March 23, 2010

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Umbrella Academy Volumes 1 and 2

Written by Gerald Way
Illustrated by Gabriel Ba
Dark Horse

Volume One: Apocalypse Suite

After one of those freak events that only happens in comic books creates a very special set of children, an eccentric man gathers seven of them together to form the Umbrella Academy. Unfortunately, only six of them have powers, or so it seems at the time.

Years pass and despite some triumphs, the team slows falls apart. But when one teammate returns with tragic news of a dystopian future and another is pushed to the edge by a pattern of neglect, can the team get it together long enough to save the world one more time?

Volume Two: Dallas

Picking up after the tragic events of the first volume, the team is broken even further than it was before. But now the mysterious actions of Number 5 cause the team to split in two directions with one time-traveling goal--the day President Kennedy died!

It's adopted family against adopted family once more for the life of an idea. But sometimes, no matter what you do, you cannot change the past. Can the actions of the Umbrella Academy save the world again, or will they destroy in in the process of fixing time?

I debated quite a bit about whether or not to do these reviews together or separately. Ultimately, I figured it would be easier to group them together to prevent repeating myself. They fall within minutes of each other in terms of chronology, so they are definitely designed to be part of a set. So a combined review they shall get.

The first volume does a really good job of setting up the premise fairly quickly. We get an absolutely hysterical set up of a the team going after an animated Eiffel Tower, manned by Eiffel himself. Underneath the jokes, we can see that this team really doesn't function all that well together and their organizer is a heartless bastard.

Just as we're comfortable with the idea that the biggest problem facing the kids of the Umbrella Academy (now all grown up, with one notable exception) is themselves, we race to the climax, where the complex family dynamics play out in ways that save the day but leave the team feeling no better than they did going into things.

Similarly, the second volume picks up on this theme of distrust between the children gathered together by Hargreaves, and they once more seem to be one step behind everything because of their squabbling. This time, saving the day seems to be almost accidental and more a result of being manipulated by forces far greater than they are.

Throughout both volumes, the idea of caring and love is devalued in the name of doing one's duty, however nebulous that concept may be. At any given time, two or more members of the team work at cross purposes because of this arguably dysfunctional idea. Being self-sacrificing first may be the mantra of the hero, but in this world, it might just be more destructive than plain old villainy.

Way creates a team of very flawed characters, but they are not evil or even dark and edgy. They don't go out and do things just to be horrible people. Because of how they were raised, none of them seem capable of relating to humanity or understand the larger picture. As a result, all of their actions end in heartache and death. I really like how Way shows them as a team that can't get it together, because from the start, their formation was flawed. It's a great idea that works well in practice and I thought it made for a fresh approach to the idea of a heroic team that's not nearly as heroic as it looks.

I love what Way does with the idea of heroes, and his ear for dialog is strong. Each character is unique, and the way in which they relate to each other feels normal. The idea that this "family" has dynamics is shown not just in the plot but also in the way they speak to each other. Plus, he does the mad villain bit in a way that echoes the familiar, but feels fresh. Sometimes having a new person at the wheel (Way is a songwriter by trade) can help take what we're used to and give it a new spin.

The problem I had is that in Volume Two, I didn't think we really covered any new ground. The book opens with another wacky battle for the adolescent version of the team, this time against an animated Lincoln Memorial. The way they take down Honest Abe is absolutely hysterical, but it mirrors the opening of the first trade far too much.

Similarly, the book's main plot is chasing after Number 5 and his quest to kill President Kennedy. Like the first trade, we have a member of the family seemingly going rogue, partly due to the way in which they were raised. Instead of it being a girl lost in the shuffle, we have a man taken out of time over and over again, ready to do anything to put his life back together.

The story itself is engaging enough and a fun read, but it felt like a retread to me. Those of you who read the first two Harry Potter novels close together know what I'm talking about. There was just a bit too much of a similarity in the volumes for me to really enjoy Dallas in the way that I did Apocalypse Suite.

I also don't really care for stories that use time travel as their main focus. Way's altering of the time stream is far too confusing for my taste and I'm still not 100% sure I understand how things resolved the way that they did. Between these two factors, Dallas did not make me stand up and take notice the way that Apocalypse Suite did.

That doesn't mean I didn't like the story, don't get me wrong. The Lincoln bit is quite good as are two horrible killers sent after the team with designs on blowing up the world. I thought the ending was perfect, as I never saw it coming. Way's use of his characters' powers is maturing, and they are definitely portrayed in new lights in the second volume. I just wish the plot itself had been more original. I hope that when we see the team next, it will be in a format that changes up the premise sufficiently to make it more original than this one was.

Gabriel Ba's artwork is perfect for a series like this. In both trades, he uses his angular style and use of thick heavy lines to good effect. His character designs fit the characters well, especially the way he sets up the villains of both pieces. Drawing adult versions of child characters that echo their adolescent designs is no small accomplishment, and I think Ba nails every single one of them. From killer robots to oversized gorillas to crazed conductors to the usual cannon fodder, Ba gives them a life that animates every page. His panel work is quite detailed and every page is full of action. Nothing is wasted, which allows Way to tell a complete story in only six issues per volume. I wish more artists worked like Ba does.

Overall, the Umbrella Academy is a great idea from a newcomer to comics, which doesn't often happen. I wish the concept of the second series has been a bit further away from the first, but it's still quite good. Combined with strong artwork from Ba, this is a series that I'd recommend to anyone, whether they like superhero stories or prefer more character-driven work. Way delivers both, which makes for a great comic.