Why you Should read: Saga, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples
By Luke Frostick
I’ve been meaning to do a review of a comic book for some time now. I’ve been a fan of comic books for most of my life from Tintin, Asterix and The Beano as a child, into Japanese manga through my teens, and now back into the coloured world of Western comics. It’s always been clear to me that the medium of comics has the potential to create fantastic works of art as a natural combination of fine art and literature. I won’t argue that this potential has been, with the exception of a few bright stars, somewhat squandered in Western comics. Saga, the first collaboration of writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona staples, two sickeningly talented individuals with strings of awards behind them, is one of those bright stars that shows that there is hope for the medium. With the reasonably recent release of volume seven, it’s time to have a look at it again.
Saga is a science fiction in the Star Wars, space opera tradition of the genre. By that, I mean there isn’t any science. Rather, the story just happens to be set in space with rockets, laser guns, and plenty of other imaginative bits and pieces including liar cats, ghost babysitters, and a rocket tree powered by magic.
All those details are really just dressing (very pretty though it is) for the plot and characters. The plot seems, on the surface, to be very simple: there are two eternally warring species separated by a physiological difference. One species has horns, the other wings. Our heroes Marko (horns) and Alana (wings) have fallen in love, in defiance of the long-standing hatred between the two races. It’s Romeo and Juliet but with a twist that on the surface seems slight but sends what could be a predictable story careening off into uncharted territory. Alana and Marko have a child, Hazel, born in the first few pages (drawn in great detail). Suddenly tragic double suicide isn’t an option, as Alana, Marko, and little Hazel have to fight to find a safe place in hostile universe. A universe where Hazel’s very existence undermines many of the lies that both sides have been telling themselves for as long as they can remember. For their act of love, Alana and Marko will be pursued from one end of the galaxy to the other by politicians, assassins, and murderous TV faced androids.
The writer Brian K. Vaughan uses this framework to explore two themes: family and diversity. Like the premise of the plot, these are two deceptively simple, even trite topics. But he handles it with a very gentle touch, creating a galaxy of seemingly endless races and species and equally endless possibilities for hatred and discrimination. The heroes are those that are able to see past race, gender and sexuality, while the villains are those who shamelessly manipulate those divisions for their own purposes.
Yeah, it's a message that I can’t get enough of right now .
The second theme that the story constantly returns to is family. The adventures of Marko and Alana pull and tear at their relationship. Vaughn uses high space opera to explore issue and problems that anybody who’s ever had a family can probably relate to. One of the interesting choices is the narrator, which is the young Hazel, who is essentially providing a family history. It certainly made me reflect on my own parents and reminded me that their raising of me was an adventure of sorts that I can see reflected in Marko and Alana’s journey through the stars.
That being said, the plot is not without its flaws. I read Saga in the compiled volumes rather than in individual editions, and I found that the story can be a bit episodic with situations and troubles coming up and resolved in quick succession without enough time to develop. It robs each individual arc of some of its impact and what should have been seminal moments are powered through in a few sparse pages. Balancing this out are the characters. Vaughan creates incredible characters, with only a few well-placed lines of dialogue and Fiona Staples’ artwork. They feel real: their personalities rounded and their interactions believable. When the dark universe of Saga comes to take them away, you feel the impact.
The art is its other major selling point. It’s beautiful. Fiona Staples has a bold and colourful style that clashes delightfully with the dark twists of the story. She has a real talent for designing characters, from the television-faced androids of the Robot Monarchy, to glorious splash pages of space, and a huge range of alien species created by anthropomorphising animals in interesting ways. As mentioned above, the two primary factions are one with wings and another with horns. This may seem quite artistically limiting. However, seeing all the clever ways Staples shows this distinction became one of the things that I’ve enjoyed most in Saga.
On a slight side note and returning to the theme of diversity, there are little subversions that the writer and artist seem to enjoy. An interesting one is that within both factions, all skin tones seem to be equal, the trigger of hatred is what’s attached to the head or back.
So the art is great, the story compelling, but what makes comics a unique medium is when those two elements work together. Saga demonstrates this magnificently. An example that stuck with me is in volume two when Alana meets Markos parents. With all his prejudices, Markos’ father asks a leaving Alana: “Then child. Is it… normal?” She turns to him, babe in arms, points a laser in his face and says, “No she’s fucking perfect.” The blank background, the cold rage on her face, the implied motion is a profound moment that could only have been done in comic books.
Saga is one of those comics that proves the value of the medium, if such a thing is actually needed. If you're an adult (oh and believe me, adults only. Parents, do not give this comic to your kids, it gets very graphic) and you want to get into comics, or want a new series to get started on, then pick up Saga.
If you want to read Saga you can find it here