NYCC Day 1: "The Umbrella Academy" by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá

Coming to comic stores (and perhaps even some record stores) this Free Comic Book Day is the first installment of "The Umbrella Academy," the debut comic book by Gerard Way, lead singer of alternative rock band My Chemical Romance. Published by Dark Horse Comics, the Gabriel Bá illustrated mini-series follows the trials and tribulations of a foster family of seven superheroes; all adopted and brought together by a cold-hearted alien foster-father for the purposes of saving the world. Unfortunately, this family is just as dysfunctional as their abilities are super.   As part of our ongoing coverage of New York Comic Con, CBR News sat down with creator Gerard Way and Dark Horse editor Scott Alllie to talk about "The Umbrella Academy."

Setting the stage for the story of "The Umbrella Academy" is the death of Sir Reginald Hargreeves, aka The Monocle. Prompted by the death of their adoptive father, the group of superpowered malcontents attempt to put their differences aside. Unfortunately, a new world-ending threat emerges, forcing them to get passed their inter-personal problems aside and do what the Monocle assembled them to: save the world.  

"You meet [the team] sort of toward the end of their prime," said editor Scott Allie of the Free Comic Book Day issue. "When they really hate each other. Then in issue #1 we've leaped ahead to well passed their prime, and tragedy causes the team to try and reassemble, and it's not so easy. Characters will die, and they will have to fight major architectural landmarks.

"They'll have to fight like hell to save the souls of the least powerful of them all, as though they were a family that actually cared about each other. When their adoptive father brought them all together, he said it was to save the world. But maybe he didn't even know what that really meant – the first series begins to reveal why the world really needs to be saved."

"I've always wanted 'The Umbrella Academy' to be the kind of comic book that hasn't existed," said creator Gerard Way. "Sure, there are a myriad of influences, but everyone has influences. I wanted to make a comic that I wanted to read. I've always felt the best work is something that you yourself wanted to see or listen to."

Way sent his pitched for "The Umbrella Academy" directly to Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson, whose assistant (and My Chemical Romance fan) Eric Wiler showed the pitch to editor Scott Allie. "I was skeptical," Allie admitted. "[I was] thinking this was some rock star out on a lark, like a lot of Hollywood people look at comics as a quick way to crank out some product. But the pitch struck me, reminded me of Mingola's 'Amazing Screw-On Head,' and I thought it was worth looking into more. "

Allie continued, "The long back story, as I found out later, was that Gerard had always wanted to do comics."   Indeed, the My Chemical Romance singer interned at DC Comics in years past, and attended New York's prestigious School of Visual Arts. "[Gerard] grew frustrated at how insular [comics are] and hard to break into, so he went off and became this big rock star, which apparently is an easier gig to get.

"I didn't follow the band before getting to know Gerard, but I guess he was always sort of championing comics, telling fans how great a medium it is. So his fans already see a connection between Gerard and comics, and are probably ready to see him do this, as opposed to, say, Jay-Z coming out with a superhero book."

Way listed among his favorite comics "Watchmen" and, Allie said, "anything by Grant Morrison. Grant's a hero of his, with whom he's managed to become friends. When I told [Gerard] that 'Umbrella Academy' reminded me of ['Amazing Screw-On Head'], he jumped out of his boots and said that was just the sort of thing he was trying to do. I think he was happy because it's not that obvious the connection. It's not real evident, but the two books come from a similar point of view. I think 'New Frontier' was [Gerard's] favorite book from the last year or so… oh, and 'Sof' Boy,' that's another one he always loved. I guess when he was interning at DC that was his favorite book, and no one at DC knew what the hell it was. That's why [Gerard] belongs at Dark Horse. That book came out and the whole editorial department was pissing ourselves laughing. We might not know what's going on in 'Civil War,' but we're well-versed in black and white comics about adorable, suicidal street urchins."

"Watchmen's" inspiration is apparent in the Free Comic Book Day kick-off story, in which an "Umbrella Academy" character dies. "I think 'Watchmen will always inspire me," Way confessed.   One of my favorite aspects of 'Watchmen was that Alan Moore cared enough about the characters to actually kill them, for real. Overall I'd say one of the similarities between 'The Umbrella Academy' and 'Watchmen' is that certain elements of the characters' lives may be unconventional. Other than that, the book has a very different feel… it's more quirky and bizarre, in a way akin to Grant Morrison's work. But it feels at times like a European comic."

Contributing to that quirky European aesthetic are "The Umbrella Academy's" illustrations by Gabriel Bá, who's recently made quite a name for himself on the Image Comics cult hit "Casanova."

"We were looking at a lot of different people," explained Scott Allie. "At first, Bá didn't stand out in the crowd, but then Gerard picked up 'Casanova.' We'd shown him Bá's Dark Horse book, which he did with his brother, a book called 'De: Tales." But 'Casanova' was what sold Gerard on him.

"We wanted a real graphic approach, a little of that Mignola thing. And we were going for a certain European sensibility, which we get with Bá via Brazil. The main thing is that we wanted to do a superhero book from a different point of view."

An artist himself, Gerard Way created the original imagery and designs for "The Umbrella Academy," but when Way and Dark Horse saw the pre-production work Bá was turning in, the visual side of the project became owned completely by Bá. "He's given them so much personality through the storytelling… any little suggestion Gerard would toss out there, Bá would take it all the way, really develop it into something unique."

Allie continued to sing Bá's praises. "The way we generate pages has been that Gerard and I work out the script with a certain amount of back and forth and discussion, then that goes on to Bá, and he does real rough layouts. We give him feedback on that, some notes, maybe ask for some layouts to be redone but not much, then he goes straight to inks. With other artists, I'd want to see pencils before inks, but Bá's process is so organic, it only makes sense for him to go straight to inks… he gets this stuff intuitively, and brings so much style and character to it."

  "The Umbrella Academy" deals in part with the fame of being a superhero. Being famous himself, one might assume Gerard Way inserted some autobiographical material into the bloodstream of his first comics project. "I find that the autobiographical elements of 'The Umbrella Academy' come from [My Chemical Romance] being like a family, although I feel that the family I'm part of is much more functional than the one in the comic.

"I think a writer always has autobiographical material in their work, even if they try to stay away from it. One of the biggest hurdles you face doing what I do is that there are always misconceptions about who and what you are, what you want to say and accomplish, and the problems you face with expectation and power. The characters in this comic have the same problems."

Gerard Way and My Chemical Romance recently launched their latest tour. While Dark Horse and CBR News are at the New York Comic Con, Way and his band will be performing in Long Island, making a convention appearance decidedly unlikely. As for future comic plans, editor Scott Allie said, "Gerard has six issues of 'Umbrella Academy' to write for me, and with the tour starting up, that's about all the comics he can deal with for the time being. We've talked about some other stuff, and down the road I want him to draw an 'Umbrella' story…."

"The Umbrella Academy" debuts on Free Comic Book Day this May and is published by Dark Horse Comics.

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