‘The Case of the Littlest Umbrella’ by That Umbrella Guy – a review

The Case of the Littlest Umbrella is the first book written by That Umbrella Guy, an independent creator who has never before published a comic book. TUG is a prominent member of ComicsGate, and has his own online presence, including a YouTube channel.

If you’re not familiar with ComicsGate, it is an idea that creators should have the freedom to pursue their own IP, that treats customers with respect, and that is free from politics or any other divisiveness. CG includes customers, fans, and creators alike.

The book was launched as a crowdfunding campaign in 2019. The initial funding period saw the book reach over $75,000, and it made a grand total of $109,580 before the campaign closed. Following this unexpected level of success, TUG wrote a second book, with the same protagonists, which is currently in production. So far it has taken $143,280 in revenue, a significant increase over the first one, and it is still In Demand.

The Case of the Littlest Umbrella is described as a family friendly horror story, an “all-ages Lovecraftian experience”. Perhaps this sounds contradictory, but in fact this specific genre is quite common. You may be familiar with Goosebumps books, or Scooby-Doo, or The Simpsons Halloween Special (there’s only one good one). In fact, you could argue that Halloween itself is family friendly horror – kids indulge in it far more than adults do.

Being a crowdfunded campaign, this book did take a while to deliver, but the ongoing global health crisis caused further delays. I suspect that TUG will move printing to North America for future books, for various reasons. That is actually the norm – most CG books are printed in the USA or Canada, to the best of my knowledge. There is no criticism here of the delivery schedule, but I should point out that crowdfunded books are published in a different way than mainstream books.

My first criticism is that the book doesn’t look like a real comic book should. Now, the paper stock and print quality are terrific. But the cover looks very much like a self-published book would look like, which is to say, a bit… cheap.

Yes, this is actually a self-published book, but that’s not the point. The point is to give the look and feel of a proper comic book (or graphic novel). This is easy to do. This does not require the use of flimsy cover stock or newsprint (not that those things are necessarily bad).

It does not even require the inclusion of charming advertisements, although it would be wonderful to see some creativity applied here, particularly for fictional brands and products. I’ve invented a few brands myself, purely for fun, due to my obsession with advertising. Once you flip through a collection of ads from the 1990s, your imagination will involuntarily deliver.

This is the book’s actual cover (the banding is due to my half-dead scanner):

And this is closer to what it should look like:

Notice: some kind of logo or hallmark should be in the top left corner. The title should be prominent, even though it risks obscuring the cover art (Jawbreakers: Lost Souls makes this mistake of undue reverential treatment of the cover art). Finally, the cover art should be a full page bleed, even if it’s a small graphic within large white space.

Once again, the paper stock is great and it feels good to hold and turn the pages. It’s arguably too good, depending on your tastes. However, the good news is that the book does stay open by itself. That includes both the first and last pages. This book is designed well as far as function is concerned, despite the lack of the aesthetics of a traditional comic book.

To my disappointment, the 44 page book contains three stories, not one. The main story is the interesting one, and it is 26 pages long. It is written by TUG and Keung Lee, and drawn by Keung Lee. The other two are more aimed at young children, and are written and drawn by Peter Gilmore.

The latter two, The Case of the Littlest Dino and Escape from Dino Island, are not really that interesting and could probably qualify as cereal box comics. Dino Island actually has a lot of promise, but it would need its own book of at least 44 pages to grow into. The art is superb, and the characters include TUG and his daughter, Little Umbrella Girl, both of which you will grow fond of, especially if you are familiar with TUG’s channel and personal life.

But these stories are unnecessary and together take up almost half the book. They force the main story to become diluted and therefore lacking in any depth. And that is the key as to why this book does not deliver what it ought to.

I’m not a horror fan, preferring spookiness and brooding to horror or gore. However, a good story is a good story, and the classical nature of this book’s inspiration, H. P. Lovecraft, promises much. I can appreciate films that have horror in them, such as Silence of the Lambs (terrifying), Twin Peaks (hypnotizing, brooding and creepy), The Exorcist (unsettling), and the series, Millennium (which dealt with evil more than it did with horror). In addition, I have read a few Stephen King novels such as It and The Shining. I’m a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, which should be required reading for everyone.

Good storytelling has many facets, not all of which are required in any one story. Michael Crichton wasn’t always great with characters, but his stories were superbly told. Dan Brown is a terrible writer, but his best novels are so eye-opening that you never notice.

I wish I could say that I have read Lovecraft, but I have not. One podcast I listen to now and again, The Bible Geek, talks about Lovecraft a lot, and eventually created a podcast dedicated to that topic, The Lovecraft Geek. I have pretty much no exposure to anything Lovecraft, although now I’m tempted to give his work a look.

TCOTLU is set up quite well. I like the premise, the foundations, the characters. It appears to have elements of Millennium, or perhaps The X-Files, and goodness knows what else. TUG and his daughter, LUG, are the two protagonists. The supporting character, Bill, is also somewhat engaging – at least in principle, as we don’t see much of him.

The story begins with a short prologue: a writer in what seems to be a haunted hotel. Or is it all in his head? Starting off with a prologue is a very effective way to give a story depth. The best prologues are as disconnected from the body of the story as possible. The best example is The Exorcist. Do you remember the prologue? You probably don’t unless you’ve seen the film in the past few  years. And if you don’t, you will be pleasantly surprised with what you see. That is excellence in storytelling.

However, the prologue here doesn’t have much impact. And that’s precisely because the main story in this book is only 26 pages long. We don’t really have any idea as to who the character is. We don’t know what he is writing, or why. On the surface, what is on those pages should be interesting. But it’s not. We don’t even know what might be on those pages, or why the author behaved the way he did before he left the hotel.

It’s the same for the opening scene of the main story. We should be interested in where TUG works, how he got there, what cases he is working on, and so on. And we are once again disappointed. The reason is quite obvious. It has nothing to do with the number of pages, but the lack of depth. Depth is created in several ways. The simplest way is to give characters and places dimension, and you can only do that with details. What is the name of the agency for which TUG works? Where is it and why does it exist? Where does TUG live? How did TUG get this job and what was he doing previously?

These questions don’t have to be completely answered, but they do need to be hinted. In the pilot episode of Millennium, we are given some glimpse into Frank Black’s background. Not a whole lot, but enough to establish something about him. The episode, like most serialized TV, is self-contained, but does lay down ominous hints at what the future will bring.

I have not forgotten that TCOTLU is supposed to be kid-friendly. The events that occur in Millennium are so disturbing that I would not expect to see them in TUG’s book. But what I do expect is just not there.

To give you an example of how time or space limits can produce incredibly engrossing and compelling stories, I point you to three films, all created by David Lynch. Premonitions Following an Evil Deed is but 63 seconds long. It was made as part of the 100th anniversary of the Lumiere Brothers’ first cinema camera, and is part of a collection, Lumiere and Company.

The next example is one of the shorter stories by Edgar Allan Poe, The Sphinx. I would be very surprised if you didn’t find this incredibly effective:

https://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/sphinxc.htm

At the end of the day, we need to tell our own stories in our own style. Nobody appreciates copycats. But, we can certainly find inspiration and illumination from storytellers who came before us.

The second story, The Case of the Littlest Dino, at five pages long, is obviously intended for parents to read to their younger children.  But it takes away valuable space from the main story.

The third story, Escape from Dino Island, at ten pages, is potentially interesting in its own right, but again, it takes away valuable pages that could have been used for the main story.

Dino Island throws us right into a situation where LUG is tied up by a supercriminal who owns a dinosaur infested island. But, there is no immersion. There is nothing here that stokes the imagination, either. It seems that Peter Gilmore has little of interest to add to the genre of dinosaur island sci-fi. But his art is superb here, and on the level of that of Keung Lee.

The world which TUG has created has promise, and the fundamentals are all there. The art, to say it again, is grade A. The characters are likeable, especially LUG, bless her little gumboots and pigtails. Yet the execution is lacking. The cover should have been more dynamic, the book was not printed in the USA or Canada, the story didn’t arouse my curiosity, the characters lacked depth, and I didn’t feel as immersed as I would be in a Poe story or a Crichton novel.

But I certainly don’t regret backing this campaign. When you back the campaigns of creators, particularly ComicsGate creators, you’re not merely interested in the books, you’re supporting people. I do not regret that I spent US$25 plus postage for this book. In fact, I backed the sequel, Another Case for the Littlest Umbrella. If you are CG, and you have the budget, go to the campaign page and give it a look.

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