Gerard Way is known to the music masses as the colorful frontman for hard rocking emo quintet My Chemical Romance, but he is also a successful comic book writer whose series The Umbrella Academy, created with artist Gabriel Bá won the coveted Eisner Award for Best Finite Series/Limited Series in 2008.
I spoke with the singer recently for a Grammy.com story on rockers writing comics, and we discussed more than could fit into the article. So here is the rest of that conversation.
The new album sounds cool, and I’m enjoying the retrofuturist video for the first single.
Absolutely retrofuture. That’s a term that I would often use to describe the look of things, just pulling a lot of the old and trying to inject a bit of the new into it.
I’ve been reading The Umbrella Academy, and you really cram a lot into each issue.
I do. That’s why they’re so hard to write. They take a really long time to write. They probably take nine days of work to create each issue, and then a bunch of edits. It takes maybe 6 to 9 days I’d say because every page is crammed with so many ideas.
I tend to read more indie comics these days.
One of the reasons I did go to Dark Horse is that they are the biggest indie, but they still are an indie. I really wanted that kind of creative freedom to not be working with somebody else’s characters, and it’s been like a family over there.
I assume you were a comic book fan growing up?
I was from a really young age. I remember when I was in the third grade and had my tonsils out, my grandma brought me these comics. Those were basically my first comics, and after that I was pretty hooked. My brother and I would go to the corner store and buy them all the time. That was in the early Eighties.
That was around the same time that books kept going up in price.
They constantly changed. I remember it rose from a quarter to 50 cents to a dollar. It would rapidly change.
What comics did you read growing up, and which comics inspired you while you were creating The Umbrella Academy?
The X-Men was the comic that really resonated with me. At the time stuff like Superman felt so big that I couldn’t relate to it very much. What I liked about the X-Men, at least sometimes, is they were the only superheroes that I noticed that occasionally would be in their plainclothes doing stuff, and they didn’t get any credit for anything. They weren’t particularly attractive. There were a lot of really great things to relate to, and there was this sense of reality to it that I actually liked. That was actually a big influence on Umbrella Academy, that kind of early Eighties X-Men. I wanted something that had the energy, fun and characterization of that, but then I tapped in the stuff that I discovered in my twenties, which was things from the Sixties and Seventies, and as a teenager Grant Morrison‘s stuff really appealed to me. All the Vertigo stuff, Neil [Gaiman]‘s work, everybody’s work.
I heard you’re into Doom Patrol as well, which is a more classic DC title.
I actually discovered old Doom Patrol much later. I was into Vertigo Doom Patrol, which was really one of the first abstract versions of a superhero comic.
I was more of a Marvel guy, although there was some DC stuff that I like. The distinction was that Marvel stuff took place more in the real world and people had real problems, but DC was much more fantasy-based. I noticed that the DC stories tended to be more plot-based. At least until the Vertigo line arrived.
I felt the same way in terms of the superhero stuff. The Marvel stuff was always about reality and problems and characters, and the DC stuff at the time felt like it was about gods. I guess that was a little harder for me to connect with.
What inspired you to do The Umbrella Academy, and how long did it take you to find a home for it?
I just missed it. I had been on the road so long, and that was my first love. That’s where I thought I would end up, doing comics. With the band, I found that I was good at it, and it just kind of happened. The band just kept getting bigger, so I needed to make a living somehow. I really enjoyed doing it and felt I was really good at making music. But as the years progressed I really missed what I first set out to do, which was comics.
Weren’t you working in a comic book store prior to being in My Chemical Romance?
I was. That was my first job. I went to SVA in New York, and then I interned at DC comics. My last job, which was a great job, was doing toy design in Hoboken. I loved that job. It was really cool, but that was literally when the band got so big that we had to go on the road.
“I definitely love comics for a reason. Anything is possible page to page, so I’m using that medium. I’m saying, ‘Yeah, this is kind of ridiculous,’ and there is nothing wrong with admitting that on the page and enjoying it.”
Who were you doing toy design for?
It was called Fun House, and they were an independent who got a lot of stuff farmed out to them from companies like Toy Biz. I would just sit and do turnarounds and designs all day.
What years were you doing all of this stuff?
I’m trying to remember. I graduated in ’99.
So the early part of last decade?
Don’t you think it’s interesting that despite comic book movies being huge, comic book sales don’t get bigger? Doesn’t it seem like the culture around comic books is big but not the books themselves?
It’s true. this is unfortunate because sometimes it becomes about what the comics produce rather than the comics themselves, and that’s kind of a drag.
Some people have complained about the number of Hollywood celebrities at Comic Con. Have you ever received any friction from people because you’re a rock star that’s gotten into the comic book medium?
It’s weird, I’ve never felt fiction towards me because I really feel like I’ve been accepted as part of the other side of things as an actual comic author. The friction that I noticed is being at San Diego and people complaining about having a hard time even getting into the convention because the cast of Twilight is going to be there. Or complaining about celebrities being there mucking things up for everybody. I’ve never noticed that directed towards me. It’s been really cool.
Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria has also been involved in comic books for a few years.
Yeah, Claudio’s been doing it for years, at least three or four years before me, and I know he’s a big comic fan.
Scott Ian recently did Lobo for DC and is going to work on The Demon.
Yeah, I heard. The Demon is one of my favorite characters.
Do you think there’s a reason why a lot of rockers and pop stars are turning to the comic book medium lately?
I’m trying to figure it out. Maybe there’s this gap with the hair metal band in the Eighties because none of those guys were into comic books. I paid attention to Steve Ditko’s work in the Sixties and how it was an influence on the psychedelic movement, and Dr. Strange in particular. When you look at that, comic books actually were always a part of rock, and in a weird way [on] the counterculture and the drug culture and things like that. Then it stopped for a while, and I think it’s come full circle again. There are a lot of artists that are dabbling into psychedelic elements or more fantasy-based things as opposed to hair metal, which is sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, or working class rock, which is none of that and kind of has a lack of identity. Comics were always a part of rock. I don’t know why they’re starting up again, maybe there are more creative individuals [involved]. If you think about it, the path of a rock star these days is much different than what we had to look like in the Eighties. These guys had big, teased blonde hair and abs and nobody wore shirts. Now it’s more about the music, so maybe more creative individuals are involved.
The concept of the rock star has become much more safe these days. They’re not as dangerous as they used to be.
They’re not. I often wonder what that’s about. At the least in terms of how I live my life on the road, I’m not dangerous at all. I try to put that in the music. I’m obviously somebody who just cares about my family and my friends and not throwing televisions out the window or doing cocaine.
Absolutely. I think maybe it is the revenge of the nerds kind of culture. Your average rock star now is actually kind of a nerd. At least some of them. I find that interesting, too.
So you’ve done 15 issues so far of The Umbrella Academy?
I know we did some small things. It’s 12 issues total, six per series, and then we’ve done a couple of shorts here and there.
Will you be doing anymore, or do you want to work on a new series?
I do. I talked to Gabriel pretty often through e-mail, and we talk all the time. Umbrella Academy had such a big impact, and we still get all these offers to appear at conventions together or for getting first or second printings in foreign countries. It’s being printed even in Japan, which is a very difficult thing to get happen to a comic.
And you won an Eisner Award, too.
I did. I won the Eisner for that first series.
That’s credibility right there.
That was a really important award. I usually don’t care about awards, and that was the one that I actually cared about. I guess I felt like we deserved it, too, for what we put into it and what we did to the comics culture at that point. At least what the book was trying to do I felt deserved something.
I hear that there’s a movie in the works?
I got optioned a while ago by Universal. It’s one of these things where the climate of comics to film changes so dramatically. There’s a period where it has to be just like the comic, then it becomes a little more in fashion to go on a different path than the comic. I think we’re just trying to make the best version we can, so I think that’s why we’re taking our time with it.
Are there any recent comics that you’re reading?
I just got Prison Pit. I really enjoyed that. The book’s pretty out there. It’s actually been pretty hard [to keep up with stuff]. I try to stay up with what Gabriel and Fabio [Moon] are you’re doing. And Rebecca [Cloonan] and Rafael Grampá. I try to stay up on what the people I’m closest with in comics are doing.
I don’t read as many superhero comics from Marvel or DC. With certain classic characters I wonder how many times you can retell those stories.
That’s why I gravitated towards Batman and Robin by Grant [Morrison], and his Superman is a comic opera operating on almost a completely different existence. That’s the stuff that appeals to me; if these characters are kind of timeless, just tell stories, don’t worry about what happened in the past or the future.
“Maybe it is the revenge of the nerds kind of culture. Your average rock star now is actually kind of a nerd. At least some of them.”
I sense a bit of Alan Moore in The Umbrella Academy.
You both have a sense of absurdity. You’re sincere in trying to make certain social statements, but you’re also aware that you’re being over the top.
Absolutely. I definitely love comics for a reason. Anything is possible page to page, so I’m using that medium. I’m saying, “Yeah, this is kind of ridiculous,” and there is nothing wrong with admitting that on the page and enjoying it. We pick up comics because you can do stuff that you can’t do in film, and that’s one of the things I really learned from Alan Moore. When you read the Watchmen, there’s all kinds of grids happening that couldn’t happen in the film.
It is in weird ways. I think it has the flavors and trappings of a comic, but it doesn’t have a story that you can follow, which I like. It kind of has this setting. I have become more interested in setting as opposed to dictating how the story is going to roll out. That’s the thing that has been more interesting to me about the future of even entertainment and comics. I feel like it’s more about the ideas that you make up in your head and fill in the blanks as opposed to me giving you everything. Even the first issue of Umbrella is like that. It’s me just making stuff up that didn’t happen in the 20 issues that would have come before it. You don’t need to go through that. Why do we really need to sit through 20 issues of origin? I like skipping parts and letting readers really fill in the blanks. I feel like that’s where comics and movies are heading in a weird way. Movies will take some time to catch up.
A lot of times artists will say they want people to figure things out for themselves, but it sort of depends upon how you approach it. When people say that sometimes I think it’s BS, but I watched 2001 again for the first time in ages, and that film does not explain everything that happens in it. You are left to your own interpretation, and I’m still completely transfixed by it. It sucks you in, and you put yourself in there.
That’s something more where I think you’re looking for meaning, but maybe that’s why sometimes you hear an author talk about a comic and it’s BS because there’s nothing to understand. Where I guess I’m talking about what we’ve already been trained to know about comics, so I don’t have to deal with that stuff. You could just make that part up.
It seems like the new My Chemical Romance album is more of a collection of stories.
It’s absolutely a collection of these micro-stories. There’s nobody to really follow in it.
Is there any song in particular that is your favorite?
“Kids From Yesterday” is my favorite. I kind of feel like that’s where the bands heading sonically, lyrically and musically. In a lot of ways the album feels like a reboot of the band and that feels like the start of the next 10 years.
I like “S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W” a lot. It’s very psychedelic.
It’s a total experiment in the psychedelic thing. Also, having talked to Grant a bunch, that’s where I feel that music is also heading in the next 10 years. It’s going to go back to this psychedelic experimentation.