The Umbrella Academy Apocalypse Suite is a masterwork of its genre. An action mini-plot story that is so well-executed that writers can learn a lot from it.
I've read the first volume of The Umbrella Academy a couple of years back. I remember thinking: Wow, there's a lot going on in this story.
It's not only that you have so many point of view (POV) characters, but there's literally so much going on in Apocalypse Suite that you have to buckle your seat belt and see where the ride takes you.
The setting up of the entire series is amazing. There are so many loose ends at the end of Vol. 1, but they do not feel like an unsatisfied ending. It's more like the aftershock of a great ride you just took, you can't believe you made it through, but at the same time, your adrenalin is still so high that you want more.
I am definitely hooked by the Umbrella Academy and this dysfunctional family.
Apocalypse Suite - First Impression
I am amazed by how remarkably well this action story miniplot was done.
The characters are not only unique and memorable but they are also pushing each other through their own individual dilemmas. The character arcs (especially for Space, Vanya, Kraken & Number Five) are set up so good that one can see how the internal and interpersonal struggles not only contribute to the character’s change but also to pushing the external content genre of action forward.
I also loved how the writer (Gerard Way) played with the forces of destruction and creation and turned it all around.
But first and foremost I loved that this story has only one coincidental inciting incident in it (the birth of the 43 extraordinary children) and not even here I can say for sure if that was not caused by something of a higher force. Just another set up, another question that this story arises in the mind of the reader. Like a drug that makes you keep on reading to try and find the answer, but getting sucked into the universe of the Umbrella Academy at the same time.
There's no way out.
Once you're hooked, you are in it for life! No getting out.
1. What's the global genre of Apocalypse Suite?
The story begins with life. It ends with death. In between there are killings, fights, life-threatening situations, getting unconsciousness, body experiments, ... so you can say without any doubt, that the primary genre of Apocalypse Suite is very well established.
The Umbrella Academy, Apocalypse Suite, is an action story. Life and Death are at stake almost throughout the entire story.
Even if it's not as obvious in a scene like when we see the troubles between Space and Rumor, there is still a huge threat looming over the characters like a shadow creeping closer. And just because you write an action story it does not mean that each scene needs to turn around the values of life and death.
The kind of action story is action - savior which basically means the antagonist is intent on social destruction. And yes, the Orchestra Verdammten wants to end the world. And Number Five is set out on his own redemption plot to stop his sister Vanya from destroying the world.
The POV-characters and their own genres
So as already mentioned, even though we have Action - Savior as the overarching external content genre, we can find several internal content genres at work due to the many POV characters.
For some characters, the internal and external genre is easy to recognize (Vanya, Number Five) for others (Space, Kraken) you feel like their wants and needs are set up but not as clearly stated as with the others. And it's okay this way. The mystery is a great force of narrative drive.
Okay, here are the Genres for the main characters (Vol. 2 will give new information):
|Character||External Content Genre||Internal Content Genre|
|Space||Not yet defined||possibly Worldview - Revelation, Status|
|Rumor||Not yet defined||possibly Worldview disillusionment|
|Number Five||Not yet defined (Action, Crime?)||Morality - Redemption|
2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes of the global genre?
Reminder: Obligatory Scenes and Conventions are specific to each Genre. These are the scenes that readers will expect to find in your story, and if they don’t appear in the story the readers are usually dissatisfied. It all goes back to the promise you give to the reader. If they expect an action story, you better bring in all the scenes they intuitively feel that belong into a story about life and death.
Since The Umbrella Academy Vol. 1 Apocalypse Suite is an Action story, I focus on the obligatory scenes and conventions for an action story now.
Note: since it's a mini-plot story, we will find different POV-characters in those obligatory scenes.
- An Inciting Attack by the Villain or Environment: Attack of the terminauts at the carnival.
- Hero Sidesteps Responsibility to Take Action: Rumor can't fight. Kraken fights on his own. Number Five at check up.
- Forced to leave ordinary world, the Hero lashes out: Kraken rebels against Space for being the leader of the team. Space threatens to kill Kraken. Rumor is so self-focused that she does not consider why Space can't change. Number Five kills Temps. Kraken wants to be the leader.
- Discovering and Understanding the Antagonist’s MacGuffin Scene: Number Five sees through Hargreeves' monocle what Vanya really is and what she wants.
- Hero’s Initial Strategy to Outmaneuver Villain Fails: Kraken: cut her throat. Séance: stop Vanya by disguising as their father. Rumor: Gets her throat cut.
- All Is Lost Moment: Hero realizes he must change his approach to salvage some form of victory: Number Five shoots Vanya in the head
- The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain Scene: The Core event of the Action story, this is the moment when the hero’s gift is expressed. Séance expresses his gift as he is able to stop the giant chunk of the moon through his telekinesis.
- The Hero’s Sacrifice Is Rewarded Scene (extrapersonal, intrapersonal, interpersonal): The awful memories are gone. Destroyed by the Eiffel Tower that landed on the Umbrella Academy. Kraken and Space have the first civil exchange with each other.
- Hero, Victim, Villain: Hero: Space, Rumor, Séance, Number Five, Kraken
Villain: Orchestra Verdammten, Terminauts, Temps, Vanya
Victim: Pogo, mankind
- Hero's object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim.: The members of the UA want to stop the coming apocalypse. They want to save the world and stop whoever is responsible for the apocalypse threat.
- The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large. The villain is far more powerful than the hero. Even according to Sir Reginald Hargreeves, Vanya is the most dangerous one of all the extraordinary children. She is transformed into a killing machine, far more dangerous and stronger than the rest of the UA members.
- Speech in praise of the villain. (Ch. 4 / Scene 27) The conductor introduces Vanya as a killing machine to the Orchestra Verdammten.
What about Vanya?
Because Vanya plays such a crucial part in this story, let's find out what the obligatory scenes and conventions are for her internal content genre of Status - Pathetic.
Now first: What means Status and Status Pathetic?
“The Status story concerns a single protagonist’s quest to rise in social standing, and the price he or she must pay in order to do so.” Shawn Coyne
A character who falls into the internal content genre of Status wants a change in their social position. These stories are driven by the nature of the protagonist’s inner conflict. Characters in a Status story WANT validation from others because they NEED esteem and self-respect.
There are four different types of Status stories.
- Pathetic: Starts low and ends low. A subjugated or weak protagonist tries to rise and falls. This protagonist doesn’t get what they want, though they may get what they need through some level of sacrifice. (Little Miss Sunshine)
- Tragic: Starts high and ends low: A flawed protagonist tries to rise or maintain higher status–often through dominance–but makes a mistake that dooms them to failure and punishment. (Commodus in Gladiator)
- Sentimental: Starts low and ends high: A weak or subjugated protagonist tries to rise or maintain status and succeeds against all odds. They earn their status through prestige, not dominance. (Annie)
- Admiration: Starts high and ends high: A principled protagonist rises without compromise. They often earn their status primarily through prestige but can also display dominance. (Maximus in Gladiator)
For Vanya, it's clearly Status - Pathetic:
When a sympathetic protagonist, who has a weak character and is too unsophisticated to see the consequences of their actions, experiences misfortune without the guidance of an adequate mentor, they will fail to rise in social standing.
Here are the obligatory scenes and conventions for Vanya's in trying to rise in her social standing:
- An inciting incident challenges the protagonist’s status quo. Siblings fight the Eiffel Tower while Hargreeves tells Number Seven she is just not special enough.
- The protagonist leaves home to seek their fortune: Vanya turns her back on the family and lives in an apartment in the city. She wrote a book about being extra ordinary.
- Forced to adapt to a new environment, the protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates themselves. Vanya wanted to help her family at the Carnival, but she might just help them get killed. She is humiliated by Kraken who not only tells her that she is of no help but that she also does not belong to the family anymore.
- The protagonist learns what the antagonist’s object of desire is and sets out to achieve it for themselves. Vanya understands that the Orchestra Verdammten and the Conductor want to destroy the world. Now she wants to do that.
- The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails. Vanya agrees to play the violine in the Orchestra Verdammten, not knowing she has to agree to a Frankenstein experiment to get the part.
- During an all-is-lost moment, the protagonist realizes they must change their definition of success or risk betraying their principles. If Vanya wants to find some form of validation she has to sell out and join the Orchestra Verdammten.
- The Core Event: The protagonist chooses either to do what’s necessary to attain higher status, or to reject the world they strived to join. Vanya rejects the world because she wants to destroy it, but she does what's necessary to attain her role in the Orchestra = the transformation.
- The protagonist saves or loses themselves based on their actions in the Core Event. Failure is better than selling out. Vanya loses herself as she is transformed into a killing machine. She sold out high.
- A strong Mentor figure who teaches the protagonist how to gain success or avoid failure. Pogo tells Vanya she does not have to destroy anything to prove herself. But Pogo is not the mentor Vanya really needed. She was always dependend on the validation of her father. He should have been her mentor. She might have believed Pogos words if Hargreeves had said them.
- Large social problems as the subtext of the story. Dysfunctional family who is burdened with the task of saving the world. Some have turned away, some stick to it. Many villains (Dr. Terminal, gustave Eiffel, Orchestra Verdammten) trying to destroy the world.
- A Herald or Threshold Guardian, usually another status striver, but one who has sold out and who provides a cautionary tale for the protagonist. There is no other Status Striver for Vanya who provides a cautionary tale for her. That's another reason why she is doomed to fail.
- A clear point of no return for the protagonist where they see the truth and realize they can never go back to the way things were. As Vanya is being transformed she knows she has reacted out of anger and she is sorry, but it's too late.
- An ironic or bittersweet ending. The protagonist wins but loses, or loses but wins. Vanya becomes extraordinary. She is the white violin, but she is confronted with being a failure by te one person whose validation she needed the most (father = Séance in disguise). She might even have lost her ability to play the violin.
3. What are the objects of desire?
The external object of desire for the global story (WANT): The members of the Umbrella Academy want to save the world. (Action)
The internal object of desire for the global story (NEED): The members of the Umbrella Academy need to understand that even though they have grown up they do not see the person each one of them has become. They need to put their black and white worldview aside and see the shades of grey in each of their personalities. (Worldview)
If you like to know more about the Wants and Needs of the different POV characters, just sign up for my newsletter and you get the full Story Grid Spreadsheet where you will not only find the external and internal object of desire for each POV character listed, but also the 5 commandments for each scene, value shifts, notes to every scene and much more.
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4. What is the controlling idea/theme?
In general, the controlling idea for an Action story goes like this:
Prescription, positive ending: Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits his/her antagonists.
Warning, negative ending: Death results when the protagonist fails to overpower or outwit his/her antagonists.
Depending on what's each individual own takeaway from the story, the controlling idea can differ.
For The Umbrella Academy - Apocalypse Suite I came up with the following theme:
The world can be saved when we use our individual gifts to fight for a world, a family and for all humanity that we accept as paradoxical.
5. What is the point of view and the narrative device?
How to know which one is the POV-character in a mini-plot?
If a story has lots of POV-characters in it (like in this mini-plot), it sometimes gets hard to find out who your protagonist(s) is/are and who the narrator of the story might be.
Now, when I talked about the comic book series of 'Why I hate Saturn' we knew that Anne Merkel was the protagonist. She was the voice of the narrator who told the story in first-person POV.
In Umbrella Academy Apocalypse Suite, each scene has a different POV-character as the main character of that particular scene. Sometimes there are even some of the POV-characters in one scene together. So which one do you decide for is the POV-character?
As I filled in the spreadsheet I considered the POV character the one with whom the scene starts. Basically, who is in the first frame?
This did not always work out, for example, in the last scene of Chapter 5. At first, Vanya arrives with the Orchestra Verdammten at the Umbrella Academy. Then the POV switches swiftly to Pogo and then to Number 5.
Other examples of switching POV in a scene are:
- Vanya runs through the hallway, then there's a switch over to Pogo's reaction that Vanya could not have seen, and then we're back with Vanya in her room. (Chapter 4, Scene 1)
- Or look at the big fight scene at the carnival. The fight sequence starts with Rumor as the POV-character, but switches over to Space, Vanya, and Kraken.
- Sometimes we have a POV-character but at the end of the scene they storm off and we get a glimpse of what the rest of the characters are doing afterward. Like after the fight at the carnival, Kraken storms off and Space tells the other's the end of the world will be much bigger than an attack by the Terminauts.
A reader does not pay attention to those POV shifts. In a novel, they can be confusing because we can't always seem to follow who sees or thinks what. But a comic book consists of different frames and provides an almost movie-like feeling. Point of view is not as important because as a viewer we want to follow the action where it goes. We don't wanna be stuck with one person's limited point of view. That's why switching the POV in comic books is possible.
In a novel, it's easier to find the POV-character because you stay with that one person throughout the scene. In a comic book, the writer and the artist are allowed to leave out the POV-character in certain frames of the scene to show the surroundings, reactions and other characters in the scene. So as a reader you feel more distant to what's going on. The narrative distance is not as close as first-person POV, because we can' tell what a character is thinking. Especially if the story is told from an omniscient point of view.
Tipp: If you have trouble finding the POV-character of a scene, look to the one person who faces the biggest crisis question. Sometimes that's hard because there seems to be more than one crisis questions for the different characters. If that's the case, ask yourself the question: Who has the most to gain / lose in the scene. That could be your POV-character.
For me, the narrator of that story is Number Five. He is not only a perfect fit for the role of the narrator because he can travel through time, but also because he's the only character whose voice we hear telling the reader about past events and things he has seen happening. It's also him that sums up the story in the end.
I know this assumption is far-fetched, but I guess that the Number Five is the main protagonist. I have read Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 so far. Both volumes clearly turn around Number Five, his life, his morality, his troubles and struggles. He seems the most interesting character to me because we are introduced to him as the little boy who has already lived a lifetime and has seen so much. He is sophisticated. He is able to regret his decisions. And his morality redemption arc is a strong pillar in the Umbrella Academy series.
And I know it's not my place to say it, but if we see Number Five as the main protagonist and as the narrator of the story, there's the connection that leads back to the writer of The Umbrella Academy. I think every storyteller puts part of his own experience, troublers and his personality, likes and dislikes in the protagonist. And I think Number Five presents this connection the best.
There are three possibilities to move a story forward. You can use:
- Mystery requires LESS information, withholding information from the reader.
- Suspense requires the SAME information, sharing the same information with the reader as it comes to light to a character.
- Dramatic Irony requires MORE information, giving the reader information that one or more of the characters don’t have.
The Umbrella Academy Apocalypse Suite is a prime example of the narrative drive Mystery. There are so many questions raised throughout the story, and so few are answered. I counted 46 questions for Vol. 1 that came up. Only 12 of them were answered in the first book. So you see, we as the reader are kept in the dark to where this story will lead to.
Of course, there was some form of dramatic irony, because we had the information that Vanya was recruited to the Orchestra Verdammten. Chapter 5 is all about finding clues, that the members of the Umbrella Academy know, where to take the fight.
Note: The Orchestra Verdammten sounds strange to me. I am German. And 'Verdammten' is a german word, but we would never say Orchester Verdammten, because there is a word missing inbetween. We'd day: Orchester der Verdammten which would spell out to Orchestra of the Damned. Which doesn't sound that strangely odd as I guess it was meant to be.
6. What are the Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff?
Another thing I love about this story is that the progression of the POV-characters can be tracked through the entire story. That means not even does the global story fulfill all the 5 commandments for beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff, but the main characters Vanja, Kraken, SPace and Number Five walk through that progression, too.
So let's start with the global story's summary first, and then we move over to the characters' story sum up.
|Beginning Hook Commandments||Global Story||Internal Charge
|Inciting Incident||When the father of six extraordinary children dies||+||-|
|Progressive Complication up to Turning Point||and a last gift of Dr. Terminal is activated killing children at a carnival||+||-|
|Crisis||the members of the Umbrella Academy have to decide if they will reunite, fight and die together as a team or if they keep living their own lives where they have not found happiness and keep their differences.||x||x|
|Climax||Only two members of the Umbrella Academy (Space, Séance) fight the Terminauts as a team and they win.||-||+|
|Resolution||And they come to the realization that the end of the world will be something bigger than those terminauts.||+||-|
|Middle Build||Global Story||Internal Charge (Worldview)||External Charge (Action)|
|Inciting Incident||Convinced that the apocalypse is near||+||-|
|Progressive Complication up to Turning Point||and faced with ongoing leadership troubles that could cost them their lives||-||-|
|Crisis||... they have to decide if they keep patroling or if they keep fighting each other isntead.||x||x|
|Climax||They part ways||-||-|
|Resolution||and follow their own clues that lead them straight to their sister Vanya.||+|
|Ending Payoff||Global Story||Internal Charge (Worldview)||External Charge (Action)|
|Inciting Incident||When the members of the UA are faced with their sister wanting to destroy the world||+||-|
|Progressive Complication up to Turning Point||and they cannot convince her to stop||-||-|
|Crisis||... they have to decide if they are going to kill her or find another way to make her stop her performance.||x||x|
|Climax||Number Five shoots his sister in the head.||-||-|
|Resolution||Even a failed performance comes to a finale, but Séance saves the world.||+||+|
And here's the BH, MB and EP for the POV characters:
Beginning Hook (BH): When a child that was born under extraordinary circumstances is told that she is not extraordinary... she has to decide if she leaves her family and starts a new life or if she stays in her family where she finds no validation. She leaves her family and loses the only two persons who cared for her: Pogo & Kraken.
Middle Build (MB): When the grownup woman auditions for an orchestra and is asked to participate in the destruction of the world ... she has to decide if she wants to gain validation by betraying her moral compass or if she should turn back to her family. She turns back to her family and is pushed right back into the hands of the Orchestra Verdammten.
Ending Payoff (EP): When the young woman is turned into a killing machine and proves to her old friend how special she is by killing him and finally sees her father come to her biggest performance ever... she has to decide if she goes on playing her music and perform professionally or if she lets her anger win and ruin the piece. She decides to face her father and is told she was a failure all along.
Beginning Hook (BH): When a man is the only one who has upheld the family's tradition of seeking justice is confronted with the leader of his former team ... he has to decide if he takes back his old position as number 2 or if he challenges the leader. He unveils the plastic mother to show his siblings what kind of place they all came from and Space puts Kraken in his place as he threatens to kill him with his laser gun.
Middle Build (MB): As this lone fighter tells his sister she shall get lost and finds out she is in possible danger because almost all of the city's violinists were killed in the last days... he has to decide if he goes on denying his feelings for her and feel hurt or if he tries to find and save her to prove himself to her. He follows the clues to her apartment and finds out she is at the Icarus Theatre.
Ending Payoff (EP): When the man finds out that his sister in the means of ending the world and is told that she loves him... he has to decide if he kills the one he loves or if he keeps his foolish hopes that she might actually care about him, too. He hesitates and she betrays him.
Beginning Hook (BH): When a man who used to be a team leader of 6 extraordinary children is challenged with a threat to his authority... he has to decide if he puts the rebel in his place or if he steps back from his leadership role. Space puts Kraken in his place and decides that the UA members are a team again without consulting them first.
Middle Build (MB): When attacked and wounded by the Terminauts and seeing his team is either scrambling or not able to fight anymore... he has to decide if he patrols the city on his own or if he accepts the help of the last remaining members. He accepts their help and bonds with his sister again.
Ending Payoff (EP): When the battle has come and his sister Rumor is badly hurt... he has to decide if he trusts his team to win the fight or if he fights with them and does not save his sister's life. He brings Rumor to the hospital and she survives and the team stops the end of the world.
Beginning Hook (BH): When a young boy does not listen to his father and finds himself in the future after an apocalypse... he has to decide if he wants to behave like a child or mature to find a way to stop the end of the world. He spends his life trying to find a way to travel back in time but he can't travel all 20 years back and arrives three days before the apocalypse.
Middle Build (MB): When his siblings go off to fight the Terminauts and he has to stay for a check-up and is told that he is a sixty-year-old man trapped in the body of a ten-year-old... he has to decide if he lets Pogo run some more tests or if he accepts who he is and moves on to be of help to his siblings. He focuses on the task at hand: stop the apocalypse and is challenged by the TEMP people because he did some (yet still unclear) things to return back in time.
Ending Payoff (EP): When the young boy finds Pogo's dead body and understands that his sister will bring the world to its end... he has to decide if he lets his emotions get in the way or do what's necessary to save the world. He shoots his sister in the head and must realize that it is a team effort to stop something as big as the end of the world.
What does the story look like if you visualize the scene movement in the Story Grid Graph?
For anyone who is not familiar with the Story Grid, this graph as well as the complete Story Grid spreadsheet (that I offer my newsletter subscribers), this level of analysis can seem a little too much. And frankly, it is.
It's great for story nerds to get lost in, but at the same time, it provides some valuable feedback. The graph is an easy-to-go-to reference to know what happens in the scenes and how they turn. Basically, you see that I have listed on the horizontal axis all 38 scenes and put the scene event either above that line (when the scene turns from negative to positive) or below the line (when the scene turns from positive to negative). The value charge of the scenes shows the global progression of the story. So a scene could turn on the micro-level from +/- but on the global level (how the story progresses) turn from -/+.
This graph is the global view on a story, while the spreadsheet is the micro view.
The red line follows the primary Genre of Action for the global story. (Life to unconsciousness to death to damnation)
The blue line shows the internal content genre of Worldview for the global story (Sophistication to cognitive dissonance to disillusionment to naiveté)
The green line shows Vanya's Status-Pathetic progression (the value change from Success to Compromise to Failure to Selling out.)
See the full resolution Story Grid graph via this link: Story Grid Graph of the Umbrella Academy Vol. 1 - Apocalypse Suite.
Sum up: Umbrella Academy Vol. 1 - Apocalypse Suite
One thing I noticed about creating a story in a comic book or graphic novel form is that the crisis question is not always clear to see. It's most often not stated anywhere. As a reader, you see the decision the character takes, but if you do not have access to what they are thinking or the crisis is left out in between frames you have to come up with your own possible question that the character was facing. If you have a mini-plot story like this one then you even see multiple crisis questions in one scene. And even though it makes the analysis even harder, it's such a great job of the writer to put all those little dilemmas in each and every scene.
Character is revealed through action. And we know what type of person someone is by the kind of decision they make when faced with a dilemma. Introducing a bunch of characters to the reader is difficult (mostly met by too much boring exposition), but this book is a masterwork to show how the internal and interpersonal struggles of the characters move the external genre of action forward.
It's so well done that I can't praise this work of art enough. And even though I did the 6 core questions to that book, the spreadsheet as well as the graph (which means I looked at the story from a telescopic and microscopic perspective) there's still so much to take away from Apocalypse Suite.
Now that you have made it all the way to the end of my blog post, it'd be really great if you could spend two more minutes and let me know your thoughts.
Did the story work for you? What did you like the most about The Umbrella Academy - Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way? What didn't you like?
Leave your answer in the comments below.
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