by one letter. Reginald Hargreaves was in fact the husband of none other than Alice Liddell -- the Alice from Alice in Wonderland. He died in 1926 and, although the specific timeframe of this story is not set, it would seem that it occurs after that point. But since Reginald Hargreeves is identified as an alien... well, all bets of any real connection are off. It could be coincidence, or it could be an obscure reference of some kind. We do see a portrait of Hargreeves with a woman at one point, but it's stylized enough to make it impossible to tell if that is indeed intended to be Alice Liddell.

But it was exactly that type of thing that I found enticing and captivating about the story. What did The Monocle know that the world needed saving from? What was "The Jennifer Incident"? Who was The Horror? Who is that statue of outside The Umbrella Academy? Why is said Academy littered with broken/crushed umbrellas? Was Dr. Pogo the same primate on Spaceboy's nearly fatal flight and, if so, what happened to him? Or, was he simply the product of Hargreeves' research? Quite simply, the world created here by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba is incredibly enticing.

Speaking of Way, I gather there was some initial concern when he brought the project to Dark Horse. The whole celebrity-trying-to-write-comics issue. Editor Scott Allie admits to exactly these reservations on the letters page, but was pleasantly surprised when he finally did get around to reading Way's treatment. Me? I had no preconceptions. Largely because Way is entirely an unknown for me. I mean, really unknown. Never heard of him before this. It wasn't until reading Scott's piece that I understood that he was supposed to be somebody. "Supposed to" because I've never heard of My Chemical Romance either. I bought this book exclusively on the strength of what I saw on the FCBD issue, and I was happy to see the full issue live up to and exceed my expectations from that.

Indeed, the story is quite solid. Despite several jumps in time and around a dozen characters to keep straight, the story holds together extremely well. This is especially worth noting when the children protagonists are, for all intents and purposes, dressed identically. Yet, there's no question at any point who is doing or saying anything. Many kudos to Way and Ba for pulling this off so well.

As a first issue, it should come as no surprise that we're largely dealing with general set-up. Who these characters are and what their relationships are to one another. That being the case, though, we're still treated to a good, old-fashioned super battle when the Umbrella Academy thwarts the plans of Zombie-Robot Gustave Eiffel. Yes, the same Eiffel who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Except now he's grafted his head onto a robot body. As one does. And, naturally, after saving Paris, that means "The key to the city!" "And ice cream for everyone!" "Yay!"

The comic isn't exactly whimsical, but it certainly doesn't take itself too seriously either. It borrows heavily on the themes and tropes of early 20th century science fiction, but most definitely contemporizes the references and the overall presentation. All in all, a great concept with solid execution. There is, I think, a little something for everyone, and I'd be remiss in not recommending picking up at least the first issue.