SAGA Volume One, Issues 1-6 by Brian K. Vaughan (author) & Fiona Staples (illustrator)
Brian K. Vaughan‘s brilliant new series SAGA is a mixture of fantasy and science fiction, with wonderfully humorous and realistic dialogue between a newlywed couple. But the subject being addressed (and critiqued) is war. It’s also incredibly sexually explicit, so I must give my warning to those who either prefer not to have in their heads images of people with television heads having sex or want to keep such images from their kids. (Personally, I find it funny to watch one of the television head characters, a powerful and vicious military official and member of the royalty, struggle with impotence when out of his official attire.)
The premise of the story is that a couple and their new-born child, Hazel, are on the run from just about everybody involved in the war. When issue one begins, the war has been going on for many years, since before Hazel’s parents were even born. Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy we are told, is at war with its moon, its “one and only satellite,” Wreath. Marko, the father, is from Wreath, and Alana, the mother, is from Landfall. They meet and fall in love on the distant planet Cleave where Marko is a prisoner and Alana is his guard. They fall in love, get married, and Alana becomes pregnant. All of this is given as backstory. The first page of the first issue opens with Alana in labor, Marko delivering the baby, and both of them in hiding in an old body and repair shop.
As a new family, they seem to represent the possibility of peace between warring factions. But it’s more than just a battle between different people; it’s a battle between species. Thus, Vaughan makes cross-breeding between fictional fantasy creatures representative of miscegenation and a clear critique of persistent beliefs about racism as a barrier to love, marriage, and raising families in our world. I wasn’t surprised by this ethical/political content: Vaughan has never shied away from politics as can be seen in his two fantastic series Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina.
Their racial differences are presented through the colorful, magical artwork of Fiona Staples. Marko is a very cool looking character with ram-like horns, and I’m already half in love with Alana, a strong female character, who has wings. They each have a built-in dichotomy: Marko’s horns give him a fierce look for a pacifist, and Alana’s fairy-like wings don’t make her fey-looking or hide her strong, determined nature. Also, neither can really “pass” as another race, though there are more than just those two races in the book. In fact, there are a wide-variety of other creatures/humans that lead us to ask if “humanity” is based on looks or behavior. Vaughan seems to argue that a “person’s” actions, rather than appearance, defines them as “human/humane,” as being ethical; therefore, the way a character in the book appears can be deceiving — certainly a wonderful way to represent the old cliché about the deceptive appearance of looks.
But what is ethical for Vaughan? Is a book about war and with a main character, Marko, who comes from a warring family presenting war as good or bad? Vaughan seems to want us to praise Marko’s attempts at pacifism and his desire to never pull his sword from its scabbard. The sword is his most important treasure handed down to him in his family, so Vaughan puts Marko in some difficult situations involving the sword — ones dealing with more than just the difficulty of deciding whether to use it to kill — but I won’t give a spoiler about what he decides to do with this sword. Vaughan makes Alana the more aggressive character. As a result, he not only questions the simplistic assumptions about men being more equipped or predisposed for battle than women; he also raises the question about when it is okay to use physical force. SAGA, while clearly a critique of war, is not a simplistic presentation of the benefits of an uncomplicated pacifism.
One of my favorite parts of the comic is the letters column. Vaughan has really reached out to his readers in the back pages, including specific requests to military personnel to write in since the book is primarily about war. The exchanges have just started getting interesting as soldiers have begun to respond, so the monthly issues are worth getting for this back material. The comic is up to issue seven right now, and the trade collects issues 1-6. So, it’s not too late to join the party. However, only the story is given in the trade edition — no letters or extra material. You can read the bonus material if you get the individual issues digitally through Comixology, however. So, you wouldn’t actually need to track down hard copies at a comic store or ebay.
Though the content is worth thinking about and the pictures create an interesting new visual world/galaxy, the comic would fail, I believe, if it weren’t for the voice of the narrator and the witty dialogue. The narrator is Hazel, but we don’t know from what point in the future she is speaking, and we don’t know what happens to her parents. All we know is that she survived and is telling her life-story. This first-person perspective adds intimacy to the book as Hazel speaks to us about people she cares about. As readers, we are easily led to care about them too. Our caring leads us to be concerned when, at the end of the first issue, Hazel tells us on the second-to-last page: “My name is Hazel. I started out as an idea, but I ended up something more. Not much, to be honest. It’s not like I grow up to become some great war hero or any sort of all-important savior.” Her words raise expectations and increase reader anticipation. And, in reference to her parents, she says, “but thanks to these two, at least I get to grow old.” However, once one flips to the next, and final, page of this first issue, the reader sees only one image — that of Marko holding Hazel and kissing Alana, with only Hazel’s narrating words scrawled above their heads, “Not everybody does.” And so this text-to-image placement makes us wonder: Which parent dies? Or do both Marko and Alana die? Or is Vaughan just toying with his readers here? This is a comic with a plot that feels as if it could go anywhere.
Finally, the dialogue between Marko and Alana moves from humorous to touching to heated and makes them seem like us. The first page opens with Alana giving birth and being concerned with more than just a baby coming out with her husband there watching, concerned that he might not be attracted to her again. He sounds like a husband in love, “You have never been as beautiful as you are right now.” And Alana sounds like a woman not to be lied to, “Right, because nothing’s more lovely than a fat woman spread-eagle in the back of an old body shop. It’s like something out of a fairy tale.” She tries to fight through the pain to give birth naturally, but Marko offers her a healing spell, reminding her there’s “no shame in managing pain!” As a father of two, for me these moments rang all too true and made me laugh hard. But I was also touched when the humorous tone naturally turned more serious, and Marko cried in joy holding up the just-delivered baby girl and declared with deep sincerity, “She’s perfect.” Alana responds, “Look, she’s gonna have your horns.” “And your wings,” replies Marko. This is not really a man with horns assisting a woman with wings to give birth to a baby with both horns and wings: These are parents in love with each other and their baby. Vaughan emphasizes similarity over difference. The villains we see in the comics do the opposite, judging others for their differences and assuming those differences always make these others inferior. And there are a lot of these villains whose main trait is this judgmental perception that guides their weapons of war. And there are some others folks, too. Some good. Some I’m not so sure about yet. I can’t wait to find out.
If there are only a few current comics you keep up with, SAGA should be one of them. At the moment, I’ll give it 4 1/2 stars because I don’t know where it’s going yet and how, or if, it will all come together. But I can see this comic easily turning into a five-star series by the time it ends.
These comics have been on the periphery of my awareness for a while now: a mention in conversation there, a glimpse of it on a website there, and so I finally settled down to see what all the fuss was about. Toted as “a tour de force” and a “pop culture phenomenon”, I was afraid SAGA had been overhyped. And perhaps it was a little, though it was still page-turning, mind-bending, and immensely imaginative.
With the sci-fi scope and family drama of Star Wars combined with the rapid-fire banter of Joss Whedon and a hefty dose of sex, violence and gore, SAGA is the story of Marko and Alana, two soldiers from a planet and a moon that have been at war for generations. Having fallen in love, deserted their posts, and now on the cusp of parenthood, the two are desperate to escape the planet of Cleave and find a safe place to raise their family.
But enemies are closing in from both sides of the conflict: television-faced robots, spider-like assassins, a giant turquoise cat that can tell when someone’s lying — there’s seemingly no end to the weird and wonderful creatures that fill every page of this story. As they close in on Marko and Alana, the young parents use a combination of skill, wits and sheer dumb luck to keep one step ahead, traversing a dangerous planet in search of escape.
Despite all the outrageous sci-fi trappings, SAGA at its heart is a love story between two people grappling with issues any young couple might face. There’s nothing gushy or overly romantic about their relationship — heck, the story opens with Alana worrying about whether she’s going to defecate over her husband while she gives birth. It’s messy, complicated and more than a little gross at times, but it’s also life in all its hardship and unexpected beauty.
That said, there’s bound to be something in here that will upset the delicate sensibilities of some readers, starting with scenes of breast feeding, moving through to graphic robot sex, and culminating in a visit to a planet-wide brothel. At times the story felt it was trying a little too hard to be shocking, though after a while the gore and copulating gets a little ho-hum thanks to the sheer volume of it.
Brian K. Vaughan keeps the story intimate even as it captures the massive scope of the universe in which Marko and Alana are trying to survive, and Fiona Staples backs up the text wonderfully in her colourful, expansive, detailed panels. Things like body language and facial expressions are captured in every character (even the ones without a face!) and it’s impossible not to get drawn into the world that’s on display.