Vanya Hargreeves, aka The White Violin, played by X-Men veteran Ellen Page, starts out as the ordinary sister in a super-powered family only to become an apocalypse maiden by the end of the first season of the show. In the comic books, her evolution is even more dramatic, but not a bit less heartbreaking. If you loved Vanya's character in either format, keep reading, as this article will tune you into some key aspects that you might not have noticed before.
Vanya Hargreeves was spontaneously conceived, gestated, and born on October 1st, 1989 in a matter of minutes. This makes her—and every other Umbrella Academy alumni—a Libra, which is interesting for two reasons. Libra is the only sign of the Zodiac that is an object, and not an animal or a humanoid figure, which foreshadows the instrumentalization of these children by Sir Reginald. What's more, Libra also shares the scales symbol with the representation of justice, which is the purpose of her siblings' existence and with the concept of balance, which they keep staying out of.
The place and year of Vanya's birth also have interesting connotations; she was born in the USRR in 1989, in the same month that the Berlin wall fell, marking the beginning of the end for both the Soviet Union and the Cold War. It was a time of optimism, where the precarious power balance that had defined the previous era was about to change, and one which also gave rise to the belief that the USRR and the power that it had held were done forever—that they had become, again, an ordinary country. This, in some ways, reflects Sir Reginald Hargreeves' mantra to Vanya is "You are ordinary."
Vanya named herself with a gender-bender name. Vanya is feminine in Brazilian culture—probably a wink to the nationality of Gabriel Bá, the comic book illustrator—and masculine in Russian. In Russia, Vanya is the diminutive form of Ivan (John). And who wrote the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse? John the Apostle. And what is Vanya Hargreeves most horrifying concert called? The Apocalypse Suite.
While in the comic books Vanya can only manipulate sound when she's playing the violin—and only after her true White Violin form has been unlocked—in the show, Vanya can manipulate every soundwave as long as she's not under her "antidepressants.” However, both comic book Vanya and Netflix Vanya have the following sonic abilities; ultra-enhanced, super-focused hearing, sound absorption as kinetic energy, sound wave projection, aka "Sonic Boom there goes the Moon!," which also includes several other fantastical abilities.
Vanya shares a name with a literal weapon of mass destruction developed by Russia in 1961 and tested "in secret"—or as secretly as you can test a nuclear harbinger of devastation—pretty much like Hargreeves tried to keep her powers under wraps even from herself. Digging a little deeper, one of the most famous sound-based weapons in fiction was the Project Xylophone/Thompsons Harmonizer in the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand, herself a USRR immigrant to the US, used the destructive power of Project X to illustrate how wonderful technology intended for communication can be subverted into a weapon of mass destruction. Or, in Vanya's case, how music, which communicates so much emotion, could turn destructive. Although the philosophy behind Umbrella Academy and Atlas Shrugged is entirely different, it is still interesting to note the parallels and similarities with Vanya's powers.
And talking about using music for evil purposes, music fans would have known that there was more to Vanya than met the eye in the first episodes just by looking at the original score titles. Of 15 original themes, 6 are related to Vanya or have Vanya's name in the title. In a series with a permanent cast of 9 characters, two main plots, and three romantic subplots, it should be a huge red flag. Here's what Jeff Russo, the composer, had to say about his process:
"I thought it would be a good idea to sort of start out by writing an overall suite of music that could represent them as a unit. Doing that made it so much easier for me to build the score over the course of the ten episodes in a way where my themes could really grow with these characters—starting with Vanya, and her solo violin theme, which then becomes an apocalyptic symphony that is the culmination of the show. The piece is called The White Violin." The one song immediately following Vanya's Orchestra is called Apocalypse. Whoops!
In the comics, Vanya used to have a secret Punk Band with Diego... until he chose to go on a Sir Reginald mission instead of playing on a club where they would have gotten their break. That's the last drop that cements her profound alienation from all her siblings. Umbrella Academy writer Gerard Way said in an interview with Rolling Stone that his two main inspirations for Umbrella Academy are the comic series Doom Patrol and his days as the leader and vocalist of the band My Chemical Romance.
This era of his life permeates both the show and the comic; from the distant Sir Reginald, who arranges missions for his "children" like a manager would book a gig, to the way each of the characters represents one aspect of fame. The Rumour is the press, Number 5 the eternal child prodigy, Number 6 the drug-addled star terrified of the—literal—ghosts of his past, and Vanya the belittled and ostracized talent that, once unbridled, will obliterate her bandmates. That probably also explains the abundance of mood-enhancing drugs and all those audition scenes.
There are a few differences between the comic book Vanya and Netflix' Vanya relationships. As mentioned before, in the comic book Vanya used to have an excellent relationship with her brother Diego, which sours as they grow apart—him dedicating himself to fighting crime, and her to being a fiddling violinist. However, in the show, her closest sibling is Allison/The Rumour, who tries time and time again to mend fences and to "protect" "ordinary" Vanya from the terrible danger threatening them all. Vanya returns the favour by slashing Allison's throat and taking her superpower away.
Netflix Vanya also gets a romantic upgrade, that being "nice guy" Harold Jenkins who has a massive passive-aggressive inferiority-superiority complex and tries to use Vanya's insecurities and superpowers to destroy her siblings. In the comic books, there is no Harold Jenkins, just the sinister, Phantom-like Orchestra Verdammten conductor who wants to recruit Vanya as first violinist in his Apocalypse Suite and gets soundly blasted for his troubles. Also, in the Netflix series, Vanya misses Number 5 when he disappears, and leaves him sandwiches in case he's hungry when he returns. Number Five also has feelings for her, and when he comes back, he tells Vanya that he only trusts her. Meanwhile, in the comic books, Number 5 despises and berates Vanya on multiple occasions, much like Sir Reginald used to do, and even shoots her in the head at the end of the first volume.
Vanya is presented as the relatable, outsider-looking-in, outcast member of the Umbrella Academy. She is a perfect point of entry for new viewers because she is familiar with the world but the other characters get to explain to her what has been going on in the last ten years and because she seems to be normal like us. The twist, of course, is that she's anything but, which renders her an excellent, unreliable point of view character.
In-universe, bot comic and show, she even wrote a tell-all autobiography about her childhood as the normal kid surrounded by extraordinary superheroes that leaves out the most crucial part, something which she doesn't even remember herself; that she's literally a weapon of mass destruction. This double layer makes her an fantastic unreliable narrator.
In the comic books, Vanya's transformation into the White Violin is incredibly dramatic; she submits herself to a grossly invasive science experiment to access her suppressed powers, and she emerges permanently transformed into a nightmarish naked white violin woman capable of massive destruction. After she plays her Apocalypse Suite, number 5 shoots her in the head and she loses her memories and has to undergo physical therapy to regain basic motor control, which makes her look more like an albino invalid. Her physical changes are motivated by her internal decisions, but enacted by the external actions of others—this Vanya/White Violin has control over her mind, but not her body.
In the Netflix series, Vanya's transformation is much more subtle: it starts when she falls in love with Harold Jenkins, letting her hair down and adding a little bit of make-up. As her suppressants wear off and she accesses more and more of her powers, her whole posture changes. In the final episode, Vanya’s change into the White Violin comes from her rage and despair, from her heartbreak and her sense of betrayal. Her coloring changes to a blinding white, but she doesn’t become a literal human violin. This Vanya has total control of her body and the physical elements, but, as Ellen Page explained to Radio Times, not of her mind.
Season One ends with Allison/The Rumour/Number 3 shooting a gun next to Vanya's ear, probably deafening her forever—and quite fittingly since Vanya took Allison's voice away. We'll see how she turns out in Season 2!