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Gabriel Bá: Shaping Umbrella Academy's Landscape

A comics interview article by: Gemma Milroy
Gabriel Bá, as he notes in this interview, is no newcomer to the industry. He’s an internationally respected artist who has seen his level of exposure grow exponentially--first with his work on Image’s Casanova (with Matt Fraction) and now with the run-up to his new project (written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way), the Dark Horse miniseries, The Umbrella Academy. Next week marks the release of the first issue of The Umbrella Academy, so this seemed like a good time to catch up with Bá. (Be sure to also see last month's SBC interview with Way [conducted by Dark Horse’s Scott Allie here].) Tim O’Shea assisted in this Bá interview.

SBC: I know for myself, when I saw The Umbrella Academy comic for the first time, it was the front cover illustration (by James Jean) that attracted me to it. In terms of your interior art, did both you and Gerard have the same idea of what the style of illustration for the comic was going to be like?

Gabriel Bá (GB): Gerard has a very defined idea of what he wants visually and he passes that on both to James Jean for the covers and on the scripts he gives me. Even so, we have a lot of freedom to make what we believe is right and put our own input on the book. James is a tremendous artist and he got right away the feel of the story and every new cover he delivers kind of sets the tone for that issue, since he makes them far ahead of the interior artwork. So it's always a good starting point.

SBC: Was it difficult to put your own twist on Gerard's vision for the characters?

GB: The characters' designs were really cool and I almost didn't have to change anything. Whenever I have to change anything or create some new character, it's quite easy to be faithful to the whole concept behind the book. The whole thing has this dark-retro-classic look to it and I just keep on that track.

SBC: Are any of the character drawings inspired by any real people you know? If so, who?

GB: I usually use real people, actors usually, to have the first draft of the characters, to make them a little more believable in terms of dimension and personality, but after a few drawings, they end up being the characters drawn on the page, not the person that inspired them any longer. As an example, there's this character who's a boy and I've based him on Gerard himself for a number of reasons. First, the drawing Gerard gave me of The Boy already kinda looked like him. And I picture him in my mind when I'm reading the scripts. I think Gerard has this kind of "boyish" face that really doesn't show how old he is, he really looks like a little boy and I thought it would be a great idea to use him as this character. Now I don't go looking for pictures to draw the Boy, but I try to remember the important features I noticed at first to make him look alike in every panel.

SBC: In the course of working on the characters, which member of the series' cast did you really develop an affinity for drawing?

GB: Spaceboy, the team leader. He's the character that I've put more of my own style into, because he's this big gorilla-body hero and that's a sort of character I always love to draw, because I can exaggerate a lot with him. I've been turning more expressive and cartoony over the years and stylized characters really interest me more. I think people all look differently and I love to show it with the art. Spaceboy is the ultimate hero, always standing tall, very certain of what he's doing, a true leader, but with this kind of insecurity [that's] hidden, which turns him into a great character.

SBC: How did you manage to get together with Way?

GB: Scott Allie, editor at Dark Horse, connected the dots. He is in charge of the project and they needed an artist and Scott presented my work to Gerard last year and he liked it. After showing the proposal of the project to me, I quickly accepted and that's pretty much it, especially because they wanted to announce it at the San Diego Comic Con on that year, which was only two weeks away. I've only got to start to know Gerard a little better this year as we started to work on the comic on a regular basis and we talk more now.

SBC: What is it was like working with Way? Is it difficult to collaborate when he is on tour with his band?

GB: The hardest part was when he was in Japan. I'm in Brazil, four to six hours ahead of Portland where Scott is and Gerard was 12 hours ahead of me, so it was impossible to synchronize the work. Besides that, it really depends on how many shows Gerard is doing and how much it gets in the way of the actual writing of the scripts, which is the hardest and most important part of the whole process. Gerard kind of have no home, no base to make ground and really write, he's always on the road so it gets in the way of the project. As much free time he might have, it's not the same. I have stopped everything else to focus on this project and Gerard just can't do that, so he's doing his best and we're learning and evolving along the way.

SBC: How hard is it to work on Umbrella Academy while also collaborating with Matt Fraction on Casanova? Or do you schedule your projects so you're not working on two at the same time?

GB: I've passed the torch to Fábio Moon, my brother, to handle the second "season" of Casanova while I'm working on Umbrella. Matt and I decided it would not be good to the comic to wait until I'd be free again and we needed an artist to take over and Fábio was the obvious first option. So I still have a lot of involvement on the project and I see it being built every day. And I'm still making the covers to keep the visual identity of the book. But eventually I imagine myself working in more than one project at the same time. I did an independent comic with Fábio, Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos and Grampá for this year's San Diego Comic Con, a very short seven-page story each and we had to squeeze it into all our schedules and it was very hard. Fábio and I still develop our own stories and we have to work on them while working on Umbrella and Casanova. The important thing is never to settle for the minimum and always do your best, even if that means no weekends, no vacation, no social life whatsoever.

SBC: Given that this was Way's first professional work in comics, were you ever hesitant in the early stages to take on the assignment?

GB: I was hesitant until I read the first script and realized I really liked the story. For me, it's not important anymore that it's his first comic, or that he's a big rock star, because the story is really interesting and well told. He knows what he wants and knows how to tell the story, how to set the mood and grow the suspense and that's a very rare thing to see these days. It's still hard for him to keep a steady writing pace not only because of the tour and the shows, but because it's his first comic. It's very natural. But he wants to get it right and Scott is really working with him to get it in on time so we don't blow the deadlines.

SBC: When Scott Allie recently interviewed Way for SBC, he said of the characters: "More important than the costumes and the powers are the personalities." Given that mindset, as you and Way have gone back and forth revising and tweaking the characters, have you developed visual cues for certain quirks to the character's personalities?

GB: The personalities are the strong point of them, for sure, and that's what makes this project fun to draw, to really go the distance. But I haven't put little cues on that many of them, maybe for some villains that I had to design, which was quite fun. But it will grown on them and it will show more in the artwork later in the series for sure. Villains are cool and disturbed characters are cool, so this is really a cool book to work on.

SBC: Were you surprised that your work is gaining greater exposure because of My Chemical Romance fans who are getting there first exposure to comics with Umbrella Academy? Or had you been expecting for that to happen, because of Way's non-comics popularity?

GB: I am positively sure that Gerard's music fan base will flood the comic stores and that will make a tremendous effect on the comic sales. The first issue will sell more copies than all the comics I've ever sold in my whole life put together, so I'm aware of this new exposure and I'm really busting myself to make the best work possible. I'm already getting a lot of response from these music fans about my work, but it's specifically about my work on Umbrella Academy. I have worked in comics for 10 years and I have a lot of other works to show. And the comics universe is much bigger than just our book. I really hope, and Gerard backs that [sentiment], that all these people new to comics would get interested in comics in general and that they would look to other things as well. I'm a little afraid that it could be just like those kids who like MANGÁ and will not look at anything else that's NOT mangá. I really hope that people who get into comics because of Umbrella Academy get to know my work and go search for my other works too, and other comics. We really love comics and all I want is for people to love it too.

SBC: Anyone who visits you and your brother's blog know that you’re a strong supporter of black and white comics. Were you hesitant to do Umbrella Academy given that it was a full color assignment?

GB: I really like and endorse black and white comics. I think all great stories, as well as artwork, work in B&W and it has a much stronger emotion into it than colored books. I was really nervous about having a colored book, especially because I was not going to do the colors myself. When they told me Dave Stewart was the chosen one, even then I was uneasy. All I have to say now is that the colors Dave is doing in the comic are like nothing else out there. He has outdone himself, he came up with something that looks simple, but is not and that fits perfectly with my art and the quirkiness of the book. He is by far the best colorist in the business.

I'm really proud of this book. I've never worked with super-heroes, don't like colored books, but I could not have a better super-hero colored comic to be part of. We have put together a great team, everyone giving their best on this book. People will be really impressed with it.

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