The adopted siblings of ‘The Umbrella Academy’, which is on Netflix, are not your typical superheroes.
They have offbeat superpowers — the Rumor can cause things to happen just by saying them aloud — and they were raised by an emotionally distant father, an android mother and a kind, talking chimpanzee.
Most of this is revealed in flashbacks: The series picks up when the team, which fractured under the weight of its crime-fighting responsibilities, reunites after the mysterious death of its adoptive father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore). Across 10 episodes, viewers learn whether the family members can sufficiently get past their shared baggage in order to prevent an apocalypse foreseen by their time-travelling brother.
Readers of the comic book, written by Gerard Way and drawn by Gabriel Ba, may feel they have a head start, but this is only somewhat true. The Netflix series, the cast of which includes Tom Hopper, Ellen Page and Robert Sheehan as members of the gifted but quarrelsome clan, will include moments not yet covered in the comic, which began in 2007. (It won an Eisner award in 2008 for best finite series.)
“I wrote this 20-page document that explains kind of everybody and how their powers work and where the story’s heading,” said Way, who, like Ba, is an executive producer on the show. (They’ve weighed in on everything from the story to costumes to set design, Way said.)
Despite the success of the Umbrella Academy comic, Way is perhaps most popularly known as the former singer of the theatrical rock band My Chemical Romance — he recorded a cover of ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ for the show. In a recent telephone interview, Way discussed both versions of ‘The Umbrella Academy,’ the comic books that have influenced him and, naturally, Liza Minnelli. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How did the Umbrella Academy comic originally come about?
A: My initial inspiration was a few different things. I had been such a fan of the Marvel Silver Age, and I grew up reading Chris Claremont’s X-Men. Marvel characters had a lot of issues and problems, but I wanted to give them deeper, more complex problems. I was also reading Hellboy by Mike Mignola, and to me that was a postmodern horror comic. There was nothing like that for superheroes. I usually try to make things that I wish existed that I would want to listen to or read.
Q: When did you sense that it was connecting with readers?
A: It connected really early. The first issue came out, and I think a lot of people expected it to be pretty bad. I mean, I came from a rock band. Not a lot of people knew my history of having written a comic at 15, going to the School of Visual Arts for cartooning and illustration, studying comics for many years, then interning at DC Comics. A lot of people just expected some sort of vanity project. I don’t fault them for that.
Q: Is it weird to have someone else steering the Umbrella Academy now, at least on TV?
A: I never felt like I lost control so much as I relinquished a bit of control. At the beginning, I was asked how closely I wanted to work with a showrunner, if I wanted to be on set every day. I was really focused on the book and creating the mythology that the show would pull from. I also started an imprint with DC Comics, so I had quite a lot of things going on. When I go in on something, I go all in. I would have been sleeping on the set. I didn’t think it was the right time for me to dive into TV that way. That may change in the future. But at that stage I kind of relinquished control to Steve Blackman (the showrunner) and all the people making the show. I never felt like we were not heard.
Q: The TV family is much more diverse than in the comic. Did you have an influence on that?
A: I did, and the greatest change is that the casting was so much more inclusive and diverse than the source material. I thought that was a massive improvement. It was something we all talked about really early on. We have this really great opportunity because these kids are adopted from all over the world, and they could really be from anywhere.
Q: Why didn’t you take that approach in the comic?
A: I wasn’t a very good listener. I spent a lot of years just shouting and being on stage and being in control of things. I didn’t understand other people’s stories, and what I learned to do over the years is kind of shut my mouth and listen to people of different ethnicities and take a look at their struggles. Diversity is something we’re addressing in the Umbrella Academy comic. It’s something Gabriel and I actively work on.
Q: How involved were you with the music choices in the show?
A: I didn’t have a lot of say in the soundtrack. Steve has a very distinct vision of the songs he wants in the show. He actually writes the songs in the script.
Q: So I didn’t get to weigh in much on music, though I am a fan of Queen, obviously, and I really like that Tiffany song. I tend to skew toward things that are maybe a little more underground or things that maybe people haven’t heard before.
A: You’ve shifted from music and performing to writing comics to giving notes on a TV show. Do the different skills inform one another?
Q: I’ve always considered myself a visual thinker. I’ve always seen Umbrella Academy as a comic, but in my head I saw it play out like a film. But all these jobs feed into each other, and I learn from all of them. It’s interesting to, let’s say, give notes on screenplays and TV and apply that to the notes you give yourself on the comic, and vice versa.
Q: What comic creators have influenced you? Grant Morrison was in one of your videos.
A: He was gracious enough to play the villain in the story of the last My Chemical Romance record, “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.” I’m dear friends with Grant. I consider him to be not only a friend but a mentor. The biggest thing I borrow from what he does is, when you read a Grant Morrison comic, per page you get more ideas than sometimes in a whole issue or graphic novel. One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me is “Don’t save up your ideas, just use them all because you’ll just come up with more.” I’ve kind of always stuck with that. And his wild imagination has inspired me to kind of try and tap into my own imagination.
Q: What’s the biggest obstacle for your various creative pursuits?
A: It’s the time to get there. That’s the biggest obstacle. My family is also important to me, and one of the really big positives of getting to write comics is I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with them and watch Bandit (his daughter) grow and be there for her as a father. That made me shy away from touring. But I’m really focused on comics because I’m home. Hopefully, I’ll have the time to finish the series out properly.
Q: This is off-topic but I have to ask: How did you end up working with Liza Minnelli on the ‘Black Parade’ album?
A: I love Liza Minnelli. ‘Black Parade’ was very theatrical, and we had this song ‘Mama’, and I said, ‘You know, it would be really great in this one part to get Liza.’ Rob Cavallo, the producer, made a couple of calls and she said she would love to do it. We recorded that remotely — we were in Los Angeles, at Capitol, and she was in New York with a different engineer. It was really cool. The first time I got to speak to her was through the mixing board.
Don’t miss it
Umbrella Academy is now streaming on Netflix.