Saga Is A Weird And Brilliant Epic In The MakingPosted: February 4, 2015
Brian K Vaughan has been one of my favorite writers of any medium for awhile now. Just the triumvirate of Ex Machina, Runaways and Y: The Last Man get him a place of love and respect in my heart, and that doesn’t even account for Pride of Baghdad and his contributions to Ultimate X-men, Dr. Strange, Buffy Season 8 and numerous episodes of Lost. So when it was announced that he was writing a sprawling space opera with gorgeous art from Fiona Staples, I was more than onboard. While I loved the first few issues, I fell behind until this past weekend, when I read all of the series thus far in preparation for Saga’s return from hiatus with this week’s issue #25. In diving fully into this already-epic, far-from-over yarn, I’ve discovered a brilliantly bizarre and emotionally powerful exploration of family and pacifism, that reaffirms Brian K Vaughan as one of my favorite storytellers.
The heart of the story concerns aliens on two sides of a massive war, Marko and Alana, who have fallen in love, had a child named Hazel and gone on the lamb. Throw in bounty hunters with giant animal sidekicks, disgraced robot royalty, Marko’s parents and a smart-aleck ghost girl and you’ve still barely scratched the surface of what Saga has to offer. Vaughan juggles all of these threads and more with a great deal of grace, particularly considering that the progression of the story is much more fluid and overlapping than you might expect. Many issues end on some sort of cliffhanger or dramatic escalation, only for the next issue to shift to a completely different character and plotline until the very end, where the result of the previous issue’s cliffhanger is revealed… as a cliffhanger itself. While this sounds complex and/or messy, it flows pretty well. Most issues more or less function as individual snapshots in the grander mosaic of the series, that make enough sense on their own but take on much greater significance as part of the whole. By taking this seemingly-circuitous approach to storytelling, Vaughan gives the series a pace all its own, and allows each issue (and the major subjects thereof) to flourish without feeling like an afterthought to the main story.
Vaughan uses this fluid, overlapping story structure as a delivery method for a very emotional and intelligent exploration of family. There are a lot of familiar elements at play- star-crossed lovers, difficult in-laws, outside temptations- but Vaughan plays them all with a good amount of nuance, allowing the various beats to come naturally and rarely ever overplaying any of the “big” emotional turning points. While certain aspects of Marko and Alana’s relationship are certainly tied to the sci-fantasy context of the series, at its core it is a very universal look at a marriage and parenthood. Vaughan also takes that thematic focus beyond the main family. On the one hand there is Prince Robot IV (we’ll come back to this) who is torn away from his wife before she gives birth and then has his child kidnapped by a revolutionary. On the other hand there is the triumvirate of The Will, Gwendolyn and Sophie, a mashed-together surrogate family in the vein of Ripley/Hicks/Newt in Aliens.
Both of these plot threads emphasize this thematic focus on family in their own distinct ways, and taken with Marko/Alana/Hazel’s story we get this very nuanced look at the concepts of love and family. On top of this, Vaughan layers in some blunt commentary on the issue of war vs pacifism, and how the idea of war and violence are anathema to the idea of parenthood. From the beginning of the story, Marko has sworn off killing due to the birth of Hazel, and Marko and Alana bond over this trashy (but not in the expected way) romance novel that they see as a treatise on non-involvement and staying out of war. Similarly, Prince Robot IV’s constant choice of violence in an effort to expedite his mission only makes things worse and takes him further and further away from his family, which itself is torn apart by shocking violence. These two thematic concerns are carefully intertwined and seem to send a clear message: that a world of children cannot exist next to a world of violence, and that it’s maybe better to walk away from violent conflict instead of feeding into it further.
Besides these more serious thematic and structural concerns, Saga is still a bizarre and wild experience, and a lot of that comes down to the worldbuilding and the art of Fiona Staples. This is a world where a planet of TV-headed robots live in a feudal society, among many other insane-looking worlds and characters. While there are many, MANY mindblowing images throughout the series, one of the most immediately impactful is this one, the first page of issue #4:
This image also broaches one of the other defining and surprising elements of Saga, which is the overabundance of kinkiness. The series drips sex throughout, and doesn’t shy away from any aspect of it for any species. Robots and spider-people see just as much action as the more average-looking humanoids, all of it graphic, hardly any of it subtle. On some level, this seems like the furthest extension of the main thematic concerns of the series and how sex exists in this weird netherworld between love and violence, but it also just feels like it’s embracing the fact that adults are sexual beings and that even in a big space adventure people are still going to get horny.
Whether it’s the graphic xenomorphic sexuality, space travel or magic vs lasers combat, Fiona Staples captures all of it with her beautiful art. The imagery feels like it’s painted though it’s not at all, and her design approach is just the right balance between grounded realism and cartoonish surrealism. All of the characters stand out as distinct personalities, both from their individual designs and the way that Staples actually draws them in action. Her art retains a sort of naturalism, even when depicting completely unreal images, and it’s a look that goes quite well with the often-biological-looking technology that Vaughan has peppered this world with. Saga is a perfect example of the innate collaborative nature of comics: while Vaughan might have cooked up a ton of this on his own in a vacuum, I can’t imagine it working this well without Staples’ particular style to bring it to life. While I might focus more on the writing and narrative because that’s where my knowledge and vocabulary lie, make no mistake: there would be no Saga without Fiona Staples.
So yeah, Saga is nothing short of amazing, and it’s a comic I heartily recommend. And this is a great time to catch up, as the series is just returning from a several month hiatus today with issue #25. The whole rest of the series is available in trade paperback graphic novels, and on Comixology, and you should really check it out. Issue #25, by the way, is why this wrap-up is so short, as I have it open on Comixology as I speak to start reading as soon as I am done. Once again: READ SAGA, and I guarantee you will enjoy it very much.