Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

UmbrellaThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole

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Skin&Earth – It’s Lit

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.27.20 AMWhen an established creator receives a veritable onslaught of support and encouragement to pursue a completely new project in a foreign medium, things like Skin&Earth gloriously explode into the fandom at hand. Skin&Earth Volume One, collecting the first six issues of Lights’ concept-album-turned-comic-book, competes with and pays homage to the best graphic novels of our time while simultaneously pushing the medium’s boundaries with refreshing ideas.

Lights, best known for her Juno Award-winning music, released Skin&Earth in conjunction with her album of the same title. Each of the story’s chapters coincides with a track from the album. This connection is part of what makes the book so special, even though my longtime love for Lights’ work may have swayed my enjoyment of the story toward the positive end of the spectrum. Still, in the interest of being fair, I’ll explore the book as a standalone work.

Skin&Earth weaves its tale in a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by literal toxicity, where humanity divides itself into two distinct sectors: Pink and Red. Pink Sector citizens revel in luxury and take pills to keep the landscape’s poison from killing them while they’re young…or just to get high. Maybe both. Red Sector citizens live outside the Pink Sector walls. They’re allowed into the Pink Sector for work or school, but they must wear masks and keep to a strict curfew. The Pink Sector is effectively ruled by Tempest, a corporation that makes the pills that protect Pink Sector folks from toxins…toxins whose effects are exacerbated by Tempest, if not downright caused by the company’s deeds. It’s pretty clear from the start, though, that Pink Sector people barely tolerate the Red Sector denizens.

Protagonist Enaia Jin (En, for short) attends Tempest University in the Pink Sector, otherwise spending her time in the dilapidated Red zone and the surrounding forest with her mysteriously aloof friend/lover, Priest. Her life is painted as unremarkable but enjoyable. En is a refreshing and a welcome herald for this story. She’s comfortable with herself but wears her insecurities in a strikingly human way, and her sense of self-worth despite her shortcomings bleeds into every panel and every sentence of dialogue. When relatable characters and post-apocalyptic settings meet, sparks fly; the first pages of Skin&Earth represent a flurry of sparks that ignite the whirlwind narrative and sustain the flame through every beat. En’s experiences open the floodgates to a veritable onslaught of world-building, strong characters, and poignant story elements.

Within the book’s first panels, Lights flexes her poetic license and exercises a tight grip on her carefully mapped narrative. Her newcomer status plays to her benefit, giving her the freedom to weave unpredictable story elements into the narrative. Lights bends expectations to create a storytelling environment where deviations from the norm are at once expected and welcome. For example, En’s relationship with Priest sets the stage for an intriguing and mysterious character who makes an appearance later, superseding typical guy-girl banter fodder. In other words, Lights cares little for normative ideas, ushering in fresh opportunities that circumvent typical comic book fare. She treats readers to a tale that subverts expectations, encourages thoughtful analysis of character behaviors, and unabashedly shares her deepest emotions. En serves as a conduit for Lights here, and the resulting characterization and storytelling creates a compelling narrative arc. To the story’s benefit, En’s status as a Red Sector native is cast aside quickly in favor of deeper explorations of the world’s lore. Immediately upon learning Skin&Earth’s basics, I yearned for details about the politics, relationships, and general goings-on instead of drab classroom scenes. Lights delivers this in spades, favoring the world’s best parts over those that could easily slip into a den of cliches.

All that said, Skin&Earth still displays telltale signs that it’s a debut rather than a seasoned veteran’s project. Narrative burden disproportionately falls on the dialogue, and exposition runs rampant as huge plot points surface. By no means does this dominate the novel’s storytelling, but it’s just prevalent enough to be a slight distraction. Should Lights follow this up with more stories from the Skin&Earth universe, I hope she’ll lean more heavily on the art to fill in some of the narrative gaps instead of explaining them away in verbose dialogue.

Skin&Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a testament to the sheer force of a creative mind set loose in unfamiliar territory. Successful in nearly every way, the story explodes with creativity and originality while paying homage to its genre.

Rating: Skin&Earth by Lights–8.5/10
-Cole

Batman: Haunted Knight – The Hero We Deserve

Haunted Knight.jpgHappy Halloween everyone, enjoy a special post!

Batman: Haunted Knight collects three Halloween tales by writer Jeph Loeb and illustrator Tim Sale. Famous for The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, the pair should be considered among the most trusted minds to weave a fantastic Batman story. Each of the brief stories in Haunted Knight glows with Loeb and Sale’s unbridled joint creativity, setting the stage for the two aforementioned novels that would become their masterpieces.

Fears, Madness, and Ghosts comprise the collection, each exploring in varying detail a particular aspect of Batman’s psyche. Originally, the stories ran separately as Halloween specials before becoming a seminal collection of one-off caped crusader escapades. The specials stand quite sturdily when evaluated alone, but they thrive when collected. Three dark Batman vignettes showcasing his skill alongside his flaws? Sign me up.

Fears launches the trilogy and establishes Gotham as a city overrun by fear, with Scarecrow dead center. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, who struggles to balance his…knight life with his more human side, falls for a mysterious woman with an unclear past.

The Bruce/Bats dichotomy is well-trodden ground, but Loeb and Sale handle it deftly without missing a beat. Bruce’s troubles are reflected by Batman’s woes, and Scarecrow knows how to exploit those issues with deadly accuracy. In my admittedly limited experience with Scarecrow in Batman comics, this story stands as one of the best portrayals of the villain I’ve ever read. There’s nobody better suited to bring out the dark corners of Bruce Wayne’s mind. Where The Joker forces Batman to wrestle with chaos for its own sake, Scarecrow smartly plays to Batman’s biggest weakness: his undeniable humanity.

Fears, by a sizeable stretch, wins the gold medal out of these three tales, punctuated by a percussive and smirk-inducing conclusion that just begs to be adapted to the big screen.

Madness drops Bats into a thorough exploration of his relationship with his late mother, mirrored in the present day by Mad Hatter’s kidnapping of Barbara Gordon and her relationship with Batman mainstay Jim Gordon. I’ve always thought Mad Hatter faltered as a villain, if only because his deranged mind does nothing to compensate for his tiny stature. Here, he makes up for his shortcomings with ample firepower and Barbara, a critical hostage. Even with the added leverage, Mad Hatter still reads like a cheap caricature rather than a full-fledged villain. Instead, Batman’s own inner turmoil, heralded by memories of his mother, plays the real starring villain role. Sure, it’s a tad highfalutin, but the story ends up better off for it.

Ghosts brings the collection to a lukewarm end. Easily the worst of the three, but not necessarily bad, Ghosts reads more like an excuse to retell A Christmas Carol through the Batman lens than a story that deserves to be told. After an altercation with Penguin, Bruce is visited by the ghost of his father followed by three other ghosts who represent past, present, and future.

A few villainous staples appear throughout the tale as titular ghosts, but the narrative moves so quickly that no worthwhile conflict emerges. By the end, I had written Ghosts off as a semi-charming recreation of a classic tale using the iconic stable of Batman characters. It’s worth the read, but any deeper meaning eludes this one. And, at the end of the day, that’s just fine.

Batman: Haunted Knight captures the spark of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale effortlessly, setting the stage for their continued collaboration and cementing them as trustworthy Batman storytellers. The three collected tales vary in terms of quality, ranging from passable to amazing, generally settling toward the latter.

Rating: Batman: Haunted Knight – 7.5/10
-Cole

Saga – Never Stop Hurting

812bsf2bbnqulSpeaking of comics. On Tuesday I spoke about my second favorite comic book series, Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, a science fiction series about a sentient robot. While on the subject I thought I might as well also talk about the best comic I have read, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. You have likely heard about Saga if you have put even a toe into the comic world – it has a massive following at this point and has pulled a plethora of people into the world of Image comics, its semi-indie publisher. Often when something is as popular as Saga, my inner hipster can be dubious – but this is one of those instances where something is popular because it’s just that good.

When I was at NYCC I attended a panel called “The Future of Fantasy” by Image Comics, which you can read a nice blog post about here. The unspoken premise of the panel seemed to be, “Saga has rocked the fantasy world because comics are the new evolution of fantasy storytelling, check out the next generation of fantasy comics”. While all the panels looked cool, I found that I was not sure that I bought their argument (I use argument loosely, I could have been reading too deeply into this) that comics are the evolution of fantasy, demonstrated by Saga. I noticed a reoccurring trend as I listened to the panelists talk about their work; all the comics looked really cool but seemed not to be that deep. Saga is not wildly popular because it has stunning visuals, which it does, but because it also manages to have the depth and feeling of a 700 page fantasy/science fiction novel in just 60 pages of art.

So for those of you unfamiliar with Saga, it is a science fiction/fantasy mash up that tells the story of two planetary races (Landfall and Wreath) locked in a conflict that spans the universe. These two races have slowly drawn every existing person and place in existence into their psychotic conflict, and reality has become a huge game of us vs. them. Which is why when a Landfallian and a Wreathin accidentally fall in love and have a hybrid child – the universe sets out to destroy them and what they represent. The plot follows this family of three as they run around the universe trying to escape the legions of people after them. The fact that the cast are constantly on the run gives Vaughan and Staples an organic worldbuilding method that allows them to stretch the bounds of imagination constantly. The number of places and things you will see in a single issue of Saga is astounding, and every panel feels like a new discovery. It makes reading the comic a visual delight, and that’s not even the best part of the series.

Saga’s characters are incredible. They are diverse, interesting, relatable, flawed, and unpredictable. The people that this family meets on their journey, friend and foe, will captivate and entrance you with their stories and struggles – and there are a lot of struggles. One thing I will stress is that Saga is not a happy story. This is not the tale of three plucky people traveling the universe and making friends with no consequences. The comic definitely argues that human (or alien) nature is, at the deepest level, to do good – but this is juxtaposed with the idea that sometimes terrible things happen to good people and that life is never fair. I read the comics in their collected format (one comes out about once or twice a year) and the end of the most recent collection (volume 7) left me emotionally catatonic to the point where I almost didn’t go to work the next day. Still thinking about it now I have this horrible sinking feeling in my chest when I think about the most recent events.

So why do I love it so much? Because Saga for its incredible and brutal sadness is a beautiful tale of how while life can be terrible, people are good in the end and it will work out on some level (or at least I hope that’s the moral, the comic isn’t finished yet). Saga has gotten me to feel a wider range of things (love, happiness, depression, friendship, etc.), with greater intensity, than a multitude of 700 page fantasy books, and it does it in the space of a chapter. This series makes me appreciate life and what I have, something each of us could always do more often. The Quill to Live’s entire staff unanimously and unequivocally recommends Saga to everyone, do yourself a favor and check it out if you haven’t.

Rating: Saga – 10/10

-Andrew

Atomic Robo – Stop And Smell The Ions

51z7tnnthel-_sx325_bo1204203200_New York Comic con happened a short while ago, and as always I went to go meet up with all the various publishers and meet some of my favorite authors. As I have said in previous years, and will keep saying, Comic cons are meet ups for every fandom on the planet, and I firmly believe that it is difficult to not have a good time at one. If you haven’t been, you should check your local con out. You never know what you are going to see or who you are going to meet. For example, while I was wandering around NYCC I happen to bump into the author and artist of one of my favorite comics, reminding me of its existence and how much I love it.

I am not a huge comic fan myself (mostly because I could never afford them as a child) but I have really enjoyed a few over the years, In particular, I have one science fiction comic I absolutely adore: Atomic Robo. Robo tells the story of a conscious robot build by Tesla in the 1920s as he works as a sort of weird science ghost buster. He assembles a team of marines/scientists around him and travels the world solving various scientific and magical issues that crop up. The first thing you should know about Atomic Robo, is it is all online for free because it was so popular that the physical copies (which are out of print) are hard to find. I feel that sentence is telling both on how good the comic is and how great its creators, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, are.

Atomic Robo’s story is told mostly in vignettes and monster-of-the-week style encounters. The comic is hilarious, which is honestly a stand out quality in a sea of comics that are trying to be funny and failing. The humor revolves around scientific jokes (like a team of scientists arguing that giant ants are a physical impossibility and can’t exist while almost getting killed by giant ants), really bad puns, and Robo’s snarky and sarcastic attitude:

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This kind of humor might not be for everyone, but I am willing to bet that a ton of you will love it. On top of being funny, Atomic Robo has that rare balance of juxtaposing humor and heartache that makes both stronger. Stories tackle things like how Robo doesn’t age and slowly has to watch his friends and colleagues grow old. These sections are very well written and really pull you into the comic.

However, while some of the vignettes can be very touching I do think that the comic can lack a little bit of depth. There is a somewhat central plot that runs through the various comics, but it doesn’t quite have enough substance to keep me anchored and invested in the comic at all times. One of the cool things about running into the creators of Atomic Robo was that I was reminded of its existence. While I adore the comic in the moment, I often forget about it once I finish the most recent issue. The lack of a continuous plot can leave me without a sense of urgency to keep up with it, which is a shame for all the reasons I listed above.

I really enjoy Atomic Robo, and I think you might as well. You should give it a look. If it did a better job of creating a sense of urgency it would be my top recommended comic – but second place is not bad. If you are looking for a lovable sarcastic crew who have a penchant for dad jokes and science, give Atomic Robo a whirl.

Rating: Atomic Robo – 8.0/10

-Andrew