|“The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #4 on sale this week|
The story of a one-time superhero family reunited in the wake of the death of their adoptive father, Dark Horse’s "The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite" is the brainchild of My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and features art by Gabriel Ba ("Casanova"), and covers by James Jean ("Fables." My Chemical Romance’s "The Black Parade"). Some 30 years ago, Sir Reginald Hargreeves– a space alien incognito as a famous entrepreneur — adopted seven superpowered newborns with the stated purpose of training them to save the world. The heroes came to be known as Spaceboy, the Kraken, the Rumor, the Seance, the Future, the Horror and Vanya Hargreeves. Sir Reginald’s failures as a father left the half-siblings as anything but a tight-knit group, but after his funeral, the members of the Umbrella Academy were called upon once again to save the world, and the dysfunctional family was forced to learn to work together towards a common goal.
Starting with last month’s "The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite" #3, CBR News began our series of commentaries with edtor Scott Allie and creator Gerard Way every month, bringing you exclusive preview pages of upcoming issues and discussions of what’s in store for the members of the Umbrella Academy. This week, Allie and Way give readers some insights into the mind-bending issue #4, on stands this week, December 19.
Scott Allie: Issue #4 has the mostly black and white cover by James Jean. Was this your composition or was this his?
Gerard Way: This ended up being James’ composition. When I was originally working out the series in my head, I had drawn a few mock-up covers and one was for this particular issue, the issue in which I knew Vonya was going to be going through some major changes. I had always pictured the cover as a really good full-body shot; cropped so you didn’t see all of her face, and you didn’t even see her legs; kind of a close-up of her torso. We talked with James and he had this idea of riffing on the old Man Ray photo, which seemed cool but the thing about the Man Ray photo is that the F-holes are on the back.
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But the more we talked, I mentioned this gramophone to him and I could be wrong but I think James has an old gramophone. He has something crazy in his house like that. I can’t remember if it’s actually a typewriter that looks like a gramophone or something like that. Obviously, me and him are big fans of stuff like that and I said the gramophone was integral to Vonya’s brainwashing. Then I mentioned veins and things like that, blood turning from red to black. So he kind of let his head swim and ended up doing this really white, subtle almost gentle shot of her and it almost reminded me of the old RCA record label thing with the dog listening to the gramophone, which is what I thought was really great about it. I think it’s the craziest cover.
SA: I remember we were waiting on the sketch for this cover, and we still thought it was going to be the Man Ray thing, and this showed up and it was so different and so strange and alien. I love this cover. It’s one of my favorites.
GW: I like anything that’s really sparse like that. Anything that’s just white and blown out with not a lot of art on it. I’m actually a big fan of space. That’s another reason why it’s my favorite.
SA: We start this issue with a flashback, appropriately with Vonya and her violin and Pogo. This wasn’t a scene that you had originally planned. This was a scene that you came up with when we realized some of the things that were going to happen to these two characters.
GW: The thing about Pogo is that he’s actually really close to Space. You really almost can’t tell in this series.
SA: Yes, that’s something that’s going to have to get dealt with later, because Space and Pogo are so close, and yet just the way the action’s rolled out they haven’t had much time together so readers don’t have any idea as to their history.
GW: All you know –if you’ve even picked up on stuff like the posters in his office on the moon in the first issue– is that Pogo was really his co-pilot, but then he does deal with Space in a very endearing way.
SA: Yeah, there’s a short scene in issue #2.
GW: Yeah, but they don’t get to hang because they’re just too busy. There’s too much going on. I think this series probably could have easily been seven or eight issues.
SA: It definitely could have. We could have had more room for the kind of slow character development that we talked about at the get-go. But as it is, one of the reasons I fell in love with the pitch when I read it was that it reminded me of Mike Mignola’s "The Amazing Screw-On Head," with that crazy level of energy. I think almost by mistake we ended up preserving that just because there wasn’t room to dick around. We had to just move from one crazy idea to another because there’s just too much story for six issues.
GW: Which I prefer. But I just didn’t count on these characters developing themselves so much. I didn’t expect these characters to get up and have their own lives as much as they do.
SA: There’s a panel on page #3 where we’re over Vonya’s shoulder looking at Pogo, and Pogo has these big black chimp eyes looking at her. It’s a silent panel with a lot of empty space in it. It’s just the sweetest moment for Pogo. He’s a great character and it’s one of your great moments of insight into him.
|Pages from “The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #4|
Let’s talk about the title spread in this issue. "Baby, I’ll Be Your Frankenstein." I love that title, and I remember that title was part of the original pitch, too.
GW: There were a few titles I was sure were going to stay. The first issue title, "The Day The Eiffel Tower Went Berserk," was really the basis for the whole series. There was almost a point where I was going to call the whole series that, I loved the title so much. The other title I really loved so much was this title," Baby, I’ll Be Your Frankenstein." It just sounds weird. It doesn’t sound like the title of a comic at all, and I think that’s why I like it. It sounds like a rock song, like a Stooges track. I like kind of bending things like that in this series and being able to title things like it was a seven-inch single from 1985 or something; some obscure punk band.
I think this is my favorite spread.
SA: It’s one of my favorite spreads, it’s one of my favorite weird things that Ba did. There’s so much negative space, it’s like there’s nothing to it.
GW: Actually, my favorite spread’s in issue #5.
SA: It’s funny you say that. On my desk I have the spread for issue #5, which has so much detail and so much crap in it, which is real over the top and real crazy.
GW: If you pay attention to Ba’s double-page spreads — he hates them so much — but the thing is, even from issue #1, you look at what he’s doing with these spreads and it’s genius. For example, the spread in issue #1 was described in the script as a shot of the Eiffel tower overlooking the entire city of Paris and the Eiffel tower and everything just shoved in there. Almost like a film shot. What we get back was this really clever, well designed shot. You’re not seeing the tower at all! You’re seeing one of the girders and the shadow of the tower and it’s so much more menacing and way cooler than just showing a shot of the tower. He’s been doing that with every spread since.
In issue #2’s spread, the apocalypse; I think that’s where Ba’s woes started. He thought every spread would be like that one.
SA: He should have been relieved with this one from issue #4!
GW: Well, this one wasn’t even described this way. This was originally described as really close. A shot over her on the table and she takes up basically the whole spread; another one that would have been crazy to draw. In the end, Gabriel ended up doing something way more clever and subtle and just infinitely better and says a lot more. It’s very lonely looking and crazy. It’s pretty much one of the craziest shots in the whole series.
|Page from “The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #4|
SA: An interesting bit about this sequence that we had to talk about a little bit given Ba’s, um, fondness for the female form.
GW: Are we going to talk about this? I’m into talking about this!
SA: There’s two aspects. There’s the whole thing about just trying to get everybody’s breasts smaller. The other is Vonya’s naked here, and she’s lying on her back and we’re looking straight down at her. But this is an all-ages comic and yet you’ve got a naked woman lying on a table face-up. I mean, I’m perfectly happy with the way it came out and I think Ba is too. I don’t think it was that difficult to get it here.
GW: It worked really well. You had chimed in about a trick you said Mignola does.
SA: Yeah. Just don’t draw nipples.
GW: I was really happy with how that turned out. She’s clearly naked. The thing is, it wouldn’t work with a lot of artists but it works for Ba really well.
SA: Yeah, in the same way it works for Mike Mignola. Despite the ratios and whatnot, there’s nothing real exploitive about the way Ba’s drawn women. They really are drawn as characters so they’re not just immediately turned into porn stars.
GW: That’s something else we should talk about. Ba draws great women in a very respectful way, but he does draw them very sexy. I think Ba just loves women, there’s nothing weird about that. I don’t know if it’s part of his culture or what, but there’s just something in his art that’s very sexual when it comes to women.
SA: Yeah, and with Rumor and Vonya both, we have to rein it in a little bit. One thing you have to do, Gerard, is give Ba a character where he can go fucking nuts. Give us the ultimate bombshell supervillain and let Ba just freak out.
GW: He definitely has a real appreciation of the female form, such an appreciation that when we saw sketches for this scene, we said, "Ba, you have to make her breasts smaller!" We’re not saying normal women don’t have certain-sized breasts, but this character needs to be super normal looking. You have to go even more normal with her body. Because when this character does change, she’s basically naked all the time.
SA: That’s the thing. On the cover, James Jean has her naked. And it doesn’t look like anything — in a good way. It doesn’t look like anything that’s going to get bagged and put behind the counter.
GW: We weren’t going for "sexy" with her. We weren’t going for a typical X-Men character with giant breasts. She needed to be very human looking, very normal and did not emanate sex. She couldn’t be appealing to a 13-year-old in the you-get-to-look-at-boobs-but-they’re-in-spandex type of way. It couldn’t be that at all.
SA: It’s funny, what we’re talking about, because the next scene is the Red Light District scene. One of the things we flagged on the first page of that sequence is in the bottom left corner of the page. There’s a shot of a clown walking past a bunch of sex shows and in one of the neon signs it just says, "Nude Chimps."
|Page from “The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #4|
GW: That’s one of my favorite aspects of the "Umbrella Academy" world. It’s obviously an amalgamation of ’60s, ’50s, ’40s, little bit ’70s and it’s a little bit of a mix of Europe, which is not so strange, but the strangest thing is that chimpanzees are normal people. This sign wasn’t in the script at all and this is another reason why Gabriel is so amazing. He took the initiative and said, "Well, if we’re in the Red Light District there’s going to be strip joints and nude shows for chimps!"
SA: I never thought about it but when I saw that it just cracked me up. But yeah, of course, if some of your citizens are chimps, you’re going to have stripper chimps.
GW: It seems really strange and really weird and inappropriate, but it would exist if you had chimps with civil rights like everybody else.
SA: And they’re accustomed to wearing clothes! There’s actually a prostitute chimp in one of the panels. There’s a low angle shot of a hooker talking to some schlub, and a couple other prostitutes standing around and one of them is a chimp.
GW: I think, so far, this my favorite sequence in the series, just for the neon alone.
SA: The neon makes it so beautiful. It’s so interesting looking. Ba so went nuts on developing every detail of this location.
GW: I’ve already started working on Series 2, and seeing him pull this scene off in an amazing way really made me consider the location for Series 2 because I do want the characters in a completely new city, temporarily.
SA: Ba wrote this note to us the other day about how if we’re going to do that, he really wants the real reference on the location. He really wants to be able to develop that culture not just from TV shows but from the real nitty-gritty reality of that other culture. He’ll do an amazing job of that. This Red Light District scene is the best evidence of how amazing he can be.
GW: There’s an element of Sergio Aragones to Gabriel. Obviously, the draftsmanship is different; the style is different. And when you look at Aragones, it’s really cartoony and kind of bubbly and stuff, but everything’s referenced. And that’s the best part of Aragones.
SA: It’s interesting you’ve picked up on that. I used to work with Sergio for a long time and we used to talk about that. I didn’t get that about his stuff at first, but he doesn’t like faking it. Like the weapons, all that stuff is based on something. It’s cartooned, it’s distorted so it doesn’t look exactly right; none of it’s faked.
GW: Gabriel’s just like that. Gabriel won’t fake anything. So for Series 2, there’s a good chance of it taking place where it does take place, and from seeing this scene, I’m sure it’s going to look insane. The whole comic will look completely insane.
SA: And that culture is just begging for tons and tons of detail. And it is a fairly alien culture for a lot of us, so it is a fun one to see fleshed out. What Ba brings to it will just be amazing.
|Page from “The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #4|
So, after the Red Light scene we get the kind of psychedelic scene of the transformation.
GW: This was the hardest thing to write — ever.
SA: Yeah, this was a real drag. It turned out not be a problem with the script, but what I thought was going to be a problem with the script was that you weren’t really describing what things were going to look like, you were just describing what you wanted the pages to feel like. In some ways, you were describing what you wanted it to look like, but in ways I couldn’t imagine Ba being able to really draw. But he pulled it off.
That first page, the black and red page, it doesn’t really look like a regular comics page. I sort of expected there’d be more stuff like that in "Umbrella Academy."
GW: Me too, by the way. I’ll definitely say that. That goes back to the whole discussion of having to fit all this stuff in. There was supposed to be way more stuff like this in "The Umbrella Academy" and I think there will be in the future for sure.
SA: I think we’ve learned certain things that will definitely cause us to open the series up more. I remember walking around Portland plotting this whole thing out and figuring out how it was all going to fit. I think there were things we talked about at that time that made the story more complicated than it originally was. But now we see that maybe we didn’t have to do that and we’d still have plenty of story and plenty of room to do the stuff.
GW: Again, I think that comes down to the fact that we didn’t count on the characters being so flesh and blood so much. The dialogue in the first issue and to some extend in the second issue is just supposed to be wonky, they’re supposed to be kind of strange. You’re just supposed to read them at face value; they’re not supposed to have a tremendous amount of depth. You’re programmed to know, basically, this guy’s like Superman, this guy’s basically kind of Batman and this is a weird play on them. But then they really ended up being these real, real strong characters and that took away from kind of the craziness of the book.
SA: This became an even more character-driven story than I thought it was going to be in terms of every detail, everything that happens in the story is completely derived from the characters’ personalities rather than "the villain decides to do this." I love the ways in which, eventually, the villain winds up being incidental to the whole story and it becomes completely about these characters.
GW: Which is something that changed way down the line. One of the issues was being written about the villain at a certain point, and we realized this villain’s story’s not even worth an issue.
SA: It’s all about these characters and all that we really need to focus on is them and everything else is sort of in the way. And that’s something I really figured out or learned working with Joss Whedon; what real character-driven genre fiction is about. I hope that’s what you’ve hit on here.
|“The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #1 on sale now|
GW: It feels that way. I really hope people care as much about the characters as much as the characters are projecting. Obviously, me and you and Gabriel care tremendously about the characters. But these characters are projecting a lot and I really hope the readers care about them because of that.
But yeah, that two-page psychedelic sequence was pretty nuts. I wrote it very loosely because I’d seen things Gabriel had done with his brother like "Rock’n’Roll," and they did these crazy two-page spreads with amazing composition with a lot of it being just black ink and smeared stuff. I was trying to say, "Do your thing," but in reality I needed to be a lot more specific.
SA: It’s weird. In ways it was very much up to him. You were describing the way that the veins would move across the pages, in what directions and stuff, but what winds up in the insets is very much his weird contribution.
Then we get the scene where the team regroups in the Umbrella Academy, in the main house.
GW: We finally get to see the Televator now! There’s this band called The Mars Volta and they have a song called "Televators." I did an internet search for it and there’s actually some kind of weird, trademarked device — that’s obviously not what this Televator is — and it’s actually some kind of weird escalator that exists in real life. But The Mars Volta is one of those bands like Muse that’s very inspiring to the series. Mars Volta, to me, sounds in some weird way like very Latin-influenced music mixed with "Dr. Who" and it was very, very inspiring to the series.
I wanted the characters to be able to teleport through an elevator. Basically, it’s this thing that Hargreeves had designed that had made him a lot of money even though the world doesn’t use it. There’s only one in existence, but his research had made him a lot of money. So, basically, the Televator is this thing by which they wait outside of it like a normal elevator. They hit an up or down button. They go inside and type in these coordinates using the set of numbers you would use to go to a different floor, and that transports them to any elevator in the world.
It’s a cool thing because it’s a limited form of teleportation. They can’t go somewhere that doesn’t have an elevator. I don’t think you ever want too many infinite possibilities and that’s a problem sometimes. The Rumor, I always talk about her power being a problem — because it is — and luckily she’s so crazy in this book she hasn’t used her power.
One thing we’ll mention is that in the Televator scene, when you do see The Kraken, behind him is the Caravaggio painting that we referred to in the bios in issue #1. He had slashed up some Caravaggio painting. Hargreeves is so wealthy and acquires so many strange things –much like Vonya’s violin in the beginning of the issue, which you’ll read about in issue #5, where that violin actually comes from — and this is another one of those things.
|“The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #2 on sale now|
SA: The next scene’s the scene in the diner, so we shouldn’t go into that because we don’t want to ruin it.
GW: I’ll just say this was a turning point in writing the series for me and I learned a lot right here. The scene was just supposed to be two characters talking, and the last minute I was like, "Well, I really want to do something cool. Why can’t I?" So I came up with this kind of kooky idea and really involved the boy as far as where he comes from exactly, what happened to him exactly, and really start to raise a lot of questions with him. You see this character who gives you this crazy story and you don’t know all the details of it, so this is starting a chain of events that are going to reveal the details about what really happened to him.
It was a cool scene for me because I was just so excited, I was really inspired. Something just hit me and I decided to put it in here and it ended up being the beginning of issue #5.
SA: The great thing about this story is that the pitch was pretty involved when you pitched it to me, but so much has changed. So many scenes that have happened later in the book weren’t even in anybody’s head when we set out to d it.
Another funny thing about this diner scene is that it’s so short; it’s only two pages. In my mind it’s much longer than that and the conversation between them is much more involved. When it was first written, it was going to be about one thing. Then you rewrote it and it was a totally different thing. This scene has gone through three major re-envisionings until it became what it is here, and it was a relatively simple thing until that last panel.
GW: What I like about it so much is it’s a big indicator of what the series is really going to be like once we’ve set all this history and personal stuff into motion. This is in actuality a lot of what embodies the series. It’s supposed to be unpredictable. It’s really supposed to be me sitting at a desk typing and then all of a sudden going, "Oh, why can’t I do this? I’m going to do this." Something completely random yet meaningful can happen.
When Series 2 finally rolls around, that’s what’s really exciting about it. Now that Series 1 is fully written, that part is done. You’ve got these characters set up without having to take a million issues to do it. It’s done. These characters are ready to roll now. And because of that, more of this stuff will be part of the series.
SA: One of my favorite weird bits about this issue is the inside-front cover. That thing Tony Ong did with all those pieces of art stuck on a corkboard; newspaper clippings and shots of the group and the stationary for the Umbrella Academy, "official use only." Doing these inside front covers is fun because every issue, it’s a totally original piece, it’s a totally new one. There’s so many characters with a group book like this it’s real good — as I learned in "BPRD" — to just offer a little insight into the character in the front. But now that these characters are so well developed, that as we get more and more weird with the inside front covers it’s fine that we don’t really explain each character every issue. They really do stand on their own.
GW: We thought we would always need inside-front covers with bios. But getting halfway into the series it was really surprising that we don’t need to do that anymore. I’d almost prefer not to have bios or even characters talking about other characters in a weird way. Now we can just get weird with the stuff. We are still talking about the characters; that’s what great about this one with the clippings, but it’s way more fun.
|“The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite” #3 on sale now|
SA: It’s more fun and it contributes on a whole different level than simply filling you in. Everybody who’s working on this book to [assistant editors] Sierra Hahn to [colorist] Dave Stewart to you and to Ba, everybody’s contributing on such a great level. But Tony, the designer on the book, has been doing great stuff. The inside-front covers are so much fun. Tony really brings something great to the book.
GW: Tony’s doing amazing job with all this stuff. The Umbrellica is so awesome that I literally want to write a volume of The Umbrellica.
SA: [Laughs] That might take a while. We’ll do that after Series 2!
GW: I’m actually not disappointed with anything at all with the series. It surprised me, it’s better than it ever could have been in my head. Obviously that comes from the collaboration on all our parts. But the one thing that disappoints me is there’s not an Umbrellica in every issue.
SA: Yeah, I know. I was so into the idea of doing that every issue. But yeah, after that first one we were all so under the gun schedule-wise, that to jam out 1,200 words of text about some crazy topic just became that one more thing that we couldn’t quite get together on.
GW: It’s a big undertaking, too. It’s not simply saying, oh, let’s have a cool back page about this. You’ve got to get in there, find your topic and completely rewrite it.
SA: Plus extra art from Ba. Maybe somebody we’ll do a 1,500 page Umbrellica book.
GW: Maybe we’ll just do an issue! Just exceprts from Umbrellica. That might be kind of fun. I’m really excited for people to see issue #5’s Umbrellica because I got a feeling they’re going to eventually want to see that story we talk about in the Umbrellica.
Thanks very much, Gerard and Scott!
Check back with CBR next month for Gerard and Scott’s remarks and insights into "The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite" #5!
Now discuss this story in CBR’s Indie Comics forum.
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