The Umbrella Academy: Gerard Way Takes Us to the Hotel Oblivion
Gerard Way takes us to the Hotel Oblivion and beyond in our chat about the return of The Umbrella Academy and the upcoming TV series.
This article contains Umbrella Academy spoilers.
Gerard Way is a bit tired on the third day of New York Comic Con. He’d stayed up late for a Netflix cast dinner the night before (he’s in bed by 9:45 most nights) and had overslept this morning. Worst of all, he’d been forced to skip his morning meditation.
“It’s kind of throwing my whole day off,” Way tells me as we sit together in a corner of the Dark Horse booth at the Javits Center, hidden from the masses. The writer/musician is dressed in a big fatigue jacket, hair long and shaggy. He’s starting to show hints of a shiny gray. Once impeccably clean-shaven, he now sports a mustache and beard.
Gone are the days of bleached hair, marching bands, and eyeliner. The force of nature who belted out songs about wasted youth, love lost, and doom as the frontman of My Chemical Romance is dead (like the Black Parade itself). Three cheers for the next life of Gerard Way, one of the best comic book writers currently working.
In October, following his excellent work on DC’s Doom Patrol with artist Nick Derington, Way finally returned to his original comic book creation, The Umbrella Academy, after an almost ten-year hiatus. The new story arc, Hotel Oblivion, is a grand return for the series as well as for Way and the brilliant Brazilian artist Gabriel Ba, who first collaborated on the series in 2007 and won an Eisner for Best Limited Series in 2008.
The Umbrella Academy is the story of an estranged family of superheroes, years past their prime, who must navigate a nightmarish family reunion, prevent the end of the world, and deal with their traumatic pasts at the hands of their cold (and sometimes abusive) father. In the series’ first arc, Apocalypse Suite, the team must stop one of their siblings, a classically trained violinist, from bringing about the end of the world with her evil orchestra. The follow-up, Dallas, is the story of Number Five, a time-traveling assassin who’s hired to go back to 1963 and kill John F. Kennedy. It’s up to his siblings to either help him or thwart the assassination from ever taking place.
Just three issues into Hotel Oblivion, Way and Ba have laid the foundation for another epic story, this time spanning not only time but also space. At the center of this tale is the titular hotel, a purgatorial prison located in an alternate dimension meant to house the world’s worst criminals. The secrets of this hotel and the family’s connection to it are the focus of the arc, but there are also plenty of other strange shenanigans along the way.
You have to read it to believe it: 43 superpowered orphans are born around the world at the same time to women whom just seconds before hadn’t been pregnant. This is the big bang of Way and Ba’s outrageous comic book universe, an alternate version of our reality where Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and wrestlers wage war against giant space monsters in the ring. Seven of these orphans are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a rich scientist who also happens to be an undercover alien, and turned into the world’s most famous superhero team, the Umbrella Academy. Together, these extraordinary kids have stopped the Eiffel Tower from taking over the world, defeated a rampaging Lincoln Memorial, and put all manner of costumed villains behind bars.
But those were the good old days.
By the start of the story, one of the orphans is already dead. You quickly find out he was the lucky one because the remaining six siblings are seriously fucked up, thanks to their manipulative and emotionally unavailable father, who’s very good at saving the world but terrible at giving the kids what they need the most: love and support.
When the remaining members of the team — Luther aka Spaceboy, Diego aka the Kraken, Allison aka the Rumor, Klaus aka the Seance, Number Five, and Vanya aka the White Violin (but only after discovering her apocalyptic powers as an adult) — return home for Sir Reginald’s funeral, things only get more complicated. Spaceboy struggles with depression, Kraken is unable to get close to anyone, Rumor’s marriage is breaking down, Seance falls deeper into drug addiction, and Number Five…well, he’s actually doing alright…
By the end of Dallas, the team is more broken than ever before and it seems that only distance from each other can help mend these characters. Well, a decade was plenty of distance, a lot of time for Way to consider what came next for his children. By the time Way started working on Umbrella Academy again in 2014, he found that the way he thought about these characters had changed.
“I think I understand them in different ways now,” Way says. “I think I’m less hard on them. I think I’ve found more compassion in dealing with them. I’ve put them through some really hard things and sometimes I feel bad about it.”
These days, Way is interested in really digging into the trauma these characters have faced and maybe even giving them some space to heal.
“Trauma is a very intense thing and a very real thing and everybody experiences it in some way. I obviously did not have a childhood like these kids. But I did have a childhood in which I needed to escape a lot.”
Hotel Oblivion certainly feels like an escape for the Hargreeves siblings, who are spread out all over the globe (and in the afterlife because that’s how the Seance rolls). The first four issues are a sort of exhale for these characters, who are still recovering from major losses, heartbreak, and the whole JFK business.
After all the blood, explosions, betrayals, and deaths, Hotel Oblivion is meant to be cathartic, according to Way: “It’s about the past. It’s about mistakes. It’s about fathers. It’s about redemption. It’s definitely a therapeutic series.”
At the center of the story is still the concept of family. The Rumor is trying to help Vanya recover from the injuries she suffered in Apocalypse Suite while also trying to reconnect with her civilian family and working with the ultra-violent Number Five on his latest gambit.
Most surprising is the mending relationship between the Kraken and the team’s former leader, Spaceboy. While stuck in an eternal sibling rivalry in the first two arcs — Kraken challenges Spaceboy’s leadership, Spaceboy condemns Kraken’s impulsivity — these scarred heroes start to reach out to each other in Hotel Oblivion. It’s a change in the dynamic of the team that didn’t seem possible back in 2009.
“Kraken’s interesting and his relationship with Spaceboy changes in this series,” Way explains. “A lot of it had to do with the fact that I was tired of writing that type of character, that rebellious fool, that Wolverine kind who always gives the leader shit. I never saw Kraken always being that way. I thought he was gonna be that way in the beginning and then he would grow.”
Kraken, the loner who most resembles the “Batman” of the group, is actually the one trying to reunite the superhero team. Meanwhile, an overweight Spaceboy, who fled to Tokyo after the events of Dallas, is dealing with an existential crisis and no longer interested in leading his siblings.
“He’s searching,” Way says of Spaceboy. “I like the idea of a lost leader. A leader that doesn’t have the answers anymore. Who’s maybe not even a leader anymore. So I loved exploring that with Spaceboy.”
Spaceboy isn’t the only leader in need of redemption, though. Even Sir Reginald deserves a re-examination, according to Way.
“I learned more about him. I learned more about his history in working through this stuff, and I can’t reveal any of that, obviously. But I’ve learned to find even compassion for him. Like there’s a reason he is the way he is. Over the course of the series, you discover that reason of why he is this kind of ruthless person.”
For these heroes, their father remains the catalyst for their problems. Will these characters ultimately find peace (and maybe even love) where it previously eluded them? It’s too early to say, but at the very least, the search for the Hotel Oblivion gives them a new place to inevitably find and help each other.
“The story at one point was gonna be a little bit less about the people that live in the hotel, but over time I found that I really wanted to tell their stories, so there are a lot more characters in Hotel Oblivion than there were nine years ago.”
The Hotel Oblivion, with its faceless bellhops and cockroach entrees, might remind one of Captain Willard’s stay in Saigon in the opening minutes of Apocalypse Now. Willard’s hotel room is a sort of purgatory before his journey back to hell, a way station where he’s left to relive his trauma over and over until he’s lying naked on the dirty carpet, crying, bleeding, and a bit mad.
Way’s prison isn’t quite as dramatic as that, but it’s doubly as terrifying. When Sir Reginald sends the villainous Murder Magician to the hotel, we get to see firsthand the lengths to which Sir Reginald will go to “save the world,” letting the bad guys rot in a TripAdvisor hellscape without a trial.
“The concept of Hotel Oblivion deals a little bit with capital punishment,” Way explains. “I think in terms of current events and the state of our world right now, in future Umbrella Academy volumes, we’ll see a little more of that creep its way into the book. But right now I really wanted to explore capital punishment because we know what a super prison is.”
Watching the villain watch a grotesque Lynchian cartoon about mice on the hotel television with nowhere else to go for the rest of eternity, you even start to feel for him. In one panel, he looks out his window at the desert beyond the hotel, surrounded on all sides by desolation and the bony carcasses of animals. This place could break him, the villain’s face seems to say (Ba’s pencils bring depth and emotion beautifully to this book).
“You don’t really see mainstream comics exploring the ramifications of somebody having to live in Arkham Asylum and what that does to somebody psychologically. Or if the Phantom Zone is ethical punishment. So it deals a lot with that.”
Way took inspiration from his real-life travels when creating the titular hotel, which he based on the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon where he stayed while working on the original Umbrella Academy stories.
“It’s a very old hotel and it’s kinda classy, but it’s also a little bit old. From the outside, it kinda looks like the Hotel Oblivion,” Way recalls. “I would be really isolated in that room just writing. I started to become inspired by the environment that I was in.”
There was a time in Way’s life when the writing didn’t come so easy, though. Way told EW back in October that writing Umbrella Academy while on the road with My Chemical Romance became more difficult, describing the twilight of the band during that final tour as “really taxing.” The band broke up in 2013 and Way jumped straight into a solo album, Hesitant Alien, soon after, further delaying his comic book work.
Way has a steady place to work now, a studio separate from his house. That’s where the magic happens.
“I wake up really early, I hang out with my daughter, get her ready for school, I take her to school, I come back, I meditate, and then I start writing. And that takes up most of my time. I only make music on Fridays.”
Since our chat, Way has released two groovy new songs, “Baby, You’re a Haunted House” and “Getting Down the Germs,” which show the artist moving away from both his emo pop roots and Britpop revival sensibilities to a more psychedelic sound. “Germs” even has a flute solo courtesy of renowned flutist Sara Andon. A third song, “Dasher,” is a lovely Christmas ballad about a girl who falls in love with a reindeer, with backup vocals by Lydia Night of The Regrettes. Yeah, this is Way like we’ve never heard him before.
Way is also working on the upcoming Umbrella Academy Netflix series. The first season, which is set to debut on Feb. 15, will adapt both Apocalypse Suite and Dallas. That’s quite a bit of ground to cover (across at least three different time periods), but Way, who has spent a lot of time on set as an executive producer, says that the series is going deeper into certain parts of the story than the comics did.
“Since they have more time, they can get deeper into things that may only be like two pages in the comic. And that’s been really cool. They explore the characters a lot more.” Way teases that both arcs “were expanded for the TV show. There are new elements in there. They’ve kind of enhanced the experience of those two graphic novels.”
Beyond Hotel Oblivion and the Netflix show are more comics. In fact, Way is already developing the fourth arc with Ba.
“I’m putting all my notes together. So basically I know that there are eight volumes of Umbrella and I know what happens in each of them. I know what happens in the fourth. We’re basically gonna take about three months between Hotel and when we start series four.”
What can Way tease about series four? The arc will explore the biggest mystery at the center of their superhero universe, according to Way.
“We’re finally gonna get to see some more of the 43 individuals.” But he won’t say any more about that.
Don’t worry, though. The writer knows that you’ve been waiting a long time to learn more about these characters, to spend more time in their world. At the end of our chat, he opens up about how much it means to him that fans continue to ask for The Umbrella Academy.
“I just really appreciate them sticking around,” Way says. “If people didn’t care about it, I don’t know, maybe I would have moved on to something else. But they still really want to know the whole story and so it’s my duty to tell that story. I’m gonna give them what they want.”
The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion #1-5 are out now. Issue #6 is out on March 27. The Netflix series premieres on Feb. 15.