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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A Man Of Shadows – Stay In The Dark

Man of ShadowsJeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows practically bursts with promise, from the intriguing cover design to a captivating back-cover summary (despite the latter being plagued by a typo…more on that later). The distinct story elements scream off the page like a paperboy shouting headlines on a 1930s street corner: “It’s got noir! It’s got murder! An original setting! Mystery! Sci-fi and magical realism abound! Read all about it!” Alas, once the sensationalism and initial excitement wear off, the story must fend for itself. A Man of Shadows never stood a chance.

Jeff Noon’s sci-fi/fantasy/noir/crime novel plops the reader right into a fascinating world chock-full of promise. The book’s setting, a city half drenched in permanent darkness and half bathed in eternal daylight (so basically any Scandinavian city), frees its inhabitants from the shackles of time (… also like Scandinavia), allowing them to purchase timelines like any other commodity (so basically it just takes place in Scandinavia). Protagonist John Nyquist, a walking cliché borderline alcoholic, down-on-his-luck private investigator, is hired by a man to find his missing teen daughter, Eleanor. Meanwhile, a seemingly invisible murderer, dubbed Quicksilver, runs rampant, killing victims in broad daylight (or Dayzone, as the permanently lit sector of the city is called). Nyquist’s investigation rapidly evolves into a whirlwind of drug dealers, time sickness (which is mostly just highly dramatized exhaustion), conspiracies, dead ends, booze, and unearned half-answers that lead him to literally zero truths, even as he says to himself “The pieces are coming together.” His escapades also take him to the edge of Dusk: the mysterious, magical, and dark no man’s land between Dayzone and Nocturna (which is the name of the dark side, you get it). The plot rambles through these elements and hundreds more with so little grace that it’s hard to believe it comes to any sort of conclusion. The conclusion that does occur is nowhere near sensible or logical.  

A Man of Shadows wears its problems and inconsistencies proudly, leaning into the inherent ambiguity of the noir/mystery genre. Noon kicks this off with his immediate abandonment of the novel’s main selling point: its setting. Instead, he favors meandering pseudo-explanations of timelines and how they function. In my opinion, this mechanic, riveting as it may sound, sets the stage for the book’s first and largest failure. I picked up A Man of Shadows precisely because I loved the idea of a city split by darkness and daylight. I yearned to discover how citizens might function. Instead, the world is built over the course of just a few stray paragraphs, and Noon opts to discuss at length, but with minimal detail, the workings of commoditized time. While that narrative choice makes some sense as the novel drags along, the story element remains unearned, unjustified, and under-explored until the last word. In other words, it felt like a gargantuan cop-out (editor’s note: get it? *finger guns*).

The issues continue with the characters, which are essentially silhouettes dancing across an already shadowy background. They’re almost exclusively monotone expressions of tired archetypes: A gumshoe P.I. with a likely drinking problem and troubled past? Check. Missing teen who claims she’s just misunderstood but makes no attempt to remedy the matter? Check. Doting father who claims he just wants what’s best, but is obviously hiding a terrible secret? Check. The list could be as long as the book itself, but I’ll spare us all the effort.

Now let’s talk plot. Mild spoilers ahead, so tread lightly. That’s a phrase which here means “Let me list a mere spattering of the myriad narrative problems that infect this book.” Nyquist’s investigation method? Walk around and hope someone approaches him with the answer. Quicksilver, the novel’s supposed antagonist, makes maybe four appearances–nee, mentions–before being used as a panacea at the end to solve quasi-problems no reasonable reader would care about in the first place. Customizable timelines are lauded as a method to keep businesses running 100 percent of the time; apparently, the genius who concocted this plan didn’t realize he could just divide the day into three eight-hour shifts and voila! Eleanor’s overbearing father has a stake in her safekeeping, but it’s way too low to justify his actions and orders that lead to the novel’s big “reveal,” or, more accurately, convoluted mess of semi-relevant information. Dusk, the neutral zone between Dayzone and Nocturna, is somehow magic, I guess? Finally, Nyquist’s internal drive to solve the mystery is about as believable as literally anything a politician says. His desire to figure things out is rooted only in his compulsion to be a P.I. Any semi-intelligent human would’ve just left the city, which, apparently, was always allowed.

Noon’s conclusion spews ambiguity with such reckless abandon that it made me question whether I missed something. It’s the kind of ending that people pretend to understand because they feel like they’re supposed to understand it. To top off my tirade, I counted nearly 20 typos and a handful of straight-up printing errors. If you’re looking for a reader to sell what little stock he owns in your book, typos and printing errors are the way to do it.

A Man of Shadows parades it’s original and gripping setting from the get-go, making it unique, at the very least. But once author Jeff Noon casts aside what I consider his novel’s best asset, the book has little else to enjoy.

Rating: A Man of Shadows – 4.0/10
-Cole