The writer and artist tell EW about the long genesis of their new story. Plus, check out an exclusive preview of issue #2!
It’s a good time to be a fan of The Umbrella Academy. The surreal superhero series from Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá coming to a Netflix screen near you very soon, and on top of that this week also saw the release of the first issue of a new comic arc: Hotel Oblivion. The release of Hotel Oblivion, however, marks almost 10 years since the last Umbrella Academy comic. So what have Way and Bá been up to in the meantime? Aside from advising the upcoming TV adaptation, the answer is: A lot of life stuff.
Way’s band My Chemical Romance released their final album, Danger Days, in 2010 and then broke up, while Bá worked on several comics with his brother Fabio Moon — including the surreal Daytripper, for which the brothers won a prestigious Eisner Award in 2011.
“After we finished the first two volumes, our professional lives took a curve up in terms of projects, which kept us busy with separate things,” Bá tells EW. “I believe it was only around 2015, when I visited Gerard in L.A., that we finally had time to sit down and decide it was time to go back to Umbrella Academy. We have been working on Hotel Oblivion since then, slowly, in between other commitments, worrying only about the quality of the new issues. The readers have been waiting for too long, and they deserve the best we can deliver.”
“The band was ending, and touring on Danger Days took a lot of my mental and physical capacity,” Way says. “I found I couldn’t write on the road like I used to. I wrote the first Umbrella Academy series completely on the road, in all different cities. I found I was able to do that, so I thought it would be the same thing when I went out on Danger Days and it wasn’t. It was really taxing. The band kinda took awhile to dissolve as well. I wasn’t really in the mood to write comics until I did a solo record. Then I started to re-engage, but it never felt like the right time. The story changed and evolved a lot. The ideas and core elements were there, but I kept having to make it fresh for myself and change things and really tell the story I wanted to tell.”
For those who need their memory jogged, the previous Umbrella Academy miniseries, Dallas, found the titular superhero family — superstrong, gorilla-bodied Spaceboy; surly vigilante Kraken; magically-voiced Rumor; psychedelic medium Seance; and the time-displaced Number Five — traveling back in time to prevent (and then un-prevent) the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The experience left them scarred, and more at odds with each other than ever. At the beginning of Hotel Oblivion, Number Five is still estranged from the rest of the group, now working as an assassin for hire. But Rumor is finally helping her sister Vanya (a.k.a. the White Violin) recover from the events of the first arc, Apocalypse Suite, while Kraken and Spaceboy are working together in Tokyo. Little do they know, however, that one of their late father’s deepest secrets might come back to bite them very soon.
Sir Reginald Hargreeves died before the events of Umbrella Academy began, but it was he who originally brought these superheroes together. After the children were born simultaneously across the world under strange circumstances, Hargreeves adopted them all and assembled them into a fledgling superhero team under his iron hand. But Charles Xavier he is not; instead of a humanitarian peacemaker, Hargreeves was a Machiavellian manipulator who kept lots of secrets. One of them was the titular Hotel Oblivion, a strange prison where he imprisoned the supervillain enemies his children defeated.
“One of the great things about Umbrella Academy is it plays with the stuff we’ve seen before and subverts it. I thought about stuff like the Phantom Zone, and thought about, what would the Umbrella Academy version of the Phantom Zone look like?” Way says. “The things I riff on from DC or Marvel, I completely change them and gut them and make something new out of them. That’s what Umbrella Academy does really well. It takes the idea of what a supervillain super-prison is, and it just skips all the boring stuff and gets to okay, what’s it like to live there? It explores that stuff they don’t really explore in mainstream comics. I was able to address what it’s like for the personal lives of people in a strange supervillain prison, and bring up the topic of due process. There’s a flashback scene in I think the fourth issue, and the topic just comes up that this is borderline inhumane what Hargreeves was doing, and why was he doing this?”
As for the all-important look of the hotel, Way says he was inspired by the Benson Hotel in Portland, where he used to hole up and write comics. So, in a meta-textual twist befitting the tone of the series, the real-world location where Way wrote Umbrella Academy has now become a part of Umbrella Academy itself — though Bá has added some other visual flavors as well.
“The Hotel is as important to this series as the main house of the Academy was on the first one, and the underground bunker was on the second. A lot is going on there, and we’ll see it throughout the entire series, so I had to pay a little more attention to this ‘set’ than usual,” Bá says. “When we did a teaser for this series back in 2009, the exterior look was already inspired on the Flatiron building in New York, so I kept that. I combined that with the mood of some old, decadent European hotels, with the interior a bit more Art Deco, a mix of dozens of different references I gathered. This is a big and crazy place, so there are lots of different room to design (the lobby, the ballroom, the corridors, each one of the guests’ rooms and so on). It’s been great, but quite challenging.”
In addition to delving into the Hotel Oblivion itself, the new series will also answer some questions first raised by Dallas a decade ago. Such as, who is the mysterious billionaire John Perseus? He appeared for a few pages of the second series, but now that Number Five’s after him, Perseus will play a bigger part in Hotel Oblivion — and offer Way and Bá another opportunity to explore some classic superhero tropes.
“It’s playing with the tropes of Iron Man and Thor and mashing them up,” Way says. “We’re playing with something like, what if Iron Man wasn’t really a good person? What if they were misguided, what if they were raised wrong? There are a lot of what-if’s about a character like that, who also has this kind of godlike influence at the same time. It’s interesting because in Dallas you just got this tiny taste of him, and had the series come in a timely fashion after that you would’ve gotten more info on him sooner. But because of the gap, this character was barely introduced, and then a lot of years go by, and now we get his story as well.”
Now that The Umbrella Academy TV show is gearing up for Netflix — starring Ellen Page and Mary J. Blige, among others — Way and Bá are determined not to have any more extended gaps between comic arcs, so that the show never surpasses them the way, say, Game of Thrones has now sped past the plot of George R.R. Martin’s books.
“We have this show now, so we need to stay ahead of them and give them a blueprint for what they might do,” Way says. “In order to do that, the idea is to take very little time in between arcs and just start working on a new arc right after the last one is done. That way we can eventually get to the end of this story.”
Way continues, “Gabriel and I are co-executive producers, and what that entails is us reviewing stuff, giving notes, sometimes having conversations with the writers and showrunner Steve Blackman so they can pick our brains. Sometimes Gabriel will make drawings for them as well, to show them how things could work in a live-action sense. That’s been really great to see Gabriel doing that. We give info, then it comes back, we get to review the scripts, we get to give notes on every step of the way, but we don’t have final say in anything. That’s okay with us, because we understand that it’s a different thing. This is its own beast that’s gonna run on its own legs and morph into its own thing. We’re going to focus a lot on the book and make that the best it can be, so they have good material.”
The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion #2 hits stores next month. Check out some preview pages above.