Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá
The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (2008)

To cut to the chase I really enjoyed this, which I mention so as to save readers the effort of skipping down in search of the point at which I'm not slagging something off. However, a huge rant came to me just as I finished reading, inspired by but only indirectly relating to The Umbrella Academy - actually no more than an expansion upon themes found in my usual rant - and I really need to get it out of my system so here we go. We will return to The Umbrella Academy following the next couple of paragraphs.

There's a dominant aesthetic which has emerged from western culture at the end of the twentieth century which I'll refer to as Titterism for the sake of convenience, and Titterism because its lowest forms suggest a person tittering as they photoshop, for example, a robot riding a penny-farthing whilst somehow imagining themselves to be a font of creative wit. I could be wrong but I suspect it all started when the Cure, having recorded the excellent Seventeen Seconds and Faith, turned to shit, although this may simply be when I first began to notice. I suppose it might be dated to the time Robert Smith spent playing guitar for Siouxsie & the Banshees then presumably came back with the wrong end of their aesthetic stick to record shite like The Love Cats and The Caterpillar. Titterism seems to have been born through a recontextualisation of Lewis Carroll, and in the wake of Robert Smith's pioneering work found expression in the art of Vaughan Oliver who famously set Victorian typefaces across blurred photographs of someone's grandma using a mangle. This led thematically to Dave McKean using rusty screws purchased from an antique shop to fix dead leaves to the cover of Sandman comics, and arguably to the stories contained in those comics and written by Neil Gaiman; and then to everything else whipped up from some tastefully blurred aspect of Victoriana or its associated images of childhood - Harry Potter, Doctor Who, steampunk, Peaky fucking Blinders, Tim Burton, you name it...

Gadzooks, chaps - why methinks 'tis one of those computing engines so fashioned as to resemble a gentleman and - oh my - he's riding a jolly old boneshaker! By the Lord Harry, what a to-do! What will they think of next?*

The appeal of Titterism - as I will continue to call it until it feels right - is not difficult to appreciate. We respond for the same reason we still respond to Dada and Surrealism, art movements to which much Titterist work appears to aspire. It looks interesting because it seems incongruous in the age of computer-driven mass communication. It looks incongruous because it looks conspicuously hand crafted and hints at values with which we are no longer fully connected; so contrast is the key element - hence what you get when you google steampunk Dalek. It's a space age robotic alien from the future, and yet it's powered by - tee hee - cogs and flywheels, so let the titters commence. No creative ability is required, just the capacity for standing an object next to its thematic opposite. This is probably why this whole thing has come about now, scored to the rise of information technology which allows those without clearly quantified artistic vision to endlessly quote, cut, paste, and rearrange what has gone before. Dada and Surrealism did the same but in sharp contrast to still strongly defined aesthetics of craft and beauty which modernism had only just begun to address, so the act of collage was itself a statement even before we consider any philosophical dimensions invoked by Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst, André Breton and others. The collage served subversion rather than tittering novelty the appeal of which is that it looks funny innit! Like everything, the subversion has been stripped of content and commodified as Titterism. It's old and weird and it reminds us of that which had content beyond the basic aesthetic, which saves us the trouble of thinking about it for longer than it takes to read this sentence.

So that is why I dislike Titterism. For every individual who understands exactly what they're doing and is able to offer art of some intrinsic value beyond mere collectibility, there are a million other cunts busily dangling Bulldog Drummond from a dirigible and expecting to get paid for it. This is partially why I browsed The Umbrella Academy in the book store two or three times before actually buying it. It looked potentially intriguing, but it looked like Titterism, a bit Tim Burton in places. I've tried with My Chemical Romance but I never really understood that emotional children music - as it's called - and The Black Parade still sounds like a noisier, more whiny Bay City Rollers to my ears; so the appeal of a Titterist comic book written by their singer did not seem obvious; but, I'd still have bought the first issue of the new Doom Patrol comic a couple of weeks back had it been written by Ben fucking Elton, never mind Gerard Way; and it was good, so of course I just had to read this.

The Umbrella Academy is a group of seven, slightly bizarre super-powered children, and whilst it skates close to the edge, occasionally threatening to slide over into a full blown Titterfest of monocles, penny-farthing bicycles, and Christmas puddings with sixpences in the middle - it has enough momentum and weird invention to get away with it, and ultimately to succeed with flying colours. On the surface of it, it's almost a homage to Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol - and if you enjoyed that you'll almost certainly enjoy this - but maintains its own distinctive voice through, oddly enough, a seemingly more pronounced European aesthetic, or enough so as to imply that Way has sat through more than his fair share of bewildering black and white films with English subtitles. So it manages to feel significantly less mainstream than Morrison's Doom Patrol, thanks in part to Gabriel Bá's wonderful artwork falling somewhere between Tintin and Ted McKeever.

Aside from some muted wibbling noises about shitty parenting, it admittedly doesn't actually do a whole lot beyond looking amazing, but that doesn't have to be a problem, and it does more than just titter. If you really need it, The Umbrella Academy's surrealist short-circuiting of expectation might quite easily be taken as an end in itself. It throws interesting shapes, and is at heart deeply fucking stupid, but then all the best comic books usually are.

*: I could churn out this shit all day if anyone's interested: five cents a word but all reasonable offers will be considered.

No comments:

Post a Comment