Posted on July 20, 2021 at 12:54 PM by Zach Berkley
Like last month, this is the time that we stop to think about what we’ve read and address any questions or interesting topics that we come up with. The questions below are a starting point, they are definitely not all the questions that you could have after reading this book. Feel free to ignore them in favor of your own questions if you prefer. Either way, I just wanted to remind readers that some of the questions and rambling thoughts below will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t finished the book yet you can always come back to this later.
My first question will always be the same vague but important question I start my in-person book clubs with: What did everyone think? Did you love it? Did you hate it? Did you “get” it? What worked for you about the story and/or the art? What didn’t?
I know this one can be a little overwhelming. The story is fast paced, jumps around quite a bit and a fair amount of the exposition is found in the art work or in inferences made from passing comments (some of which can be easily missed in a casual read through). If frenetic story telling is your thing there is a lot to enjoy here, if not… then there are still things to enjoy, it’s just going to take a bit more effort. Either way, I would be very curious to hear thoughts.
Most of the questions that come from an initial reading of The Umbrella Academy are not the typical “discussion questions” that most book clubs like to focus on – less “what do you think the author meant…?” and “what’s the significance of…?” type questions, and more “what just happened?” and “huh?” questions. These questions are still completely valid, and in the right environment can lead to just as much (if not more) discussion, but they are harder to formalize and write down in an organized way. That said, here is my attempt at it. Oh, and I know that there are two more volumes of graphic novels after Apocalypse Suite (not to mention the Netflix show), and that some of the loose ends and questions from this first book are elaborated upon in these later volumes, but I am going to pretend that I don’t know about those things for the purposes of this discussion.
Packed with Information, Even if It Isn’t Always Obvious (and Almost Always Incomplete)…
This book is masterful at giving a lot of information in as small a space as possible. For example, if you opened the book wondering what sort of world this story takes place in, you are immediately answered with an image of “Tusslin’ Tom” Gurney performing an “atomic flying elbow” drop on a flailing space-squid from Rigel X-9 in what is clearly an organized wrestling match in the middle of a packed and enthusiastic crowd. It’s that sort of world. Maybe that creates as many questions as it answers, but they are smaller questions. The big picture is that you are now in a world where impossible and crazy things exist (I am not denying the possibility that space-squids exist here, but making a broad inference from this particular appearance of one in the context of this story) AND people know about them and take it all in stride. Right there, in the first panel, the story is orientating your mind so that it is accepting of what is to come. It’s so colorfully efficient. But does it work?
Many of those that don’t quite “get” the story will say that it is, at least in part, because they were never given a moment to get their head on straight. The beginning is crazy, the middle is crazy and the ending is crazy; if a person is not used to crazy is this something that they will be able to grasp quickly enough to appreciate it before they finish (or more likely choose not to finish) the story?
A related question could be asked about the author’s/artist’s inclusion of tons of specific, quick facts and details in the story. Some matter, some don’t, but it is impossible to know which until later. For example, did you catch that, in addition to being a rich, genius inventor with Olympic gold medals and a Nobel Prize, Hargreeves is a space alien? If not, don’t worry, it doesn’t seem to matter. It really seems like it should, but it is never mentioned again. On the other hand, all you really need to know about what has happened to the “team” after a jump forward of 20 years can be gleaned from two panels worth of news clippings that are in the background while Spaceboy talks on the phone. These tidbits of information can enrich the story and flesh out the world, even when they don’t matter to the particular story that we are following. And many of them don’t (or at least they don’t yet). Way addresses this in a cheeky way in his postscript at the end of the first chapter:
“… There are five more chapters to the series, with twenty-two pages per chapter, totaling one hundred and thirty-two pages. There are seven members of The Umbrella Academy and seventy-two names on the Eiffel Tower. There is no connection between these numbers.”
Do we believe him? Does it matter? Who knows? This is not a unique way of relaying information or telling a story. It is, I think, most notable in films, where Easter Eggs and callbacks abound, but movies are often pretty straightforward and generally don’t suffer too much if the audience doesn’t catch every detail and reference. Can the same be said here? Does it work as well in graphic novel format? Does it risk losing the reader?
This is an easy one, sort of. Who was your favorite character? Is it Superman or Batman, I mean Spaceboy or Kraken? The Rumor, damaged but powerful? Séance, who somehow manages to be both the most outwardly insane and one of the most dependable members of the team? The enigmatic, time-traveling No. 5? Vanya is a little hard to love with the whole trying to destroy the world thing, but still, hardly her fault.
On the subject of poor Vanya – do we think she is actually evil? Tormented and emotionally abused by Hargreeves (and possibly some of her siblings as well), pushed away from her family and eventually tortured and remade by the Conductor, are her actions her own at the end? Did she finally snap and wish to bring a little of her pain to the rest of the world, or was it something that the process of being turned into the White Violin did to her? At the very least, it is fair to say that she was manipulated, but perhaps she was brainwashed as well. Was her killing of the Conductor a signal that she was ready to be an evil force of destruction or striking out at the person that had twisted her into her new form? Both?
If Hargreeves was really aware of Vanya’s potential, was the emotional abuse because he was afraid of her power or was he trying to push her to a similar result?
Intriguing, but not a very sympathetic character. Was Mr. “Don’t call me dad.” just an uncaring jerk, or was he an uncaring jerk with a plan? His genius is hinted at throughout the story, and there is no denying that he achieved some amazing things, pushing well beyond what any normal human could accomplish. Plus, he actually wasn’t a human at all apparently, normal or otherwise. But still, what a jerk. If there is a plan that is yet to be fully revealed, if his stated goal for assembling the children – “To Save the World” - wasn’t just a general statement but preparation for a specific, foreseen event, could the ends ever justify the means?
Was the chunk of the moon necessary? To me the real climax was fulfilled with No. 5 shot Vanya in the head. Séance saving the world from a planet killing piece of space debris moments later…? Sure, it sounds like it should be the big moment but as far as the story goes it feels like the beginning of the epilogue, almost an afterthought. It drives home that this story was always less about super heroics and saving the world (although that is certainly part of it), and more about this dysfunctional family of foster kids trying to figure out how they fit together. But maybe that’s just me. Do you think of No.5 or Séance as the one that ended the threat (and/or the story arch)? Did you like the ending? Are you intrigued enough to pick up volume 2?
Have an answer to one, some, or all of the questions above? Please, comment below. I will try to respond to all of your comments. Maybe someone (other than me) will comment on your comment. Alternatively, you also have the option of writing about whatever other Umbrella Academy (the book) tidbits, topics and/or questions you’ve thought of that I didn’t touch upon here. Or not, you can just read and enjoy without commenting as well. Whatever works for you.
Posted on July 6, 2021 at 12:19 PM by Zach Berkley
Why are we reading it?
We’re switching gears. Nimona was a great beginner book. It wasn’t trying to fit any particular mold and so you could come into it with no prior experience with sequential art of comic books and just appreciate it for what it was. The Umbrella Academy also stretches beyond traditional boundaries, but it does so largely by taking well-established comic book tropes and archetypes and making them something different than expected.
You can still read and appreciate the book without a ton of comic book knowledge. Part of what makes the story unexpected is the focus on the characters’ lives when they are not engaged in super heroics. It’s as much about their weird, familial relationships as anything else (and everyone can relate to that to a certain extent). Still, some of it is going to make a bit more sense if the reader is at least a little familiar with super hero culture. Luckily, thanks to fact that comic books and super heroes are more mainstream than ever before (way to go MCU/DCEU), most people are at least a little aware of the genre and what they can typically expect from it.
About the Author/Artist
In addition to being and Eisner Award winning comic book writer, Gerard Way is a rock star. Not metaphorically speaking (well, I guess that too) but actually. He’s the lead singer for the rock band My Chemical Romance. He is still involved in writing, recording and performing music. These days he is also the executive producer for the popular Netflix version of The Umbrella Academy.
Gabriel Bá is an award-winning Brazilian comic book artist. His style can quickly shift from somber and still to expressive and whacky and is prefect for a story like The Umbrella Academy, which makes those jumps often. In addition to working with Way, Bá has worked on the comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and B.P.R.D titles, and several joint projects with his twin brother, Fabio Moon, who is also a comic book artist.
Look for discussion questions next week!
Posted on June 28, 2021 at 7:47 PM by Zach Berkley
That’s it! Month one of The Art of Reading done.
Is it just me, or did the last month just fly by? Oh well, hopefully you had a chance to pick up a copy of Nimona (or find it online) and give it a read.
It was good, right? Like I said, slightly goofy fantasy story that turns out to have surprising depth and deals with some pretty hefty and interesting topics. Plus, the characters are great and art style is charming. And if it leaves some questions unanswered and the ending a bit open-ended? That’s because I don’t think answering those questions was the point and the ending… well, people get really worked up about how things end and the need for closure (myself included in some cases) but I think this is one of those times where it worked for me. It wasn’t the end, just a “things are happy enough and the action and conflict are over, for now at least,” which I can live with.
Gone, but maybe just for now.
If you did not get a chance to read it this month, then pick it up next month or next year or whenever. It’s worth it, and that is part of the appeal of graphic novels in general, in my opinion. So long as you can find a copy (and luckily, Nimona is popular enough that isn’t too hard) you can often get a great story that you can easily finish in one or two sittings. Minimal time commitment.
Looking forward to July, we will be reading The Umbrella Academy: The Apocalypse Suite, Vol.1! If the name rings a bell, it may be because there is a popular Netflix show based on the graphic novel.
Look for more information in July!