You’d be forgiven for initially writing off Umbrella Academy as something of a vanity project. After all, as the comics medium continues to prove itself an ample source of fodder for nearly every aspect of popular culture, from popcorn movies to fine art to literature, celebrities ranging from Michael Chabon to Jenna Jameson have begun happily attaching themselves to the form’s perpetual balancing act between the worlds of high and low art, with mixed amounts of success and legitimacy.
For those whose knowledge of Gerard Way begins and ends with the last half-dozen years spent as the frontman of the wildly successful pop-punk outfit, My Chemical Romance, the concept of the singer penning a mini-series for Dark Horse seems perhaps a little more than a method of killing time between the release of records. Such assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth, however. As the artist himself will readily attest, comics are Way’s first love. Years before the birth of MCR, he graduated from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts in 1999, with BFA in comics studies, working his way up to an internship with DC Comics.
The release of his first Umbrella Academy mini-series for Dark Horse marks the fulfillment of a lifelong dream temporarily sidelined by a multi-platinum recording career. It also collects an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining debut from an artist weaned on the perpetualcosmicmindfuck of Grant Morrison’s seemingly tireless pen.
How do comics interviews tend to differ music interviews?
They’re actually very different. I’m not doing any band press right now, because we needed a break, and we haven’t made a record for a while. After a while, you don’t have much to talk about, and you start answering the same questions, over and over. The reason why I’m still doing comic press and not music press is because I still have a lot to talk about, and now there’s six issues, and not just one album, so there’s a lot more to talk about, right now. They’re very different I would say. You could read into a comic, and I can kind of give you answers, whereas you can read into a song and I can’t. The song is what you want it to be—the comic is ultimately what the writer wants it to be.
The song format is inherently more abstract than comic storytelling.
Mm-hm. Totally. It’s a little more liquid. But, oddly enough, the comic is a bit more abstract, too. But of course with anything, you can read something into it. It’s like with The Watchmen, “well, what did you get out of it?” Obviously everyone gets something different. But the specifics–you can’t change those.
It’s interesting though, because you’ve moved a bit more toward storytelling with your music, as well.
I did, yeah, absolutely. And yet, I find when giving music interviews that it’s still a lot more difficult to talk about the stories, I guess because in some ways they’re very personal. But yeah, when I was trying to break into comics and then started to be in a band, I was like, “well, I want to tell stories, and I can’t do comics right now, so I guess I’ll do it with the band.” I guess that’s why there’s so much storytelling in the music, and why I also felt like I could do a comic.
Did you ultimately decide that you wanted to do one over the other, or did fate just work it out for you?
The band and the music—that just kind of found me. I think that comics were a thing that I was always doing. I’d done them since I was a kid, I went to art school, I interned at DC—that was what I wanted, what I chose. And then music kind of found me, and I found that sometimes you have to listen to whatever’s out there, whatever it’s telling you. Sometimes you find out that you’re very good at something that you had no idea, that you’d never tried. So I listened to that voice and actually did it, and created some amazing stuff with the guys. Making the music was like a necessity—it was like therapy. Doing the comic was like more of an enjoyable thing. It’s less of me dying a little bit, and ripping my soul out, and it’s more straight telling stories and saying stuff at the same time, but it’s not as brutal on me.
Were comics always on the table, or did you feel as if you had abandoned them at one point?
There was a time when I felt it difficult, because I had such a desire to make them and had such a hard time getting my vision across and trying to get picked up. There was a time when I tried to do them in the background, and then there came a time when I was doing so much music, and I was on the road so much that I was like, ‘you know what? I really miss reading comics,’ and luckily at the time, a lot of great comics had started coming out. And that’s another thing, there wasn’t a lot of stuff that I was interested in, about the time that I turned my back on it.
You went to school at SVA.
What did you study?
My major was cartooning. The major was comics, and I had everyone from Joe Orlando, right before he passed away to Carmine Infantino, Joe Cavalieri, Klaus Jansen, Dame Darcy—I had the full run, modern, classic, indie. All of my instructors were these comic great. I had full training from all of these people.
You were doing a lot of drawing, as well?
Yeah. That was actually the concentration for me—not just the writing of comics, but the drawing. Which I why I ended up doing so much design work for Umbrella Academy, because I spent years just drawing—even when I was in the van, I still drew.
Why did you surrender the actual drawing aspect?
I wanted the comic to come out [laughs]. It was very important. [Editor Scott Allie] and [artist Gabriel Ba] did such an amazing job making sure that this thing came out on time. That was very important that people weren’t waiting for me to get around to finishing it. I didn’t want that at all. I wanted to tell stories. I didn’t have an ego about it. I didn’t have to draw. It didn’t matter, as long the stories got told.
How long were the characters around, before you actually got around to telling the story?
I’d say a good three years. There were some seeds that were planted, well before that, but I’d say as far as the Umbrella Academy itself, in terms of the specific characters and plot, that was about two years of being on the road, being clean and sober, and sitting there with all of these art supplies and time and energy and inspiration, and kind of wanting to escape the music business, at the same time. Wanting to escape the road, I would dive into my sketch book and would draw for hours. I feel, for how well developed they ended up being, that they came together quickly, and they just started really writing themselves.
Was the fact that it was a team book born out of having created so many characters at the same time?
Yeah. I think you’re totally right, that’s why it was a team book, because I like constant change and constant evolution, and sticking with just one character, to me would have just—I probably would have ended up spending more time with this supporting cast than with the main character. There are so many characters that I want to introduce that aren’t really superheroes in the traditional sense, and I want to put them in the book. I want to focus on them a little bit, and this is the kind of book where I can do that. I want to be able to constantly change my mind.
It seems like there are no superheroes in the traditional sense in this book.
Yeah, I would totally say that. Nobody is a traditional hero. It’s kind of cool—‘superhero’ is not really a word that’s even said in the book. They’re just extraordinary. In the world today, if you’re someone who can infinitely hold your breath underwater, you’d be pretty special. And if you were the best in the world with a knife, you’d be really special. And Spaceboy being the best boy pilot makes him one of the most famous people in the world. There’s not a lot of superhero moments in there. They don’t have these epic battles versus evildoers. They’re just kind of facing challenges. They know they have to save the earth, apparently. And I like that ‘apparent.’ “is that what we’re supposed to do? Our dad’s dead, so we don’t really know, anymore.” I like that being there.
[Concluded in Part Two]