From Comics to Music and Back Again
Thirty-one-year-old comic author (and sometimes artist) Gerard Way traces his professional comics work back to college, but it wasn’t until 2007 that his name was stamped prominently on one. That’s when he became the creator of the Dark Horse series Umbrella Academy, the first trade paperback collection of which, Apocalypse Suite (read the review here), was released in 2008. And silencing critics who might have thought Way was just another celebrity making a weak attempt at crossing from one medium to another, the author’s quirky superhero series picked up the Eisner Award last year for Best Finite Series/Limited Series, as well as three Harvey Award nominations, of which it won Best New Series.
Way recently talked with GraphicNovelReporter about his background in comics, the influences behind Umbrella Academy (the second series, Dallas, is underway), working with Gabriel Bá, writing on the road, how My Chemical Romance got involved with Zack Snyder and the Watchmen soundtrack, bringing new readers to comics, and why an Eisner trumps a Grammy.
Umbrella Academy isn’t your first foray into comics. Can you give readers a bit of background on your involvement in the medium?
Actually, my first job was in a comics shop. I started writing comics early. When I was 15, I was already doing comics, and after that I had gone to SVA [School of Visual Arts] to work on the drawing aspect. So I suppose it’s more than that, because I realized if I had all the skills to make comics, then it would be better. It would be much easier for me to get these comics made. If I was always relying on somebody to have to draw them, it was probably going to be a problem. And I knew breaking into the comic author part is way harder than breaking in as a comics artist, so I had wanted to be in comics that bad. After that, basically, I interned at DC for about a year during my senior year of SVA, and around then [DC editor and writer] Andy Helfer gave me a drawing gig to do a page in the Big Book of the Weird Wild West. After that, I moved on from there and I floated around from animation for a while. I was an intern on a show called Sheep in the Big City. After that I got involved with Curious Pictures. After that I got a job doing toy design. That was great. And I did turnaround, a lot of turnaround, a lot of design work. It was fun, and then the band took off, kind of accidentally.
What is the first comic you can remember being really into, and what did you like about it?
As far as making my own decisions, not a comic that was given to me but one that I actually purchased myself, it was probably a [Chris] Claremont/[Marc] Silvestri issue of X-Men. That’s the first comic I remember being my decision, and I was very excited about it. I chose to follow that book. I think that if the issue I’m remembering is correct, it was the issue where Wolverine is crucified to this big, wooden X. That’s if I remember correctly, because I do think I might have started during the “Inferno” series. So that was a thing at a really young age that impacted me. Then after that I got progressively into the weirder stuff.
Who would you cite as the top influences to your writing and/or art style?
For art, I would say it has always been Alex Toth. And I actually wasn’t aware of Alex Toth; I just knew what I liked. I knew I liked Super Friends, and I knew I liked that really streamlined, simple design—this really barebones design that works so well, with as few lines as possible. I knew I liked that, and it wasn’t until I had a class with Sal Amendola, who was one of my instructors at SVA. He said, “You know who you’d love is Alex Toth, because that’s kind of who you’re drawing like. Whether you realize it or not, he’s influenced you, because you probably used to watch Super Friends when you were a kid and Space Ghost and all this stuff.” Yeah, I did, and I love that stuff. So he brought in—I think he was doing Hot Wheels comics—and he brought an old copy of a Hot Wheels comic and showed it to me, and I was blown away and thought, This is the greatest thing in the world to me. As far as writing, it would definitely be Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Obviously [Pat] McEown, [Neil] Gaiman, and Garth Ennis as well. There are a lot of great writers that are really big.
How would you describe Umbrella Academy to someone who is not familiar with it?
When somebody asks me what it’s about, I basically spew off the first seven pages of the first series for them. I say it’s about this, and that’s how I describe it in this quick-fire kind of way. That’s really the only way to describe it. But when I get deeper into it, not talking so much what the actual plot is about—because there’s something deeper going on that has little to do with the plot—it’s really an experiment in ideas. To me, it’s a comic that didn’t exist, in that it’s post-modern but it takes a lot of my favorite stuff, what I consider the best stuff, and puts it in there. There’s a reason you can’t tell what time it is, because when you see wrestling, it’s when wrestling was good and real. It’s when radio was great. It’s when TV was great. The cars are great. It’s to me all the best stuff from all the eras. I think that’s what it is. It’s this sort of post-modern superhero comic. It’s almost not a superhero comic. It’s about family, and it’s about people, and lots of crazy ideas. So that’s how I describe it to people.
Can you explain a bit about where the idea of Umbrella Academy came from? I’ve read that you liked the concept of your heroes fighting an idea, rather than a physical villain. What works directly influenced its style, and what are you trying to accomplish with the books?
Definitely the thing that lit the fire under my ass was when Vertigo reprinted the old Doom Patrol trades. You can literally pinpoint the exact moment trade #1 came out and when I started. I think it was right around the time trade #2 came out, I literally started banging Umbrella Academy together. It was weird. I talked to Grant a lot about the series and he said to me some of his favorite stuff in that series is simply the characters sitting around and talking, having a therapy session, realizing it’s not when they’re fighting a bad guy. And out of the bad guys that they fight, they are fighting villains, but you kind of boil those villains down to concepts, and that’s kind of what it is. The whole concept of “The Painting That Ate Paris,” that’s a concept, and the title alone is amazing. And they’re not really going after a bad guy. There are bad guys involved, but… That was the direct thing where I said, “Wow, not only does this hold up; it actually probably makes more sense now.” And not only that, but there’s nothing like this today. There’s nothing like Doom Patrol, and I don’t want to copy this, but I want this kind of—Grant had given this interview where he talks about this new wave of lo-fi weirdness, and I wanted to be a part of that. I didn’t realize at the time that interview was 4–5 years old. To me, there was still nothing like it. A lot of the weirdness you see in comics up to that point—it was kind of steam-punk stuff or something. Everything was steam-powered and everything was just about that. That’s as weird as it got.
Where did you get the name for Umbrella Academy? Every time I read it, I can’t help but think of the scene coming down the steps in the MCR video for “Helena,” or Resident Evil. Any connection to either of those?
I hadn’t realized that too about Resident Evil. I actually really like Resident Evil, but I’ve never seen the films; I’ve only played the games. And I didn’t realize that that was such a big thing. I hadn’t even considered the “Helena” video thing. What it actually came from was—there’s an old punk band from New York called Stiffs Inc. They are one of the most influential bands to me, if not musically alone, then aesthetically as well. They were great. They kind of dressed like old Victorian detectives or butlers. The music was really punk, kind of in an adverse type way. The lyrics were about Sherlock Holmes and space travel and George Orwell and things like that. And they had pictures like old silent-film stars. They had a huge impact on me. That band had broken up a long time ago; I never got to see them live. Their singer, Whitey Sterling, had briefly formed this band called The Umbrella Brigade, then that band broke up. I always thought that would be a great concept for a team name, just something involving an umbrella. I’m glad I changed it to “Academy” because he reformed that band recently and he finally has a new record out, so that would have been awkward for sure. But at the time, I felt he was finished with that band, his second band. So to me, it was a really cool nod to this kind of obscure band that really inspired me. He’s got a new record out now and it’s awesome.
What is the writing process like for you and how do you manage all of your time with this and the band? Scott Allie writes at the end of the Apocalypse Suite trade paperback about some of the difficulties of getting scripts while you’re on tour. Is the second series faced with similar issues?
There are a whole different set of challenges, I guess, when you’re on the road. I have to literally get up and find a place, not only a place to work, but I have to find the time. Luckily, it’s harder to find a place to work. I usually have a lot of time, because all you have to do, especially after your record has been out for a little bit and you’re in the middle of a tour, are in the middle of your cycle, you’re not really doing any interviews anymore; you’re not doing many appearances. You’re simply just playing shows. So if you wake up at 10 in the morning, 9 in the morning, you’re not playing until almost 12 hours later. So it leaves a lot of time to do stuff. That’s how that would get done. The only reason stuff ends up getting late sometimes is because there’s a lot of travel involved, and time differences are huge. When I finished the last issue of Apocalypse Suite, I think I was in Malaysia, and I think I was a day behind, actually, or ahead. So I wasn’t quite late yet; I had an extra day because of where I was in the world, and that really saved my ass. But that would add to stuff taking longer. And when I’m home, the different set of circumstances is that it’s hard to sit down and be able to focus, because I do have other things going on with the band. And I have to micro-manage those things on a daily basis. That makes that harder, but I’d say it is easier being off the road and writing for sure. I haven’t been late yet with series two.
How did you hook up with Dark Horse to publish the project?
Jim Krueger is a comics writer and a really good friend of mine. He would literally give me work-for-hire. He’d pay me out of pocket to do jobs for him, because we met on the train and he really liked my art. We stayed in touch, even through the band. He’s even come to a couple shows, and whenever I was in New York City I would meet up with him for lunch. And we’d do this a couple times a year depending on my schedule. We had lunch one day and I said, “I have an idea finally. I want to write comics again and I have this idea.” He goes, “Where do you want to take it?” And I said, “I think I want to take it to Dark Horse because I love what they’re doing over there.” And then he put in a call to a friend, Eric Wiler [executive assistant to Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson], over there. Then the ball just kept rolling, and then Wiler found me an editor, and that’s how I met Scott Allie and that was it.
The second series of Umbrella Academy is underway. What can fans of Apocalypse Suite expect from the new books?
I think you can expect a change in the tone of the series. As much as I was fighting back doing the origin story, I think Apocalypse Suite is an origin story without you feeling like you’re reading an origin story. I think it cuts out a lot of the fat and extra garbage that usually comes with an origin story. There are usually a lot of scenes of discovery and surprise involved in origins, and we’ve seen those things so many times I don’t think we need to dwell on them. I don’t think we needed a scene where the kids are discovering what their powers are. I wanted to avoid that stuff at all costs, but it probably has its purposes. It’s kind of an origin. It really sets up the world and the sandbox, and now I feel the comic is more about doing whatever I want. Now each series is going to have its own voice, and its own feel, and its own tempo. The overarching theme of series two is not only slightly political, or examining what a hero is; it’s a mission. They have to deal with the JFK assassination; that’s their mission. What happens in issues 1 through 5 may or may not have anything to do with that mission. It’s always kind of more about the journey we take to get to the ending, not so much about the ending or “Who is the bad guy?” I never really wanted it to be like that, because if you look at a lot of limited series, they’re almost formulaic in a way that. Issue 1 will introduce the problem, by issue 3 they’re having their first brawl, and by issues 5, 6, 7, they’re fighting the bad guy and beating him. That’s something I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want people to even know what was going on until issues 3 or 4.
Looking back at Apocalypse Suite, how well do you think you achieved your vision on the page? Is there anything you wish you had done differently or lessons you’ve learned from mistakes that you’re taking with you into the second series?
I learned a great deal. I’m much more confident in dialogue now. I also started to embrace the fact that the book is actually funny. When I started this comic, it originally wasn’t intended to be funny. I wouldn’t consider it a humor comic, but there’s a sense of black humor and cynicism that stems from watching bold shows like The Prisoner and things like that. I’ve learned to embrace the dialogue and that humor in this second series, and I think the first series I had a very difficult time writing dialogue. This time, it’s very easy. That could be because I’m writing more comics, or that I’m getting more comfortable with the characters. I think that’s a big thing. I think if I had to do it again, I would have made the first series one or two issues longer, simply so we could get more of the orchestra in there. I think it would have been nice to have an earlier experiment of theirs, or some kind of attack, or assault, before the final one. Actually, I would have added a little more depth. There are tons of flashbacks I probably would have put in—at least three or four more flashbacks, but I think its ending kind of abruptly and borderline existentially on this kind of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich is part of the charm of that first series. So I could look back and say I would have changed that, but I think it happened for the best.
Were you a fan of Gabriel Bá prior to working together on Umbrella Academy? How did you two come together for this project?
I actually hadn’t heard of Gabriel. Gabriel was still pretty under-the-radar at that point, although he had a lot of underground fans. Scott, who always has an amazing eye for talent, had kind of discovered Bá and his brother Fabio [Moon] before Bá was working on Casanova. I think they had put out a book of Gabriel and Fabio’s even before Casanova. He said, “I think this is your guy.” He said, “I think Gabriel is on the verge of breaking through with comics. It’s not going to look like a superhero book, which is what you want. Go check out Casanova.” And I did. I went to the store and knew right away he’d be the right guy. Because I also knew, in looking at Gabriel’s stuff, and the scripts that [Matt] Fraction had written for him, I knew that I was going to use Gabriel in a completely different way. I was going to move the camera totally different. I was going to use less panels, for example. I knew the comics would end up looking very different, which they did at the end. So that’s how I was turned on to him, and after I saw it, it was an easy decision.
Going back to what you said about going to school in the first place to be able to write and draw your own comics, why get an artist involved instead of doing the art yourself and having total creative control?
I think sometimes too much control over something is a bad thing. There are really great examples of someone like Craig Thompson who can just bust out the whole thing by themselves and have it be amazing. I think that requires a completely different set of discipline, which I don’t think I had. I think my brain moves too quick and jumps too much from thing to thing. I think if I had to write the comic and draw it, I’d be choking on it by the end. And I simply didn’t have the time. I did want a comic to come out, eventually, and I think if I tried to draw it on the road, pages would have gotten lost; they would have gotten destroyed. I am certain that if I had mailed some pages out from Moscow, they never would have made it. There are a lot of factors involved in stuff coming from all over the globe. It’s just a bad idea. So I really wanted to put the comic out, and I felt that I didn’t have the discipline that someone like Gabriel had to sit down, chain himself to the desk and do it.
Do you have a favorite character in the series, or one that you particularly relate to?
I used to kind of think so, but I don’t have a favorite anymore, especially writing this series. I find that they’re all extremely useful to me at any given time. Usually if I’m stuck, I just turn to the characters. I was stuck almost at the end of Apocalypse and I was like, “What the heck am I going to do here?” I hadn’t thought about the character Séance, so I was like, “Man, this guy hasn’t been used at all in the series as much as I’d like him to,” and I had him play a really big part in that last issue because of that. I enjoy writing Number 5 a great deal. He’s a little bit of a mouthpiece in a way that I can get extremely dark and cynical with that character. That’s kind of fun. Séance is super fun to write. If I identify with anybody, it’s more like Number 3. I think she’s the most normal.
What was it like to find out the series picked up an Eisner Award last year?
Winning the Eisner and then the Harvey was the biggest deal to me ever. That was more important to me than a Grammy or anything, truly, for so many reasons. I never cared to win a Grammy. I didn’t really know what an award like that really meant anymore. I think at one time it probably meant something. It doesn’t really mean anything to me, because the band is just a reactionary thing. I just do it. It’s just waking and taking a shower or something. It’s just very automatic, and I just do it. But something like comics, where it’s something I really had to work at a tremendous amount—not that making records isn’t a lot of work, but comics were way harder. It was way more challenging, and I had a lot stacked against me. I think that’s what made it better to win that award, is a lot of people thought it was going to be horrible. And to me, what I consider to be the best of all Eisners to win, is for Best Limited Series.
Were you surprised to get interest in a movie deal so quickly? Also, how do you feel about the recent surge of comics to film? Some artists love to be involved, while others scorn the idea of movies being made out of their books. Where do you stand?
It’s a good thing and a bad thing, to be honest with you. They’ve kind of been out for so long that we’re getting to see ones that are good, but if they don’t progress or evolve, it’s the same film over and over. If they keep coming out with really crappy ones, then it’s going to ultimately hurt that, and everything comes around. Obviously, comics movies are really hot right now and they won’t be, eventually. And it will be most likely because the quality control on them simply goes down, if anything brings them down.
So I think they can be a good thing. As the writer of the comic, you hate to pull yourself out of the situation. You need to pull yourself out and go, “You know what? I already wrote this. This is done.” There’s an old famous quote by an author. Somebody said, “How do you feel about your books being ruined?” His answer to that was, “They’re not ruined. They’re still on the shelf. I can pick them up and read them anytime.” And I feel that way. I’ve written a comic, so I’m done with it in terms of that. If it gets turned into a film, for better or worse, hopefully it’s always for better. I’m fully willing to accept the vision of whoever wants to make it, because there obviously is going to be something that excites them about it.
How much more material do you have in mind for Umbrella Academy? Is this something you can see yourself doing for years to come? Any other projects in the works?
I have other ideas for projects, and I’d really like to do them. I definitely have ideas, though, for Umbrella. I have laid out through series four, but then even after that I know where it’s going. I think, all in all, it will be eight or nine trades. At least seven, but most likely nine graphic novels, and I think that will be the end of Umbrella Academy.
How did My Chemical Romance get involved with Zack Snyder and the Watchmen soundtrack? And for those that aren’t aware, can you explain the connection of “Desolation Row,” the song the band covered, to Watchmen.
For those that aren’t aware, Bob Dylan plays a huge part in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It’s not just Dylan; there are all kinds of quotes of lyrics, from Nat King Cole to Jimi Hendrix. There is all kinds of music in there, but Dylan is one of the most important artists that Alan Moore quotes in that series. So Zack wanted to bookend the film by having it open with a Dylan song and end with a Dylan song, and he wanted those feelings to be very different. So he wanted a modern band to cover a second Dylan song that he could use at the end of the film. We were a likely candidate, because I’m a huge comics fan. That was the biggest comic to me. I’ve obviously written my own comics, and while Warner [Bros.] Pictures and Warner [Bros.] Records are two separate entities, usually when they put out the soundtrack, it comes out on Warner Records. So, our head of marketing had thought that we’d be a really perfect fit for Zack, so he brought us up to Zack and he said, “Yeah, it makes sense, because this band is actually genuinely into comics. The singer actually writes comics and Watchmen is a huge inspiration to them.” So that’s how it came about, and the next thing you know, I’m on the phone with Zack and he said, “What are you thinking for this cover?” I said, “I think it needs to be a product of the era, which is basically early-age punk, late ’70s glam-punk.” He felt that was a really cool take on it, so that was really it. The hardest part was, I love Dylan so much and I love that song so much. They’re some of the best lyrics ever written, so I’m trimming out almost half the song and a lot of the great lyrics, which was a drag for me to do. And I realize it’s not something you can do lightly, to take this epic song and then trim it down to three minutes, but I felt if it was going to be this kind of sucker-punch, slightly nihilistic punk exercise, it was going to have to be short—as short as it could possibly be.
What was it like getting to do your music video for the track with Zack Snyder, and what can you say about the part it plays in the ending of the film?
I don’t think the video will, but the song does. That was amazing. I’m sure that will end up on the DVD of the film. You get to work with some really amazing people. I’ve worked with some really great directors on our videos, but we’ve yet to really work with a director who did film, and it was a different experience. Even the treatment that we got for the video—Zack didn’t even have to do that to impress us; we were already going to work with him. He probably most likely did it for himself. This treatment was amazing looking. He had pulled all this photo reference, all this crazy stuff, and it looked like it was going to be one of the most exciting videos we’d ever shoot. And I think the end result is something that’s very different from any of our other videos. I think the band looks more natural in it. Obviously, there’s no makeup happening. A lot of the extras were almost a product of the era as well. I think it fits right into the Watchmen universe.
How closely would you say your comic experiences shape the things you do with My Chemical Romance, from imagery in songs to album art to the music videos you make?
I always felt that no matter what you’re doing, your creativity is very relative. So I think if I’m writing kind of nihilistic comics or working on the ones that haven’t even come out yet, that’s going to spill into the music somehow, because it’s obviously what I want to be saying. Aesthetically, too, I think there’s something very relative about the visual aspect. It’s all tied together. Even if a guy like Tim Burton had a band, I’m sure it would reflect the work he’s done somehow in film. I think all that stuff is relative. You just find the best avenue with which to pursue your idea or your vision, and then if it’s a song, it’s a band thing. That’s great. If it’s a comic, that’s great. You just have to find the best avenue for it.
What is it like for you to undoubtedly be bringing some My Chemical Romance fans into the realm of comics for the first time?
-- William Jones
That was a big goal of doing Umbrella Academy. To me, comics are a medium I have learned and taken so much from in my career and my personal life. They were so important to me and so important in changing who I became that I owed it to comics to bring an entire readership to them that hadn’t read them before. In fact, during the first signing, one of the best parts of meeting some of the people when the first issue came out was the fact that most of them told me it was the first American comic they’d read. They had only read manga up until this point. That was really great to me. And of the manga they read, they could go to Barnes & Noble and just sit in the aisle and read it. With this type of thing, they actually have to go to a comic shop, so I think retailers ended up being really happy, and I think it was great for the industry, and that was a goal of mine: to get a whole new generation of people in the comic shops.