A while back, I read The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba'. Not a fan of Way's music, I was prepared to dislike it, but I instead found that it was very good. It was a funny, sad, and thoroughly weird superhero comic, owing as much to Edward Gorey as it did to X-Men. If that had been the end of it, I would have been completely satisfied. Most of the celebrities who dabble in comic-books never return anyway, as it was only ever a diversion from their usual routine. By contrast, Way actually has stories to tell, and an investment in the characters he's created with Ba'. Things are far from over, but the question was whether the sequels would maintain the established quality or fall into weirdness-for-weirdness' sake.
The Umbrella Academy concerns a family of adopted brothers and sisters, born with strange powers and trained to use them by a distant, unforgiving father. Their childhood was bizarre and unhappy, and consequently they grew into bizarre, unhappy adults. Once estranged from each other, the family was forced into an awkward reunion after the death of their father and the apocalyptic threat posed by their sister Vanya. The world was saved, but the family is as dysfunctional as ever.
If that sounds depressing, there are also talking chimpanzees, kill-crazy robots, weaponized classical music, and an undead Gustave Eiffel to liven things up.
The second volume, called Dallas, focuses on a new menace. One of the brothers ("Number Five") has been traveling in time, and has returned trapped in the body of a ten-year-old. His sister, Allison, suspects that he knows more than he's telling and is on his trail. He's also being pursued by an army of ruthless assassins, the worst of whom being two sugar-crazed psychopaths called Hazel and Cha-Cha. These killers are employed to correct anomalies in throughout history, and Number Five was roped into working for them during his travels. After being ordered to assassinate President Kennedy in 1963, he rebelled and has been evading capture ever since.
Allison, still suffering after an injury robbed her of her powers, is abducted with Number Five and forced into a time-traveling conspiracy. Their brothers, after narrowly defeating Hazel and Cha-Cha, attempt to follow them, and are briefly waylaid in 1963 Viet-Nam (which was, apparently, infested with vampires). The comic culminates at Dealy Plaza. I don't think it's much a spoiler to say that President Kennedy is killed, but the true culprit and their motives will come as a surprise. A crisis is halted, but the family winds up as fractured as ever, and the siblings go their separate ways to heal.
If that synopsis is any indication, Dallas is far more elaborate than it's predecessor. The time-travel plot was unexpected, but brings the comic's fascination with the stainless-steel sixties into the forefront. This time, rather than just emulate the visual aesthetics of that era, the comic uses the fabled fall of "Camelot" as an effective metaphor for the disillusionment of growing up. When they were kid superheroes, things were hardly idyllic, but there was a certainty to things...and their battles always ended with ice-cream. Now their live are unpredictable and their talents are barely sufficient in dealing with the various terrors that come their way. Everything is sour, and everyone's depressed, especially Luthor ("Spaceboy"), whose milk and cookie diet and TV addiction has left him fat and lethargic. Formerly the leader, it was interesting to see his descent into ineptitude, and his struggle to return to fighting form.
Absurdity and darkness are similarly amplified, and they mix together in peculiar ways. With their funny-animal masks and fixation with deserts, Hazel and Cha-Cha could be escapees from a hyperactive Nickelodeon cartoon if it wasn't for their vicious murders. Superhero comics are rife with motor-mouthed psychopaths, but their violence succeeds in being brutal and unsettling. Even when their shadowy boss is revealed to be a sentient gold-fish, they are no less sinister, and it speaks to Way's talent that such incongruous tones are so well balanced.
The only thing out of place is a puzzling reverence for JFK. The President is scarcely seen, but he has a heavy presence. Here, JFK is a broad symbol for decency and heroism, a depiction that speaks more to his place in American folklore than his true persona. It's one of the few things in The Umbrella Academy that doesn't feel like a personal expression from Way and Ba'. Instead, it seems like shorthand pathos; a pantomimed cultural reference without any emotional connection to either creator.
Fortunately, that doesn't distract much from the main proceedings. Dallas is fun, gripping, clever, and downbeat. More importantly, with this second volume, The Umbrella Academy has crystallized into something more distinct. It feels like its own beast, and its influences are less immediate. I certainly hope that the third volume has a something like a happy ending for this family of freaks, but then doomsday is always on the horizon in this series. We'll see what happens.
R.E.M., "World Leader Pretend"