Netflix’s latest original series, Umbrella Academy, has finally arrived, bringing with it buckets of trippy, surrealist superhero hijinks. But the world of the Academy is actually more than just a bizarre 10 episode series to be binged from your living room–it’s actually a cult classic superhero comic from Gerard Way (yes, as in the guy from My Chemical Romance) and artist Gabriel Ba.
Sure, it may not possess the weight of history that something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe has behind it, but the world of Umbrella Academy is actually expansive (and completely bizarre), making it a worthy read for anyone who might be interested in jumping into the new show. So what exactly is Umbrella Academy, how do you read it, and what does it all mean?
We’re here to break it down for you, piece by abstract piece.
Umbrella Academy got its start back in 2007 with the release of its first six issue limited series titled Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite at Dark Horse Comics, and it set the groundwork for the ongoing universe. It established the basic premise: one day, 43 women around the world with no signs of pregnancy gave birth simultaneously to infants that showed various superhuman abilities. Seven of the kids were adopted by an eccentric billionaire adventurer named Sir Reginald Hargreeves, who created–wait for it–The Umbrella Academy. There, he trained up his adopted children to be a superhero team.
If you think things are already starting to sound a bit weird, you haven’t seen anything yet.
By and large, the kids experienced an exceedingly dysfunctional childhood, with their father all but disinterested in anything but their powers, a robot facsimile of a mother, and a genetically modified chimp named Pogo as their primary caretakers. The kids’ day to day life revolved around training to use their powers and various feats of public superheroics against any number of strange and potentially cosmic threats. And by “strange,” we mean, really, really weird–the first thing the kids are shown fighting is an animated Eiffel Tower (which turns out to be a space ship) puppeteered by “zombie robot Gustave Eiffel”.
That basically establishes the tone of the entire series. It includes most of the same tropes and set dressing as your standard superheroic faire, but it’s shown through the lense of the hyper surreal–half tongue-in-cheek self aware, half pedal-to-the-metal buckwild just for the hell of it.
The kids themselves are suitably eclectic. Each member of the Hargreeves family-slash-team was assigned a number, a code name, and a civilian name. Number 1, Spaceboy, Luthor Hargreeves, is super strong. Number 2, The Kraken, Diego Hargreeves, can hold his breath forever and throw knives with deadly accuracy. Number 3, The Rumor, Allison Hargreeves, can tell lies that alter reality. Number 4, The Seance, Klaus Hargreeves, can contact the dead. Number 5, The Boy, has no civilian name and can teleport and time travel. Number 6, The Horror, Ben Hargreeves, can summon monsters of his skin–and is mysteriously dead. Number 7, The White Violin, Vanya Hargreeves, spent her childhood told she had no special gifts–which she soon learns may not have been true at all.
But the kids’ gifts and superheroic feats aren’t actually the focus of the story. The real narrative occupies a chunk of time far after the Academy has been formally dissolved, the kids have grown up, and their makeshift family has all but totally fallen apart. They’re pulled back together after the death of Hargreeves, which sets in motion a series of events leading to some very unwelcome secrets coming to light. Imagine something like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, but give each character an incredibly specific superpower, and toss in a talking chimpanzee for good measure.
Following The Apocalypse Suite, Umbrella Academy continued to expand its story by adding two more limited series to the line-up. The first, Umbrella Academy: Dallas, began publication in 2009 and dealt with a truly mind-bending level of time travel and alternate history (the JFK assassination, the Vietnam war, really, you name it.) The second, Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion, was originally set for release in the early 2010s, but experienced a number of major delays–it finally saw publication in 2018, just in time to drum up some more awareness for the Netflix show.
In between each major series, Way and Ba would publish various short stories focusing on major cast members and moments to flesh out more of the lore. These short stories were collected up in the trade paperback editions of each volume–though they’re not strictly necessary to understand the actual plot.
The Netflix show itself is mostly a blend of both Apocalypse Suite and Dallas, with a healthy amount of remixing and reinventing–after all, there are some things you can pull off on paper that just wouldn’t work on a tv show. Zombie robot Gustave Eiffel, for example, doesn’t really translate. But don’t worry–Pogo, the talking chimpanzee, definitely does.
All ten episodes of The Umbrella Academy launch on Netflix February 15, while all three volumes of The Umbrella Academy are available everywhere comics are sold. You can jump into one without the other, but really for something this delightfully weird, why would you want to?