Season Two is on its way, and you know what that means!
That’s right, this entire essay will be obsolete in a few weeks. Time to make the most of it.
I had a blast writing the episodic reviews of The Umbrella Academy when the first season of the show came out, and given that it’s a show based on a comic book series, I was bound to read the books sooner or later. I think I actually ended up reading the books for the first time almost immediately after finishing the show, mostly because I wanted more umbrella-based content. It was a good investment, because as it turns out, the show is a completely off-the-wall bonkers adaptation of the original series that makes ample references to whatever it chooses to take from its source material.
In other words, it’s my favorite sort of adaptation.
Preacher is the only other show I’ve come across that takes such a loose approach to adaptation while still tethering itself closely to the books its based on. Like Preacher, The Umbrella Academy is not what I think most people would call good, strictly speaking. They both fit into a very specific niche for people who were unaware of the source material initially but love the out-of-the-blue turns the series take and come to appreciate the original books as their own glorious mess that are imperfect and in some ways improved upon by the shows, and elsewhere made incoherent, but in a guilty pleasure sort of way.
In other words, I am that niche.
But there are some important things to be gleaned from how the show adapts the Umbrella Academy books to forge its own identity. Also, I’m going to have to make my weird little vector tracings for my episodic reviews of the second season since Netflix still won’t allow people to take screenshots of their shows, and I need something to pump me up for it.
That’s… that’s forty vector drawings.
Forty of them.
Oh god, why?
Lesson #5: Sometimes You Have to Break Something to See What’s Inside
For those who didn’t check out my episodic reviews of the show (why wouldn’t you? They’re excellent), The Umbrella Academy is the story of seven children born under mysterious circumstances and adopted (or “bought”…”bought” is more accurate) by a strange man called Reginald Hagreeves. Six of the children have magical powers, so Hargreeves raises them to become superheroes, collectively called The Umbrella Academy, in order to “save the world.”
This is par for the course as far as superhero origins go, a sort of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: X-Men Edition. However, unbeknownst to me when I first watched the series, the bulk of the story does not concern the heroes as kids, but rather them years later, as washed-up child stars all struggling to put their lives together.
The Umbrella Academy, both the books and the show, is less of a kin with traditional superhero series and far more like Watchmen or The Boys in its purpose. It’s part of what I might deem the burgeoning anti-superhero genre. (Even though that genre has been around for ages, it’s starting to flourish in the wake of the MCU.) While the show still caters to many of the common superhero tropes like the group reuniting to fight a world-ending enemy and their powerless sister discovering she has more in common with her siblings than she’s been raised to believe, the narrative works because of the many times it loses interest in the primary plot and goes off to explore unrelated bunny trails. All of the characters have subplots driven by their internal needs and desires, most of which are steeped in some form of trauma or distress.
This is true of both the books and the show, but they approach their subject matter in distinct ways. That’s what makes the series interesting to look at as an adaptation.
The Big Question for Any Series: How Many Squids are Optimal?
This is the first panel of the first book.
It is somewhat remarkable in that it perfectly manages to set the tone for the series while simultaneously comprising pure nonsense. If I were a silly person, I might say that this is because the books themselves are nonsensical, but I am not a silly person, and the books do have a story and a narrative and a point. Sometimes.
The books are wild, something of a cross between Chew, Hellboy, and Kim Possible in their aesthetic and storytelling, with plenty of oddball villains and lore, an alarming amount of which involves squids and apes of various sorts. They are also, by virtue of length, more focused on the save-the-world plot, with fewer moments devoted to characterization. At the time of me writing this, there are three books, each organized into separate escapades: Apocalypse Suite, Dallas, and Hotel Oblivion.
The first introduces the characters and follows them as they reunite for the first time in nearly two decades after the death of their father. Overshadowed by premonitions of doom from Number Five, their mourning period is cut short when robots of an old enemy rise up to destroy the city. Unpowered sibling Vanya avoids the funeral but becomes intrigued by the battle and rushes over to see what’s going on, only for the others to berate her for getting in the way. She storms off and is courted by an eerie composer, who awakens a power locked within her, intending her to destroy the world for him. Vanya takes revenge on the Academy and the composer alike, going mad with power, until her siblings regroup and stop her.
Dallas occurs some time after the last book, with the Umbrella Academy members in early retirement. One of them has gotten an inflated ego from his pivotal role in saving the world, another is languishing in his loss of purpose, another is trying to rehabilitate Vanya, another is re-acclimating to regular life, and so on. Number Five’s former employers come calling, and he eventually reveals to his siblings that he used to work as a time-travelling assassin. In order to keep the same assassins he worked with from going after him and his family, he has to repay a debt. As it turns out, he stopped the Kennedy assassination in order to jump through time to return to help his family with the impending apocalypse. He makes a deal with the time agents and recruits his family to help, and after some turmoil, they succeed. This does not seem to affect the timeline much at all.
After Dallas was published, the series went on hiatus for about ten years. It wasn’t finished, but the creators moved on to other projects, and for a long while, those two books were all that existed of The Umbrella Academy. Various plans were tossed around to adapt the concept, first as a film and then as a television series, but these ideas fell by the wayside until mid-2017, when the Netflix series was announced alongside a resurrection of the books.
I’m not sure how many more are slated for completion, but creators Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá have made good on that promise and completed the third book in the franchise. Hotel Oblivion is a straight continuation of The Umbrella Academy following the end of Dallas, but you do still feel the time gap in the way that it opts to tell its story.
Vanya’s recovery is nearing its completion and she plays a more pivotal role. She expresses to her mother fear about joining her siblings because of their fraught history, not to mention that one time she nearly destroyed the earth. Her mother shows her around town and introduces her to a mysterious society called the Sparrows, while the rest of the Academy is off dealing with their own personal problems and getting into trouble. Two of the siblings blast out into space with the help of an old friend of their father’s, leading them to the titular Hotel Oblivion, an extraterrestrial prison where Hargreeves sent the Umbrella Academy’s captured villains. These villains are of interest to a character who was offhandedly introduced way back in 2008 in Dallas: Jonathan Perseus, heir to the Perseus corporation and son of one of said villains. Five is investigating Perseus, but discovers too late that he intends to open a portal to Hotel Oblivion and free the prisoners within.
Perseus finds his father dead, but the possessed mask that gave his father powers is very much alive, and makes a deal with Perseus to give him those same powers Perseus agrees, the mask wraps around his arm, and together, they release the villains to wreak havoc upon the town. Rather than join them, though, Perseus pulls a Syndrome and fights the villains himself, wanting to live out his dream of being a superhero. The mask overpowers him, and he is useless in stopping the destruction he has wrought. The Umbrella Academy, sans Vanya, reconvene after one of their number has had an ominous vision and overdosed on heroin. They discover that they are collectively far too weak and out of practice to take on all of their past villains, especially with Perseus’ mask leading the charge. Perseus himself realizes his mistake and cuts off the mask, just as several heretofore unseen superheroes join the fray. Together, they all defeat the remaining villains and restore a semblance of order. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with the new heroes revealing that they have a similar naming convention to the Umbrella Academy.
Obviously the books have quite a bit more story left to tell, and this last one sets up some new trajectories for the characters, creating intrigue about their origins and destinies, and teasing characters we don’t yet know. As a whole, the books follow conventional superhero plots and are action-heavy, but moments of characterization and foreshadowing are sown throughout. Many of these moments go back to the very first issue, such as the tragic disappearance of one of the Umbrella Academy siblings prior to their breaking up. Strange monsters and characters still abound, like the vegan cowboy who rides giant chickens, or the mutant skeletons on the Hotel Oblivion planet, but the series seems to temper itself a bit in its third book. I don’t even think I could begin to speculate on where it wants to go.
Which brings us to the Netflix series, its own little microcosm of chaos.
Filling the Gaps
Adaptations are usually designed to reach a much broader audience than the original work. It’s most of why they exist in the first place. People who watch films won’t necessarily read books, people who play video games won’t necessarily watch films, and so on. Even among people who enjoy many types of media, awareness of a series is dramatically increased when it branches into a different field. I’ve come across many books and films that I know as comics first simply because I don’t regularly peruse the genres that they would be categorized in as other media. Likewise, many major films and television series start as niche books that later reach larger audiences because of increased buzz and a larger audience to promote it.
It’s no surprise, then, that The Umbrella Academy show is generally more viewer-friendly than the books. However, many of the oddities of the source material shine through, even as the show reduces the cartoonish aesthetic to something marginally more grounded in reality. It opts to keep details like the chimp butler, and the time travel bureau, and the robot mom, and the character whose body is that of a gorilla. Occasionally, the show even has opportunity to go further than the books in presenting its absurd reality simply by spending more time with those elements. It takes two minor characters from Dallas and creates an entire assassin/donut-lady bird watching-based romance subplot that has nothing to do with anything. It also takes a throwaway gag about Five talking to a statue while stuck in the past and turns it into that character’s love interest for the entire first season. There is an ice cream truck. Also margaritas.
It was released before Hotel Oblivion was finished but after issues of it had started to be released. I’m not sure about the specific relationship the show had to the most recent book, but it has enough coincidental imagery and plot points that I would be comfortable guessing that the creators of the show at least knew the proposed trajectory of the comics, this book in particular, prior to wrapping up the first season. The show has a little bit of an advantage in that it’s technically only based on the first book.
The first book is less than two hundred pages. That is not a lot of pages to base a seven-and-a-half hour show on.
As a result, the show has to improvise its own story much of the time. Its setup and broad plot are very similar to Apocalypse Suite: a bunch of mystery babies are born, they’re raised as heroes, they become wildly popular, and years later, they’ve drifted away from each other and their lives have fallen apart. In the show, Vanya does go to her father’s funeral, as do the rest of the characters, and no killer robots are anywhere to be seen. Five returns from his foray in the future and secret life as a time assassin, bringing with him several references to the second book, and he foretells an impending apocalypse as he does in Apocalypse Suite. The show spends much more time with Five trying to figure out what causes the end of the world and how to stop it, bringing in his siblings as needed. The rest of the characters are more focused on figuring out how their father died and solving their personal problems, or exacerbating them as the case may be. The first few episodes follow a subplot hinted at in the first book that was eventually dropped, wherein the two action-based characters, Luther and Diego, debate whether their father was murdered. After the first few episodes, Vanya’s siblings lash out at her as they did in the book, and she starts to spend time with a character invented by the show, Leonard.
From here, the show splits into three main subplots related to the A-plot: Five searching for a one-eyed person who he believes started the apocalypse while being pursued by the time agents, Luther trying to figure out why their father died and whether he knew anything about the impending apocalypse, and Vanya slowly coming into her powers with the help of Leonard. All of the siblings also have subplots related to their personal arcs that come into play throughout the season, often referencing scenes from the books. The subplot about their father is dropped around the midpoint of the season, but resolved when Klaus, the character who can speak to dead people, talks to him and discovers that Hargreeves committed suicide to draw the Umbrella Academy back together. Five’s investigation is variably aided and hampered by the time agency, with which he forges a deal at one point to gain information. The time agents dog him and his family in an attempt to keep him from stopping the apocalypse, another addition of the show. His relationship to the time agency is not fully resolved by the end of the season, but he does make an important choice to stay and save his family rather than jump forward in time and avoid the apocalypse itself once again.
The ending of the show follows the plot of the first book closely, with a few important differences. Leonard is loosely based on the cartoonish composer villain from the first book, and he meets a similar fate when Vanya comes into her powers and he upsets her. However, Leonard’s character also has tones of Perseus, being somewhat childish in character and interested in Vanya because of a childhood obsession with superheroes, the Umbrella Academy in particular. Leonard is something of a secret villain, the show initially throwing the chimp butler, Pogo, out as a very poorly constructed red herring while Leonard bonds with Vanya and becomes her love interest. Even after Vanya has discovered her powers, though, it takes a while for the other characters to realize what’s going on. Her sister, Allison, is the first to find out that Vanya has powers, but while talking about how Hargreeves must have hid her powers from everyone, Vanya gets angry and accidentally attacks Allison. This leads the others to imprison her, still doubtful that she’s the one who’s supposed to cause the apocalypse, until Vanya breaks out and goes on the same rampage as her book counterpart.
The end battle has a few different critical beats, but the important one for our purposes is that unlike in the book, the Umbrella Academy characters don’t save the day. They knock Vanya out, but as in the book, she emits a psychic blast that breaks off a piece of the moon and sends it hurtling toward earth. In the book, Klaus, who is also telekinetic, stops the asteroid as a sort of character turnaround moment (the character generally doing little of import prior to this). In the show, Klaus is not telekinetic, so the characters have no way of preventing fiery balls of moon rock from raining down on earth. Instead, Five proposes that he should jump through time with everyone, including Vanya, so that they can hopefully go back and try again somehow. The season ends with them disappearing to some unknown time.
It’s a lot of plot for something based on a two-hundred page graphic novel. However, this just scratches the surface; the real meat of the show is in the characters.
The books do set a few panels aside in each issue to give development and meaningful motivations to most of the characters, and those panels are very tightly made, but even the most overanalytical conjecturist (hello) would struggle to describe the book characters in half as much depth as their television counterparts. The show focuses on establishing the characters in the first episode, sowing potential complexity in the next few episodes, then rounding off the initial arcs as the characters’ subplots converge with the action-oriented A-plot (to variable degrees of cohesion). The aesthetic is generally more realistic, if brightly-colored, but its main quality that makes it Netflix-friendly is its characters. They’re all highly likable, even the ones who don’t seem so at first, making them easy to put into fanfiction or fanart. Many of them fit conventional archetypes (the kind strongman, the goofy gay junkie, the Winter Soldier, Ellen Page), but the show goes to great lengths to make them feel unique by building upon their specific histories and interrelationships.
If you ever saw those yarns people would post about the Avengers going about their everyday lives in Avengers Tower, even though the films rarely had any similarly mundane sequences, that’s what a lot of The Umbrella Academy show is like. Even with the impending end of the world, the characters still take time out of their day to make breakfast and go bowling. That, I think, is a large part of the appeal of the series. It certainly is for me.
It might be a bit excessive, but I love these characters and I think it would be useful to break down how they are adapted into a new medium. The interpretations of the characters are where the bulk of divergences from the source material come into play, as alterations to character arcs are interconnected to the differences in plot. Not all of the characters are improved in adaptation, and given the recent drive for more character focus in the books, it will be interesting to note how the different iterations of these characters develop in their respective media.
I realize this discussion is already long, but I’m just getting started.
I want to start exploring the characters, not necessarily in order of appearance or importance, or even number, though coincidentally, this one happens to be something of all three. Each of the seven protagonists has a number assigned to them by their father, a name given to them by their mother, and a sort of superhero nickname. I’ll be referring to them mostly by their actual names, because the others are silly.
Number One, or Luther, or Spaceboy, however you like it, is, by my account, the least interesting character of the bunch. He has depth — they all do — but both iterations of the story frontload the elements of Luther that make him compelling, and haven’t done much with him since. He’s the strongman, Captain America, Superman. In both versions of the story, Luther led the group as a child and had a rivalry with his second-in-command, but is rather clearly the better option for head hero. Luther is clever but not manipulative; he’s cautious but brave, considerate, and disciplined, which is rather important when you look at the circus that makes up the rest of the Umbrella Academy. He’s the sort of character who would be a protagonist in most superhero films, most genre films in general, really. The books introduce him that way, and he is one of the major point-of-view characters initially. However, in an ensemble full of much more flawed characters who are usually more dramatic, a character like Luther is going to fall by the wayside.
Luther has his demons, but the series rarely challenges him with them. He’s still a boy scout; often, his narrative arc concerns what other people have done to him, which can make him highly sympathetic, but I’m not entirely the show or the book quite know how to explore this in Luther.
In the book, the transition between the past and the present day is marked, starkly, by a board of newspaper clippings. In it, they show the Umbrella Academy all grown up, announce the death of one of their number, and describe an accident that almost killed Luther. The absurdity of the book comes back around to give Luther a gorilla body to keep him alive, but it’s a bit Doctor Frankenstein. Luther remarks on it later in the story, explaining to Allison that he can’t live a normal human life because of how his father has built him, emotionally, mentally, and now physically, to be a superhero and nothing else. Luther simply doesn’t know how to be human. At the start of the story, he’s the only one of the adult heroes who still does work for his father; the others have all quit the Umbrella Academy to go live their own lives — those of them that have survived, at least.
Through most of the books, Luther’s goal is to get together with Allison. This is mostly made weird by the fact that they are siblings, which, yes, would make it incest. The show keeps this as Luther’s driving motivation, and neither it nor the book series have ever acknowledged it as anything other than wholesome love. See, they used to be fond of each other when they were younger, but they grew apart and Allison went off to marry some other man and have a child. Now back and estranged from her child, she and Luther reconnect, but Allison is too preoccupied with her own storyline to develop their relationship, and Luther is entirely unsure how to go about it. On some level, he suspects he could never really be with Allison, and he keeps making up excuses for why he isn’t comfortable spending time with her. In the first book, it’s because he’s part gorilla, in the second book it’s because he’s fat, and in the third book, it’s because he gets distracted and goes off on a space adventure. The book seriesdoes not treat Luther gaining weight with any respect, and it opts for that tedious trope where the conventionally fat or ugly character is suddenly “beautified” with magic, because them looking the way they do is somehow a hindrance to the plot. I am not a fan of it.
The show hasn’t done that. Yet.
In the show, Luther is much less obviously the main character, and really isn’t that important at any time, though the show expands upon his arc a bit and gives him two related plot points that have little to do with Allison. One of the bit differences between the show and the books is that Luther is the only one of the main characters who still trusts and respects their father. In the books, Diego raises the idea that their father may have been murdered, a plot point which seemingly goes no where, but in the show, Luther raises the idea, and the story draws upon this as a way to demonstrate his relationship to the other characters. None of the other characters cares enough about their father to be concerned even if he was murdered, and they resent Luther for both trying to reunite the old team, and for implying that one of them might be responsible. It’s a simple but effective way to demonstrate that Luther is stuck in the past and naively serves their father without acknowledging how cruel he really was. Luther may have been the group leader when they were kids, but he was really just a speaker for their father to act through, and as they grew older and abandoned the Academy, Luther lost all of his authority.
That Luther has reason to resent his father, but doesn’t, allows the show to build up to a point where he, too, recognizes that Hargreeves was abusive, and stops idolizing him. Another major change to the story in the show is that none of the other characters knows that Luther has a gorilla body (they make it easier to hide in the show). A few episodes in, his shirt is torn off in a fight, and his siblings find out. I find it extremely funny that the show opts to play out this event in the most melodramatic way possible, but it adds to Luther’s shame toward himself, which he later (rightly) determines is not his fault. The gorilla thing is played as a sympathetic move on Hargreeves’ part, which clashes rather starkly with the damage he’s levied over his children, but later, when Luther gets embroiled in the save-the-world subplot, he discovers a more honest betrayal of his father’s that seems to be related to the gorilla body. Thinking Hargreeves must have sent him up to live on the moon for three years because he knew the end times were coming, Luther tries to find his correspondence with his father and any notes his father took on them. What he discovers is that his father never opened the correspondence, that Luther’s moon missions were inconsequential, and that his father apparently just wanted him to be as far away as humanly possible. And at that point, Luther breaks.
The books do technically have this same subplot, but it’s all implied in those news clippings and the parallels between the various characters. Showing it in full in the television series provides a means for Luther to act in opposition to his siblings, which I like, and it creates a bit of a jumping-off point for the next season where Luther must rethink his identity as his father’s golden child and leader of the group.
However, by carving its own path, the show presents itself many opportunities to fall flat on its face, and it does just that with Luther. Repeatedly. There’s one notable scene after Luther has a mental breakdown and abandons superherodom to go to a rave, getting high as a kite and taking home a woman there who is into furries. He loses his virginity to her, which becomes a major embarrassment because he feels like he’s cheated on Allison and was saving himself for her, or something. Yeah, so… someone getting wasted at a party and coerced into sex they do not want to have by another person who seems to be far less intoxicated than they are, we have a word for that. Luther is visibly upset when he sobers up the next morning, and neither the show nor the characters treat him with any sympathy. Klaus acts over-excited that he’s lost his virginity, and Allison is angry at him when she finds out, making it into a big joke that Luther has to make up for. It’s pretty bad. And from that point on, Luther’s arc just becomes about him trying to apologize to Allison for letting himself be assaulted.
I don’t really have much faith in the show making up for this or the incest thing, and I’m a bit worried going forward where it intends Luther to end up. The books are in a similar place; Luther doesn’t really have a satisfying arc to his character. The only thing that would seem to make him happy is being with Allison, but that doesn’t actually resolve his main burden — being uncomfortable with himself — because Allison doesn’t actually care what he looks like. She doesn’t really seem to care that much about Luther at all, which is kind of sad for him, but that’s because her main arc concerns her daughter, not Luther. As you’ll see in a minute, Allison’s narrative is pushing her to go off on her own and “find herself,” to have a connection with Luther and her daughter, but not obsess over either of them because what she needs most is space to acknowledge her own flaws. In that regard, her ideal arc distinctly involves her not getting together with Luther, because that would feed into her inability to move past her damage associated with being a superhero. So one of them is going to end up with the short stick, and if they end up together, that person is both of them.
Speak of the devil. Number Three, Allison, or Rumor (who has the laziest of the nicknames, given her power requires her to say, “I heard a rumor…” before use) is one of the more nuanced characters that the series struggles with. In her depiction, the show and the books are just about even: the show gives her a job and a relationship with Vanya right off the bat, the books give her a recovery relationship with Vanya and a dicier relationship with her ex-husband.
Allison is the only one of these characters with a family outside of the main group. (Well, at least as far as we’re concerned — Klaus has a kid for a few pages in Book Two who is never spoken of again.) She has a young daughter and an ex-husband, both living well away from her. The reason given differs slightly between the show and the books, but essentially she used her powers on them and her husband took custody of their daughter out of fear.
And reasonably so; Allison’s ability is that she can force people to do whatever she wants, which is usually a villain power in superhero stories. At the very least, it tends to come with a lot of baggage because it gives a character direct control over other people and removes their free will. It necessitates a victim. We see this in both the show and books almost immediately; Allison tends to abuse her power to get what she wants, either for altruistic hero reasons, or because she’s human and humans tend to want. When we first see her as an adult, Allison resents her power. In the books, she the only one who does; Luther resents being an ape, but he still has super strength and uses it all of the time without problem. Allison, meanwhile, has quit using her power altogether, or at least tries, because of how easily it tempts her.
In some capacity, she thinks this will allow her to live a more mundane life. In the show, her visiting her daughter is dependent upon her not using her powers or even outwardly exhibiting superhero traits, and she tends to lean away from her former life as much as possible. She’s a movie star who acts just like any other movie star. The books don’t explore her life outside of the Academy as much, but there is a lovely sequence in the third book that shows her making dollhouses as a hobby, giving them to her ex-husband who doesn’t want anything to do with her, but who shows enough pity to take the dollhouse at least. Apparently, Allison has been doing this for years, painstakingly crafting detailed dollhouses and dropping them off for her daughter to play with, despite her ex’s protests that Claire (their daughter) doesn’t even like dolls.
In different ways, the books and the show get at a similar idea: that Allison’s damage is not her powers, but how they’ve shaped her sense of reality. If you grow up getting anything you want, you’ll have a really hard time figuring out what it is you actually need. Allison has difficulty relating to her family, especially Vanya, because she doesn’t have a very deep understanding of people. She’s never had to work especially hard for her relationships, because unlike most people who have to build up a rapport and mutual camaraderie before demanding something, Allison could always get anything from anyone. This is further complicated in the books by Allison’s powers allowing things to happen that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, like making insects or murder statues appear out of thin air. In the sequence where Allison gives her ex the dollhouse, dialogue is voiced over that seems to be her and her ex when they were younger and on more amiable terms. Allison says, “I heard a rumor that you love me,” and the context is ambiguous enough that it calls into question how much her husband actually consented to their relationship. Maybe it’s just flirty fun that she takes a bit too far, but it’s perfectly possible that the foundation of this, and most of Allison’s other relationships, is almost nonexistent.
Toward the end of the first book and the first season of the show, Vanya attacks Allison and cuts out her vocal cords, meaning Allison can no longer use her power. This, and the consequences of it, largely shape the differences between the original and the adaptation. In the original, Allison’s relationship with Vanya only really develops after Vanya is defeated. Allison is initially angry at her sister for hurting her and becoming a villain. By the third book, she’s helping Vanya recover in earnest, but they rarely interact after the first issue.
In the show, Vanya and Allison have a well-developed relationship before and after Vanya discovers her powers. They both have a lot in common, mainly their antipathy toward the Umbrella Academy and their desire for normalcy. However, Allison has a superpower and excluded Vanya just like the others when they were kids, so Vanya is mistrustful of her. Likewise, Allison overestimates her ability to read Vanya, and very often says the wrong thing at the wrong time without meaning to. As a result, they both tend to gravitate toward one another for comfort, but their encounters usually end on a sour note, escalating to the point that a newly superpowered Vanya, enraged by something Allison has said, lashes out and accidentally slits her throat. In the books, this happens during the end battle. Because the show has a few episodes after, it has time to explore the consequences of this incident.
Vanya initially thinks that she’s killed Allison, which is what leads to her mental breakdown in the show. Sort of — she does still go off the rails to a cartoonish degree, but we’ll get to that. The others discover Allison, who has lost her power because of the injury, but survived. Allison explains to them via notebook (another element borrowed from the books) that Vanya has powers, which makes them wary of Vanya. When Vanya comes to the house, partly to explain what’s happened and partly to turn herself in, Luther captures her and places her in a soundproof cell while they figure out what to do with her. When her siblings disallow her to see Allison and make sure she’s all right, Vanya flips and breaks out of her prison, kickstarting the end battle.
During the end battle, all of the main characters try to attack Vanya, but only Allison can stop her. Allison has a gun and is about to shoot Vanya in the head, but aims to her side and deafens her instead, distracting her long enough that she can be knocked out and her powers stopped. In the books, this sequence is very strange; Diego is the one in Allison’s role because he and Vanya were once an item (yay, more incest), and he discovers at the last minute that he can’t will himself to hurt her, so Five just up and murders her instead. And then she gets better. I think I prefer the show’s way of doing things.
It is also worth noting that in the books, Allison gains back her powers because of some time travel shenanigans. It’s a bit unfortunate because I don’t generally like the idea that disabled characters need to be “fixed,” and it actively opposes Allison’s character arc (we’ve seen her trying to live without using her power, so what’s it like when she physically can’t?). The show hasn’t done this, but it also hasn’t really had time to, so, as with Luther’s subplot, we’ll see where it goes with Allison’s. Somewhere nice, hopefully.
The Littlest Shit
Yeeeeesssssss, now things get fun!
So I’ve gone on record saying that Five is the worst character in the show. And I stand by that for the most part. Five is the genius child elevated to Most Important Character mainly because he’s the only one who actually wears the Umbrella Academy outfit. He’s sort of the mascot of the series, to the point that stumbling upon a scene with this character is what convinced me to watch the show, only to later regret my immediate fascination with him.
Well, good news, I’m here to tell you that the book character is fucking amazing, no caveats, just really delightful in how completely bonkers he is. Well, maybe some caveats; he is extremely violent. He’s basically just Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes, except that he’s also a time-travelling assassin who has entirely lost his mind and gotten trapped as a perpetual ten-year-old. Five is just called that; he doesn’t have any other names because he accidentally got stuck in the post-apocalypse when he was ten and nobody bothered to give him a name before or after. He’s the one who delivers the bad news about the impending apocalypse to the other characters, having returned after living out his full life there and getting recruited into a time agency. He keeps this last part to himself initially, but runs into his former employers in the first book as a teaser for the second.
Despite the story drawing attention to him initially (he’s constantly missing, and the last of the Umbrella Academy children to be introduced), Five plays a minimal role in the first book. His largest contribution is his attempt to murder Vanya, which all of the other characters respond to with shock and disgust. The comics are far from bereft of gore, but I should note that Five, as an assassin with very few scruples and fewer marbles, tends to end up among piles of mangled corpses quite a bit more often than his siblings. It’s what he do. And, it distances him from the other characters emotionally. The flashback sequences to the Umbrella Academy’s heyday rarely, if ever, feature Five; he’s mentioned in the introduction as “off travelling through time,” rather than helping on the mission at hand, and it’s implied that at some point, he travelled too far forward and found he couldn’t go back. The show explores his time in the wasteland far more extensively, but it comes into play in the books during Five’s post-post-apocalyptic life.
Five has difficulty adjusting to ordinary life — a lot of difficulty, it seems. The second book presents him as confused in both time and age, childish because he looks like one, but also because he never really grew up. He was a child, then he was the only human on earth for fifty years, then he was an assassin, and now he’s a child again. Now he physically cannot grow up, and there’s nothing in particular stopping him from acting out his every whim and stray thought. He’s very much the sort of character who is highly skilled and capable, between his genius, his ability to time-travel, his age, and his training, but who has reached such a point of apathy in life, that he’s just as content with getting ice cream as he is with saving the world. Five occasionally has moments where he genuinely cares about something, like when the time agency sends their cruelest assassins after him, but for the most part, his levels of not-giving-a-shit are off the fucking charts. As a result, he finds joy mostly in dicking people around, his siblings in particular. They all deeply resent him for it, and it is marvelous.
There are two second-cousin characters in the series; Klaus is the obvious one, but Five is the other. I’ve defined this term before, but a second-cousin character is a particular archetype of side character who often acts as comic relief but has some depth and an arc, usually tragic in origins — and they are easy to fuck up. Case in point, the books get Five right but Klaus wrong, and the show does the opposite. While the show vastly improves upon its delivery of Klaus (at least by my standards), Five is much more of a mixed bag.
The show presents five in the flashback sequences, but establishes much more clearly that he’s been missing for years, treating him with the same solemn reverence as Ben. He even gets an absurdly large portrait for the living room (which I notice always has a fire burning under it for some reason). Vanya remarks to Pogo that she and Five were close as kids, and that she misses him a lot, so when he falls through a time portal partway through the first episode, he goes to Vanya first. He confesses to her that his life in the post-apocalyptic wastes was traumatic, and that the world will end in eight days, so he intends to stop it.
While a decent start, after the first few episodes, Five interacts with his family far more rarely. He has a wonderful little scene pretending to be Klaus’ son so they can break into a prosthetic manufacturing office, and has to be carried back home by Luther and Diego after drinking himself silly in a library. And, who could forget Teleporting Margarita Boi? Scenes like these are very promising, and I imagine future seasons will draw more upon Five for occasional moments of comedy to balance him out.
However, that is not what we get for most of the series. The show takes Five much more seriously than the books do, justifying his verbose rants and violence as necessary because he’s always the smartest person in the room and the only one who ever knows what’s going on. While the show eventually establishes that this is more of how Five sees himself than how he actually is, he’s not a particularly pleasant character to hang around most of the time, especially when he’s on his own. Which is unfortunate, because he’s on his own for most of the first season. Five’s plot becomes intertwined with the main plot, and also his own largely uninteresting side plot related to the time agency and their attempts to stop him from saving the world. Because the main plot is far less compelling than the individual stories of each of the main characters, it’s easy to lose the more compelling elements of Five’s arc in the chaos. He’s constantly negotiating, scheming, or flaking out on his siblings so he can go negotiate or scheme. At one point he gets a desk job. It’s riveting, and definitely not there to pad out the runtime.
By the end of the season, Five’s involvement in the plot becomes moot, as all of his leads have dried up and he doesn’t actually figure out how the world ends until it starts to happen. Five is framed as the primary protagonist, Vanya an unwitting antagonist, but in the last few episodes, that begins to shift as more of the characters fill significant roles in the story and reach the culmination points of their character arcs. This, I would argue, is where Five’s character comes into his own, as the show makes him more flawed and often just as clueless as the other characters. He’s still condescending and overconfident, but with the other characters around to roll their eyes at him, Five becomes more of an inconvenient supporting character played for comedy, like he is in the books. This is a good place for him to stay, moving forward.
I do hope that the show continues to expand upon Five’s personal growth, because this is an area that is underdeveloped in both iterations of the story. The show has a highly compelling take on it when it does appear. In the second episode, we see the scene where Five gets trapped, and my initial impressions of it were pretty lukewarm, but it has a lot going on under the surface. It’s the sort of scene that should have hit later in the season for full effect, because it establishes the character’s full motivation in less than a minute. Five is the smartest of the children by far and thinks himself the most mature. In the show, his main ability is teleportation, but he can also time-travel, a skill he’s used before in small doses, but which his father forbids him from practicing until he’s older. Five brings this up in conversation at dinner one day, complaining that he’s ready and that there’s no reason for him not to try time-travelling again. His father says, “No,” and Five storms off, belligerently ignoring the order and time-travelling anyway. You can imagine what happens.
The scene is played to the song Run, Boy, Run, because he’s a boy. And he’s running. And that’s the title of the episode, too. It’s so on-the-nose and melodramatic when he jumps a few times to the next day or week, and then, BAM! apocalypse, that the weight of the scene doesn’t fully sink in until you’ve seen it a few times and the novel absurdity of the delivery wears off a bit. It’s abrupt in the way that a car crash is abrupt; so in contrast to what was happening before that it floods the mind and very suddenly becomes one’s reality, and the transition seems much more gradual than it actually was.
We, uh… well, it’s a bit weird to think about right now. I started this review months ago and really didn’t think Five’s backstory would become quite so relatable, but there you go. One day you’re walking forward, and you end up somewhere that reminds you there’s no way back.
Five is ten years old when this happens, and he is all alone in it. The second episode ends with him discovering the corpses of his sibling, all of them apparently having perished in a battle just before the worlds ends. I love this, because it seems so silly at first glance, but it just compounds the shock. First he realizes that the world has been destroyed. Then he realizes his house has been destroyed. Then he finds the bodies of people he has never seen before in the rubble around his house, at which point one might imagine that he’s starting to suspect who they are. Then he sees the umbrella tattoo, and that confirms it. His family grew up without him, maybe thinking that he ran away for good or died or something, and then they tried to stop the end of the world, needing him, and he wasn’t there. And now they’re gone, maybe forever.
Yeah, that’s the sort of thing that might make someone obsess for decades over how to jump backwards in time and focus their efforts entirely on stopping Armageddon, wouldn’t it? Five becomes far more compelling when you realize that all of his actions are done to keep his family from dying. There’s a bit of selfishness to it, of course; Five is not really interested in spending more time with his family or even seeing them again — he seems indifferent when he finally does pop back to the right time period, and spends the vast majority of their last few days on earth arguing with, talking down to, or ignoring them. Five doesn’t know these people, and although he has a vested interest in them not dying, he doesn’t seem especially interested in reforging his relationship with them either. He’s stuck in the past, trying to prevent something that has already happened — not just them dying, but his childhood self having to see them dead.
That’s why his arc culminates in him choosing to go and die with them the second time around, even when the leader of the time agency offers him the chance to skip through the apocalypse again. That’s the point where he realizes that he does in fact want to be with his siblings, because as much as they don’t get along, he loves them. And it is adorable.
Number Seven, or Vanya, or, in the books, The White Violin, is one of the few characters whose development is occasionally reduced in the show compared to the books, at least when compared to all of the books. Part of this is due to her role as the antagonist in the first season. As the plot of the first season roughly follows the trajectory of the first book, Vanya spends much of it purposefully sidelined, learning about her powers from a third party catalyst, which means that her conclusion at the end of the first season is dissatisfying, as it is at the end of the first book.
Vanya is the most immediately interesting of the group in both versions, positioned in the book alongside Luther and Five as a point-of-view character. All of her siblings are superheroes and celebrities; Vanya is not. She’s told by her father that she doesn’t have powers and therefore isn’t special enough to be a part of the Academy. As an adult, Vanya lives a reclusive life as a violinist, writing a tell-all memoir, but otherwise rarely interacting with her family. When she does try to reconnect, many of them, especially Diego, chastise her for “getting in the way.”
Over the course of the first book and the first season of the show, Vanya meets a mysterious man who cultivates her powers for nefarious purposes, and whom she eventually kills. She then goes on to destroy her house, kill the family butler, and nearly start an apocalypse. The Umbrella Academy siblings stop her in both versions of the story, but she survives and they decide to rehabilitate her. As we don’t yet have a second season of the show, Vanya’s role for future seasons is currently unclear; in the books, she sticks around, recovering from a bullet to the head, grappling with her former crimes, but forging a stronger relationship with her mother and Allison. At this point in the books, Vanya has regained her ability to walk and her mother has led her to the base of a somewhat ominous superhero group.
There are a few notable alterations to Vanya’s character, aside from the predictable character design (the show includes a suit that Vanya turns white when she becomes the villain called The White Violin, but it’s far more practical and realistic than the body paint/dye/morph suit that she wears in the comics).
The catalyst character who clues Vanya in to her abilities and ultimately turns her into the White Violin is made more significant in the show. The character in the books is a Phantom of the Opera knockoff who comes from seemingly out of nowhere like many of the books’ villains, and is never mentioned again after he dies. This figure is changed from a world-ending cartoon to a sometimes sympathetic but otherwise creepy love interest. This character, Leonard, has a far more nuanced backstory, as a former fan of the Umbrella Academy toys and comics who grew up in an abusive household and was sent to prison for murder at a young age. Leonard’s drive is to wreak vengeance upon the Umbrella Academy, who slighted him when he tried to join them as a child. Leonard goes after Vanya after discovering from Hargreeves’ journal that she actually does have powers, but far from wanting to destroy the world, he seems more interested in owning Vanya as his own special action figure he can live through vicariously.
Vanya has a defined character largely based around her rough upbringing. In both versions, she’s passive and demure, awkward to have around and more comfortable secluding herself from the rest of the world. She has a complicated relationship with her father, to say the least, and he’s a sore subject whenever brought up. She has pent-up resentment for her family, but it comes out rarely, prompting her explosive shift to villainy once she realizes she does have powers and learns how to use them.
One of the major differences in her personality in adaptation is that Vanya interacts with her siblings fairly frequently in the show, attending her father’s funeral, and returning to try to reinsert herself into the family even after Diego continually berates her for her failures. The other characters often show sympathy toward Vanya, to the point of trying (poorly) to help her when she realizes she has powers and starts to accidentally hurt people. Where in the book Vanya attacks the Academy unprovoked, in the show, it follows her siblings locking her in a vault while they try to figure out what to do with her. Both versions imply that Vanya has some sort of mental or emotional turmoil fueling her rampage, resulting from a lifetime of exclusion and neglect, which isn’t great for the resolution in either story really. However, it is noteworthy that the show builds more realistically (if not much more gracefully) to Vanya’s turn of character. It’s only really in the last episode that Vanya becomes a cartoon villain herself, where the book character spends all of her time post-transformation in this state. Vanya continues beyond her stint as a villain, though, both series potentially allowing her to be redeemed.
On the whole, the show paints a more sympathetic Vanya and spends more time establishing her relationships with her siblings. Much of her plotline is shared with Leonard’s, though, and that certainly eats up time the show might otherwise spend giving Vanya more depth. As the character starts out with a compelling setup in either series, I’m not sure how much more depth the show could have offered, but if it continues in the direction of the books and shows Vanya in recovery, coping with what she’s done and how her relationships with her siblings have changed, I think the show will be in good shape. The books deliver the same sorts of character beats in a shorter span of time, making much of Vanya’s turn feel rushed, but if it develops as it moves into a few more books, I have high hopes for her there as well.
The Resident Edgelord
In the books, this character’s nickname is “The Kraken,” which is probably the single most ridiculous thing in the series. He has nothing to do with squids, and his brother literally has tentacles, but I guess he can swim or something, so sure, let’s call this one “The Kraken.”
Coincidentally, the second most ridiculous thing in the series is this character’s superpower, which is that he can throw knives.
That’s it. That’s his magic power. Knives. Not making them — he does not seem to be able to do that. Just throwing them.
This should be my least liked character, and in books, he kind of is. Number Two, or Diego, or The Kraken, is what happens when you let someone watch The Dark Knight and Daredevil, and nothing else for twelve years. He’s mostly just an ass, convinced that he’s the coolest and most capable member of his family, and therefore he should be Number One. This is most of his motivation, especially in the books. Diego constantly gets into fights, he’s surly and unpleasant, and more than a little sexist, just an ass, really. He’s the sort of person I imagine many sad teenage boys want to grow up to be, a knock-off Batman whose favorite movie is probably Die Hard. He probably has a lot of feelings about the whole franchise, and will tell you them unsolicited.
His fucking outfit, I mean… skull, straps, all black. It’s, it’s too much. I can’t.
Book Boi does get a few compelling moments where he acknowledges that he registers emotions other than angst, but these are very few and far between. Thankfully, he is not in much of the series, or at least it feels that way. He begrudgingly rescues some children from an amusement park and, in the third book, has to genuinely admit that he loves Luther, under the threat of death.
And that is it. Those are the two moments that are all of Diego’s character complexity.
I kid, but not by much; I don’t even think he so much as says anything in the big fight in Book Three. Diego has a little bit of a significant role in how he interacts with Vanya in the first book. They were a couple, which is still really weird to me, and Diego is the one who has a chance to stop her from destroying the world. The trope of a man killing his wife or girlfriend to stop her doing something destructive is not a great one. On top of perpetuating villainous views of women in power — that they’ll “go crazy” and “can’t handle it,” often with an implication that it is their womanhood underlying their actions — being hurt by one’s romantic partner hits way too close to home for many women. Women are far more likely to be abused or killed by the men they know, romantic partners especially, often with some sort of justification that paints the victims as antagonistic. “You didn’t know what you were doing,” “It was a mercy,” “I’m doing this for your own good,” “You wanted it,” etc. Normalization of that sort of language has very real consequences for domestic abuse crimes, leading victims to endure more and potential allies of theirs to side with their abuser instead.
I can throw The Umbrella Academy a bit of a bone in that it doesn’t go through with it, technically. Diego can’t bring himself to hurt Vanya even when he gets a knife to her throat. As a result, she attacks the rest of the family, until Klaus steps in, pretending to be their father, and hits a nerve. Vanya is brought low by his mimicry, and Diego tells her to ignore it, that their father was a bastard man who made them fight for his approval, and that he loves her.
And then Five shoots her in the head. She gets better, but still.
So there is some potential for the book character. It wouldn’t be difficult for the series to draw upon him the way the show does with Five, making him a self-isolating brooder who really just wants hugs and isn’t willing to admit it yet.
Speaking of which!
The show’s version of Diego very much starts out in the same way as the book version, with the exception that no one seems to take him seriously, and it’s Luther who suggests foul play in their father’s death instead of him. Diego also steals Hargreeves’ monocle, which does not lead anywhere. (Not that the book’s murder suspicion subplot led anywhere either, mind.)
There are a few early indications about Diego’s character in the first episode. The girls making fun of how he never takes off his ninja suit and presumably does not wash it is exactly what I would have wanted the series to do, had I read the books first. There’s also a cute little scene where one of the characters puts on some music and all of the siblings dance to it, with Diego shutting himself in the living room so no one will see him. He’s not a good dancer, but he gets very into it, and it is delightful. Klaus also asks Diego for a ride to the waffle house at what I assume is about 11pm, and Diego says “no,” but drives him anyway.
So Diego is what we in the scientific world would call a soft boi, and he is easily the most adorable of all of the protagonists because of it. You just wanna hug ‘im, especially because it would ruin his tough guy appearance and embarrass him. And he has character development! Wow!
The show almost goes to absurd lengths to paint Diego as sympathetic, between him having a stutter as a child, being a complete momma’s boy, and trying to look tough even though he’s severely afraid of needles (you really would think the character whose one power involves sharp things would have a handle on that, but people come in all sorts I suppose). He carries around a rabbit’s foot, and I like to think it’s not because he thinks it’s lucky or anything, but because he likes bunnies and it’s soft and reminds him of bunnies.
I want fan art of Diego hugging a bunny. I need that, badly.
Diego loses two important people in his life over the span of the first season — one of them he loses twice, so three people, maybe? First, his robot mother starts to malfunction, which he denies at first because the others suspect her of accidentally poisoning their father and want to shut her down. When Diego sees for himself that it is a problem and that she probably did kill their father, he shuts her down instead. It’s a very sad, dramatic moment, undermined only slightly by the fact that the characters are talking the entire time about an on/off switch, not actually destroying or disassembling her. It is very weird and silly, and I am here for it all the way. They talk about their mother from this point on like she’s died. She has not.
The second death is more of a permanent sort. I should mention that Diego does act like an ass for most of the first few episodes of the series. He’s a vigilante superhero, and he used to be a cop until he was kicked off the force, so he butts heads with them pretty frequently. He had a fling with a detective named Patch some years back, and he holds it over her head every time he gets arrested for interfering with police business. He’s very obnoxious in their interactions. If it’s any consolation, she does get to zap him with a taser. He tells Patch that she should loosen up and let him in on her work because he can help, and she tells him, no, they have to do things by the book to get convictions. In Episode Four, Diego shows up on her doorstep, unbidden and sad. He goes on to explain that his mother died, and Patch takes pity on him, talking things out like adults in what is a surprisingly delicate scene for the context. Diego explains that his brother is missing (unbeknownst to him, he actually has two brothers missing), As Patch starts to realize that her own investigation coincides with Diego’s missing brother, she opts to follow a sketchy lead, taking up Diego’s offer to help out of sympathy for him. She finds one of his brothers, Klaus, kidnapped by time assassins, while Diego is rescuing the other from a bender at the library. Diego isn’t there for backup, and Patch rescues Klaus, but dies in the process.
It’s unfortunate that they don’t develop her character much more, but Diego’s reaction is genuine and he becomes less of an asshole from this point on. He mourns Patch (the rabbit’s foot belonged to her originally, which might invalidate my soft bunny hypothesis somewhat), and prioritizes finding and revenge killing her murderer. He doesn’t actually want revenge, but it takes him a while to realize that. Instead, he wants sympathy, which he gets in the form of Klaus, who has also recently lost someone. They bond over their sorrows in an emotional way that you don’t see between men very often, which gives them each much-needed support, both within the family and in their general lives. Diego’s mother is turned back on, to his astonishment, and he spends time with her trying to work out his anger toward his abusive father.
And then, she gets squished.
I… I don’t know what to say. She comes back to life, because she wasn’t dead, and then she gets squished. Diego is very upset about it. Same.
Diego’s culmination comes right at the end of the series. In the episode before, after the Teleporting Margarita Boi scene, Five sarcastically comments on Diego’s revenge endeavor, saying that Patch would love it: Diego, endangering himself and everyone else, to murder a random asshole and probably get arrested for it, all in memory of his police detective friend who disliked him acting like a criminal. Diego does get into a fight at the end of the story with said murderer, but opts to spare her, an homage to the book character’s fight with Vanya, and a good growth moment for our soft boi. Murder is bad. Good lesson.
Diego wins Most Improved, both in the book and the show, at least if you’re considering characters who start at a low point. I have absolutely no idea where the series intends to go with him, but I will follow it there nonetheless.
Ben is dead.
Probably. For the most part. In the books, Number Six, or Ben, or The Horror, appears for about eight panels, mostly in commemorative statue form. He doesn’t appear at all outside of flashbacks for the first two books, and I think he speaks a total of about once. That is really not a lot to go on, but we can gather some information from it.
Ben’s death is built up as a significant event in the history of the team that seems to be pivotal to their break-up, but which is obfuscated in both the books and the show. All we get from the show is Vanya telling Five, “It was bad,” and in the books, characters mention that no one really knows what happened. When we finally see him in the modern day, Ben is missing his tentacles.
Oh, by the way, Ben has tentacles. That’s his superpower. Tentacles. In his belly.
He’s also a mummy. In the modern day, after he maybe-dies. Not in the flashbacks, because that would be absurd.
Ben doesn’t seem to do much in the flashbacks. He’s almost always helping Klaus with something, and in fact, about half of the eight panels he shows up in, he shares with Klaus, implying they were close. (I swear, books, if you pull the incest card out again…) Klaus is in fact the only one to talk to Ben in the series, Ben rescuing him from an overdose and giving an ominous warning about things to come.
And that is it, that is pretty much everything we get out of Ben in the books. The characters are clearly sad about him the few times they ever mention or reference him, so I would assume his death had an impact on them, but it seems to be something that the books are playing close to the vest for now. I can’t imagine how frustrating that would have been when they went on hiatus.
Cue the show, which actually has Ben in it.
Part of the reason that Klaus is the only one to interact with Ben postmortem in the books is likely because his superpower is talking to dead people, but it’s not entirely clear whether Ben is in fact dead in the books. In the show, he’s super dead. Has been for years. And now, he haunts Klaus, which is a simple but brilliant way to bring the character into the story, and I’m frankly baffled that the books did not do that first.
Ben is besties with Klaus in the show, more by proxy than anything else. In the show, Klaus tends to conjure dead people subconsciously, and Ben is always the first to show up, possibly because he never fully goes away. That means Ben gets to accompany Klaus everywhere: when he is stealing things, when he is digging through dumpsters, when he is kidnapped, when he is high, when he is in the bath. When Klaus gets sent off to rehab, guess who’s going, too! Ben hanging around Klaus seems to be something that happens regardless of whether either of them want it.
Which neither of them do, Ben especially. Klaus is afraid of ghosts, which is another wonderful change the show makes to add narrative space in the series. Because of this, and quite possibly Klaus’ guilt over whatever role he played in Ben’s death, leads him to find ways to ignore Ben as much as possible. Ben, meanwhile, has gone stir crazy being stuck with this nincompoop for the last ten years or so, unable to interact with anyone else, and has designated himself Klaus’ personal life coach. Neither of them has any clue what they’re doing.
In all honesty, I kind of like Ben’s subplot in the show more as a concept than as it actually appears. I have a soft spot for stories where characters have conversations with people only they can see or hear, be it ghosts or hallucinations or telepathy, especially when played for humor. The show gives a clever introduction for Ben that tickles me. The first episode shows him in a flashback and as a statue to build up his absence, as in the books, and establishes that Klaus’ powers are unreliable at best, before revealing at the end that, actually, Klaus can conjure dead people and does so regularly with Ben. It complicates Klaus’ character, which is necessarily tied to Ben’s character, and it sets Ben up to be an active presence in the story.
However, for this same reason, Ben only ever interacts with Klaus, and because the show doesn’t really have much else to go on with Ben’s character, Ben does not have a lot of insightful things to say. It’s amusing to see him get frustrated at Klaus for justifiable reasons, or offer commentary that Klaus shushes in front of other people, but beyond this, the show doesn’t explore Ben as a character much at all. It’s not entirely clear whether any of the other family members even knows that Klaus speaks to Ben, so there are never any points where Klaus is acting as the intermediary (the inter-medium-ary, if you will) between Ben and another character.
I say never… There is a strange subplot at the end of the series where, in an attempt to make Ben relevant somehow, the show gives Klaus another power: he can manifest Ben as a physical person, so he can interact with stuff. With his tentacles. I would argue this is completely unnecessary and not used to good effect, but it does give us a scene where Klaus chucks a bowling ball at Ben to prove that he’s there, so I would have to eat my words in that case.
I think allowing Ben to interact with the other characters will be an interesting setup for jokes and maybe some deeper things as well, but I’m kind of more interested in how the story intends to characterize him. He doesn’t seem to have much of a personality outside of his interactions with Klaus, so I’m curious to see if the show gives him his own motivation and what direction they end up pointing him in. Given that he’s already dead, I would imagine his ultimate end point would be him staying that way, but who knows? I also can’t deny that I’m genuinely curious about the book’s setup and the tragic event that led to his death in the first place. I normally don’t hold out too much hope for big backstories that seem pretty straightforward (my instinct is that someone, probably Klaus, fucked up, and Ben got shot or squished, and everything progressed from there as you would expect), but I do like the setup here. It’s mysterious. Who doesn’t love a good tragic mystery?
Okay, last one.
Surprise! Except nobody’s surprised.
So if you’ve read any of my episodic reviews on this series — or even just glanced at them, really — you can probably guess that Klaus is the best of the best bois, as far as I’m concerned. In the show. Not the books. Dear god, not the books.
I kid, sort of, but the book character is… a lot.
Number Four, or Klaus, or Séance, is the only one aside from The White Violin who has a good nickname. It even appears in the show on a poster in one scene, so I guess that’s canon? It’s more than can be said for most of the characters’ nicknames, certainly.
Klaus is probably the most different character between the two iterations of the story, certainly among characters who are actually present in the story. His ability in the books is actually a whole grab-bag of powers, including levitation, conjuring ghosts, telepathy, telekinesis, possession, time-travel at one point, talking through the television, and also, he’s immortal? But, he can only use his powers when he’s not wearing shoes. Except for talking through the television, he can do that with shoes on. Or that might be him communicating through dreams, I’m really not sure what’s supposed to be happening in that scene, power-wise.
If you’re thinking at this point, “Oh dear, that is a lot of completely unrelated powers given to one character when most of these guys only have one.” And, yes, that is correct. We have some characters whose powers are just having tentacles and throwing knives, and yet over here is Gandalf Baggins able to stop asteroids with his bare hands. Surely the character’s personality is woven carefully around his many abilities to temper his affect on the plot, right?
No. It is not. Klaus gets attention disproportionate to his contribution to the story. In the first book, he does jack fucking shit and rolls in to save the day, not once, but twice in the big finale — first when he stops Vanya’s rampage by pretending to conjure their father, and again when he stops with telekinesis the asteroid Vanya has called forth.
And then, in the second book, he is the worst. Everyone in the world loves Klaus because he saved the day, and the fame goes to his head, so he acts like he’s better than everyone else. When assassins kidnap him to use against Five, they end up killing him, he talks to Cowboy God for a bit, and then he rescues himself, even though Luther is already there. He’s just that good, this Klaus. For reasons that I am still foggy on, when Five and Allison head back in time as part of a deal with the time agency, Klaus also sends himself and his brothers back in time to Vietnam, where they live for three years. Klaus learns Vietnamese, and has a kid, then they all teleport to Dallas, where none of them do anything of import.
The third book sets a better pace, relegating Klaus to a side role in proper and focusing on his personal damage — mainly his lack of closure with his father and his drug addiction. In this one, Klaus is mostly on his own, working for a biker gang to sell himself and his powers in exchange for drugs. He seems to be having trouble with his abilities, as they go haywire at one point and wipe out everything in a hundred-foot radius around him. There is also something about a white buffalo. I have no idea what’s it has to do with anything. Klaus O.D.s and the bikers dump him in the garbage (relatable); Ben rescues him, takes him to a hospital, and warns him the worst is yet to come. As he’s still recovering during the epic finale, Klaus is of fairly little help in the actual fight, but tries to support his siblings where possible. I actually quite like the direction the third book takes with him and I hope this continues in future installments.
So, hey, did you know that this series was written and created by the lead singer of My Chemical Romance? I was surprised to find that this is most of what people know about the series going in. Having watched the show and read the books before learning this factoid, and having no familiarity with My Chemical Romance outside of listening to a few of their songs, the knowledge that it was written by Gerard Way somehow explained exactly nothing, and everything, about this weird, weird series. No reason I’m bringing that up now. None at all.
So, to be completely clear, I do not know what was going through the head of this man when he wrote The Umbrella Academy. But, from what I understand, his aesthetic for a very long time was “early 2000s punk-rocker,” and he considers himself what I think most people would call genderqueer (a point that will be somewhat relevant later). He has also been in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
I don’t think that Klaus is meant to be a one-to-one self-insert character for Way in this series, but I would not be surprised if Klaus’ subplots draw a bit more from Way’s personal experiences or interests than most of the other characters’ do. I definitely get the sense that Klaus is a favorite of the creators in both the books and the show, given far more attention compared with similarly less critical characters. His design is one of the more detailed, including little features like the iconic Hello/Goodbye tattoos on his hands, the little waypoint marker on his costume, his sunglasses, his umbrella, his painted nails, and his rehab bracelet — most of which are recreated in some way or another in the show, on top of more tattoos and dog tags. Characters like this that accumulate plot and backstory and abilities are difficult to maneuver in ensemble pieces. As a result, Klaus very much feels like a character who got ballooned into the role of protagonist in a story where he is distinctly not that.
This is true in both the books and the show.
The show character exemplifies more of what I would consider to be the potential of the book character to be, which is to say, an unreliable and chaotic character who comes in handy at critical moments and has a lot of baggage. Classic second-cousin character. What impresses me most about the show after reading the books is how much the show draws from its source material and fills out all of the space left implied within the book. Klaus’ entire character is based on this idea, so you can look at him to get a distilled sense of the show’s principles of adaptation.
The show character is made far less competent than the book version, most of his powers taken again and replaced with something that is undeniably useful, but highly limited. The show introduces Klaus as a character first in one of my favorite introductory shots, with him leaving rehab. We learn from this that Klaus is fae, laid back, and has a serious drug problem that he does not take seriously. The show often goes a bit overboard in trying to make a point of its aesthetic, and it does so with Klaus quite often, especially around his drug habit, but it serves to contrast later points in the story where things get real and that goofy levity from before becomes disorienting, even ominous. I mean, it’s still not not silly, so you can’t go into the show expecting Klaus’ subplot to be miles ahead of all of the others. It is very much at the same altitude, but the show explores his character a little bit more fully than the others’.
We learn about his powers when Luther asks him to conjure their father in an effort to figure out what killed him. This comes as a complete surprise to a novel audience, as nothing about the character even remotely speaks of any association with death, aside from perhaps flirting with it on occasion. As it turns out, Klaus is not very good at conjuring the dead; he tries for what seems to be hours, and in reality is probably minutes, to bring his father’s ghost into the fold, by yelling at, and then knocking over, his discorporated ashes. It is tremendously funny, and immediately endears you to the character if you have not been endeared to him already.
When Ben is introduced and we realize that Klaus can in fact use his power and does so constantly, we start to see some of the character’s ghosts, rather literally as it were.
Ben is one of several narrative components introduced by the show but hinted at in the books. Klaus can speak to dead people, Ben is dead, Klaus and Ben seem to be close (with Klaus even sitting on his statue during the funeral); presumably at some point, Klaus has spoken to Ben. And that moment happened in an issue of the comics released shortly after the television series aired.
Also hinted at early in the comics but not extensively explored until the third book is Klaus’ drug addiction. In the show, it is unclear what in particular he is addicted to, but his addiction forms a large part of his character. Klaus cannot see ghosts (with the possible exception of Ben) while he is high, so that’s his motivation for drugs. It’s a bit simplistic when you put it that way. But it’s sweet that the show has Klaus go sober so he can use his power to conjure a dead person he loves, and I do wonder if the series will keep him that way in the next season. I kind of hope it does; it would be nice to see a happy recovery story for once, maybe one that acknowledges sobriety as an ongoing thing but doesn’t rely on relapse as fuel for drama. I can dream, can’t I?
I digress. Tied to Klaus’ addiction is his fear of ghosts and general reluctance to use his power, which also factors heavily into the plot and is, I think, a little bit more nuanced than the way the series handles drug use and addiction. All of the main characters lived in a restrictive, often negligent household, only surviving by the care of Grace (their mother) and Pogo; their father was distant and harsh, often borderline to outright abusive, and the way he raised them to be superheroes messed them up for life. Vanya easily got the shortest stick, being deemed by her father to be too powerful to even know she had one. She was excluded from her family intentionally, raised to have extremely low self-esteem and little connection to her siblings, or anyone else for that matter. Klaus had it better, but not by much; on at least one occasion, and likely more, his father locked him in a mausoleum as a child with no light and nothing but ghosts for company. This was apparently to “cure him of his fear of the dead.” Suffice to say, it did not work, because of course it didn’t; Klaus carries this fear through adulthood, and it drives the drug addiction that takes up the vast majority of his life.
In fact, Klaus seems to have very little going on in terms of life goals of any sort. He is constantly in rehab, so often that the people working the front desk of the facility he goes to expect him back pretty much immediately, and they are not wrong; initially, Klaus seems to have no interest in getting sober, and seems to end up in rehab by court order more than personal interest. By his own admission, all of his romantic relationships have lasted only a few weeks at most, and his priorities mainly seem to be self-expression and getting high. Mostly the latter.
There is one aspect to Klaus’ identity that stands out through the entire first season and has nothing to do with ghosts or abuse or drug addiction, and that is that he is gay.
I really like adaptations that bend characters to make them more diverse, but while this is a straightforward thing to do on paper, many series seem to be intimidated by the idea, sometimes to the point of running in the exact wrong direction. The Umbrella Academy makes reasonable efforts in this area, taking its majority white comic lineup and casting a black woman as Allison, a Latino man as Diego, and an Asian man as Ben. However, while I like the effort to diversity the cast, the character roles really do not change very much to make the racial and ethnic identities of the actors, and by proxy the characters they represent, prominent within the story. Their races are basically not addressed at all, which can sometimes be a boon in normalizing diverse casts, but it can come across as limiting as well. The roles are not specifically written for nonwhite actors, instead assuming an affluent European-American-influenced lifestyle as a neutral standard, which it isn’t. I do think that The Umbrella Academy takes steps in the right direction, but it could do better.
Klaus is a little bit of a different matter though, as while the role could hypothetically be taken up by a queer or straight actor, the character is written to be unambiguously queer. I’m not going to dive into why the show might focus more on queer diversity as a writing point than racial diversity right now, but I do think that they get it right. In both versions of the story, Klaus dresses eccentrically, paints his nails, and has a bit of a fem affect. In the books, there is no indication that he is anything other than a fem straight man, as any of his romantic or sexual encounters, scant and dubious though they may be, are with women. The only whiff of a hint that he might be queer in any way comes from a half-complete line in the second book, where Luther is surprised that Klaus has a kid. It’s the sort of line Disney would put in one of their movies to imply that a character is gay and get credit for being diverse without putting in any legwork. Ergo, the books are going to have to do a bit more if they do eventually claim that Klaus is supposed to be gay.
The show is much more straightforward. Klaus presents as very effeminate, wearing makeup and his sister’s skirt in the first episode, and generally opting for bright colors and somewhat flamboyant outfits from then on. When talking to Five about his past relationships, he indicates that his longest relationship was with a man. Halfway through the story, he gets sent back in time to Vietnam during the Vietnam War and is traumatized from losing a friend, who we later find out was a fellow soldier and his new longest-running romantic partner. In a flashback, there is kissing (yay!). All of this builds in a natural way that emphasizes Klaus’ desire for human contact and expression of his identity as a major part of who he is when he is not concerned about ghosts or drugs. Notably, we see absolutely nothing of his ghost powers or drug use during the Vietnam sequences, though they do come back later in the story. The show still pulls the Kill Your Gays trope with Klaus’ boyfriend, Dave, but I mean, I willing to forgive it given the circumstances and that gays in this show need not be dead permanently.
It is also worth noting that he does not seem to be out to his family. He is not coy about it in either the way he acts or talks, but he only ever seems to bring it up when the conversation gravitates toward his love life. His siblings comment on his skirt a few times, but Five teleports away before Klaus can drop the pronoun of his three-week partner, and when he starts to talk to Diego about bringing someone he loves back, Diego assumes he’s talking about a woman. The latter conversation actually involves a bit of a coming out scene when Klaus corrects him, Diego accepting it immediately and asking no further questions but being happy for him. It’s really fucking cute.
Klaus being queer is a nice touch, but perhaps more importantly for the narrative, it completes his character. It gives him a purpose that draws along his subplot and makes the character much more interesting than he would be were this aspect of the character missing. Characters need reason to engage with the plot, even if that reason is small and not especially relatable to the audience. If you give a character something to care about in a way that feels genuine, the audience will be able to latch onto the character’s emotional response. Even if they don’t empathize with the character themself, there’s empathy worked into their actions. This is what’s largely missing from the book version of Klaus; he doesn’t seem to want much of anything. When the third book paints him as wanting a connection to his family, the story basically flips a switch and he becomes immediately more likable, especially as the things he wants don’t come to him automatically.
I am fairly nervous about where the show intends to take Klaus moving forward. By the end of the first season, he has about six different subplots, and ends up all over the place, physically and emotionally. He gets kidnapped, drafted into the Vietnam War, hijacks an ice cream truck with Diego, at one point he dies (yep, they kept that part from the books), and yet, his contribution to the end finale is blue glowing hands and letting Ben do all the work. And by work, I mean Ben takes out a couple of grunts who have no real business being in the end finale to begin with. It’s clear that the showrunners love Klaus as a character (and I mean, same), but I’m concerned that they won’t be able to give him much to do in later seasons because they effectively completed most of his arcs in the first season. There’s not a lot set up for him to do later, aside from go back to finding Dave and maybe contributing a bit more in battles.
Klaus does not belong in battles, though; he works well right now because he’s a goofy side character who gets some deeper moments. While it’s rewarding on the few occasions when he manages to help out and stop being a useless sack of dirty laundry, the more involved he becomes in the main plot, the more the show will have to alter his existing personality traits and skills to make his contributions plausible. This is a dark mirror of the problems the book character has; he is made too powerful and bloated for his existing role in the story, so the story has to bend around him to justify his presence. I would be very sad if that happened in the show.
One Good Reference Deserves Another
Oh boy, those are a lot of words. I think I’ve given a far more extensive run-down of the minute differences between the books and the show than anyone in their right mind would want to read. And I’m going to wrap-up, I swear, but I did want to finish with a brief look at why adaptations are important and how The Umbrella Academy shows it.
New works are essential, and people decry the endless wash of reboots and remakes and adaptations with good reason: they’re not new. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of books are published annually, and while plenty of these are mediocre works people put out as practice in their writing careers or to see if they might make any money, a lot of them are genuinely unique, original, personal works. And a lot of those get lost in the crowd, especially when the lion’s share of attention and profits in creative industries go to large franchises. I don’t think this is ever likely to change in any dramatic way, to be honest, but the problem of monopolization in entertainment is getting worse, and it’s likely to continue to do so until we reach some sort of critical mass.
If this is the world we live in, then we have to be cognizant of our options and make choices where we can. I think that a lot of franchise material — the MCU comes to mind — doesn’t even try to challenge its audience. It’s passably acceptable, entertaining in the moment, and mostly forgettable, and it distinctly resists analysis outside of projecting what villain the next film in the franchise will have. We’re reaching a point, if we haven’t already passed it, where media is being made by rote solely to keep people watching. Netflix seems to be one of the prime pushers of this phenomenon with its perpetual outpouring of CONTENT, and I generally resent it for it. So what’s my justification for watching The Umbrella Academy?
I… don’t really have one. I like it. I’m human, I’m subject to the same tricks as anyone else. But, if you’re going to watch anything Netflix disgorges, you owe it to yourself to find something that just eat away at your life. You want something nutritious, tasty, or at the very least, interesting. And, crucially, you want something that’s more than just a replica of what already exists. Some adaptations are replicas. This one isn’t.
Finding comfort where you can is important, now especially, but knowing yourself and learning about yourself can help you find more of that. It’s why we learn in the first place; not just to survive, but to thrive. We need it. We need stimulation that goes beyond the same old thing day after day. We need art, and challenge, and humor, genuine humor that makes you feel something. If you can get that from your nostalgic favorites or trashy reality shows or TikTok or Marvel films, go for it. I am no one to judge what makes you happy.
But I also know that sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes you’re not going to get anything out of watching The Lion King for the hundredth time, and nor are you going to get anything out of jumping right into an avant-garde 1930s French film that requires an entire college class of context to understand. The mind often acts like a muscle; it needs to be worked, but at a pace that’s comfortable for it, so it isn’t strained. That pace, and the drive to maintain it, is different for everyone. I find that a lot of pop media can flex the brain in a way, especially when it buries something deeper below the surface. A lot of series have this. How deep it goes is partly up to how far you dig. Sometimes you’ll strike gold if you dig deep enough, and sometimes you’ll just find something silly and inconsequential along the way. Who’s to say one is less worthwhile?
I think you can learn a lot from The Umbrella Academy. I love it, sure, and I think that’s part of how you learn from it. I dismiss Disney classics sometimes, but I won’t deny that you can learn from those too. Any classic PIXAR film is a masterclass in storytelling, animation history, and making appealing art. And that’s great. But I often feel like in the new things these companies put out for consumption, the lessons you learn are simpler, or just the same you get from older works. It’s taking the same class over again with a different teacher, again, and again, and again.
Broken things are more interesting. Their flaws make them teachable, unique, maybe a bit tragic if we want to get sentimental. The Umbrella Academy has a lot of problems with it, some minor, some major, some critical, and some inconsequential. It would be more appealing if either the books or the show were a bit more polished and a bit more consistent. But they’re not, and we can learn from that. I think this particular series is worth looking at if you ever want to write superhero stories of your own, because when it shines, it shines brightly, and when it falters, it sinks.
Here’s what it tells me:
- Give characters flaws
- Plot is only as important as you make it out to be
- We’re in this together
- Love each other
- It’s going to be okay