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Friday September 17, 2010

Meet the gang behind Umbrella Academy comic book

The Umbrella Academy’s story revolves around a family of seven superheroes who were adopted by an alien, and trained to be a crime-fighting team.

ON any other day, an appearance by Gerard Way, frontman of American rock band My Chemical Romance, on stage would have brought the roof down.

Today, however, there were no screaming fans, no fainting groupies and most damning of all, no music to be heard either.

Then again, this was no rock concert. This was the San Diego Comic-Con (held in July), and Way was on stage for a panel to talk about his comic book The Umbrella Academy, together with artist Gabriel Bá.

Though essentially a superhero comic, The Umbrella Academy (which is available in two trade paperback volumes, namely Apocalypse Suite and Dallas) differs from the usual Marvel/DC Comics stuff by focusing on the family relationships between the seven adopted siblings who make up The Umbrella Academy. And before you start crying “Fantastic Four rip-off!”, hear me out.

The comic begins with 43 children all over the world born to women who had shown no signs of pregnancy. Seven of these children were adopted by an alien and raised as a superhero team. The first mission we see them on involves them saving Paris from an evil arch-enemy plotting to destroy the world with the help of a walking Eiffel Tower-cum-spaceship. Even Dr Doom would approve.

Nevertheless, the real draw of the comic book is not the superheroes or the battles they get into; it is the dysfunctional relationship between the seven siblings (or rather, six, since one is dead during the main series) and their struggle to move away from their unhappy past.

And unlike certain superhero teams who just have certain characters turn up when a big battle is afoot, every character in The Umbrella Academy has an important part to play in the story.

There’s Spaceboy (who is essentially a human head on the body of a gorilla), who bickers incessantly with The Kraken (who can whole his breath underwater indefinitely). There’s The Rumor, who can alter reality by err ... starting a rumour, and Séance, a cool drug-addled hippie dude who can talk to the dead.

Oh, and then there’s their youngest sibling – Vanya, aka The White Violin. The main antagonist of Apocalypse Suite, she can blow up houses with a single note on her violin, and is also a favourite character of Way.

Describing how he thought of the character, Way said: “I was in a café in New York, and they had a white violin decoration on the wall, and for some reason I had never seen a white violin in my life. I also thought it would be a cool character for a comic book!”

The most interesting character of all however, has to be the conveniently named Number Five, aka The Boy. Don’t be fooled by his appearance as a 10-year-old, though – he is a highly trained assassin who can move faster than most people by performing micro-jumps into the future.

More essential to the plot than the other characters, his reappearance in the first book after being missing for 20 years triggers the events in Apocalypse Suite; and he is also the focal point for the plot of Dallas.

So far, the two volumes of the graphic novel released have been well-received by the fans (you know your comic has made it when Comic-Con attendees start dressing up as your characters) and critics alike (The Umbrella Academy won the Eisner award for Best Limited Series in 2008).

Despite being essentially a superhero comic, Way’s writing gives it a sort of free-flowing creativity and originality that most mainstream superhero comics lack.

When quizzed about this particular style, Way attributed it to the fact that when he started writing it, he had been out of touch with comics for a very long time.

“It was kind of because I stayed away from (mainstream) comics for a really long time. I was just reading a lot of Doom Patrol (by Grant Morrison),” he said. “I was really relaxed about it (when I began writing), and just kinda thought, ‘what kind of character doesn’t exist?’ and went on from there.”

It’s not just Way’s writing that gives the books a sense of freshness, though. Bá’s Mignola-esque artwork also gives the comic a very unique look, one that is quite unlike many mainstream comics.

Being a musician and a comic book writer, Way also said there have been occasions when his two interests converge.

“Sometimes I’d start with titles of The Umbrella Academy issues that I think would be better as a song!” he said, adding that when he initially re-entered the comic book world, he had to draw a line between comics and music because he had a lot to learn.

His double career also means he has to sacrifice one for the other now and then. There will be no new The Umbrella Academy books in the near future, as Way has been busy with the new My Chemical Romance album (due out this year, by the way). Bá is also busy currently, inking the equally acclaimed Daytripper.

However, Way did announce at last year’s Comic-Con that the title of the third book is Hotel Oblivion, and it is just a matter of them clearing their schedules to work on it.

So, fear not. Judging from the rapturous reception both got at the Comic-Con panel that day despite not having any new material to show us, Way and Bá may not be hanging up their umbrellas just yet ...

The Umbrella Academy graphic novels are available from Kinokuniya, KLCC.

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