Book Report: The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way & Gabriel Ba

December 31, 2008 at 1:14 am (Comics Issue #427) (, , )

The Umbrella Academy is about a group of superheroes who have disbanded. They are brought back together by the death of the man who gathered and raised them, their “father” the Monocle. It becomes clear that there is much history between the members of the group, most of it unpleasant. During their awkward reunion, one of the Umbrella Academy’s missing members, number 00.05 or the Boy, returns from having run away from home — to the future. The Boy brings back news from the future: three days after the Monocle’s death, the apocalypse will come.

And now, moving on…perhaps you may be wondering how good the writing is, considering it was written by a pop star with a busy schedule that may not include time to write. And let me tell you: the writing is good. It has this darkly humorous quality that’s a real blast to read; it’s a dark story, no question about it, right down to the art. The characters are all awkward and very real and clearly human for all that they are empowered — it’s a common theme in superhero stories, the feet of clay, but in TUA the feeling of feet of clay is heightened, I think, by the fact that they’re fighting of crime and evil isn’t always effective. They’re not effective as a team, even when they manage to win, and it makes their dysfunction that much more real.

The plot is also pretty good, zips along nicely and throws out some interesting bones and leaves plenty of room for exploration in the future. I liked it, though there were probably a few places where it could’ve used work (one use of deus ex machina, and another point I’ll get into later). The art’s really nice too, kind of reminiscent of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which you could say also subverts the superheroic (or at least heroic) archetypes in its own way, considering all of its constituents are also extraordinarily skilled men and women out to save the world. And of course, it was written by Alan Moore, who also wrote The Watchmen — which is pretty much the subversion-and-deconstruction-of-superhe

roes comic. If you know anything about the X-Men you’ll probably find that the origins of The Umbrella Academy to echo them, but as I said this is an altogether darker look at how things pan out when a man with a goal in mind takes in superpowered children and raises them with that goal in mind.

Good writing, nice plot, gorgeous art…what’s not to love? Well, I mentioned that I had problems with the plot. And as I said, it goes pretty well. Unfortunately, what it does is let me down on the female characters front. There are two female members of the Umbrella Academy (which has a total of seven, not counting the Monocle) end up depowered — Alison (the Rumor, number 00.03) ends up losing her voice, which is the source of her powers, and Vanya (who becomes the White Violin, number 00.07) ends up losing her memory and the ability to play the violin, which was pretty much the closest thing to a superpower that she had. They’re also the ones who most explicitly abandon the superheroic cause. HMMM. So I’m iffy on the treatment of women in the comic. Plus there’s they’re mom, who is basically a talking mannequin. Which is either brilliant satire or really insensitive — I’d like to believe the former, but the treatment of Alison and Vanya leaves me uncertain (let’s not get to part where the Monocle tried to have Alison killed when she started lying in order to sneak out to visit her boyfriend).

It brings me to another point about the Umbrella Academy that I don’t like: the way Vanya is cast completely as a villain. Yes, she left (and she wasn’t alone) and yes, she wrote a vicious tell-all book about her life among them (and I would be bitter if I were her, too). On the other hand, she grew up being told she was never going to be good enough for her father or her siblings, that she was unspecial and should run along and play her violin while the rest of her family got on with the real work of saving the world. And you know, the theme of constantly failing to live up expectations, especially when there’s nothing you can do to change yourself to live up to them, is one that resonates strongly with me, and one that brings me a lot of sympathy for Vanya. So she was bitter and angry towards the end — well, she was also told she would never be anything special and was useless and worthless her entire life, and she was stood up by Diego/Kraken when she really wanted and needed for him to tell her that she was important, that she mattered more than the Academy and its goals. Which is selfish, but understandable, and I don’t blame her for wanting that and for writing her tell-all. It’s hard to be sympathetic to the feelings of people who don’t care. She mentions that they never came to a single one of her recitals, too busy saving the world — and it’s selfish of her, again, but on the other hand the only one who expresses any kind of affection for her are Diego and Pong. The rebellious loner (who stood her up and abandoned her too) and a talking chimp. Yeah…I’m sure she’s feeling the love.

Which is a really long-winded way of saying, I understand where Vanya’s coming from and I sympathize, and I dislike how she’s being made out to be some kind of supervillain. Yes, she chose the path that would lead to the destruction of the world, but guess what — she did it using Diego the hero’s words. No one acknowledges or even seems to observe her pain. And yet, even at the end — when she’s being transformed into the White Violin — her last thought is of her family and of apology. And you know what? Fuck turning her into a villain. She’s a victim of the mentality that creates heroes, one of the ones who wasn’t up to scratch and was cast aside. How can you presume to save the world when you can’t even save your own? When you’re too busy to know your sister is hurts, or worse too oblivious to realize it, you have failed as a hero, because that right there is a lack of compassion and empathy and I have to wonder: were the Umbrella Academy saving the world because they want to or because they were raised to do it?

Which is why — reading summaries for the issues of the sequel series to The Umbrella Academy — I am pissed that Alison is forcing the amnesiac Vanya to witness all that her brief stint as harbinger of the apocalypse made her do. Yes, she killed many people, she destroyed much property. But on the otherhand, Alison is displaying the same kind of blindness to Vanya’s feelings and reasoning that led Vanya to choose the apocalypse over them (just like they chose saving the world over her) in the first place. What the hell good is making Vanya know what she has caused but cannot remember doing going to do? It is the action borne of spite, because Vanya killed Pong (their caretaker-type person. or rather, chimp) and took Alison’s voice. And I can see where she’s coming from and I can sympathize with her wanting a life outside of the Umbrella Academy but Jesus Christ, it’s like the fact that Vanya was unhappy enough with her life with them to destroy the Academy’s grounds first has totally flown over her head. And why is it the female character who has to be the one who wants a domestic life outside of superheroing? Are not male characters also allowed to want a family and child (well, Spaceboy does, but he has the body of a Martian gorilla)? Why is Alison’s power and callsign based around the telling of lies (which then become reality; that’s her power); duplicity and deception; hmm WHERE HAVE I SEEN THIS BEFORE. Let’s not forget that Alison’s the only one who explicitly engages in anything sexual; which is to say, she mentions having a daughter and very likely used her power to get a kiss out of Spaceboy and make him love her — or at least become infatuated with her.

TL;DR: writing very good, plot pretty good, art nicely atmospheric and the world itself also has that same hint of dark humor that made The Umbrella Academy a refreshing read for me. There are some small problems, and I take especial issue with the treatment of the two female characters. Would I buy the sequel? I’d wait for the trade paperback, and I might, depending how my first sample read goes in the bookstore. However, the issue summaries I have read for The Umbrella Academy: Dallas via Wikipedia do not leave me with much optimism. It’s on the fence. Do I ultimately recommend reading it? Hmm. Yes, I do, because it does have many good points and see: dark humor. But I would caution anyone sensitive to the treatment of female characters in mainstream comics to tread forewarned.

P.S. I loved the Conductor.


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