Explosions Can Make Pretty Colors

Umbrella Academy (2007-09) Issues #1-12
By Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá

What happens in these twelve issues, while easy to follow, defies easy recap. Though the hooks are relatively simple—the superhero team called the Umbrella Academy saves the world, history, and civilization, twice—the events aren’t part of a story that’s actually of much heft or importance, beyond the generic grand stakes.

The characters are also not very sympathetic, with one or two exceptions, and those are far more due to their charming visual presentation than because of anything they actually do or say. In many cases you’re simply seeing rotten people doing pretty rotten things, and while that’s not necessarily fatal, it keeps empathy for their concerns and dramas at a distance.

Last, to the extent that there are themes here, points, larger purposes, even as a response to and synthesis of a variety of tropes and mediums into superhero trappings, they’re muddled and unclear. Umbrella Academy doesn’t really appear to have anything it wants to say.

The book, instead, has two concerns: to establish a world, mythology and vocabulary within which it can deliver damn well anything it pleases, and then delivering damn well anything it pleases. And it works, very, very well. Way and Bá are wholly in sync, the former devising a series of genuinely imaginative ideas and the latter doing an eminently capable job of cohering them into a distinctive visual style. This is above all an exciting book, where there’s spectacle in both the rush of information and the scenery-destroying action scenes.

Bá is a tremendous asset for the fight scenes, of course, but this is also a book that can sell, really sell, scenes like the (poorly-scanned) one you see above, where a much older character inhabiting the body of a little boy can have a conversation with a middle-aged chimpanzee. (And this is a pretty normal scene by Umbrella Academy standards.) There’s a lot of flip wit and casual affectation to this that, in the wrong hands, could come off as either far too cute or borderline misanthropic, yet the existence of so many strange phenomena in one world is treated with just enough seriousness, in both idea and artistic implementation, that you can accept it. And that lends the book’s more rote attention to story and character a special quality that makes up for what should be much larger deficiencies.

Now, there’s reason to worry about a book that can sometimes appear as if it’s all boom and affect, the heart entirely in the details, as pushing its root sense of its soul or identity to the surface risks leaving its core unsettlingly empty. Yet the authenticity and sheer amount of world-building accomplished here is incredible. It’s got the feverish rush of detail you’d expect from fantasy or hard science fiction, but there’s no need to approach what you’re taking in as an extended encyclopedic entry.

Scene by scene, then, Umbrella Academy hardly ever falters. Nonetheless, at this stage, I’d say the odds are stacked against the book improving with time. Sticking the landing is tough in any narrative form, and when the themes and character interactions aren’t really humming from the get-go, I can’t hold out hope that an endgame focused on the relationships between these not-very-likable characters will be satisfying. There’s every reason to believe that the creators will try to deepen the characters over time, but they will need to make a crucial jump from filling in the content of their histories and personalities to creating individuals you actually want to see succeed. Yet for a series with a solid audience and great critical reception, there’s no need to worry at this stage; Way and Bá will be in great shape to deliver these kinds of stories for years to come before they’ll have to confront that challenge.

For now, most importantly, this book is dark, distinctive, fun, and for as long as Umbrella Academy can stay that way, it’ll be worth experiencing. Way and Bá have already created a place that’s entirely their own, and entirely unlike anywhere else you can spend your time, and on its own that already stands as a real accomplishment. I’ll be happy to stay along for the ride.

Hesher (2010)

Take any film, and the lead is going to need to find a means to express themselves.

Hesher, seen above, has no problem doing that. Yet while he’s the film’s most compelling aspect, by far, he’s not the lead. The actual center of the story is a pre-teen named T.J., stuck in a thoroughly depressing domestic situation.

For a while, Hesher suggests that its titular character may be T.J.’s imaginary friend, and that sense only heightens after no one raises any questions about Hesher being T.J.’s “friend,” seemingly paying no mind to their differences in age and pyrotechnic competence. Yet that interpretation gradually becomes untenable, which puts Hesher in a difficult position.

It’s a basic aspect of storytelling that the age of the anchor character in fiction bears a very strong relationship to the narrative. Stories of adolescence and growing up all resemble each other in basic ways, and in the same fashion middle-aged or elderly characters make sense in different kinds of narratives. If you want to spin a tale of decline, to take just one example, then naturally it will make more sense with a character of some advanced years.

The relationship of childhood to narrative, however, is less intuitive. Preteens, especially, don’t neatly track. You can tell stories about the “loss of innocence” or coming of age, but preteens can’t grow up in dramatically satisfying ways: they’re small, they can’t engage in what we think of as romantic love, and in many other ways lack the ability to make a meaningful impact on the world around them. Their capacity to “grow up” is necessarily proscribed, which means most of these stories would work much more fluidly and effectively with an adolescent character. And their essential powerlessness makes their situations less dramatically interesting, unless the stories are set up from the onset as tragedies based on that very point.

This is of course not to say that you can’t have stories about children, or even magnificent stories about children, but it requires some legwork. With the exception of children’s entertainment, then, where there’s a real audience-driven reason to put children front and center, the pay-offs of a child lead rarely justify the dramatic trade-offs, unless the creators have a very clear grasp of what they’re up against.

It’s no accident that this is a particular problem for films, which have to contend with the inherent weakness of most child actors. Yet while this is frequently an obstacle for cinema, a more pervasive obstacle is that the rhythms and specific richness of childhood are at cross-purposes with the idea of a forward-charging narrative, which film, with its compression and need for big things to happen, intrinsically requires. A great example of smart creators attempting to navigate this difficulty is Where the Wild Things Are, where Max’s emotions became manifest in grown forms, who are then free to go about the filmic business of fighting, loving, and otherwise engaging in matters of dramatic significance.

Animation in film is the major exception, partially because it avoids the difficulty of child actors. Yet it also connects to a natural affinity between comics, cartoons and childhood. The in-limbo constancy and episodic character of being young often means the most vivid connections are with imagination and flights of fancy, which drawings seem most authentically able to realize.

Having these obstacles in mind, the audacious aspect of Hesher is less the actions of its most dynamic character and more how it attempts to proceed with a rather typical independent film narrative, regardless of its inherent limitations. The lead’s age is at direct cross-purposes with the kind of fulfillment that characters typically find in small, ensemble indies: he isn’t going to find love, and he isn’t going to be able to make a life change. He lacks access to anything that can make his situation better, including any meaningful talents or interests. And, in a stripped-down cast especially, he lacks the ability to control or even heavily influence the actions of the adults around him, most especially Hesher.

The film doesn’t really have an answer to these obstacles, and you can’t call it a real success for that reason; the kid stays a kid, and to the extent he grows at all, it’s a warding off of oblivion, which is only somewhat satisfying. There are nods in the direction of having accomplished some change, but they’re far less engaging than Hesher running amok with total abandon. Yet this structural tension acts as a very powerful thematic reinforcement. Hesher does a superb job of repeatedly hammering home that T.J.’s predicament goes way beyond the loss of his mother and the sea of despair that is his home life. He’s stuck in a movie.

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