One of the best things about the first season of Netflix’s adaptation of The Umbrella Academy was the way it developed Klaus. In the comics, he wasn’t depicted as much more than a troubled drug addict who could talk with the dead. But the show dove deep into his past, expanding upon the trauma he undergoes by exposing himself to these unrestful spirits, and giving him a heartbreaking love story and an unhealthy amount of Vietnam PTSD. The show turned a character who was merely quirky in the comics into a character that was multi-layered and deeply complex. So, in the wake of this, the announcement of a Klaus-centric prequel comic was exciting. What kind of a past would the character’s creator, Gerard Way, (and co-writer Shaun Simon) give him? How much would it differ from the show? What happened to eighteen-year-old Klaus after he was expelled from the Umbrella Academy? As it turns out, these aren’t really the questions at the front of the comic’s mind. While it does explore some of Klaus’s trauma and psyche, You Look Like Death is more of a fun romp with a fan-favorite character than an intimate character study. But honestly, it’s so much fun that that’s not much of a problem. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
NOTE: I was provided an advance copy of this book from Edelweiss and Dark Horse Comics. This review may contain mild spoilers, but will mostly be spoiler free.
“Tales From the Umbrella Academy: You Look Like Death”
Written by Gerard Way and Shaun Simon
Art and Colors by I.N.J. Culbard
When 18-year-old Klaus gets himself kicked out of the Umbrella Academy and his allowance discontinued, he heads to a place where his ghoulish talents will be appreciated—Hollywood. But after a magical high on a stash stolen from a vampire drug lord, Klaus needs help, and doesn’t have his siblings there to save him.
This is a fun story. That’s the emotion that jumps out the most while reading this comic. Fun. If you’ve read The Umbrella Academy and always wondered what life outside of whatever city it’s typically set in is like, then look no further than You Look Like Death. This comic takes readers outside of the confines of The Umbrella Academy and into this universe’s version of Hollywood—a town crawling with actors, demons, gods, vampires, and monkeys who are sometimes vampires. It’s an eclectic town, much like the real-life Hollywood. And it’s a place that feels quite inviting to Klaus. The general plot of the story involves Klaus making his way to Hollywood after being kicked out of the Umbrella Academy and angering a local drug lord (who’s also a vampire monkey). There, he is taken in by Vivian, an aging actress who promises Klaus all manners of escapes from reality in exchange for his ability to channel long-dead actors and actresses.
For an Umbrella Academy story, it’s surprisingly straightforward. With the main series’ first three arcs, Way established a pattern where he’d introduce a bunch of complicated, seemingly unconnected ideas, expand on them for several issues, and then have them crash together in the final issue or two of the arc. And that’s sort of what he does here, but everything is a little easier to follow than most Umbrella Academy stories. Everything moves at a nice, brisk pace and answers are never far behind the moments you start asking questions. I can’t classify the genre of a story like this—it’s part classic Hollywood film, part mob drama, part introspective character study, and part comedy. On paper, this isn’t a story that should work. At all. This combination of strange and ill-fitting elements should result in a story that feels discombobulated. But it doesn’t. Somehow, Simon and Way have created this weird story that feels both vast in scale and extremely intimate. It’s a delight from beginning to end.
It helps that this book doesn’t have an ensemble cast in the way the rest of the series does. Klaus is clearly the main character, with every other character acting as support for him. All stories revolve around—and converge with—Klaus’s, and it makes for a more linear, coherent experience. That’s not to say this book isn’t weird as hell—I mean, there’s a subplot involving a turf war between vampires and another that involves the Hollywood Gods looking for their next big movie. Hardly a page goes by without something weird happening. And, if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s a kind of purgatory between heaven and hell that Klaus occasionally visits (more on that in a moment), complete with flying furniture and a dead man named Lyle who’s spent his life writing a novel, to the neglect of all his loved ones.
Thematically, this is a story about Klaus coming to terms with his past trauma. The parasitic relationship he and Vivian share mirrors the one he’s had with Sir Reginald Hargreeves his entire life, and it’s the closest the book comes to a true deep dive into Klaus’s psyche. If like me, you’re approaching this comic in the hopes of reading something with the depth found in Klaus’s arc in season one of the Netflix show, you’re gonna be disappointed. There are hints of something that deep, but Simon and Way never focus on it that much. The closest they come are in the scenes between Klaus and Lyle in Purgatory. While most of these scenes focus on Klaus helping Lyle, there are a few where Lyle tries to probe Klaus’s trauma, getting him to divulge little bits about himself that are as revealing as they are important to the grander storyline. To be clear, there aren’t many of these moments, but when they’re there, they’re delightful. I’d have gladly traded some of the smaller subplots for more scenes exploring Klaus’s psyche, but it’s hard to complain when the rest of the book is as fun as this is. I mean, who doesn’t want to read such a bonkers comic?
As is often the case, You Look Like Death’s artwork is what holds the comic together. I cannot emphasize how impressed I am by I.N.J. Culbard’s artwork. It can be really hard for a new artist to play around in a world so defined by the work of another artist, yet Clubard’s artwork pulls this off brilliantly. It’s noticeably different than Gabriel Bá’s work in the main series, but it also feels like it exists within the world he’s created. Culbard adheres to the established designs of characters like Klaus and Hargreeves while still putting his own spin on them. But with the book being set in Hollywood instead of the normal Umbrella Academy setting, Culbard is given the freedom to create his own little corner of the Umbrella Academy universe. And he does this with immense style and beauty. He draws Hollywood as a city that lives in both light and shadow. At times, it has a sort of futuristic noir-like feel, with lots of blues and neon. But at other times, it feels very warm and inviting. For a book as seeped in fantasy as You Look Like Death is, Culbard’s artwork grounds it in something close to reality. The purgatory-like Void he creates is mesmerizing, too. It looks unlike any other depiction of purgatory I’ve ever seen, and it’s the kind of setting that you want to spend more time in. Overall, Culbard’s artwork is a brilliant addition to Simon and Way’s story. It’s beautiful, but not distractingly so. His artwork does a perfect job of helping readers understand the visual aspects of the story and I can’t praise it enough.
While You Look Like Death isn’t really the story I expected, or wanted, going into it, I can’t deny how much fun I had reading it. Yes, it’s not as deep a look into Klaus’s psyche as the Netflix show has given. And, yes, that’s a little disappointing. But what it is is an exploration of some previously unseen corners of The Umbrella Academy universe. And, while it doesn’t probe its main character particularly deeply, it does develop him as a character, making him feel more three-dimensional than he’s felt in some of the series’ main arcs. The plot is simple but completely nuts, with lots of weird asides, unusual characters, and creative ideas. The whole thing is tied together by some beautiful artwork from I.N.J. Culbard that manages to straddle the line between honoring what Gabriel Bá has done in the main series and being its own thing. If you’re a fan of any aspect of The Umbrella Academy—whether it’s the show or the comics or both—then you’re gonna love this. If you’re a fan of Klaus, you’re gonna love this even more. It’s a great, unique, exciting read.
4.5 out of 5 wands.