If you discovered the Umbrella Academy comic book series through the Netflix screen adaptation, and only picked up the source material afterwards, you might have found yourself confused or disappointed. The Netflix series is only a loose adaptation of the graphic novel by Dark Horse, and the truth is, the comic is very different.
A recent spin-off focusing on fan-favorite Klaus premiered this year, and it’s clear the Netflix show helped writer Gerard Way sharpen his vision. You Look Like Death is a prequel that occurs about a decade before the events of Apocalypse Suite (from which the Netflix series draws its inspiration), and after reading the first two issues, I have to say, it looks promising.
My impression of the original graphic novel was that the story was choppy, poorly paced, and often confusing. The characters weren’t very well-defined and the story seemed to move between action sequences without much glue to hold it together. I did get the impression that the writers and illustrators had spoken, at length, about the plot… but that plot was lost in translation, as the comic seemed desperate to highlight the coolest action sequences without investing much in back story.
You Look Like Death builds wonderfully on both the original graphic novel and the TV series. The story arc and pacing has a much cleaner, well-defined quality. The issues are short, but what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality. The linework is less “sketchy,” the colors brighter, the backgrounds more detailed. One of my biggest complaints of the original graphic novels was that all the characters look alike; in You Look Like Death, the characters manage to have actual faces that one can readily tell apart, complete with expressions and noses (something that was occasionally conspicuously missing in Apocalypse Suite). And it’s not just their faces that are more distinguishable; the personalities of the characters are, too. Perhaps it’s because we are focusing on a cast of one instead of a cast of seven (well, six, since poor Ben is dead throughout the series).
In Issue One, Klaus is kicked out of the Umbrella Academy due to his drug use and general delinquency. Sent out into the wide world, he engages in a series of zany gimmicks to try to make his way, including such hijinks as putting himself up for adoption. He steals a massive stash of drugs and experiences a high like no other, unaware that he just ripped off an incredibly powerful chimpanzee vampire drug lord, The Shivers. Moving to Hollywood, he happily discovers a wider world of mind-altering substances than he ever could have imagined. The issue ends with Klaus dancing at a Hollywood party, having recently made the acquaintance of a wealthy but washed-up actress, Vivian.
In Issue Two, Klaus basks in the attention of the Hollywood elite, summoning long-dead sensations to dance the lindy-hop at parties and impress various creative types with “his” talents. Unbeknownst to him, Shivers the vampire chimp is hot on his trail, and is moving in to take his revenge. Meanwhile, Vivian, Klaus’s patron, introduces him to heroin and begins making demands for Klaus to summon various ghosts for her. We’re treated to some flashbacks of Klaus’s childhood and Reginald’s A+ parenting, and the issue ends with Klaus possibly making a big mistake with his powers. (No spoilers; you’ll have to read the issue if you want to know what happens!)
Although I was never a fan of the original Umbrella Academy graphic novels, You Look Like Death: Tales from the Umbrella Academy is a fun series. The attention to detail, color, and design is far superior to Apocalypse Suite, and perhaps because of the influence of the screen series, the characters seem better written and well-rounded. There’s more humor (Klaus, of course, has always been the comic relief) mixed with intense angst-filled darkness (Reginald scraping up Klaus’s dead cat is nothing short of hair-raising). For the price, I would definitely recommend You Look Like Death. It’s an improvement upon the original comic series and, for those who prefer the Netflix series, a faithful expansion on a beloved character, with explorations of both his lighter clown-like side as well as his disturbing, traumatic past.
You Look Like Death doesn’t take itself too seriously, one other complaint I have about the original Umbrella Academy comics. The dark themes are present but they are only lighted upon, which, in my opinion, gives them a little more impact. Apocalypse Suite and subsequent issues of the central series read, at times, like a soap opera, with the comedic backdrops feeling out of place and poorly timed. You Look Like Death makes comedy the main focus, with Klaus’s trauma always lurking just out of reach, giving it a rightfully ominous feel that doesn’t bludgeon the reader over the head. Given the short length of the issues, and the limitations of the medium, sometimes, less is more, and suggesting meaning is better than showing it outright. The fact that Gerard Way was able to accomplish this in You Look Like Death demonstrates a degree of maturity in his writing, and I’m hopeful that it might carry over to the fourth volume of Umbrella Academy, currently in production.