Warning: The following contains massive spoilers for the first season of "The Umbrella Academy" on Netflix and "The Umbrella Academy" comic series, particularly volumes "Apocalypse Suite" and "Dallas."
You know we have truly reached a golden age of comic book adaptations when a series as gleefully bonkers as "The Umbrella Academy" not only gets the green light from streaming giant/eventual-owner-of-everything-you-like Netflix but gains a big following. The adaptation of the Dark Horse comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba about an estranged superhero family that comes together after their ice-cold adopted father dies to stop the end of the world has captivated fans with its endearing characters and goofy tone. Though it matches its utterly wacky source material in many ways, it could have been far stranger had it followed the comic more. It may be hard to imagine show that features a man with a gorilla body, a chimp butler, a black-and-white scene where a little girl is heavily implied to be God and a scene where a boy with the actual given name of Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) has an emotional break up with an inanimate store mannequin could have been stranger somehow but it's absolutely true.
Though the show isn't quite as odd as its original source, it expands on and improves on the comic by giving the characters and plot more room to breathe over the course of 10 episodes, as opposed to the six issues of the comic's first volume, "Apocalypse Suite" - which the first season borrows from, though there is a strong helping of volume two, "'Dallas," tossed in too. Let's look at the plot, tone and characters of the two and see what worked better.
The comic and the show hit a lot of the same beats. Forty-three superpowered children are born all over the world at the exact same time, and Reginald Hargreaves (Colm Feore) — think a "Downton Abbey" character plopped into a sci-fi series - adopts seven of them and refers to them by numbers instead of names because sensitivity is for suckers. Six of the kids are trained to fight crime as the group The Umbrella Academy, while the last child, violin enthusiast Vanya (Ellen Page as an adult), is sidelined due to her apparent lack of powers. Cut to 30 years later and all of them have enough issues to keep pharmacies to open until the heat death of the universe.
Reginald dies, and one of the siblings, the long-missing Number Five appears from the future to stop the world from ending in a matter of days with the help of his siblings. It turns out Vanya is actually the cause of the apocalypse due to the incredible destructive powers she's had all along that Reginald kept a secret from her, and she becomes a force of nature. One of the biggest plot differences between the two projects is who tosses Vanya over the edge. In the comic, Vanya crosses path with a music-themed villain called The Conductor, who has a literal orchestra of murderers he plans to use to hit just the right frequency to bring about the end of days (I promise you that's not even the tenth weirdest thing in this series). He molds her into the villain The White Violin. The show, however, takes a different approach, as it turns out Leonard Peabody (John Magaro), who dates Vanya throughout the season, turns out to be an ex-convict named Harold Jenkins who was spurned by Reginald decades ago and apparently wants to turn Vanya against her siblings. Other points from the first season that don't appear in the comics until volume two include the involvement of time-traveling hitmen Hazel and Cha-Cha (scene-stealers Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige) and a subplot where Hargreaves sibling Klaus (Robert Sheehan) time-travels back to the Vietnam War, though Klaus fathers a child with a Vietnamese woman in the book while TV Klaus, who is gay, falls for an ill-fated soldier. Another massive difference between the projects is that while the day is just barely saved in the comic, the apocalypse still happens in the show, forcing the siblings to go back in time — and in other news, I am incapable of typing "back in time" without Huey Lewis and The News blasting in my head.
While the plots don't change much, the tones differ. The comic's brightly-colored setting is the DC or Marvel universes on crack, with a relentless mish-mash of aliens, time travel and the revelation that the Eiffel Tower is a spaceship piloted by a robot zombie version if its namesake, Gustave Eiffel (they even make a point of calling him "Robot-Zombie Gustave Eiffel!") before the tower rockets off to never be mentioned again. Though the show obviously has sci-fi elements, with the time travel and Umbrella Academy leader Luther (Tom Hopper) being a man with the body of a giant gorilla who lives on the moon, the comic drowns in sci-fi, with laser fights and the aforementioned robot zombie. Besides Diego's blonde Punisher look and the blue hair Allison (played by Emmy Raver-Lampman in the show) the characters have a retro design that fit with the series' 60's-comics-with-a-surreal-bent-feel. The comic's darkly comic sci-fi elements lend it a fast-paced, consistent tone. This gives the books an advantage over the show, which juggles everything from serious family drama to X-Men angst — which the comic also does — to plenty of wacky touches on its own (like the aforementioned mannequin break-up and a bloody fight scene set to a They Might Be Giants song). While it keeps a lot of wacky elements, others are toned down, with less code names, super hero costumes and a distinct lack of flying Eiffel tower and robot-zombies. It tries to do a little bit of everything while not always meshing from scene to scene, especially in early episodes. Where the show does shine above the comic, though, is slowing things down to sharpen more focus on the characters.
The essence of most of the Hargreaves family is still the same when translated to live-action, but they are given more to do and with greater insight into who they are.
This is the most evident with the character of Vanya. While she is still the outcast in her family of outcasts and she wrote a tell-all about Hargreaves and the academy, the TV series expands on her, showing us a lonely soul who has been defined by what she isn't. In the comics, she's little more than a walking plot device.
In the first issue, a threatening voice asks her to go to an audition, she complies because plot and she finds out The Conductor wants her to join his orchestra for a performance that will destroy the world. By the second issue, she goes to the family mention to see robots attacking her family and sibling Diego (who is played by David Castaneda in the show) says she should have never returned to their lives. She accepts the orchestra's offer by the end of the third issue. Although Diego was unnecessarily harsh and a six-issue series requires momentum, her decision to go full villain is so quick that the impact is lost. A betrayal like this, with enough build-up and interaction between the characters beforehand, could carry emotional weight, so we could have had a better idea of where Vanya was coming from and potentially feel for her after she comes to that decision,. This would also allow us to feel for the rest of the academy for being forced to fight their sister. Instead, we barely spend any time with her or see her interactions with anyone before she makes her transition into The White Violin. The only time we ever see adult Vanya interact with anyone in her family at all before she goes full Dark Phoenix is when Diego berates her, and that sole interaction alone isn't enough. Vanya was isolated from the rest of her siblings by Reginald, so it makes a certain amount of sense that she wouldn't interact with them a ton, but due to that, the characters hadn't interacted enough before to make it feel like it matters as much as it should, so their showdown at the end lacks a punch.
Significantly more time is devoted to the show's Vanya and her interactions with her family, so the reveal that she actually had powers all along and her final confrontation with the academy have a larger impact. Page does a lot of subtle work with a character who is understated by design since she has been cast to the background her entire life, imbuing her with perpetually sad eyes and hesitant movements. Even when she's listening to other characters, it looks like her mouth is always a second away from sliding into a frown. Most of her family visibly keeps her at arm's length, viewing her with visible condescension and pity. Page's shorter height compared to the other Hargreaves actors outside of Gallagher work to the show's advantage, adding to the unspoken dynamic of Vanya being treated like the little sister, despite being the exact same age down to the second as her siblings. You get the sense even Allison, the only sibling who makes a continuous effort to be a part of Vanya's life, still looks down on Vanya a bit, even when she is trying to help. By giving us a better idea of her relationship to her siblings, it becomes all the more heartbreaking when Vanya apparently gives into the world-shattering force inside of her.
Speaking of Allison, she is also given more depth on the screen. The show's Allison, who is also a world-famous movie star here though it factors little into the plot, spends the majority of the scenes set in the present day actively avoiding using her powers, as her estranged husband Patrick kicked her out about a year earlier after catching her using powers on their daughter Claire to force her to go sleep against her will after a temper tantrum. Seeing this transpire in a flashback is jarring because by the time it's shown toward the end of the first season, we have seen Allison actively try to be a better person by not using her power, even though she could have it used it in an earlier fight with Hazel and Cha-Cha. By working toward redemption every day despite her terrible past deeds, we come to care about her much more. The confrontation between Allison and Vanya in the cabin becomes so much more tragic due to this. When Vanya slices her throat when Allison attempts to use her rumor power for the only time in the present day thus far. The fact that Allison and Vanya had been trying to build a relationship throughout the show and Alisson was the only one who had noticed Vanya had gone off the grid with Leonard/Harold makes the confrontation devastating and an emotional highlight of the series.
While it is implied in the comic's first volume that her ink counterpart is also avoiding using her power, we never find out why, nor do we learn why she's separated from Claire and Patrick, robbing us of a sense of who she is or what she wants. The only time we see comic Vanya use her power in volume one is to get Luther to kiss her, but the way it's done suggests the possibility the kiss happened with Number one's compliance without any superpowers due to the feelings they've held for each other for years. When the throat slicing happens here, it is the first time we see Allison and Vanya interact. While Number One freaks out over this just as he does in the show and their relationship holds some interest, we don't know enough about this Alisson to be as concerned once the same thing happens in the TV show.
Another big difference in character is with our villains. We learn nothing about The Conductor in the comic besides that he wants to end the world. That. Is. it. It's not even clear how he stumbled about Hargreaves notes about Vanya's power. He's just there at the right time to make stuff happen to move the story along and then Vanya kills him. That is, essentially, the long and short of The Conductor despite how pivotal he is to the plot. We see other threats to this world, so besides the fact that he has the incredibly important knowledge of Vanya's powers, he appears to be just another lunatic with a gimmick who wouldn't seem out of place in the 60s Batman show. He, like Vanya, is a plot point rather than a three-dimensional character. The show actually spends some time on Leonard/ Harold, even if parts of his character are also a tad under explained. We see Harold was born the same day as the Umbrella Academy children but with zero powers and with even more emotional scars, considering his mother died in childbirth and his father was an abusive drunk. He group up idolizing the Umbrella Academy, and one day he runs into Reginald Hargreaves, begging the adult to take him in. Reginald, with the tact of a hornet's nest, told the children he wasn't special and instructs him to move on with his life. Harold responds to that by defacing images of the academy and murdering his dad. Post-jail, he just happens to stumble upon Klaus, one of his childhood heroes, throwing Reginald's diary in the dumpster —because the show isn't above contrivances to keep things going either either — learning about Vanya's vast dormant abilities. Making the guy who pushes Vanya to her breaking a point a man, who, like Vanya, had been told his entire life he was useless and giving him a motivation connected to the Hargreaves family is a massive step up from some schmuck in a mask, though we never learn what he actually planned to do once Vanya fully tapped into her powers.
Another advantage of Leonard/Harold is that his manipulative "relationship" is one of the few instances where the "couples fall in love within a few days" drop makes sense for the character, albeit with a tragic bent. Vanya, who openly states at one point that she feels like she has to apologize for existing, actually receives, for maybe the first time in her life, acceptance and love from someone. Unfortunately, it makes sense that someone that deprived of genuine affection would interpret someone treating them semi-decently as true love. Harold/Leonard's gas lighting revelation helps complete Vanya's tragic turn from timid woman to violent telepathic entity.
There were still a few things from the comic and the show that weren't covered here (Oh, Luther, you giant furry fool, you). Which do you prefer, the show or the comic?