Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Short Review - The Umbrella Academy

A lot of comic book fans online have recommended The Umbrella Academy so I finally got around to reading it the other day. I can see what people like; it is an exciting cacophony of psychedelic imagery. Unfortunately there's nothing else to it and so I was left disappointed that so many interesting ideas were tinkered with and then forgotten.

There was a group of children with special powers who had mad cap adventures. As they grew up, though, they came to despise their adopted father and went their separate ways. When their father dies they reunite only to be informed by their time traveling sibling that the end of the world is coming.

As I said, the imagery is interesting. The book opens with a wrestler defeating a cosmic squid and potentially causing the virgin births of dozens of superpowered children around the world. This leads directly into the Eiffel Tower being piloted by a steam powered zombie robot Gustav Eiffel rampaging in Paris before launching itself into space. This is the kind of thing that happens constantly in the book with little rhyme or reason for it. That can work if the reader has some kind of anchor elsewhere, a plot or characters to connect them to the insanity. Writer Gerald Way attempts to do this and fails miserably.

There's two storylines that he attempts to pursue. The first is the end of the world driven by an evil orchestra that one of the siblings joins. This is driven by random events with no context and the resolution of every aspect to it is a deus ex machina where something new comes in from left field or someone demonstrates an ability the reader was never informed they had. The reader is supposed to react to how cool the events are but I was left wondering why I should care.

The other story, and the one that it seems like the book is really trying to hook onto, is the siblings dealing with the death of their hated father. The problem here is that we just don't know enough about any of them or their relationships. What little is in the pages of The Umbrella Academy is hamhanded (the father telling one of them "You're just not special," early on in the story for example).

The impression that I got is that I was supposed to know who all of these characters were before I read the book by reading exposition that was not provided in the story (and as someone who hates giant blocks of exposition it kills me to say that the story did not have enough). I typically didn't work out even the basics of who the characters were until it was far too late. An example of this is that one of the character's special powers is vital to the way the other characters treat them but the reader is never told what their power is until a story that is printed in the book after the miniseries. She uses her ability once in the first few pages in a very ambiguous method and apparently Way thought that was sufficient to establish everything the reader needed to know.

That's a problem for the whole series: far too much is ambiguous. Not just the little story developments or character twists but fundimental information that the reader needs to comprehend what is occurring. It was four issues in before I realized one of the characters had a human head on the body of a gorilla (I thought it was his space suit until that point). And I'm still not sure how everyone put together enough information to show up for the climax of the story.

The Umbrella Academy depends on the reader reacting to the events and ignoring them in the context of the whole and I'm just not capable of doing that. When I was younger I might have been distracted by the shiney moments and then accepted its flaws. I am not that young anymore, however, and so I can't recommend it.