I was pretty enthusiastic about The Umbrella Academy after reading the first issue: The premise is that a group of 7 children were born with super-powers, and raised by their rather unpleasant mentor, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, in a weird version of the early 20th century. The first issue treated us to the children as ten-year-olds saving Paris from Zombie-Robot Gustav Eiffel and his tower, and showed us how disfunctional Hargreeves’ “family” was, largely due to his shortcomings as an adoptive father. 20 years later, the family had drifted apart, and its most prominent member, Spaceboy, lived on the moon. But the group was reunited by Hargreeves’ funeral, along with the return of one of their members – Five – who had disappeared years before.
Although essentially a horror-oriented variation of the original X-Men, this was a fine start to the series, but it went downhill from there. The interplay among the characters was easily the series’ high point, but the its plot was a muddle: One of the Academy, Vanya, who has no super-powers but is a violinist, is recruited by the Orchestra Verdammten to help bring about the end of the world, which she’s (sort of) happy to do since she’s an outcast from her family and feels marginalized by the world. Along the way the Academy faces a loud-but-pointless battle against some robots called the Terminauts in issue #3, and a lot of waiting around in issues #4 and 5, until the big confrontation with Vanya and her Orchestra in #6.
I understand The Umbrella Academy is intended to be a lengthy series of mini-series along the lines of Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D. (probably no coincidence, as both books are published by Dark Horse). However this first mini-series – subtitled “The Apocalypse Suite” – was a big letdown in its conclusion. There’s basically no emotional payoff, as the issues the heroes have with their stepfather are largely unexplored and certainly not resolved, and their relationships with each other remain undeveloped. The motivations of the Orchestra are – to put it mildly – thin, which undercuts the story’s reason for being; indeed, the whole apocalypse suite angle seems awkwardly tacked on to the larger story of Five’s return, the group’s reuniting, and Hargreeves’ motivations and death. In short, everything that was interesting about the set-up is roughly shoved aside to serve this fairly clunky end-of-the-world threat.
This series is getting some rave reviews on the web. For instance, Greg Burgas at Comics Must Be Good: “This is one of the best mini-series you’re going to read in a long time”. Chris Sims in his Invincible Super-Blog: “I’ve gotta say, now that it’s all said and done, this has easily been one of the best comics of the year.” And Bryan Joel at IGN: “Umbrella Academy has been nothing short of brilliant for nearly its entire run.”
All of which of course makes me think: Whuh? I mean, hah?
These reactions made more sense to me once I read Valerie D’Orazio’s review in Occasional Superheroine, in which she compares The Umbrella Academy to Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol of a couple of decades ago: “Way’s been very up front in interviews about his love of Grant Morrison, and while the influence of comic’s own pop magician is felt throughout, it’s just that – influence. Umbrella Academy avoids the lazy trap of trying to lift Morrison’s shtick wholesale that has claimed so many would-be talents, instead showing a real understanding of the blend of great character moments and cool, understated responses to absurdity that made books like Doom Patrol work so well in the first place.” The comparison between the books is quite apt, and perhaps indicates why I was disappointed in the series: I thought that Morrison’s Doom Patrol started off with 6 pretty good issues, and then descended into an utter mess of frenetic idea-driven yarns with characterization close to nil (even calling the characters “cardboard” is being charitable) and plot not a whole lot better. Other than those first few issues, it was pretty forgettable stuff, because there just wasn’t much story there. Morrison’s earlier Animal Man was better, and his later JLA was much better, in both cases because the ideas turned into solid stories, rather than just remaining simple products of the ideas factory that is Morrison’s mind.
The Umbrella Academy is similar to Doom Patrol in this way: A torrent of ideas illustrated by a highly capable artist (Gabriel Bá’s art is terrific; occasionally a little cartoony for my tastes, but he nonetheless can handle anything Way can throw at him, as well as a wide variety of character designs and expressions), but with a story that doesn’t make much sense, and which seems to be actively obstructed by the various nifty things being presented.
Of the reviews I’ve read, I think I agreed most with Joe McCulloch’s review in the Savage Critics: “While the book is neat enough that I’m happy to read it, I don’t pick up on anything all that striking. It’s nice, and pretty eloquent, but I don’t think it’s especially interesting.”
The next series is going to have to actually build on the premise the first two issues of this series laid out, or else The Umbrella Academy is going to end up going the route of B.P.R.D. of always teasing, but never delivering on its promise, with the story crawling forward at a snail’s pace. And that won’t keep me around for long, since I’m already just about done with B.P.R.D..
Locke & Key has been getting a fair bit of hype in the press, perhaps because writer Joe Hill is a successful novelist (and also the son of Stephen King). I hadn’t heard of it before this first issue came out, but I thumbed through it in the store and decided to give it a try, mainly because of the artwork of Gabriel Rodriguez, whose clean linework I appreciated, and whose figures seemed pretty expressive.
It’s a horror series, with this first issue showing (in flashback) the murderous tragedy that befell the Locke family in which the father was kiled, which led them to move to a gothic mansion in the peninsular town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts. These last two overused trappings aside, the premise sounds pretty interesting: The three children of the Locke family find that going through doors in the house can can also transform them in different ways, and that the series’ antagonist wants to use the house for his (or its) own ends (Hill describes the premise in more depth here). But the premise is barely even scratched here – this first issue is all set-up for what sends the characters to the house.
So it’s a bit of a thin issue – unless you enjoy a straight-up short horror story for its own sake – but I’m hopeful that it will deliver on its promise. It seems worth a try.