THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY: APOCALYPSE SUITE by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá

27 the umbrella academyMy partner and I have been enjoying the Netflix adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, the comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. It’s a fun ride, the show, reveling in its chaotic, irreverent energy. We’re it. And it finally made me want to pick up the source material, which I had been aware of for ages but never really felt compelled to read.⠀

The show and the comic are definitely different beasts, though, similar only in the way they both embrace the extravagant essence of the story. The show is bolstered up by the performances of its actors, who clearly seem to be having fun with their roles. The comic takes delight in the sheer fact that it is a comic, convoluted connotations and all.⠀

It goes like this:

In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-three extraordinary children were spontaneously born by women who’d previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, “To save the world.”

These seven children form The Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower, piloted by the fearsome zombie-robot Gustave Eiffel. Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.

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This was Gerard Way’s first mainstream comics project and his enthusiasm for the medium is apparent in the way he wholeheartedly embraces its inherent anarchic nature. There’s no gentle, gradual introduction to the world and the characters that fill it. You’re simply thrown into the deep end, and are expected to keep up. The Eiffel Tower is attacking Paris! The Umbrella Academy is coming! There’s a monkey! Now we’re in space! Back on Earth! In the future!⠀

It’s fun, if a little disjointed. You definitely get the sense that Way is heavily inspired by the Grant Morrison’s earlier, more psychedelic work — and, honestly, who could blame him? The similarities here are mostly superficial, though: we get the liveliness and playfulness, but lack the compassionate core that drives most of Morrison’s work. It’s a cold story. Still — Way’s talent is evident (Morrison would eventually take him under his wing of sorts) so perhaps the series only gets better in its subsequent volumes.

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Gabriel Bá does the art and will get no complaints from me. I love his work and style in general, and here he channels Mike Mignola — another favorite artist — at his most playful. The book just looks effortlessly cool. And as much as I enjoy the show I do wish it had implemented more of the comic’s aesthetic. Bá’s designs are just more fun, especially in the case of Luther (known mostly as Spaceboy in the comics), because the rubber suit of the show just doesn’t work at all, a fact I never fail to mention anytime the character walks on screen.⠀

(Speaking of the art: they got the inimitable James Jean to do the covers, which is always an excellent idea.)

Comics!

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER PART II

26 summer graphic novels

I read both Click and its sequel Camp, one right after the other, pretty much in a single sitting. It’s something I rarely do, even with other graphic novels, which I tend to read through fairly quickly. Which should help show just how much I enjoyed them. One of the things I’m always on the lookout for in middle grade books — and especially in middle grade graphic novels — are elements that remind me of the stories I used to love as a kid. This charming — so charming —series by Kayla Miller about a young girl trying to find a place in the world gave me major Pepper Ann and Doug vibes, both of which were some of my favorite animated series, so of course I dug these books as well. I probably enjoyed Camp just a tad more, but only because I love stories with remote, singular settings.


Lucy Knisley’s Stepping Stones didn’t remind me of anything in particular except for other Lucy Knisley books. Which is a good thing because I am a fan. Knisley is not only a great artist, but also probably one of the strongest memoirists working today. Skills that she brought out in full force for this book about a young city girl moving to the country with her mother and her new stepfather. Stepping Stones was advertised as Knisley’s first work of fiction, and when I finished it I was left feeling very impressed, thinking that as far as first steps go, this was a particularly skillful stride — but then in the back matter of the book Knisley writes of how the story is heavily inspired by her own childhood experiences. Which is sort of a cheat! At the end of the day, though, I won’t begrudge an artist for drawing from the well of a rich, storied life. Especially when it results in work of this quality. It’s still an impressive and auspicious debut, and I enjoyed reading it immensely. (Stepping Stones is supposed to be the first in a planned series, too, and I look forward to reading these future entries.)

THE OKAY WITCH by Emma Steinkellner

theokaywitchI began my Hallowe’en reading as gently as possible with Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks. I’d figured I’d finish it the same way, and Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch seemed liked the perfect — and perfectly pleasant — bookend.

This middle grade graphic novel tells the story of Moth Hush (the best name), an upbeat but lonely teenage outcast growing up in a small, tight-knit colonial town, who, shortly after turning thirteen, finds out she comes from a long line of witches. Her mother has eschewed magic, however, and is unwilling to talk to Moth about witchcraft, preferring to leave history behind. This is, of course, not acceptable to our teenage protagonist, who is only too eager to find out more about the thing that might make her feel like she belongs. Her exploration into the past mostly spells out trouble, though, and soon stirs up old grudges and grievances.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie (and also, if we’re being honest, probably my favorite film full stop). I love pretty much everything about: from the story to the setting to the oh-so-lovable characters. It’s a movie that perfectly showcases the kind of everyday, commonplace courage that Miyazaki is so fond of portraying. I got major Kiki vibes from The Okay Witch and that was the main reason I picked it up. And there are similarities, to be sure: they are both endearing and intensely charming stories about young women trying to figure out where they fit in the world. The Okay Witch does its own thing with the premise though, and tells an effective story about prejudice — and, indeed, pride — with characters who deal with the haunted past in varying ways: the townsfolk, who hold it to the highest regard; the witches, who endured years of bigotry and persecution, and understandably wish to leave it all behind; Moth’s mother, Calendula (another best name), who believes in change above all.

And then there is Moth, prepared to push the bad aside, yearning to embrace the good, and perfectly willing to build a better world out of it all. And, like Kiki — one of her literary predecessors — she’s got the kind of courage to deliver it to us, too.

GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier

ghostsGhosts is the story of sisters Maya and Catrina (Cat) as their family moves to the fictional Northern California town of Bahía de la Luna. The move is spurred not only by their father’s new job, but also because of Maya’s health. She has cystic fibrosis, and the salty air that blows in from the sea, it is thought, might benefit her. The sisters soon discover that the coastal city is host to a large population of ghosts, however, and the story is informed by their individual reactions to this revelation.

This was a bit of a bittersweet read for me as this was the first of Raina Telgemeier’s books that I didn’t just completely and utterly loved. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it well enough. Like the rest of Telgemeier’s work, it’s a charmer of a read, full of lovely and relatable characters, and bursting at the seams with gorgeous artwork.

And it’s the art that I found most engaging. This is, I believe, Telgemeier’s strongest book in terms of artwork. Given that this story deals with the Day of the Dead this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as how Mexican culture is such a veritable wellspring of visual inspiration.

Setting is something in which Telgemeier particularly excels at, and Bahía de la Luna (based on the actual Northern California town of Half Moon Bay) is her most realized and beautiful one yet, full of detail and character and atmosphere. She is helped here with colors by Braden Lamb, who delivers with a palette that is somehow both morose and upbeat, which is, again, appropriate for a story dealing with the Day of the Dead.

I don’t celebrate Día de Muertos, so I can’t judge as to whether or not Telgemeier did an admirable job representing the holiday, although the back matter of the book mentions all the research material that Telgemeier went through while producing the book, and it seems fairly cohesive. It also talks about the research done into properly representing cystic fibrosis, something which I believe she did accurately and respectfully. This aspect of the story, however, informs the main issue I had with it, which is Maya’s characterization. Maya begins the story as a great character, quirky and optimistic and full of life. But she very quickly pushed to the sidelines of the story, straight into tropey territory, and spends the latter half of the book mostly as a source of motivation and inspiration for her sister. It’s a decision that rubbed me the wrong way, and left me thinking that maybe the story should have been hers to tell all along, with Cat as the supporting character. Middle grade and young adult novels are still full of differently abled characters whose stories are told by their able-bodied peers, and this is something that we should work harder to change.

That issue aside, I did love how all the elements of the story tied into the theme of breath: ghosts cannot talk unless they are given breath by a living person (usually in the form of a kiss, which is just charming); Maya’s cystic fibrosis makes it difficult for her to breathe, and she needs the aid of medical equipment; Cat herself is dealing with anxiety, which often manifests itself into her being often short of breath; and of course, the wind is forever gusting in from the sea, breathing life into the story.

I’ve completely fallen in love with Raina Telgemeier’s books, regardless of small gripes. She’s doing important work, and I will happily read anything and everything that she puts out.

 

PUMPKINHEADS by Rainbow Rowell, Faith Erin Hicks

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Rainbow Rowell has made me cry. Yet again. I’ve read enough of her work for this to be expected, but everything about Pumpkinheads — her first graphic novel with the inimitable Faith Erin Hicks — sounded to me like it was just going to be a cute, fun romp.

And it was, you know? Pumpkinheads is the story of Josiah and Deja, two high school seniors who’ve spent the last couple of years working at their local pumpkin patch every Fall. Theirs is a seasonal friendship, but the bond they develop is strong and they consider themselves best friends. This is their last season working together, and once it wraps up they will both, for the last time, go their separate ways, towards college and new lives. So Deja is determined to have their last day (their last Hallowe’en together) be an adventure. “Friends,” she says at one point, “don’t let friends live small lives.”

Pumpkinheads is charming and adorable and the most fun, gentle read. As are most of Rowell’s stories. And like most of Rowell’s stories, it isn’t just any of those things. There’s always more. And there’s a lot of heart and soul in this graphic novel. A lot of true things about friendship and relationships and what it means to leave people and places behind. And quite a lot of Autumn. This is probably the most Fall book I’ve ever read. I could feel it wrapped around me like a light sweater, could practically smell the crisp October air. Quite the feat considering I live in Puerto Rico, and have never actually come across a proper, Midwestern Fall.

All of this is beautifully conveyed by Faith Erin Hicks’s beautiful, beautiful artwork. She’s drawn up a gorgeous and warm, welcoming world into which I desperately want to jump.

Hicks deserves a lot of recognition in terms of the story, too. The book’s back matter includes a conversation between the authors which makes note of the fact that the script Hicks received from Rowell was more screenplay-like in nature, lacking a lot of the beat-by-beat description that is usually found in most comic book scripts, and it was up to her to break down the panels and figure out the pacing of the story. A job she did marvelously — this is a fulfilling but very brisk read. (“There is a lot of skill,” Hicks says, “behind a ‘quick read.'”)

Hicks ends the same conversation with the following: “In the beginning, you’re trying to get to know them, who they are and how best to draw them so their personalities come through, visually. And by the time you’ve drawn the last page in their graphic novel, these characters are your best friends.” This is, of course, in reference to the drawing process, but it also perfectly encapsulates the experience of reading the story of these characters. You pretty much like Josie and Deja from the get-go, but you love them by the end. And then you understand, quite perfectly, just why they are so loathe to say good bye to their pumpkin patch.

I loved this book.