Gerard Way isn't a man easily put into a category. He's the frontman of the multi-platinum-selling band My Chemical Romance, a group that labels themselves simply as a rock band, but once you listen to their music and talk with their fans, it's clear these aren't your ordinary musicians.
One wouldn't expect the alternative medium of choice for a musician of Way's success to be comic books, but once you get to know him it all makes sense. This isn't a guy who started a band simply to be famous; it really is about the creative process with Way.
"The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite" #1, the first issue of Way's first comic series, debuts from Dark Horse Comics this September 19th, written by Way with art by critically lauded artist Gabriel Ba ("Casanova") and covers by James Jean ("Fables"). Much like Way's band, his comics series is hard to define – sure, it's got superpowered individuals wearing costumes, but the Umbrella Academy isn't your normal super team.
CBR News spoke with Gerard Way and his editor Scott Allie back in February of this year, and with the release date fast approaching, we reconnected with Way to get an "Umbrella Academy" update.
Gerard, where in the world do we find you today?
I am actually in Portland, Oregon.
Are you up there meeting with Dark Horse?
Yeah, I'm actually moving here in September. I just finished packing up my whole life at my parents and as soon as I finished – it took me like a week – I got on a plane and came here. I like to write here anyway. I've done this once before where I came up, holed up in a hotel and I script.
Where are you moving from?
Really, no where, but all my stuff was back in Jersey with my parents.
It's interesting you mention that you're moving to Portland because earlier this week we ran a story about the Portland comics scene, so the timing is quite perfect. Obviously New York and Los Angeles are major centers of comics creators and publishers, with Portland home to a number of publishers and a large group of comics talent. There really seems to be a great creative community up there.
That's really what attracted me. The main thing I look for in a place to live or have been looking for since I started traveling a lot is where are the artists and where are the artists I feel like I connect with. Los Angeles has quite a few places, but I don't know that I function too well out there. I'm not a very LA person. When I got to Portland, though, I discovered a lot of very cool artists and it's a lot more my speed. I like trees and stuff like that, too.
Considering how dry it's been in LA the last year, the number of trees is definitely dwindling!
Yeah, but I should say I really do love LA. I get along pretty well there, but I think after a while it would stop making sense to me because I'm not someone looking for more attention. When you're in my situation, you're either part of the circus or you're not part of the circus and I'm not. It's just harder in Los Angeles not to be part of the circus.
There's a lot of truth in that. I grew up in LA myself. I've traveled all over the world and each time I go abroad it reinforces just how bizarre a town LA is, so I completely understand where you're coming from.
I know a bit about the book from reading previous interviews here on CBR, but I always like to hear directly from the author himself what the book is about, so if you don't mind give me the pitch on "The Umbrella Academy."
The main thing you should know is that it's not an easy book to describe, but I think that's great and part of what works. When I started the band, I couldn't describe the band's aesthetic and that worked. I wanted to create a book that was something that I wanted to read and see. That's where it began and is the basis for whatever I do creatively.
The nuts and bolts of it are you're dealing with all these extraordinary kids who were born with amazing powers, about 44 of them, and this weird space alien adopted as many of them as he could, but you don't know what his agenda is exactly. He found seven of them and raised them to basically save the world. He was a really bad father - you know he's an alien and doesn't really know how to raise kids. So you end up with these really mal adjusted kids that are for the most part failures, emotionally and physically. One of them dies and they all end up leaving home and disband. The book begins when the father dies of a heart attack and they all come together for the funeral. Things snowball from there.
It's hard to call it a super hero book, because it's really not. Especially when you see the pages that are coming in from Gabriel. I guess it has the trappings of super hero books as people are wearing costumes and there are powers, but it doesn't feel at all like a super hero book. Nor is it a slice of life book. It's heavily inspired by "Doom Patrol," and I guess I'm injecting a lot of that into it. There's a lot of personal things going on, but they're fighting very bizarre things and sometimes they're even fighting concepts and not necessarily super villains. When it comes down to it I think it's really a mouth piece for what I've been through and seen and being a part of a slightly dysfunctional family - in my case a rock band - and carrying a lot of weight around on your shoulders and feeling all sorts of pressures and having a desire not to be part of that circus.
You brought up a couple of interesting things – you brought up how it's inspired by "Doom Patrol," which is another dysfunctional family of sorts. You also spoke about how the death of their adoptive father really launched this team, despite the fact they didn't have a good relationship with their father. If you don't mind me asking, have you experienced significant loss like that in your life?
Yeah. The death of my grandmother was the turning point in my life. A defining moment. It was literally right before we were about to record "Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge." It completely changed everything and it gave me a certain sense of purpose I didn't have before. I was dealing a lot with loss and sometimes death is kind of a starting point. The journey from that death in making "Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge," then going on tour and gaining a lot of clarity about death, it changed my perspective and I started to be OK with it and accepted it. I saw the beginnings of things following that death. Of course, the biggest difference in my grandmother's death and the death in "The Umbrella Academy" is that I had an amazing relationship with my grandmother and she's the one person who fostered all this creativity in me. You write what you know and that's one thing I know, now. It takes you a long time to realize that, but once you get there people start to connect with that.
One thing that follows with dealing with the death of a someone close to you is a gaining of personal fortitude, and it sounds like that's another message you're bring with these characters – that as messed up as they are, there's an inner strength they find that keeps them going and ultimately brings them back together.
Right and there are so many issues between the characters just from the way he poorly raised them. Yeah, it kind of forces them to face each other and forces them to face these issues, while at the same time trying to figure out how the world is about to end. It's like this really strange doomsday clock over a situation that involves a lot of interpersonal problems and they're really the only people who can stop it, all the while a lot of them hate each other.
Yeah, there is a fortitude that's gained from dealing with death and it completely changes who you are. It either turns you into a person who feels sorry for themselves for the rest of their lives, or you find this new kind of strength and you learn how not just to deal with that death, but everything in life. I find that's a really interesting subject.
You also mentioned earlier how you carry around the weight and pressures of being in a top-selling band. Is working on "The Umbrella Academy" a cathartic process for you since it allows you to get away from that circus?
Completely. More importantly, it's an outlet. So, maybe not so much getting away from it, it forces me to face it and deal with it. These are characters that have, for the most part, gone through very similar things. You're in a situation you fell into and you're great at what you do and love what you do, but people start to misinterpret you or miss the point. I think the deal with "The Umbrella Academy" is that in the story a lot of people over the years who were looking at these characters, and they're now in their 30s, a lot of people missed the point of them and a lot of people didn't quite get it and misinterpreted them and it became this thing that it wasn't. When it stopped feeling special, they separated. Anyone who's in a band that you start for the right reasons should be able to relate that, but really it's applicable to everyone's lives.
I know you're a life long comic fan and you've been something of a booster for comics your whole life, too. At the same time, though, when you began on this journey with "The Umbrella Academy" and decided you wanted to do this, did anyone at your label or in your management sort of wince or question why you wanted to make a comic book?
No, in fact a lot of people, the band included, to them it was almost the natural progression for me. When they heard I was going to do it they were like, "Well, of course you are." All of the skills I bring to "The Umbrella Academy" I've also applied to the band – my heavy sense of design and writing. It's almost like every tool I used with the band could just as easily be used with a comic, a novel or a movie. They were all very excited for me. That's just the sort of person I am.
I've had offers to act in movies and they expected me, knowing who I am, to turn that stuff down, but when it came time for me to chase something down that I really wanted, they understood. "Of course he's not going to be an actor and live in Hollywood. He's going to write comics and live somewhere weirder!" [laughs]
Portland in this case! One interesting aspect of the opening of this series is that you don't tell an origin story for these characters, per se.
Right. I find origin stories to be kind of boring. It starts in the middle of things happening, at a certain point of their lives that's their defining moment and how they're brought together in pretty fantastic ways. There's even stuff that happens with the biology of the characters that bring them together.
You've obviously poured yourself into comics your whole life, but I'm assuming before this you haven't scripted comics that much before getting into "The Umbrella Academy."
I haven't. I was much more a designer and when I was doing comics my scripts were always very loose because I was drawing them. That's not the case now. That was the biggest hurdle to get over. My editor, Scott Allie, was a major help and one of the greatest collaborators I've ever worked with and a fantastic editor. He trained me immediately. I had an idea how it was done, then I sent him my scripts and he said, "You actually know what you're doing, but let me show you how to tweak it and refine it." Over the course of writing two or three issues, I feel like I've gotten really good at it. It was hard work. When I was doing the first issue I kept thinking, "Man, comics are hard work!"
What do the members of the band think of the book thus far?
They love it. I think they're excited about it because it's something totally different than what I do with the band and we've made a very big point of that. We've kept the band and the book as separate as can be because the book, if it's going to survive and have series after series, it needs to do so on its own merits or it'll just end up being something that people like myself who read a lot of comics don't respect. It's got to slug it out for itself.
I think my band mates enjoy seeing me do all these crazy things that I couldn't necessarily do with the band. I mean, come on, I've got 12 year old kids practically fist fighting the Eiffel Tower. That's something I could never do with the band. And when they read the comic the band's just like, "Wow, this is nuts!"
They don't try to get involved by offering up how they would handle certain characters themselves?
It's funny you ask that. Ray [Toro] read the first issue and he literally was coming up to me and saying stuff like, "I think you should remove this ellipse and this and …" It was really amazing because it's exactly how he and I work together on music. Like, "It'll be more sinister if you get rid of this or that…" and he was right. I love that he was able to pick it up, love it and then offer up sound advice. He comes from a filmmakers background, he's a great editor in terms of film, so a lot of what he does is applicable to what he does here.
I've seen in a number of interviews with you that folks get really excited when they learn you once interned at DC Comics. Do you have any interesting stories you can tell from those days?
Well, I worked in editorial, in the FedEx room, which is the photocopier room, too. So, me and two other guys, Joe and Lateef, and Lateef later went on to edit "Impulse." So, we're working there, I photocopied a bunch of stuff and the great thing about that is I got to see a lot of really amazing stuff up close, like "Stardust." I held a lot of those originals and I photocopied a lot of those originals. "Preacher" was also really huge at the time, so I got to photocopy those for the editors and I got to see all this artwork up close. I guess I learned a lot about storytelling by reading every page I copied, sometimes without any word balloons.
It was fun. I kind of became a weird little mascot in a lot of ways. The funniest story is they had a big Christmas party that I went to at the Roseland, which is a giant venue that bands play at and I got completely wasted! [laughs] It was all of Warner Bros. so DC Comics were there, all of Time Warner in this huge place and I got totally drunk and I ended up throwing up in the bathroom. This one editor, who I always thought didn't like me, was being very cool and brought me a glass of water while I'm throwing up wasted. And I said to him, from inside the stall while he's standing on the outside of the stall, "Man, I always though you hated me!" He was like, "No, what are you talking about?" So, that was weird to come back to the office after that.
Can you mention his name?
I honestly can't remember. I think he's still there. It's been close to ten years now, so a lot of those names kind of blur together. A lot of the guys who I worked closer with like Joe Cavalieri, who's my friend, and Eddie Berganza, Axel Alonso, Mike Carlin, Maureen McTigue, I remember them, but this was a guy who I didn't have that much dealings with.
Now, considering your history with DC, how and why did "The Umbrella Academy" end up with Dark Horse?
Because to me Dark Horse is the company that has defined what modern comics is and defined this new format of limited arcs in limited series. Stories that have a definite ending, but they take a lot longer to get to because the work comes out in graphic novel form – pamphlets them graphic novels – and they come out when the artist has something to say. If you look at your favorite comics, they're generally limited arcs – "The Dark Knight Returns," "Sin City" and "Watchmen" are good examples. Some of them have sequels, but they come out when the author has a story to tell. I find that fascinating and since Dark Horse defined this, they made it their thing with guys like Mignola and Eric Powell.
Plus, I wanted to be somewhere more indy, more mom and pop, more like a family. I still have a lot of love for the other publishers, but they're corporations and that's' cool, but I wanted to do something very creator owned where it's a bit different, as opposed to having to crank out monthly books. I'd never make my deadlines under those circumstances. I've always loved Dark Horse books, especially as an adult I think I really made the right choice for what I wanted to do.