As frontman of My Chemical Romance, Gerard Way was the superstar frontman who inspired a billion jagged emo fringes on fans worldwide. But music was just one passion for the New Jersey native, finds James McMahon.
The story of how The Umbrella Academy made it from the page to the screen is almost as long and as convoluted as how Gerard Way made it from music to comics. Conceived at the height of My Chem-mania, when the New Jersey band’s third album The Black Parade ignited a generation, it’s only now, well in excess of ten-years-on, that the strange story of the extraordinarily talented Hargreeves family is making it to the screen. Its creator, the Dungeons & Dragons and Iron Maiden obsessed geek who fronted said band, first started making comics as an inky-obsessed teenager, before an epiphany on 9/11 and a subsequent side-line as an emo rock superstar saw him put his pens and pencils away for a time. And now, finally, The Umbrella Academy is about to open its doors to a whole new audience. Here’s the man whose brain birthed the whole thing explaining how it got here, and why his creation is so deeply personal to him.
Hello Gerard. Let’s start by talking about how you felt when you saw what they’d done with the source material…
“You know, the whole thing never stops being surreal. And weird. And exciting! Walking on the set was such a big deal for me. There are these people dedicating their lives to this idea I had over a decade ago. They really believe in it. It’s the greatest trip. It’s so unbelievably cool to me.”
Did the set look how you thought it would?
“I couldn’t think of a different way to adapt the comic visually than what they’ve done. And I think they’ve pulled far enough away from the Wes Anderson look, even though he was a huge inspiration for the first volume of the comic. I thought the show needed to be a bit darker than his stuff, and it is.”
There had been talk of an Umbrella Academy film for a long time…
“Well, basically, what happened, was after Universal’s ‘option’ on the film expired they didn’t really know what to do with it. I think it would have been the first post-modern superhero film really, and I’m not sure the world would have been ready for that. But anyway, I sat down with UCP, who were the production company that were working on it, and they asked me what my goal for Umbrella Academy was. I told them it was to make the best comic I could make so if we got a show sold there’d always be great stories and material to draw upon.”
So how did Netflix come to be involved?
“So UCP, they paired me up with Jeremy Slater, who wrote the pilot and was going to be the original showrunner, and we’d go to meetings together and I’d back him up. I’d be there to answer any questions that he couldn’t. He did a really good job at helping sell it. We only took a few meetings, because there had been a buzz about Umbrella Academy for a while. Quite a few people wanted to make it. Netflix ended up being the ones who most wanted to! Unfortunately Jeremy couldn’t be the showrunner in the end because he was locked into his contract on the Exorcist TV show, but we were really lucky to find [showrunner] Steve Blackman, and he’s been wonderful.”
So if Umbrella Academy the film had seen the light of day, it would have preceded Watchmen, which in a lot of ways was the first time people had seen a superhero unit deconstructed on screen. Do you think it benefits Umbrella Academy it arriving now rather than then?
“One hundred percent. When Universal Pictures came onboard, the first thing they said to me was, ‘What do you think The Umbrella Academy movie is?’ and I said, ‘I think it’s the first post-modern superhero movie. It’s a chance to make the first cool, arthouse comic book movie,’ and I just don’t think it was the right time. People were still making superhero movies where the first 40 minutes were a set-up of someone discovering that they had superpowers. The comic intentionally deals with that stuff in the first three pages. We have a motto on the book which is, ‘only the good stuff’, which basically means that we don’t hold the readers hand. I like that the show does that also. It treats the reader with intelligence and throws them right in the deep end.”
You’ve always has a lot of creative projects on the go at once. Was it weird revisiting a project which had existed such a long time?
“Really weird. Because I’m a totally different person to who I was when I first wrote it. The new instalments of the comic, like Hotel Oblivion, are more of a reflection of the person I am now. There’s more of the humility I’ve discovered in there. Or the wisdom I’ve acquired. But the show manages to go deeper than we could with the comics – it’s essentially a 10-hour film – and so I found that really satisfying. There’s so many new angles to the story I wrote that they’ve managed to explore.”
Comic book families – or family-like groups – are such a core part of comic fandom, whether it’s X-Men or Fantastic Four, or at the weirder end, Watchmen or Doom Patrol. When creating it, was it hard not to fall into tropes? Like, ‘here’s the oversized brute’, ‘here’s the shy teenager’, and so on?
“It’s absolutely inspired by all that stuff, but here’s the thing though: because people already know what those architypes are it allows us to really do much crazier things, whether it’s exploring psychology or the family dynamic. Whatever really. Those classic characters basically did the set up for us to take them on and explore them further, to go deeper.”
How important is music to The Umbrella Academy? Other than having a character in it who is very good on violin, obviously…
“Hugely. When I wrote the first book, I was listening obsessively to Teenage Fanclub, the Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins, and I think the influence of those records – and the feel of those records – are in the comics. With the TV show, I didn’t have a lot of input – Steve came to it with a pretty clear idea of the music he wanted to use. When he writes scripts, he includes songs as he goes, a bit like [Guardians Of The Galaxy director] James Gunn does. Moving forward though, if we get a second season, I’ve said to Steve that I’d really like to get involved more there. I’m of the mind that when you have a big captive audience, you can introduce them to more left-of-centre stuff. I’d always pick a song by a band like Wire or Gang Of Four over the sort of stuff Steve does, although I think he’s incredible at using songs you’ve heard before in really interesting ways.”
You and your brother Mikey are close, and you’ve talked before about the influence your late grandmother had on your life. Super powers and whatnot aside, Umbrella Academy is really a story about family. How much of yours is in there?
“I think there’s not just myself and my family in there, there’s my friends in there and there’s the guys from the band [My Chemical Romance] in there. Being in a band at really close quarters, as anyone whose had that experience will tell you, is like being in a dysfunctional family. The Umbrella Academy have each other’s backs, but they often don’t see eye to eye, and each member of the team has their own personality and what they bring to the family group. The chemistry of that is really interesting to me. I can see the guys from the band in each of the characters. And people I met on the road too. And there’s a lot of stuff in there about fame as well. A lot of that was my way of processing the experience My Chemical Romance had if I’m being totally honest.”
This article originally appeared in the special edition Umbrella Academy edition of NME magazine. Find out how to get a copy here.