Grief is Surreal | How The Umbrella Academy Uses Absurdness to Deal with Grief

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What is Surrealism?

Surrealism was “officially” put in motion with the 1924 publication of Manifesto of Surrealism by the French poet Andres Breton. It was basically a mixture of ideas from Sigmund Frued and Karl Marx—which is a weird combo already. It focused primarily on dreams and a whimsical disregard for what was traditional.

And in true artistic fashion, none of the different disciplines wanted to share terminology. The poets and painters didn’t want to get all mixed together and god help you if you tried to put it in one of those moving pictures, but eventually they learned to share… with some of the work… if it popular enough.

But what is surrealism? What makes something “surreal”?

Well, it’s about unlocking the unconscious mind, like in dreams, and juxtaposing the uncanny with the familiar. It’s also worth keeping in mind that this movement was a direct response to the first world war and was about defeating reason in a world that had experienced horrors reason couldn’t rationalise.

Memory Without Logic

But what does this have to do with our comic series? Saying it has “something to do with dreams” isn’t exactly limiting but I think that’s kind of the point.

If you look at a lot of media now, especially films and television shows, there’s a movement towards being more realistic and usually bleaker. Let’s face it, life isn’t exactly a dream.

Which is why I am both baffled and mesmerized by The Umbrella Academy, in both forms that I’ve experienced it in. I mean, there’s a character with a fish bowl for a head.

That’s it, I don’t have any further point to make about that one.

But what I think is most important about this series is that at its heart, it’s just a story about a family trying to deal with grief. Not a new concept.

So why make it so… strange? Why deviate from normal forms of telling stories for this particular one?

You could argue it’s in order to make this particular story stand out more but I think it goes deeper than that.

How do you explain your personal grief to someone else? How do you make sense of all the emotions and memories that are jumbled up inside you and present them to someone else who can’t possibly comprehend them accurately?

Take an example—one without getting into my own person grief because we’re not that close yet.

Whenever I smell night air and cigarette smoke I think of my grandmother. Why? Not only have there been multiple situations when I was with my grandmother and those two smell were no where to be found but there have also been plenty of situations when those two smells were present and my grandmother wasn’t around.

I don’t have an answer as to why this happens. Memory makes absurd, drastic leaps in logical all the time.

Image from SYFY Wire


So what are these poor Hardgreeves supposed to do when their not so dear father dies? They don’t have each other anymore and yet it’s only each other who can fully understand their relationship with the person they have lost. They’re forced to face their grief together.

In this case it’s literally the end of the world because it’s fiction?

It also occurs to me while making this that their last name is hard-grieves… Was that intentional?

Regardless, the only way for them to prevent the world from ending it for them to come together as a team. Whacking villains in dog helmets ensue.

Because in this case, the villains have a point. The end of the world is a fixed point. You have to feel grief eventually. It isn’t something you can ignore and expect it not to blow up later.

Stuck in a Dream

Image from Amazon

So what does this have to do with surrealism?

While, when face with expressing a complex emotion like grief in a narrative you can go two ways:

  1. You can go the realistic route. Like that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The camera follows Buffy in real time as she deals with the stock and grief of the situation in front of her.
  2. You can embrace the surreal nature of memory.

Why have a dance montage at a funeral? Why have a robot for a mother? Why have a guy with a fish bowl for a head?

Because all those things represent the impact their father had on their lives. For better or for worse. And because sometimes our dreams can more accurately describe how we truly feel, beyond the restriction of logic.

I still don’t understand that scene from the comics where they fight an army of vampires lead by a giant reanimated corpse in 1960’s Vietnam… Meh, maybe some of it is just weird.

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