SAGA Volume Four, Issues 19-24 by Brian K. Vaughan (author) & Fiona Staples (illustrator)
Saga is one of those series that is so wildly popular, like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos, that you start to worry how the writers can maintain its high quality. Can they keep up the momentum, originality, artistic integrity, and entertainment that make the series so special? Or will they hit a wall and produce a total stinker of an ending, like Lost, or just fade into mediocrity like Glee. I’m so invested in the characters and world-building that it would be a tragedy if things headed south. So I’m glad to report that Saga Vol 4 remains great, and that Vaughan and Staples have managed to surprise yet again with totally unexpected story directions and even more new and intriguing characters.
The domestic drama of Alana and Marko has developed into the most realistic depiction of the ups and downs of a young couple with a baby that I have read in a long time. That this can be somehow incorporated into the larger story of a galactic war fought on numerous planets, embroiling dozens of species and people into a vicious and zero-sum conflict that produces many victims and no winners, is a testament to the storytelling skills of Brian K. Vaughan. And the artwork remains vivid, precise, beautiful, shocking and charming in each frame – Fiona Staples is my favorite comic book artist now, hands down. Clearly these two artists complement and inspire each other to an amazing degree.
In particular, Vaughan and Staples have mastered the art of leading the reader with smaller panels to a full-page image with a poignant or humorous comment from Hazel, Alana and Marko’s daughter who has grown up before our very eyes. This is done particularly brilliantly in Vol 4, particularly the end of Chapter 18 (which details the stresses of Alana’s new career and Marko’s stay-at-home-dad), Alana’s first experience with Fadeaway, Dengo’s meeting with the Princess, and most frighteningly a full-page image of Dengo aboard the HMS Skyscraper. The buildup is so well done that I know something shocking or sad is waiting on the next page, and my finger hesitates above the Kindle, as I try to imagine what is coming next.
The narration by the future Hazel continues to be excellent, as she shares her observations on her growing up, and more importantly the difficulties faced by her parents, who can’t seem to catch a break. Of course it’s a given that any ongoing series needs to create conflict, setbacks, fights, moral conundrums, etc for the characters to navigate, and that all protagonists need various arcs to keep things interesting. But Vaughan lets us know on occasion that he is fully aware of these requirements but he isn’t satisfied with sticking to formula. Even when the story strays into territory that could easily be clichéd, our faithful narrator Hazel gives us a snarky comment as if to say, “Yeah, I know you were expecting X, but that’s boring. I’m going to give you Y, Z, and then A’ instead. Isn’t that so much cooler, anyway?”
Volume 4 is also very bold by introducing the character of Dengo – just another peon in the Robot Kingdom who hides a deep-seated grudge. When he decides to act on his anger and seek vengeance, his actions completely flip the script and disrupt numerous storylines. I was genuinely chilled by his actions and reminded yet again that Saga is not just escapist fantasy. When someone decides they have been wronged and that they can adopt any means to get their revenge, you have only to look at daily terrorist bombings in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Africa, and the depressingly frequent mass shootings in the US to understand that this mentality is REAL, and people can ruthlessly kill innocent bystanders when they think that justice or God is on their side.
At this point, Saga has gone well beyond just a quirky and profane Star Wars meets Romeo and Juliet story. It’s unafraid to address topics close to our hearts like the troubles of being first-time parents, the temptations of the flirtatious neighbor or co-workers offering a way to ‘take the edge off’ a soul-crushing job. And then the next chapter shows us in gory detail the everyday violence that war imposes on both soldiers and civilians, often making no distinction whatsoever. I’ve never encountered a story that can balance such wildly divergent tones and still pull them both off. Add to that a wonderfully ironic and knowing sense of humor, and the phenomenal artwork of Fiona Staples, and it’s easy to see why this is one of the hottest comic book series of the decade.
From Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (illustrator) comes the next part of SAGA, the galaxy-spanning epic of war, death, sacrifice, politics, lineage, and – at its core – a single nuclear family. Alana and Marko are both soldiers from opposite sides of a conflict that’s been waging between Landfall and its moon Wreath for decades, but having fallen in love and given birth to a daughter, all they want is a place to raise her in safety.
Hazel is now a toddler, though the entire saga is narrated by a much older (and unseen) Hazel some undisclosed years after the fact, lending her commentary to events as they unfold. Though the story involves the sprawling content you’d expect from something called SAGA, Vaughan is careful to point out that even when Alana and Marko temporarily find themselves in a relatively stable environment, not everything is automatically sunshine and roses, and even the greatest romances can’t maintain passion and excitement forever.
This edition has Marko as a house-husband looking after Hazel while Alana works a soul-destroying job as an actress on the Open Circuit, a trashy theatre group that broadcasts soap operas across the galaxy. As another character puts it: “some art may have the power to change people, but the Circuit can only ever change the way we feel, and never for very long,” drawing a direct correlation between it and drugs.
Which is another more banal thing our protagonists have to deal with here: drugs, and romantic temptation, and even a little domestic violence. Despite the weird and wonderful settings and characters on display here, Vaughan makes sure all the conflicts and choices are grounded and relatable. He also has some interesting points to make about the intersection of truth and storytelling: only lowly janitor goes on a violent crusade to get his message out to the public, while another tries to convince him no one will care about his loss or politics unless he spices it up with a little intrigue and sex.
This particular issue also delves a little more into one of their enemies: Prince Robot IV, who has been charged by Landfall to kill the couple and bring back their daughter alive. To do so, he’s been required to leave behind his pregnant wife – or not so pregnant, as the first panel of this issue demonstrates. (There’s a tendency in this series to include at least one “shock panel” per edition – in this case it’s the exact moment of birth for a television-headed infant. Be warned that this series can get pretty bizarre at times).
The idea of a race of aliens that have televisions for heads certainly sounds ridiculous, but Staples gives them enough body language to help readers infer their thoughts and feelings without any facial expressions; not to mention the images that occasionally flicker on their screens. In a nice bit of visual world-building, there’s even a class difference established in whether or not their screens are displayed in colour or black-and-white. And wait until you see what the king looks like!
All this is to say that SAGA can be truly bizarre at times, yet remains populated by characters that are sympathetic and understandable, each one forced to wade through the waters of moral ambiguity that war and violence inevitably create.