Gerard Way / Gabriel Ba - The Umbrella Academy: Vol. 4 [comic] (Cover Artwork)

Gerard Way / Gabriel Ba

The Umbrella Academy: Vol. 4 [comic] (2007)

Dark Horse

By now, the reviews have been coming in among comic fans that The Umbrella Academy, the comic written by Gerard Way, isn't bad, and is in fact the surprise of the year. I can't deny that those opinions had an effect on me when I purchased the comic book from Borders in New York City last year, but it was mostly the cover art that grabbed me and didn't let go. What was that kid in white doing with a part of a violin? Also, what was with the blood vessels eating at its feet? If a good cover intrigues you and gets you interested, then the James Jean cover did its job. But, here's where I admit that I have little experience with comics. Yes, I read "V for Vendetta" when it was assigned for my Communication Arts class and I've been sneaking peeks at Marvel's Civil War paperbacks whenever I'm in Borders for more than 10 minutes, but I haven't read Watchmen, or The Dark Tower, or whatever other staples I'm supposed to have consumed to fill out a good comic book palate.

So, permit a bit of uncertainty. The first scene spans three pages, introducing number 07 (of the Umbrella Academy, a group of superheroes brought together by a space alien in disguise), at the time a young girl, breaking her violin, screaming that she doesn't belong with the group. Pogo, a chimp, associated with the Academy's (now deceased) extra-terrestrial benefactor, comforts her, telling her she's more special than she knows. It is at this point that the page turns, to find 07, years later, strapped down to a table screaming "What the hell are you doing to me?!" At this point, it would be churlish not to mention the artwork of Mr. Ba. On the two pages on which the title is integrated at the top of both pages, while the action (of the girl being tied down and screaming), is on one page. The next page in the fold has the (evil?) conductor's response, as he leans over her trying to comfort her through the process. "Now, now Vanya, you wanted to help, didn't you? Well--, you're helping" adds a feeling of eccentricity to the conductor, drawn, well, more excited than anything, the black, formal coat and cape set off by the white bow tie.

I am told from interviews and promotional materials that Ba's art style is French, and that may be, but my closest point of reference is the Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's Batman: The Animated Series and the early "Justice League" episodes. It is clear, but not plain and there is always an extra something in the work, whether it be a stray hair, or a slightly cocked eyebrow that shows Mr. Ba is something else entirely.

For every couple pages of doom (doom! doom!, for Latterman fans) from the supposedly superpowered characters, there's a crack of bitter humor and a little fun to be had. Mr. Way says that one of his greatest influences is a comic called Doom Patrol, and to Umbrella Academy's credit, members of the Academy are, in fact, on patrol, looking for doom to stop.

The end of the book sweeps up with a fantastic monologue from the aforementioned skull-faced conductor: "For many years, man has dreamt of the answer to a single question... How do I unreservedly kill billions of people in the blink of an eye?" In the next two pages, the conductor is one part showman, one part proud father and the whole "evil genius bent on destroying the world" bit is shown but the reader is never beaten over the head with it.

It's an engaging mix of doom, humor, pathos and eccentricity, and it might be the first time I'll buy a comic series. My congratulations to Mr. Way and Mr. Ba, and I eagerly await the trade paperback.