Gerard Way on The Umbrella Academy - Past, Present & Future

Preview: The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1

For many of its readers, The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite’s Eisner win for Best Limited Series this July at the awards ceremony at San Diego Comic Con was not much of a surprise. The story of seven children: Kraken, Séance, The Rumor, Vanya, Spaceboy, Number Five and The Horror (okay, six, as The Horror died at some point previous to this story), The Umbrella Academy is Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s post-modern opus – the love child of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and the earliest, craziest X-Men, raised by years of superheroes.

Published by Dark Horse, Apocalypse Suite introduced the characters to readers, and laid the foundation of their stories to come – and those stories which had already happened. In November, Way and Ba continue the tales of The Umbrella Academy with Dallas. Newsarama previously debuted the first three pages of Dallas #1, and now, we sit down with Way for an in-depth conversation about the series to date, and what’s to come.

Newsarama: First off Gerard, was this always the plan, that is, to go pretty much right into the second series, or was there a lag time to wait and see what the reception was going to be for the first series, and gauge things appropriately after that?

Gerard Way: We’d always planned to go right into a second series. The actual decision to do it was made probably around issue #3, and that wasn’t really based on whether the series caught on or not. Scott [Allie, editor] and Dark Horse were going to let the book exist, whether it found a readership or not, initially, and kind of let it survive, which is one of the main reasons I went to Dark Horse. I knew that they would be very sensitive about my day job so to speak, and not exploit it, and I knew that they would let the book live on its own, despite that.

NRAMA: That said, you’re stil a pretty green comics creator. What influenced you on your decision to press on?

GW: For me, it came from an interview with Mike Mignola that I’d read, where he had just finished the first Hellboy miniseries, and had asked a friend for their advice, and his friend told him he needed to get to series two immediately, that way people will know that this is a series, something that will continue, rather than something he did that year, and then he would be moving on to something else. That carried a lot of weight with me. I did want the series to continue, so there seemed no point in waiting if I had stories to tell.

The story that we were thinking of originally for series two though ended up being very different than what was initially planned. Initially, we were going to do a story that was going to almost reveal…too much information. It was just too heavy of a story to go into right after the opening story. These characters really haven’t had their adventures yet. That’s not to say some really heavy stuff doesn’t happen in this series…

NRAMA: In other words, the story that you initially planned for series 2 would have told more of the story than you wanted out?

GW: Right – it would have shortened the overall story to three series, probably. We want the series to last a while. It would’ve been jumping way too far ahead in the larger story, and I’m not the type of person (and neither is Scott) to hold on to ideas – one of the best pieces of advice Grant Morrison have me was to not hold on to ideas, to just use them all, paint yourself into a corner, and come up with new ideas – and I’ve definitely held on to that way of thinking, but the original story that we were thinking of telling in this second series will now be series four, which is more or less the midpoint of the entire story as a whole. So it needed to wait.

In saying that, there are a lot of things that changed from working on series one – a lot of things happened – we ended up caring about these characters a great deal, readers ended up caring about them a great deal…weirdness started happening – not arbitrarily, but if I was inspired to write a scene, I’d write it, and now those scenes are now growing in the larger parts of the story.

NRAMA: Looking at where the second series occurs chronologically, judging from the solicitation information, Dallas seems to start off pretty close to the end of Apocalypse Suite

GW: Relatively, yeah. We don’t give a lot of details about time in the series – you know time is either now, or you’re in a flashback. We’ve never said the year, and will never say what year this is all happening in, but at least a couple of months have passed since the end of Apocalypse Suite. That’s all you need to know.

NRAMA: You mentioned flashbacks, and throughout Apocalypse Suite you showed that there is plenty to mine in the character’s past. Will all of the series be moving forwards towards that endpoint, or will you be giving a full series to a past adventure?

GW: I think that is going to happen, and I’m not sure if it’s going to be the very last series, but I have this kind of crazy idea in my head where you will see a series that’s completely in the past which will refer to something we’ve been talking about for a long time. I think it would be cool to tell a story of something that’s already happened, when they were all younger.

NRAMA: And for now, we have the flashbacks…

GW: Right – the flashbacks are fun. They’re a really great storytelling device – even the flashbacks that we see in the first issue of series 2…you’ve seen their first mission as children, and now, you get to see the point in their childhood where they’re starting to understand each other’s personalities, and things are starting to change. Obviously, the subject matter of that very first flashback in issue #1 will have a lot to do with the rest of the series. But yeah, I love the flashbacks pretty much because those earlier stories don’t really exist. If I need to strengthen something in the story, I’ll use a flashback.

It’s not like I have this giant continuity in my head where things happened in a specific order – the story still is writing itself in that manner. So in a way, I’ll never know what the flashback will be as I write.

NRAMA: Speaking of the story writing itself, which of the characters surprised you in writing Apocalypse Suite in that they revealed more of themselves than you thought they would, or even pulled away from you?

GW: They all surprised me in different ways. The Séance – in issues #1-#3, he’s a complete background character. He’s got some of the more interesting powers and personality, but yet he wasn’t really doing anything. I had so much going on main plot-wise that I didn’t have a lot for him to do or say. Half the time in the first series, he’s on drugs, and that wasn’t my way to explain why he wasn’t talking, but…almost. There was a part in issue #4 or #5 where he talks about eating speed for three days. Up until that point he’d barely said or done anything. That was kind of a turning point for the character, and once I broke the seal on him that way, he was going to get more interesting – and he did. He ended up having the least amount to do with the first part of the series, and everything to do with the ending, at least in saving the city.

Rumor, personality-wise at least in her childhood and teenage years started as this very shallow, mean kind of girl, and when I wrote her as an adult, she was extremely well-adjusted, and one of the more sympathetic characters of the series. Vanya was pretty much exactly how she was supposed to play out.

Number 5 was very surprising – he has slowly become my favorite character to write. He’s more of an excuse than any of the other characters to just go completely over the top, and I really like that about him. He’s just got this demeanor about him. I have great things planned for him in series three, and more in series 4.

Kraken behaved exactly how he was supposed to behave…and Spaceboy…he was interesting. In writing the series, I started to realize that this guy is kind of a jerk. If you pay attention to any argument between him and any other character, he’s the only character that goes for the throat. He’s the one that really knows how to hurt the other brothers and sisters, and has a lot of personal angst on his own. He started off as this heroic superhero guy, and ended up being the meanest one, and it has everything to do with his own personal problems, which are numerous. We’ll get into those with series two.

NRAMA: When you say that the fourth series will be the midpoint of the larger series that you want to tell, why not just open the gates and say that you’re going to keep The Umbrella Academy going on for as long as you can through miniseries and specials, and the “end” is a long, long way off, if ever? It seems like you’ve got a pretty rich world to play in…

GW: [Dark Horse Publisher] Mike Richardson refers to things in stories that could lead to other stories as “mystery boxes,” and something like Harry Potter has good ones – there’s a world that exists now in your head if you’ve read the books, where a million things could have happened. Star Wars has tons of mystery boxes – lots of characters and places that you don’t know about. But I think it was smart of JK Rowling to end Harry Potter where she did, on her own, and I think that part of the charm of The Umbrella Academy will be having an endpoint, and not showing everything. If it went monthly at a certain point, the tone of the book would change tremendously – it would then become more of a mouthpiece for me and Gabriel, and be a much slower story.

But I think having endings…it’s what I feel is wrong with a lot of mainstream monthly books – there isn’t an end. Anything great that someone does will be rectified in five or ten issues. I understand the need for that – people love these characters, and they want to see them continue forever, but I feel that characters that have a definite ending of their story are more charming, and people become more invested in them. If you read a book of a modern mainstream superhero and something major happens in their life, it doesn’t hold any weight.

So yeah – I guess we could go on with Umbrella Academy forever, but I like there being depth and I like there being endings, and I like for there to be a place for things to finish.

NRAMA: Winding things up, let’s get back to Dallas, specifically – what gets things rolling in the first issue?

GW: You guys debuted the first three pages of the issue, so that gives a major clue. I’m very proud of the first page – it’s one of my favorite things. It’s a great Hargreeves scene with President Kennedy. You’re seeing a side of Hargreeves in a position of power because of the children. You’re seeing him completely over the top and using the children to get what he wants out of people. Meanwhile – you see that it’s business as usual for the kids – they’re defusing another situation for their dad.

Those three pages have a lot to do with where the rest of the series is going, and a lot of things that happen in that opening flashback foreshadow things to come. We wanted something right away that would be big like this for issue #1. It’s also 32 pages – but it doesn’t feel long. You’re getting every character – there’s no one that you’re not getting a follow-up on. You get to see what happened in the months that followed Apocalypse Suite.

NRAMA: For you, how much is Gabriel a part of The Umbrella Academy? Is this, now and forever, The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba?

GW: Yeah. When I saw how much Gabriel cared about these characters and how much he loved them – by issue #2 if felt like he was as much a part of the series as I was. I think we were feeling each other out for a couple of issues, and then I realized how much he cared, and he realized how much I cared, and that this wasn’t a vanity thing. After that, we let our guard down with each other, and it was legit – we both just love this book.

Personally, whether it takes eight to ten years, I see Gabriel being with this until the end. He’s going to be doing other things – amazing things – between the series, and that’s another reason why I like the format. You’ll get one a year, and it’s something that Gabriel can fit into his schedule.

Speaking of Gabriel, one of the things that I really like about series 2 is that, even though we lost James Jean, who is still my favorite cover artist and did just amazing work with us, I love the fact that the covers are now going to Gabriel. It is very much his book, and I love to see him changing and growing as a cover artist. Even if he hits an issue where he’s like, “I don’t know how I feel about this one,” hopefully he’ll stick with me thorough it in order to get to the end.

NRAMA: Something that, for good or bad, that always comes up when talking about comics that have found a solid audience and critical acclaim – have you been approached or thought about moving this to other media before the full story is complete?

GW: The best part is that it does fall on me, and that particular ball does end up being in my court. Mike Richardson is very gracious about leaving that up to me. Yeah, there was a lot of talk about a film, and I’ve met some people who’ve had some hesitation about that – that there’s only been one series that’s come out, and people are already wanting to make a film about it. We have the same type of reservations, and think about that too – but at the end of the day…this first story, Apocalypse Suite…if there’s only one Umbrella Academy movie ever made – that’s the one you can make, and it kind of doesn’t really matter for the rest of the series in a lot of ways. A movie will ultimately have no bearing on the series anyway; I won’t look at a film as being a companion piece to the comic. I see them as being two very separate things. But yeah, it does feel rather quick – but then, it’s Hollywood, so things change every week. It could be this thing that we’re all talking about now as something that people want to make a movie of, and twelve years later, when the full story is told, we haven’t seen the first bit of movement on it.

NRAMA: You’re right - Apocalypse Suite, despite all the seeds left along the way, could easily be a standalone…

GW: Yeah – there was even a point in writing series two where I was talking to Scott, and we realized that we could have ended the whole thing with the first series. I didn’t realize how much of a standalone that was. Then, when it won the Eisner, even being nominated for it, it all started to sink in. But yeah – there are some people that I love, who I’ve worked with before, that I’d love to work with if we made a film version that would make this a great, different looking film. I said at San Diego, if Watchmen’s the first R-rated superhero film - not just due to violence or being something like The Punisher - then Umbrella needs to be the first post-modern superhero film, just like Watchmen is going to be the first grown-up one.

When people worry about movies invading comics…well, that will suck - if the movies themselves don’t then move forward. If it’s just “Let’s find another mild PG story that we can turn into an adventure that we can make bed sheets out of, yeah, that will mess up comics. But hopefully, Watchmen will open a lot of doors. Once that comes out and is a hit, I think people will realize that superhero movies don’t have to be this middle of the road kid-friendly entertainment. That’s really exciting. But that’s the only way I see Umbrella Academy making it as a film. It has to be the weird one, and whoever’s making it has to realize how smart it is, and make that smartness come into the theater. In the end, it might not do very well – I see it being halfway between a Hollywood effects movie and an art house film – that’s what the comic is to me. Maybe an effects movie in the way of a French effects movie, like City of Lost Children – that cost a lot of money to make, and yet it’s not a Hollywood blockbuster.

NRAMA: Let’s end with two randomish questions about the main series itself…just some lingering questions about the whole picture…

GW: Sure!

NRAMA: In the first issue of Apocalypse Suite, you said that there were 43 children, and Hargreeves only found seven. Are the rest of the children still out there?

GW: Yeah, they are. There’s something that happens at the end of this series that really starts to address that. It would be kind of lazy or disrespectful to the audience to go one more series without addressing that. But it’s a storytelling device – I didn’t want there just to be seven – I wanted there to be more, but just these seven were found. I guess people would probably think, “Oh, that’s your hook – these other children are the bad guys, yadda, yadda…” but that’s not why I put that number in there, to create another mystery box. It was simply to add a certain kind of complexity to the picture – that there were only seven found. Why were only seven found? That’s a question that’s more important to me than the question of who the other children were.

But yeah, we are going to start addressing that. Series 2 is very immediate – it’s a lot like series one in that it’s like, “This is what happens over the course of four days.” There’s an immediate thing that we have to deal with, and we’re going to see how the characters bend or break within that, but then, I definitely want to start addressing things like: Where are the other kids? Where are the mothers? What happened to all of these other people? We’re going to end this coming series on a note that suggests that we’re going to move into that.

NRAMA: One last one – Sir Reginald was an alien. That was a reveal that you barely mentioned in Apocalypse Suite. How seriously should readers take his off-screen “death,” given that he was crazy-smart in all ways?

GW: What’s really interesting about that is – I made him an alien…and I’m working through the question of that that means for the children, rather than what that means for the universe. In certain ways, it was more about what questions the Umbrella Academy was asking that made it post-modern. Not the implication of an alien itself – I mean, who cares? The question is, what does an alien dad do to his special kids? That to me was the interesting stuff. So yeah, it’s one of the cooler things of the series – he’s an alien, but who cares? Is that even going to be a big part of it? Are there more aliens? Was he truly an alien? That’s more interesting to me than saying, “I’ve got this whole alien plot.” “We may never see what Hargreeves looked like as an alien. We may never see another alien again. I think that stuff is really cool – that’s what gets me interested. Yeah, he’s an alien, but that’s not really what we’re concerned with.

So questions like that will continue to come up, and Umbrella Academy will continue to address everything but the obvious.

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