Written by Charles Meier
Like just about everyone else, I really enjoyed The Umbrella Academy. This came as something of a surprise to me. For reasons that seemed obvious at the time, I went out of my way to avoid the thing, even once it had been expressly recommended to me. Keep in mind at the time I hadn’t started writing comics criticism yet, and thus had no particular reason to torture myself for the amusement of fuckwits on the internet. Eventually I came around to at least giving it a try, and was pleasantly surprised. Ba and Moon’s artwork was the real star of the show for me (in fact, becoming familiar with their work was the only reason I agreed to give Umbrella a try); to this day, I wonder if they weren’t carrying the book somewhat. That said, however, Gerard Way turned out not to be the cash-in hack I expected him to be. His work turned out to be an alternately funny, dramatic and touching (when it wasn’t being two or three at once) look at how the proteges of an Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters-type institution might turn out in real life. In fact, pretty much the only thing I disliked about The Umbrella Academy is how it apparently convinced Dark Horse that every inexplicably popular hack musician is a potential next Neil Gaiman. This time around, however, my sources indicate that my vicious indifference is the proper response in the case of these two works.
But you wanna know the another best part of The Umbrella Academy? One that’s often overlooked? I’ll tell you–you don’t have to listen to any of the writer’s shitty music to make heads or tails of it.
I’m being slightly unfair here. Way’s latest comics project, The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, is based upon My Chemical Romance’s final album of more or less the same name. I only heard a couple tracks from that–the ones that got those weird videos that had Grant Morrison in them, natch–and if those songs were any indication, the band had progressed from “profoundly irritating” all the way up to “all right, but not good enough for me to give a shit”. From what little research I’ve done, the comic–which Way created with co-writer Shaun Simon and artist Becky Cloonan (The Mire)–is a direct sequel, taking place twelve years after the events of the album.
I didn’t look into it much more than that, mostly because I don’t feel like I should have to. I’d been waiting for Way to return to comics for some time, all the while desperately fearing his comeback would be something like this. I have no idea (though I would be slightly interested in finding out) how many MCR fans actually made the leap to buying The Umbrella Academy, though I’m inclined to assume it was a lot. Nevertheless, by basing this series on his musical work Way ensures it will be a niche book at best, appealing mainly to said fans. And arguably not even all of them–the album in question is three years old, and possibly only a fuzzy memory to many. This comic is, I think, at least two years too late–if Way insisted on making this his next project, it would have been sensible to strike when the iron was a tad warmer.
As a result of all this, Killjoys ends up feeling more than a bit sparse. There’s only so much information you can fit into a concept album, and while I’m certain every scrap of it is in this comic it’s superficial stuff at best. The basic concept is an old one, that of a sci-fi world of heavily-armed youth in revolt against a system that’s every bit as bad as they claim. Battery City is plenty creepy to be sure–the basic idea seems to be IKEA taking over municipal governance–but it’s hardly unique as futuristic totalitarian states go, no to mention mismanaged to an odd extent (they need drugs to keep robot prostitutes in check? That can’t be the most efficient way of doing so). Outside the city isn’t much better–there’s an idea of desolation here, but the effect is in the final analysis that of a slightly rundown Southwestern truck stop.
There are flashes of good writing to be found here, but that damn barrier of entry turns out to be just too high. There are constant references to people, events and colloquialisms that were clearly established in the album, and thus referred to only passingly here in the apparent assumption you listened to it, became intimately familiar with it, and managed to retain the information in the intervening three years. A tall order, one I found myself resenting more and more as I read the comic. The result of all this assuming the reader has done his/her homework is a rather diffident comic, one with only the merest hints of Way’s flair for character and unsettling concepts (the way the Draculoids work is rather creepy, in a 50s monster-movie sort of way). The dialogue is pretty much a mess, with characters constantly stating their motivations and personal traits out loud. Even if the people they’re talking to don’t already know that stuff (and they always do) there are better ways of going about establishing things like that–something I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell Way, as characters in Umbrella didn’t do anything like that.
At the very least, however, Way retains his knack for choosing talented artists to work with. I’ve been an admirer of Becky Cloonan for a while–my autographed copy of The Mire was one of my more notable acquisitions at this year’s Stumptown Comics Fest. Her work carries a certain otherworldly, heroic character–without sacrificing empathy–that suits Killjoys well. Cloonan and colorist Dan Jackson work in tandem to create a world that’s essentially vibrant without overdoing it. It may be superficial, but Cloonan ensures it’s at least a nice-looking artifice.
Killjoys turns out to be that very oddest of licensed comics, that brought about by the original creator. While I’m not at all certain this was Way’s intent (in fact it can’t be the case, as it’s several years too late and the damn band isn’t even together anymore), the impression is that of a series designed to drum up sales of the Killjoys album. Those more familiar with said album might argue I’m the wrong person to review this comic, to which my rebuttal would be that a truly successful work of this sort would draw me to investigate the source material, rather than leave me out in the cold. While I hardly expected another Umbrella Academy, I’d at least hoped that a writer of Way’s talent, coupled with an artist of Cloonan’s talent, would at least manage to put together something altogether more appealing.