Ahead of the trailer's release, Way chatted with Billboard about bringing The Umbrella Academy to life on screen, the musical aspect of the show, and why the world is ready for a team of flawed superheroes.
You’ve said that one of your favorite things about the series is that the showrunners "kept the weird ideas." Was that something you were concerned about when the show was first conceptualized?
That was a concern of mine way back when Universal Pictures had it as a film option. At the time, the world really wasn’t ready for something like Umbrella Academy, so there were some directions that Universal had gone with it to take some of the weirdness out, and I wasn’t really happy about that. But later on, years passed, and now the world is ready for something deeper on superheroes, and they’re ready to move past the origin story.
What makes you feel like the world is ready now for a superhero series like this?
In the 10 years that’s been out, we’ve had a lot of superhero movies, and I feel like some of them kept progressing forward and forward to the point where now we see a Marvel film and they’re really bringing Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s world to life. It’s really like a living, breathing comic book now. So people are ready to go deeper on superheroes to deal with dysfunction and demons and addiction, but you won’t really find a comic going so deep in a mainstream comic.
You've also said that comics were your first exposure to things like mental health awareness and group therapy – would you say that The Umbrella Academy TV show has brought a new layer to that?
Yes, I think in some ways it does deal with mental health, and it deals with a lot of really fractured individuals. It’s funny -- we haven’t seen it yet in the comic, but the Umbrella Academy is a group of people that can really benefit from group therapy.
Are there any characters you’re particularly excited about?
I really like how Steve [Blackman] handled Spaceboy. At first he kind of pitched me on it and I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if that’s going to work,” and then it worked extremely well. I think he made that character understandable to a broad audience. Also, Spaceboy is wearing clothes. The funny thing about that is that no only does it make more sense to me that he’s wearing clothes, it really adds to the character.
Some of the characters went in a little bit of a different direction, like Klaus in the comics is this kind of dry goth, and he’s a little bit sexier in the show. The way Robert plays him is sexier and maybe a little more rock ‘n’ roll.
But they all did a phenomenal job. And they really cared about this. It was so wonderful to watch this cast work and bring their own ideas to these roles. They all had ideas, and they made them even more fleshed out. And the cast gets along wonderfully, which I’ve been told is not a common thing [Laughs]. Apparently they were going to dinner together all the time. They have some really hard scenes together in the show, and I’m like, “Man, how are they going to dinner after this?”
The show also stars Mary J. Blige as Cha-Cha. How do you feel about how she brought that character to life, especially because it's a male in the comic book?
I was so incredibly floored and blown away that she even wanted to have anything to do with something that I was making doodles of on airplanes. I love the fact that Cha-Cha is a woman and I love that it’s Mary. She brings so much to the role. It’s amazing.
One of the really great differences of the show is that it’s more diverse in its casting than the source material. And that was something that we talked about very early on that we wanted to correct from the source material. It was the perfect scenario for that to happen because they were all adopted, so it was kind of a no-brainer. I think diversity is the best change.
How does what you envisioned for the comic when you first started writing it compare to how it ended up, both in its storyline and in the TV show?
The thing I like the most about the show is that the core of it is really there -- the dysfunction and the relationships and the characters. To me, it was always about the characters. Even back then when I was first conceptualizing these characters -- I value characters so much and they drive the story.
[As for what’s] changed, I’m writing Hotel Oblivion right now, and it reflects more who I am in my 40s than who I was in my 30s, when I was writing the last ones. I have a road map of eight graphic novels total when all is said and done, and some of these things have changed so many times. There was such a gap that every time I went to work on Hotel Oblivion again, that I needed to make it new, fresh, and reflect who I am. I think, in ways, the show really does that. It looks at this original source material, but it updates it in a lot of ways. Even though it’s a timeless thing, it feels very current.
Can you give an example of how who you are in your 40s impacted the story compared to who you were in your 30s?
[The characters] deal with trauma and their past a little differently now. You understand your childhood a bit better as you hit your 40s, and I think they’re all starting to understand their childhood a bit better. They’re starting to really ask themselves questions about Hargreeves and what he was really doing -- they’re constantly learning things about their father.
I figured fatherhood probably also had an impact on how the story has continued.
Absolutely. Becoming a parent is the key to understanding your own parents.
You've also previously alluded that real-world political events have had an impact on how this storyline has unfolded. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s crazy -- [the story] has had to change, but had we never taken a break from Umbrella Academy the comic, I think we would’ve looked like total geniuses or storytellers with where the story was heading politically [Laughs]. Politics were becoming a factor in Umbrella Academy, but all those notes and ideas were from the Obama era. We’ll still see that, but it’s not an accurate portrayal by far of our current climate and the country.
[The show] says some things, because good art talks about what’s going on in the world sometimes. But there’s a definite division that happens in the comic series, and politics become a factor in the middle of this story arc. Then toward the end of the graphic novels, it starts to shift in a different direction. So there is kind of a shift in the middle of the story that deals with America in a big way.
Well and even just in the trailer, there’s an apocalypse, and some people may be feeling like there’s an apocalypse coming with our current state of the world [Laughs].
Absolutely. That apocalypse really exists because of what I witnessed with 9/11, which is kind of another reason why I started [My Chemical Romance]. I was writing Umbrella Academy when we were working on The Black Parade, and that very first video that Sam Bayer directed ["Welcome To The Black Parade"], it kind of looks like 9/11 and Ground Zero. And then when you see the apocalypse in Umbrella Academy when Number Five goes back there, it kind of looks like Ground Zero. Reflections of real-world stuff.
And yeah, you’re totally right, people are probably afraid there might be an apocalypse at some point given the state of the world, so in that way, yeah, a decade later, it’s really relevant, the end of the world.
Also featured in the trailer is your cover of "Hazy Shade of Winter." "I Think We're Alone Now" was featured in the initial teaser for the Netflix series as well -- is '80s music going to play a role in soundtracking the show?
The soundtrack really runs this whole spectrum. If you asked me when I was writing the comic, the ‘90s were a big part of the soundtrack in my head: The Pixies and Teenage Fanclub, that kind of stuff. Steve has a very distinct idea of what he wants the songs to be, because he writes the songs into the script -- so I didn’t get to weigh in very much on the soundtrack of the show.
[“Hazy Shade of Winter”] was a situation where I got to weigh in because we needed a song for the trailer, and I suggested we do “Hazy Shade of Winter” the way The Bangles did it for the Less Than Zero soundtrack and use them as a guide, and he loved it.
We have Jeff Russo doing the score, and he did an amazing job. There were very early conversations about me potentially scoring, but there was no way given my schedule that would work. But I’m sure down the line I’ll be covering more songs for the show.
Has the TV adaptation inspired any music of your own?
It has. When I was on set the very first day and we were watching the very first shot which was a scene between Ellen [Page, who plays Vanya] and Aidan [Gallagher, who plays Number Five], it’s the very last shot of the pilot and they’re talking about the end of the world and it’s supposed to cut to black. And a song popped into my head for that, and I started writing this song that I ended up recording. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s a song I would love to give to the show.
Are you doing anything else music-related at the moment? Or just focusing on Umbrella Academy?
I’ve been writing a lot. There’s three things that are kind of the focus of my life besides family as being the most important thing. One, writing these two comics I write, Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol. Two, making music once a week and releasing new songs -- I was trying to do it every month but it’s now going to turn into longer gaps of releasing songs. And then my well-being is the other thing, like my physical fitness and my diet, making big life changes and quitting smoking, things like that. I did not take care of myself for the last two, three years writing comic books. I’m starting to really take care of myself again.