Before he became lead singer of My Chemical Romance, Gerard Way had been pursuing a career in comics. The terrorist attacks against New York City in September of 2001 had such a profound effect on Way, his life went in a completely different direction. But last year, Way returned to creating comics with Dark Horse’s “The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite,” illustrated by Gabriel BÃ¡ (“Casanova”) with covers by “Fables’” James Jean, who also provided sleeve illustrations for My Chemical Romance’s hugely successful album, “The Black Parade.”
Now that the “Umbrella Academy” franchise’s first series is complete, CBR News caught up with the L.A.-based musician/comics creator for a post-game on the series that Grant Morrison calls “an ultraviolet psychedelic sherbet bomb of wit and ideas.”
“The Umbrella Academy” tells the story of a dysfunctional family of superheroes, brought together by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, aka The Monocle, a space alien posing as a wealthy entrepreneur. In an event that has yet to be explained, 43 extraordinary children were born to 43 unsuspecting mothers. Those who did not die in childbirth were abandoned or given up for adoption. The Monocle adopted seven of these superpowered children, with the express purpose of training them to save the world. The team called themselves the Umbrella Academy, and little did they know that the threat to the world their adoptive father trained them to stop would come from within.
Out of all seven members of the Umbrella Academy, Vanya Hargreeves (aka the White Violin) was the most ostracized. Vanya’s power manifested itself as a proclivity for music, and this pedestrian ability was of little interest to her adoptive father or her teammates. It is the disillusionment she feels from being rejected by her family that leads her to unlock the true nature of her power. Vanya is recruited into the Orchestra Verdammten by a ghoulish conductor whose composition, “The Apocalypse Suite,” if played correctly has the power to bring an end to the world.
The concept of destroying the world with a piece of music was inspired by a real-life conductor, whose name Way could not recall. “There was really a conductor that believed he could destroy the world with a piece of music that he had written,” he told CBR News “This insane guy, and it’s very hard to find any of his work right now. My friend had told me about it, and that was what sparked the idea for the series.”
Ultimately, the evil that is “The Apocalypse Suite” is cancelled out by a an assemblage playing Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rites of Spring.” Thus, in “The Umbrella Academy,” Way imbued music with the power to destroy the world, and the power to save it. But it wasn’t until after he completed the series that Way realized the synergy with his other job as lead singer of My Chemical Romance. “It almost never occurred to me,” Way said. “That’s actually something that I, with the band, had always believed, so it completely subconsciously carries itself into the work. I had no idea I was saying the same thing I was trying to say with music.”
“With our music at times, we are trying to prove that you can destroy with it as well,” Way continued. “There’s a definite black and white to our sound and lyrics too. There’s some very uplifting stuff, and there’s some very destructive elements to the music. Just to have that balance, to prove that they both do exist, it’s really up to the listener to choose if they want to help or they want to hurt.”
For those who missed the critically acclaimed miniseries the first time around, Dark Horse is putting out an “Umbrella Academy” trade paperback this July. “Grant Morrison does the forward, which is very amazing and generous of him to do,” said Way, who has cited Morrison’s seminal “Doom Patrol” as one of his primary inspirations for “Umbrella Academy.”
Way decided not to write any additional material for the trade, opting instead to leave room for artist Gabriel BÃ¡ and editor Scott Allie to sound off on the book. “I felt like I’d kind of written quite a bit, and I said a lot, and I wanted other people to be able to say what they were feeling during making the series,” Way said.
The forthcoming “Umbrella Academy” trade also features an expanded sketchbook section. “It looks very cool, it looks like pages ripped out of my sketchbook,” Way said. “And then you see some of Gabriel’s studies for these characters, and there’s commentary on those.” And later on down the line, Way promises a hardcover collecton with even more extras.
Way and Scott Allie are already hard at work developing “Umbrella Academy” series 2, which they’re tentatively hoping to launch this November. “It’s going to directly deal with something that came up in the first series,” Way confirmed. “Almost immediately without a break, it’s going to deal with something that has to be dealt with right now. You’re going to learn some truth about some things that were said in series 1, and you’re going to see the actual story of what happened.”
Fans will be able to get a sneak peak of series 2 at San Diego Comic-Con this summer. “Gabriel has done a teaser image, it’s a really powerful image, I’m very excited for people to see it. That will really fill in readers on what the series is going to be about.”
Way’s plans for “Umbrella Academy” extend well beyond series 2. On top of the continuing adventures of the Umbrella Academy themselves, Way plans to delve into the lives of some of the other 43 super children. Additionally, one aspect of the story that was barely explored at all in series 1 was the heroes’ birth mothers. “I have a lot of plans for the mothers of these children later on in the series,” Way said. “Maybe more like series 5 or 6. That’s the best part about the series, I never really know when something is going to pop in and want to show its face.”
Way is an artist as well as a writer, and has been in talks with Scott Allie about writing and penciling a book. “I would love to do a project that I write and draw, a complete thought, a graphic novel, not released as single issues,” Way said. “There’s a couple things I’ve been interested in, I’ve been interested in the black plague and the crusade, and I’ve been interested in adapting Tom Waits’ 'Black Rider’ as a graphic novel. Little things like that that I think I could tackle if I had like a year of time. But I have a really strong desire to draw, I don’t get to draw nearly enough.” Way will have a chance to show off his drawing chops on an upcoming “Rex Mundi” cover.
Way’s aspirations in comics are not limited to creator-owned work; the long-time comic fan and former DC Comics staffer is excited at the prospect of penning an established superhero. “That’s extremely exciting to me, because I don’t do this for financial gain, it’s solely for fun,” Way said. “So if somebody’s willing to give me the keys to the car, I think that’s a lot of fun. If I’m allowed to do what I need to do with it to make it my vision, then I think that’s totally worth doing.”
But Way described “Umbrella Academy” as his “baby,” and said that any and all other comics projects would come second to that. “There have been a few prospects that are very exciting for me as a comic fan, and I’d love to follow them through. So I think this year, maybe we’ll get to see some announcements in terms of that.”
Way thinks one of the biggest triumphs of “Umbrella Academy” is the crossover with fans of My Chemical Romance, who number in the millions. “The first issue came out and I met kids at the signing that said it was their first American comic, because they all read Manga,” Way said. “I think that’s one of the best things that can happen is that you have someone who’s so used to reading Manga pick that up because they’re interested in the band. I think it’s ultimately the goal in some respect, for the better of the industry and the craft that I love.”
For a man who has been a comic fan and an aspiring creator for as long as Gerard Way, having a series like “Umbrella Academy” under his belt is very rewarding. “I obviously had stuff to prove, and I didn’t concern myself with proving it, I just concerned myself with making the best thing I could,” Way said. “So maybe by default I ended up proving it.”
Now discuss this story in CBR’s Indie Comics forum.