Saturday, September 22, 2007

Better comics through chemistry

In the letter's section of The Umbrella Academy #1, editor Scott Allie says that he had never heard of Gerard Way's band My Chemical Romance, "as my musical tastescalcified around the time Gerard was born." Mine hadn't, as I think I'm only ten or twelve years older than the peroxide peril. And I was glancingly familiar with My Chemical Romance, although not really grabbed. In both voice and appearance, Way had always struck me as a fashion-android replicant of Billie Joe Armstrong.

Then there's the whole dillettante trend in comics, that Allie also alludes to. With some exceptions, this trend has been somewhat noxious. Virgin Comics has already blown whatever credibility they might have had by taking pitches from... Nic Cage? Deepak Chopra? neither of whom were willing to actually do the work of scripting. And while TV writer Allen Heinberg started well on Wonder Woman, his productivity on the book dropped to zero when he got the Gray's Anatomy gig.

So I was not predisposed to say, "A Gerard Way comic! Wow!" But, #1 has a good cover, which helped suck me in. And the comic book store cashier/daughter of the owner gave it a thumbs up. (She's more in MCR's target demo than I am, but was descriptive about the book too.) Having bought it, and read it, I have no regrets. In fact, whatever Way does or doesn't know about rock'n'roll, he understands the comics medium pretty well.

TUA is about... Let's start over. Plot elements in the book include a group of children who were born at the same time that a wrestler knocked out a space squid in a public match (happens every day.) Seven of them are adopted by an ecentric millionaire and Nobel-winning scientist who is secretly (not much of a spoiler as it's revealed on p.3) an extraterrestrial. Together they fight crime, or to be more specific, weird science threats. Of course, benefactor Reginald Hargreaves may have hidden some things from them.

This title puts into play some of the best things about comics. To elaborate in list form:
1. It takes out-there, potentially goofy ideas and commits to them. I think we've established that.
2. Two words: visual medium. That means it should be fun to look at The seven orphans, whom Hargreaves calls only by number, are shown wearing black domino masks as newborns! Later they adopt old skool boarding school uniforms, which gives it a Roald Dahl/Lemony Snicket feel. And their mission involves the Eiffel Tower coming to life and going berserk. All this is freshly rendered by Gabriel Ba, whose style is reminiscent of Kevin O'Neil, Alan Moore's artist on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
3. Movement. Things happen in TUA, and you don't have to wait for the trade to find out what they are. It's billed as the first chapter in a six-part series, but #1 tells a satisfying story in itself, with a mystery opening out at the end.
4. Lightness. Oh there's a dark undercurrent to the story, but it can, and should be enjoyed on the level of wacky adventure.
5. A good bastard. Hargreaves, aka the Monocle, is cold, and really no kind of parent, but he's interesting. In this interview, Way identifies Grant Morrison as a prime influence, and I think Hargreaves has some of Morrison's treatment of Doom Patrol founder Niles Caulder. It will be interesting to see if he's ultimately good or evil. Or if he just is.

Remember how I said the story moved. Well, this issue contains a twenty-year time jump. That allows the team to show a gratuitous ass-shot of outcaste music prodigy #7 without engaging in kiddie porn. Gratuitous, but by that point they've earned it. Hopefully they'll continue to do so.

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