“The Day the Eiffel Tower Went Berserk”
Writer: Gerard Way
Artist: Gabriel Ba
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Editor’s Note: The first issue of Dark Horse’s Umbrella Academy mini-series arrives in stores this Wednesday, September 19.
You know, I’m quite surprised that Dark Horse published this title. Despite the pulp trappings and vaguely gothic imagery, this is quite clearly a superhero story, and DH tends to shy away from that over-mined area of the industry (and this is classic stuff: youngsters from around the world are born with mysterious powers and go to live in a mansion where a surrogate father figure teaches them to use their powers to save the planet, if they’re not smothered by heaps of angst first; yes, it’s Claremont-era X-Men!). Still, if a member of a very popular beat combo turns up on your doorstep wanting to publish a superhero comic with you, what can you say?
Though I jest, the writing actually has a good strong structure to it. A lean and efficient origin story (although it flags up the series’ villains in rather too obvious a manner) segues neatly into a sequence showing the team at its peak (and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this era, as it’s great fun), which in turn contrasts with a look at the team as it is now, fractured and dysfunctional. It’s a well-paced opening issue, that delivers all the necessary introductory information and also gets through a fair bit of action; this is the kind of efficient pacing that’s become a bit of a lost art in U.S. comics nowadays, as lazy superstar writers fill their comics with faff and nonsense as they collect their fat page rate paycheques. It’s refreshing to see Way, arguably much more of a superstar than the likes of Bendis and Loeb, doing it properly.
All that said, the script sometimes seems strained and overly calculated, as if Way is showing how broad a vocabulary he has, but that the words just won’t flow naturally from his pen (or word processor, smartarse). It’s certainly not bad writing, but it does seem like Way is tripping up over his ambitions now and then. Still, it’s better work than many full-time comic writers manage, and it’s certainly better than I expected from a pop star.
Art comes from Gabriel Ba, whose rough and scratchy linework is more than a little reminiscent of that of 2000AD’s Jock. Ba’s storytelling is strong, and he effortlessly maintains the balance between emotive cartoony excess and the more angsty edge of the later scenes. He’s assisted in this by subtle but effective colouring from Dave Stewart, who manages to capture the contrast between the bright, pulpy opening and the more, dare I say it, emo feel of the latter half of the comic.
Apparently, Gerard Way was working in the comics industry before he started his angst-pop songster collective, so I don’t know if this can really be called an impressive debut. But it is an impressive comic, with solid writing and strong art, and enough in the way of mystery and compelling characterisation to bring me back for more. Good stuff.
Plot: Way too convoluted to explain. Seven magical kids are being raised by an alien pretending to be a dandy gentleman scientist. It’s the 19th century and the future from the 1940s all at once. Aliens are everywhere. And we’re in Europe, but with very bad French.
Comments: This is a decidedly arch affair. It’s not funny so much as weird, and it’s also not very coherent, though it is fairly pretty. The colors, by Dave Stewart, are brilliantly muted, and wonderfully complement Ba’s dark inks and his hybrid period costuming. The monuments of Paris have gone mad in this story, with the Eiffel Tower being especially vicious, pushing people off of upper levels, firing death rays, and writhing with tentacles like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors.
The seven intrepid youths (well, five, as one never manifested any special abilities and one is playing hooky) take it on and are rewarded with ice cream (one scoop each!). Years later, they’ve gone their separate (but exceptional) ways and are called back together because of the death of their mentor. So, as near as I can figure, this is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves plus Cliff Chiang’s Beware the Creeper with some extra doses of Children of the Damned and a dollop of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen thrown in to tie all the flavors together.
The adult Number One has a human head (he was already balding as a child) attached to an ape’s body for some reason, and adult Number Seven has written a tell-all book kvetching about her extraordinarily exclusive family. Is there a reason to get more involved in these convoluted goings-in, with barely a smidgeon of character and the only developed one (the Daddy Warbucks figure, a.k.a. The Monocle) being already dead? For me, despite all the lovely tentacles, no.
What the hell is wrong with me?
I… I like Umbrella Academy.
I like a comic book written by Gerald Way, a man who plays in a band that sets my teenage stepdaughter’s heart all a-flutter.
I like a comic book called Umbrella Academy. Umbrella Academy! Double-u tee eff is an Umbrella Academy?
I like a comic book that is highly derivative – it reads like the offspring of some unholy ménage-a-trois between League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong and Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol. And the art – Gabriel Ba’s art looks like the work of Mike Mignola and Kevin O’Neil’s love child.
But… I like it!
I like a comic book written by some flavor-of-the-month teenybopper that boasts largely derivative writing and art.
But… I like it!
In fact, I’ve been looking forward to this title since the teaser preview released on Free Comic Day. Marvel, DC, pay attention here; this is how you do a FCD book. Take a cool title, give us original material with a self-contained story and give it to us in plenty of time to order the debut issue from our friendly neighborhood comic dealer. None of this free-copy-of-a-year-old-comic-book-you-already-paid-$2.99-for crap. If Umbrella Academy’s debut had just come closer on the tail of its FCD preview, this would have been a perfect example of how to market a comic book.
But at least issue one delivers nicely on the promise of its freebie predecessor. It’s funny, the characters are interesting, and within 21 pages we get all the necessary exposition, some action, some intrigue and foreshadowing to set up the series’ central conflict, and reasons to care about the protagonists.
This Way is a freaking emo teenybopper, and he could give lessons to some of the big two’s top writers! Hell, after brad Meltzer’s run on Justice League of America, I couldn’t see a single reason to care for any of the characters, and he was playing in a sandbox with some certified icons!
Way, on the other hand, had to build his own sandbox, and I already care about the kids playing in there. Sure, it’s a derivative sandbox, but it’s a rocking derivative sandbox.
Way and Ba actually grasp the mechanics of the medium, and they use them well. Consider, for example, the cleverly written and illustrated reveal of The Monocle’s secret in the third panel of page three, or the way the text carries the readers smoothly from panel to panel on page five.
This is a good comic book. A really good comic book.
But maybe you can’t take my word for it. I mean, when I was a kid I wanted to go to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and now that I’m 31 I want to go to the Umbrella Academy. Clearly I’m regressing, and my opinion is therefore questionable.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Paul Brian McCoy:
So, a few months back, I ordered some trades online, and when they arrived, there was a special surprise packed inside. It was the Dark Horse Free Comic Book Day offering, which included three short stories. All of the previews were really very good, to be honest (and I plan on searching them all out), but the one that really grabbed me by the beard and jerked me around was The Umbrella Academy. It had a weirdness to it that I only rarely find in comics today, and when it does show up, it doesn’t stick around for long, it seems. (In a minute I’ll mention some other works that have that same bizarre energy, so keep reading.)
Then, earlier this week, SBC got its internet mitts on a preview of the first issue of the upcoming six-issue mini-series, and I frantically chewed and clawed my way to the front of the virtual line to grab it. Turns out I didn’t have to digitally hurt anyone, as it was a .pdf and everybody doing the slugfest got to read it, but in my delusional anxiety-ridden state, I wanted to get it first. Sorry about that. Hope I didn’t imaginarily hurt anyone.
So, I sat down after a long day of work, poured myself a nice, smooth Boddingtons’s Pub Ale, and opened the file. After one read-through, my initial impression was, WOW! However, an advanced review of this nature needs to be a bit more objective and grounded with expressions of critical merit, in order to help you, dear reader, decide if you want to pick it up when it hits the shelves. So, with that in mind, I read it again.
Then I remembered I had a beer sitting next to me.
Well, this is really getting us nowhere, is it? Let’s see. Where to begin? WOW! The opening, full page shot of an “atomic flying elbow” to “the space squid from Rigel X-9” just drips awesome like the ink from said space squid. But it really doesn’t have anything to do with the story. It just coincidentally happened at the same time as another bizarre incident – the secret origin of the Umbrella Academy (sort of), which I’ll save for you to enjoy. In fact the whole introduction reads like some sort of fantastic cross between newsreel footage, Hellboy, and Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (for if there is any real god-father for this book, it has to be that run on DP). This Morrisonian influence rears its head again immediately, in the opening adventure, which lends its title to this entire issue: “The Day the Eiffel Tower Went Berserk.”
Way has mentioned in interviews how Morrison is an inspiration and has served as a sounding board for ideas, and first-time comic writer Way does a marvelous job of stuffing weirdness and manic creative energy into every panel. By the time the story picks up with our heroes (thirty years after the opening atomic flying elbow – and twenty years after the team dispatches the berserk French landmark), the sense of history is palpable. These characters have gone through things that I hope we get to read about someday, especially if they can be presented with this much skill.
Gabriel Ba, fresh off of a season on another insanely-inspired piece of work, Casanova (which is really the only other book out at the moment that keeps pace with this opening salvo – now that Nextwave is gone, that is), stays neck-and-neck with Way for sheer lunacy and imagination. The art perfectly captures the mood and reflects the tone of the story. It’s just plain perfect for this book. Usually I like to go into more detail when discussing the art, but to really talk about all the little things that make this such great work would give away a lot of the strangeness and detailed flourishes that help to bring these characters to life.
For me, comics don’t get much better than this. It has giant space squids, miraculous births, disguised aliens, a zombie-robot, a moon base, bad parenting, a talking monkey, time travel, a transplanted head, an opportunity for revenge, tentacles, sibling rivalry, and death. And that’s just the first issue.
43 babies are spontaneously born from women who didn’t know they were pregnant at exactly the same time a wrestler defeats a giant squid for the championship belt. Reginald Hargreeves, scientist, inventor, and secret space alien, finds and adopts seven of these children. When asked why, he only replies, “To save the world.” 10 years later, five of these children use their superpowers to save Paris from a murderous Eiffel Tower under the control of zombie-robot Gustav Eiffel. No. 5 had disappeared into the future. No. 7 has no powers. 20 years later, Dr. Hargreeves passes away. Team leader No.1, “Spaceboy”, returns home to talking chimpanzee Dr. Pogo. The young No. 5 from the past is also there and warning of “something worse to come”. Meanwhile, a bitter No. 7 is offered a chance for revenge.
And by the way, Spaceboy’s human head was grafted onto a gorilla’s body.
Everything I just wrote justifies the 5BULLET rating. This is a comic book without shame. Every page, every panel, has a random piece of weirdness. Everything is infused with drama and import. These children were created for some great and terrible purpose. All these ridiculous ingredients come together to tell an epic drama of vague proportions. I can only describe it as “pretendous”- a portmanteaux of “pretend” and “pretentious.” It takes something imaginary far too seriously. Any other comic with flying children, talking monkeys, and zombie-robot anybody would be created for laughs. But Umbrella Academy has the weight of dramatic tragedy. When No. 7 is told, “There’s just nothing special about you,” your heart breaks a little. Hargreeves’ cold manner and (literally) unmoving stance communicate his coldness. And behind Spaceboy’s hilarious gorilla body lies the sadness of a child nearly dying on Mars. Umbrella Academy takes the hilarious and the morose to equal extremes. It feels like history’s most bizarre rock opera.
The art instantly reminded me of Mike Mignola. Then I remembered Mignola never drew anything this fun. I’m in the minority of people who don’t enjoy Hellboy. Nor do I see what’s so amazing and unique about Mignola’s blocky, stiff, over-inked fantasy art. Gabriel Ba succeeds in communicating the power and fantastic found in Mignola’s work. This is married to a lighter, looser style that gives the story a sense of fun and the characters a sense of life. I am concerned that Ba may not have a style all his own. Much of the comic strongly resembles Mignola, while the page with the adult No. 7 evokes Tim Sale. I’m still impressed that a single artist could mimic two such different styles. This speaks of a talent capable of growing into something all its own.
The Umbrella Academy is a unique reading experience. It’s as fun and sad as any great comic book. I’d like to see more comics like it. More importantly, I’d like to see Gerard Way become a great success at writing comics. Then he’d quit writing terrible music, and My Chemical Romance will break-up. Or replace him, drive away their fans, and then break-up. Either way, we get more weird comics and less bad rock music.
What did you think of this book?
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