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The Umbrella Academy: Oblivion Hotel #1 (Review)

The Umbrella Academy: Oblivion Hotel #1
Dark Horse Comics, November 2018
Writer: Gerard Way

It has been a ten year wait for readers of Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy. The first series, The Umbrella Academy: The Apocalypse Suite, won the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Finite Series/Limited Series. The second series, The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, was highly acclaimed. And then it spluttered to a halt in 2008, with Mr Way himself commenting in the author’s epilogue to the last issue that he had no idea where the story would go next.

Netflix’s Necromancy

Mr Way eventually found himself at DC Comics where he has been furiously involved in that publisher’s Young Animal imprint, which includes writing Doom Patrol and Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye (titles we have previously reviewed.) Additional tales of The Umbrella Academy seemed very far away from returning to print.

But then in 2017 Variety magazine confirmed that a live action television series was under-development and due for release in 2019. Within the past few days of this review, still images of the television series have been released by the broadcaster, Netflix. And so, no doubt by no coincidence, this third series of the comic has appeared on shelves.

Netflix has apparently raised this title from the dead. We give thanks to Netflix’s necromancy skills.

School for Gifted Students

The premise reads like a version of the X-Men, in so far as it concerns superpowered teenagers at a high school. In 1989, all on the same day, 43 babies are born to random women who each showed no signs of pregnancy before giving birth. Seven of these babies were adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a space alien secretly masquerading as a very stern billionaire industrialist. Hargreeves then established a school for the children, called The Umbrella Academy.

When Hargreeves dies in strange circumstances, the six living members, now in their 30s (save for the youthful, time travelling No. 5) come together for the funeral. Superhero mayhem inevitably ensues.

Each of the children has unique abilities:

1. No. 1, Spaceboy, the leader, possesses superhuman strength.
2. No. 2, Kraken, can survive underwater. Kraken is no King of Atlantis, however: he is a tough street fighter who uses a knife, and is missing an eye. During a time travel escapade in The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, Kraken leads a US platoon in the Vietnam War and becomes a living legend to his troops.
3. No. 3, The Rumour, can cause things to happen by saying it. In The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, the Rumour fulfils destiny by causing President John F. Kennedy’s head to explode.
4. No.4, Seance, is a washed-out psychic with addiction problems, who can communicate with the dead.
5. No. 5 (who otherwise has no code name) is a time traveller. He can slow down time during fights to lethal effect.
6. No. 6, The Horror, is a man who can project tentacles from his chest. He died during an undisclosed adventure.
7. No 7, The White Violin, initially appears to be powerless. By the end of The Umbrella Academy: The Apocalypse Suite, it is apparent that this is not so, and that Hargreeves hid her violently destructive powers from everyone, even The White Violin herself, because they were so dangerous.

Mr Way’s quirky characterisation of this cast is impeccable. One distressing aspect of the prolonged hiatus for loyal fans was not being able to see what happens to each of the characters next.

But in addition, we do not know many things from the characters’ past: the nature of the space accident that led to Spaceboy’s body being crushed and fused by Hargreeves with that of an enormous white gorilla; why Kraken is angry with Spaceboy; how The Horror died; how Kraken lost his eye. Too many loose ends have been bothersome for dedicated readers.

A new circle of hell

This first issue starts with a flashback: a red-caped and masked supervillain, defeated by the youthful Umbrella Academy, billeted by Hargreeves at the sinister and surreal Oblivion Hotel. The hotel is located in what appears to be a North American desert, but under a starless sky and otherwise illuminated by green vapour columns. It looks very sinister. If there was ever an opportunity for fellow Dark Horse character Hellboy to meet the Umbrella Academy, the Oblivion Mansion is the place for it.

Next, No.2 shoots up two Mad Max-esque motorcyclists, and then takes a job to investigate John Perseus.

Perseus is a character who has been looming in the background of The Umbrella Academy for a very long time. Several pages later into this issue, No.5 leaps out of a ceiling air duct to ask the Perseus Corporation’s receptionist some questions:

No.5: “Let me ask, if I may – what constitutes an emergency response from your security team?”

Receptionist: “Excuse me?”

No. 5: “Let’s say a gunman were to come in here, heavily armed… would you alert the authorities or handle it “in-house”?

Receptionist: “Uh, I… I’m not comfortable answering that question.”

No.5: “Would you say that your security team is looked from ex-military or trained civilians with permits to carry?”

Receptionist: “Get out.”

No.5: “Good day to you.”

The dialogue is extremely wry, and entirely befits No.5’s persona as an eccentric, dangerous old man trapped in the body of a young boy dealing with a discombobulated receptionist.

In the meantime, Spaceboy and Kraken have arrived in Tokyo in order to retrieve Hargreeves’ interstellar ship, called “Minerva”, from some local superheroes (taking out a local menace in the process).

These Japanese superheroes are friends of the Umbrella Academy. In another quirky moment, the leader, Atomic Detective, shears off Spaceboy’s long white hair and beard with a casually aimed blast at Spaceboy’s head. Spaceboy and Kraken fly off to “Afterspace”.

Other characters, White Violin and the Rumour, are meantime recovering from their adventures at the Umbrella Academy’s underground lair. They do not join the space voyage.

The characters, the oddball plots, and the zinging dialogue have rendered The Umbrella Academy with a cult-status including for those outside the usual demographic of superhero comic book readers. This new story has lost none of the zany momentum which made the first two series so engaging.