Saturday, December 22, 2012

Superb Heroes: The Umbrella Academy

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.

I'd argue that superhero stories are soap operas more often than not. The emotions are big, even exaggerated; the plots and character relationships are vast and complex to the point of sometimes becoming convoluted; the casts are large and always growing and/or shifting; the villains are extra villainous, selfish schemers with some personal grudge against the heroes; and so on. This doesn't apply universally, but it tends to be true. So while it is undeniably, wholeheartedly a superhero comicbook, Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá's The Umbrella Academy is just as much a family soap opera, and it uses that fact to its advantage as often as possible. Completely embracing the tropes and cliches of both worlds, it becomes something grander than either, and throws in a fat sack of elements from other genres (sci-fi, fantasy, what have you) for good measure as well. It makes for a big, boisterous, kitchen-sink type of series---well, technically it's two series but I'll get to that---with something for everyone to love, yet still maintains a strong clarity and consistency in both the story and art. As fun and funny as it is dark and hard-hitting, as critical of superheroes as it is celebratory, Umbrella Academy is a storm of talent and originality drenching the far-too-similar and often-quite-dull comicbook landscape.
     The members of The Umbrella Academy are a group of adopted siblings who were brought together by the cold and uncaring Reginald Hargreeves so he could train them to save the world. Though he successfully developed their powers, Hargreeves was godawful as an actual parent, and so there is rampant dysfunction amongst his children in their adult lives. They secretly love or openly hate each other, are scattered across the globe (except Spaceboy, who lives on the moon), and each and every one of them is emotionally still a child in one regard or another. They are powerful, yes, but still petty and immature, and though we see them save the world twice, in both cases they find themselves unable to fully deal with the whys and hows of their adventures. The world may remain intact, but The Umbrella Academy always winds up far more broken and battered than they were when they started. And not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically, because they are ill-equipped to handle the kinds of insanity their superhero lifestyle forces them to regularly face. You might think that after a time the team would become jaded, unable to be so deeply affected by what they do. That may be true in the case of The Kraken, the dark and brooding anti-hero loner of the group (though I don't think so, really), but for the rest of them there is too much emotional investment in their work. For various reasons, they cannot separate their individual identities from their superpowered personas, and it makes saving the world into an ugly and deeply personal business.
     Apocalypse Suite, the first of the two six-issue series that make up The Umbrella Academy*, pits the family against one of its own members: Vanya, also known as Number Seven and, over the course of the story, The White Violin. Vanya was the only sibling to not have any metahuman abilities as a child, and as such was left out of the exciting and dangerous escapades of her brothers and sisters. Obviously, this led to jealousy and bitterness, so when, as an adult, Vanya is offered immense power and a chance to destroy the world, she accepts fairly eagerly (after her family pushes her away) and finds that the role of villain fits her like a glove. But even though her plan is to erase the entire planet from existence, she can't help but start things off with a more personal attack, murdering Pogo, the sentient chimp who helps to run the Hargreeves household, and blowing up the family's luxurious home. That single moment is, to me, the entirety of this title in a nutshell: no matter how powerful they become or how enormous the events they're dealing with, for this group of characters family drama will always come first.
     It's equally true in Dallas, the follow-up to Suite that has Number Three (a.k.a. The Rumor or Allison) and Number Five (no code name or real name due to being lost in the future for 20 years) traveling back to 1963 in order to stop another, older version of Number Five from preventing the Kennedy assassination. Got all that? Two of our "heroes" go back in time to ensure that JFK is killed. And why would they agree to such a thing? Because the Temps Aeternalis, an agency responsible for protecting the time stream, threatens to kill Number Five's mother in the past while she is still pregnant with him and his twin brother, Number One (a.k.a. Spaceboy or Luther). And Number Three is in love with Number One, despite their supposed sibling relationship, so in order to save his life she takes the life of a US President. Talk about personal/familial issues trumping all other concerns, amiright?
     The point being, The Umbrella Academy's superheroics only extend so far, because their lifelong problems as a family unit constantly, inescapably get in the way. At the same time, their family matters never get fully resolved because their obligations as superheroes incessantly interrupt. Their father's funeral ends abruptly because of a robot attack. Luther and Allison's romance is cut short by Vanya's vengeance. Number Five finally makes it back home from the distant future only to be dragged back to the past to murder JFK. And every time one of these superpowered events goes down, it fucks up the family dynamics even further. These characters were raised from infancy to be masked protectors of the planet, and as much as they might want to make dealing with their interpersonal issues a priority, none of them quite know how and the world won't let them, anyway. They're actually pretty great at saving the day, but that's all they're good at, and they don't even seem to genuinely enjoy it.
     You know...I was not expecting this post to zero in so narrowly on the dysfunctional nature of the Hargreeves clan and the reasons behind it. I was expecting that to be only one of several points made, all the while discussing the creative team's amazing work. Gerard Way is an exceptional writer, especially for this to be his first foray into the comicbook medium. He expertly paces every issue, finding a careful balance between necessary moments of long exposition (there are some complex ideas to explain and stories to tell) and scenes of intense action, and he laces a playfulness and powerful sense of humor throughout. Meanwhile, Gabriel Bá, along with colorist Dave Stewart, builds a world that is familiar and singularly strange all at once. There is such a powerful and unique sense of design in this series, from the characters to the settings to the props, and it's one of the biggest reasons for the book's overall quality. But where Bá most stands out and impresses is in the fight sequences, all beautifully choreographed and structured for the optimum sense of excitement and danger. Particularly when The Umbrella Academy battles Dr. Terminal's robots at the carnival. Just some stunning comicbook violence there.
     But The Umbrella Academy is an examination of what a lifetime of superheroism could and likely would do not only to an individual, but to a group of people sharing in the experience, and so that accidentally became the focus of this column. Even without the family element, growing up as a costumed crime fighter would be necessarily traumatic, and lead to deep-seeded problems later in life. Add the typical sibling rivalries, arguably inappropriate romantic feelings, and a father who never showed any love or even concern for his children, and it's a wonder all seven of these kids haven't ended up in an asylum or jail cell or coffin by now. They keep playing hero, decades later, and even after their dad's death. Hell, for some of them (namely The Rumor), it is Reginald's demise that brings them back into the superhero arena in the first place. Unable or unwilling to lead a more normal life, they chug along in the only one they've ever known, even though they can see how miserable and damaged it's made them. Saving the world has never been sadder.

*So far. There is supposed to be a third series, Hotel Oblivion, in the not-too-distant future. And there are actually a handful of short stories in addition to the two limited series, but I haven't read any of them so they are not a part of this discussion.

No comments:

Post a Comment