Monday, April 26, 2010

Reading: The Umbrella Academy (***/****)

Title: The Umbrella Academy, Apocalypse Suite & Dallas
Writer: Gerard Way
Artist: Gabriel Ba
Letterist: Nate Piekos
Colors: Dave Stewart

From the very first panel of "The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite" -- in which a hulking pro wrestler delivers a flying elbow slam to his opponent...a giant squid -- it's clear that we're in for something different. TUA was the toast of the 2008 Eisners, where Dave Stewart won Best Colorist (for his work on this and other Dark Horse properties), James Jean won for his cover art (on this and Fables), and Way and Ba won the coveted Best Limited Series award.

I can't remember the last time I saw a comic so gleefully leap into the realm of WTF. Just when you think you've got a handle on the rules and reality of this alternate Earth, Way flips you the bird and goes skipping off among the treetops of insanity like one of those Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon weirdos. Real-world events such as Vietnam are referenced, but with the addendum that the Viet Cong were a bunch of vampires. (A slightly sketchy choice; more on that later.) I will confess that I am a complete sucker for alternate history fiction, but the series has much more to recommend it.

Underneath all the craziness, TUA is a deconstruction of the superhero mythology with its roots firmly dug into Watchmen: a group of extraordinary children of mysterious origins are groomed to be a superhero team by a neglectful, meglomaniacal entrepeneur and grow up to be a group of very screwed up adults, each with their own issues and nueroses. Their powers are as unusual as the world they inhabit. My two favorites, Allison ne Rumor and Klaus ne Seance, battle villians by lying and communicating with the dead, respectively. Their adversaries range from a rampaging Lincoln monument to a past/future version of themselves. (It's a long story.)

Occasionally Way's flights of fancy trip and crash. 90% of Dallas is excellently written, but the cutaways to a random playboy, John Perseus, stick out like an inexplicable thumb. They have no effect on the rest of the story; apparently they set up a future plotline in series 3, but if so, there's no cliffhanger for it and thus Perseus is just kinda hanging out in the wind. (Bleah, bad image, sorry.) But when TUA works, it's all kinds of nummy, crazy fun.

I would give the series an unadultered recommedation -- were it not for one thing. Well, two things, but Way seems aware of his issues vis-a-vis female characters, and that was partly fixed at the end of Dallas. A bigger, more problematic issue looms in the very setup of the series: 43 women in random locations around the world give birth at the same time, Professor Hargreeves travels far and wide to gather up as many of the children as possible...

Aaaaaaaaand they're all white.

At least, all of the ones that Hargreeves found are white. It's not that non-white people don't exist in the UA world, it's just that none of them get to be main characters. No, instead they get to be vampires, i.e. inhuman and bloodthirsty.

Mr. Way, I raise a skeptical Spock eyebrow at you. *Spocks out*

Does it pass the Bechdel test: Yes

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