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The Umbrella Academy #1- Good Comic Book Gumbo*

by  in Comic News Comment
The Umbrella Academy #1- Good Comic Book Gumbo*

So, despite being so out of touch with modern rock that I had no idea who Gerard Way was until I read some promotional stuff in the back of the book, I was deeply impressed by his collaboration with the original artist for my beloved Casanova, Gabriel Ba, in Dark Horse’s Free Comic Book Day offering. So much so that I eagerly anticipated the ongoing it was serving as a preview for. Now that it’s here, and I’ve actually heard a couple of My Chemical Romance songs, was it worth the wait?I would say so, yes. The book does remind me a lot of Casanova, and not just because of Ba’s stellar visuals and the frentic pace that gives you a satisfying single issue experience while building an interesting ongoing plot on the edges, complete with a cool cliffhanger that gives you an idea where things are going and makes you want to pick up the next issue. It’s that they’re both the comic book equivalent of my favorite Cajun dish, gumbo.

There are a lot of comics out there that throw everything up to and including the kitchen sink in to the mix to create something different from your usual genre experience while still being, at the end of the day, action/adventure stories. They’re like gumbo, because they may not be good for you, and if the mix is off, they’re awul, but when everything goes right, all the flavors blend and you have something wonderful.

Street Angel was an example of how this approach can burn out quickly (or at least lose its appeal to its creators, from what I can gather). Scott Pilgrim, that other internet darling, does it. But Casanova and Umbrella Academy seem like the best examples of this approach to me, as they toss a variety of influences and genre elements in to the stew, mix ’em up, and give you a piping hot single issue stew.

Where Fraction will spell out exactly what ingredients went in to his stew in the commentary sections in the back of the book, Way’s a little more canny, if for no other reason than that he isn’t writing creative process essays in the back of the book (yet, at least). But they’re pretty easy to identify. Ba’s art, with its Mignola-isms, calls to mind Hellboy. Lead character the Monocle, and the encyclopedia article in the back of the book, call to mind the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The absurdity permeating the whole thing, from the kids in prep school uniforms and domino masks to a rampaging Eiffel Tower, is reminiscent of Grant Morrison (and Spaceboy, a character with a superhero’s head and an ape’s body, could be straight out of Doom Patrol). And the set up itself is basically the X-Men if Xavier was a cold bastard who openly mocked some of his students for being lame and useless.

All of this, along with the prolific Dave Stewart’s colors which make everything better, gives you a very satisfying reading experience. It’s very impressive, especially coming from  a neophyte comic book writer moonlighting from another field like Way. Now, we’ve all been burned by this kind of stuff before (I still hold a grudge against Kevin Smith for Spider-Man/Black Cat, although I have to begrudingly admit to liking Clerks II), and Scott Allie openly admits in his editorial Way’s day job made him less than eager to read the pitch for this book. But he, like I, had his preconceptions challenged by it. Even if I hadn’t really enjoyed this first issue as much as I did, Allie’s track record would have caused me to stick with it; the guy’s been involved in some great books, so I trust that he knows of what he speaks. With him vouching for the book, consider me along for the ride. You could do worse than pour yourself a bowl and see if this gumbo works for you, too, even if you don’t think Teenagers** is a cool song. 

*I would say mash up, but I like gumbo more, and mash up is too damn ubiquitous a phrase anyway. Speaking of mash ups, I found the MTV Video Music Awards watchable for the first time since I was like 15 because you had things like Fall Out Boy playing for Rihanna. I just felt like mentioning that, since I do feel like Rip Van Winkle when it comes to pop music these days, so it’s weird to actually like some of this stuff.

**It’s funny because it’s true; after a semester of teaching high school (sort of), teenagers really do scare the living shit out of me.

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