Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: Saga, vols 1-4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Cover of Saga volume one Cover of Saga volume 2

It’s past time we talked about SAGA.

I mean, if you’ve ever asked me for comics recs, I’ve either told you to read it or squeed with you if you've already done so. SAGA is currently the comic, by which I mean it's the latest comic to sweep into my life and bowl me over. Y’all know I read (and rave about) a lot of the things, but it’s rare for me to get deeply, all-consumingly excited about one. So when another of the comics1 lands in my lap, it kicks things up a notch. I wander around in a comics-addled daze for anywhere from a month to several years. I tell everyone about this wonderful, glorious text. I push it like it’s my job. And sooner or later, the people around me start to listen.

SAGA isn’t just a comic. It’s the comic, and you need to read it.

What’s it about, the uninitiated among you ask?

The war between the winged citizens of Landfall and the horned people of its moon, Wreath, has raged on for as long as anyone can remember, and boy is it ever bloody. Since the destruction of one celestial body would mean the destruction of both, each side has called for a sorta-truce on their home turf and instead taken the fight to various other moons, planets, comets, and what-have-yous throughout the galaxy.

You can imagine how much this thrills the rest of the galaxy.

Marko, a soldier from Wreath, grows so sick of the constant fighting that he turns himself in to Landfallian forces as a conscientious objector. He expects to live out the rest of his short life in a prison camp, but his prospects change when Alana, a winged soldier with pacifistic ideas of her own, is assigned to guard him. They connect; Alana busts Marko out of jail; they go on the run; they get married; and, most importantly, they have a winged, horned baby named Hazel.

Neither Landfall nor Wreath can allow Hazel’s existence to become public knowledge, so both sides contract an assortment of freelancers, soldiers, and governmental officials to kill the couple and recover the proof of their illicit affair. It doesn't go particularly well for anyone..

Anyone except the reader, that is, because the resulting story is amazing.

No, seriously. Amazing.

Cover art for Saga volume three Cover art for Saga volume four

As much as I love the series (which currently stretches over four collected volumes that comprise twenty-four individual issues), I’ve always resisted writing about it because what do you (meaning I) even say about something like this? How do I encapsulate this experience? 5 stars is my “I loved this to the point of incoherence and/or verbosity” rating because I’m either gonna talk your ear off about these books or I’m gonna fail to say much beyond, “OMG SO AMAZING GO READ IT SO GOOD YOU NEED THIS IN YOUR LIFE.”

And that ain’t helpful.

It’s maybe a starting point, though, so let’s kick this shindig off with a Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical review.

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:

OMG YOU GUYS SO AWESOME SO PERFECT GO READ IT SAGA IS AMAZING it’s one of those books where you just get totally lost in it you know you sit back afterwards and you know it wasn’t totally perfect because nothing is but you can’t think of anything that was less than awesome because it was like the book was your entire life while you were reading it and I feel like Alana would understand that completely and that just makes me like the whole thing even more anyways it’s about real people even though they’re fictional and they themselves are far from perfect which is what makes them perfect as CHARACTERS and like practically everyone who’s important is a person of colour and there are lots of varied body types we see plump people and stocky people and skinny people and also people actually make an effort to communicate with each other which is SO NICE because so much of fiction is about miscommunication but then of course miscommunication seeps in eventually because this is real life or the fictional equivalent of it anyways AND IT IS SO TERRIBLE but let’s talk about something nice like FUCKING LYING CAT MAN best animal companion in comics and The Will is so great like he’s a terrible person but he’s also firmly against pedophiles and you bet your ass I like anyone who’s firmly against pedophiles and Sophie is great too I love how she’s developing and I love how much she loves Lying Cat and I love Alana and Marko too Alana’s really into books and she’s not some uber-soldier she’s just a regular person who was in the army and now has all sorts of problems because of it and Marko is pretty well a dork who can do magic I love dorks and HAZEL OMG SHE IS SUCH A GREAT NARRATOR I love Hazel so much she’s just a teeny tiny person at this point in the story but we still get her perspective because she’s telling it from some future vantage point and she’s awesome and dude I haven't even mentioned the art the art is so perfect and so clever and THE ROBOT KING'S HEAD OMG oh you guys this short gushy version is way longer than I wanted it to be and I still haven’t said much of anything I told you I was incoherent JUST READ IT, PLEASE, IT IS PERFECT.

The Semi-Coherent Version:

Okay. Let’s try to make some sense out of all that.

First and most important: SAGA is about real people (or fictional people who seem real. Y'all know what I mean). Yeah, they have wings or horns (or wings and horns), but their experiences radiate truth.

Like, both Alana and Marko have been soldiers in the galaxy-spanning conflict, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were good soldiers. We see Marko being a total badass, to a potentially terrifying degree, but his heart isn’t with the fight. (Perhaps because he knows how easy it is for him to lose control?) Alana’s superiors talk about her as shiftless and unreliable, and we later learn they formed that impression in part because of that time she hesitated to kill a couple hundred civilians during an urban engagement. (Damn, Alana, how dare you consider peoples' lives valuable?) The war has taken a huge, realistic tole on each of them, and they’re struggling to find their way even now they’ve ostensibly left it behind. They’re still discovering how to be people, and at the same time they're learning how to be parents. Their path demands they figure it out as they go, with minimal help and much of that untrustworthy. Sometimes they mess up, but it’s joy to watch them work hard to move forward together.

At least until they don’t.

Communication is always key between Alana and Marko. They come together because they talk and listen, and they stay together when they talk and listen. They solve problems as a team. It’s when they lose the space they need to fully communicate with one another that their relationship begins to crack.

I love them both very much.

Hazel, an adept communicator herself, serves as our intrepid narrator. While she milks her parents' story for dramatic effect, she's up front about her own future status. She's not some big, important person, she tells us, no matter what epic shit happened in the past; she's just a person, full stop, and she gets to be one because her parents fought so hard to keep her safe.

And as a regular person in charge of relaying this personal yet epic tale, Hazel takes a pure delight in words. She knows how to play the reader like a violin, sprinkling heartwrenching bits of foreshadowing and misdirection throughout the whole story. Her narrative voice is fabulous: frank, chatty, and disinclined to pull punches. You can see her having fun, off in her future storyteller’s world, even when she relays the darker moments. Damned if Hazel's gonna be bland about a story as big as this one.

She's one of my favourite narrators.

Moving away from the immediate family we have The Will, the freelancer Wreath High Command hires to kill Alana and Marko and bring Hazel in. The Will is one of those bad guys it’s pretty well impossible to dislike. Hazel tells us straight out that he’s a terrible person, just in case his plan to kill Our Heroes didn’t clue us in, and we see his vices right on the page. (Whores are a big ‘un, followed by sugary breakfast cereal.) But at the same time, he moves the whole frickin’ universe to rescue Sophie from a life of sexual slavery on Sextillion. He's pissed off that Vez sacrificed a gorgeous monster as a job interview. The psychotic vapours on the planet where he crash lands have to push him damned hard before he makes an unwelcome move on Gwendolyn. He’s got a strong, affectionate bond with Lying Cat. There’s clearly some hefty emotional stuff going on between him and his sister, The Brand. The Will is a complicated guy, not just a straight baddie who wants to kill Our Heroes and steal their baby.

I also find it really interesting that he never wears the mask attached to his hood. Hmmm.

The Will comes packaged with the best animal companion in comics: Lying Cat. She speaks up whenever anyone utters a falsehood around her, and she is frickin’ awesome. Lying Cat doesn’t take crap from anyone. Not even The Will, of whom she is clearly very fond. She’s also super-duper good with Sophie, who really needs someone to be super-duper good with her.

Prince Robot IV, whom the Landfallians have tasked with Alana and Marko’s capture, is an aristocrat with a TV for a head, a pregnant wife he can’t see until he’s completed his mission, and a fuckton of post traumatic stress. On the one hand, the reader wants him to stay the fuck away from Our Heroes because dude, as if we’d ever side with someone against them; but at the same time, it’s kind of impossible not to want IV to get back to his family. He’s an easy guy to empathize with, especially since there’s always this sense that he’s the fuck-up in the royal line. He survived one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent memory, but as another character reminds him, survival and victory aren’t the same thing. It’d be great to see him catch a break, provided his success doesn’t come at the central characters’ expense.

Maybe IV could redefine success going forward, hmmm?

A panoply of other interesting characters round out the cast. Izabel, Hazel’s soul-bonded nighttime babysitter, is a glowing pink ghost missing her lower half and capable of conjuring terrifying illusions. She has awesome dialogue and a crapload of wisdom, since being stuck as an eternal teenager hasn't stopped her from learning an awful lot about the universe. Klara, Marko’s mother, is an ex-soldier who slowly comes to accept the strange additions to her family and maybe, possibly, start something new her own self. Gwendolyn, Marko’s ex-fiancee, acquires goals beyond revenge and public service throughout the course of her own quest. Sophie develops strong, supportive relationships with women like Gwendolyn and Lying Cat, giving her the tools she needs to become who she wants to be rather than what others have made her. Upsher and Doff, the reporters who uncover Alana and Marko’s story and are coercively poisoned to keep them off the case, refuse to accept that they’re out of the game.

Even the smallest characters, like Alana’s fellow soldier McHenry and Ghüs the seal man, have their own distinct personalities. It’s possible to imagine them leading full lives off the page, even if Hazel never says another word about them.

It’s also impossible to discount that any character, living or dead, will return to play an important role. Ain’t nobody out of this game, no matter how shelved they may look.

The characters make SAGA, but the galaxy they inhabit is no less engrossing. It’s populated by a variety of species, each of which appears to comprise a number of races. Alana is this galaxy's version of Indian with vestigial dragonfly-type wings, but not all Landfallians look like her. Similarly, Marko is space-Japanese with ram horns, but there’s considerably racial variation amongst the Wreath-dwellers we meet. Other species get less page time, but what we see indicates that yep, there's no such thing as a single-raced species in this galaxy. We also see many different body types within each species, from super-skinny to pear-shaped to stocky to athletic to plump.

Each planet is as unfamiliar and enthralling as you’d expect an alien world to be--except many of the details of everyday life mimic those of contemporary Earth. There's a wonderful dissonance between the otherworldly settings Staples so carefully limns and the domestic grind of the people who inhabit them. Maybe you’ve got wings, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live in a detached bungalow with a two-car garage. (If you're not lucky enough to own a rooftop apartment with a landing pad, that is.) And hey, being a vicious hired killer doesn’t preclude you from having to call a tow truck or grumping over insurance premiums when a cosmic infant rips a great bloody hole in the side of your vegetable-shaped spaceship.

SAGA is strange and wonderful and grounded and real. I love it so much, and I absolutely cannot wait for more. I need to make sure everything’s going to be okay (yeah, it’s real nice over here in my dream world), but more than that I just need to see these characters and their glorious, painful worlds. I’ll suffer alongside them if that’s the only way we can hang out, because it’s better than leaving them all alone out there.

I assume there's a fair amount of suffering on the horizon, too, because the latest arc was absolutely fraught with peril. Bad Things happened. Lines were crossed. I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time thinking about it all, and hoping it can be repaired, and wondering if that’s even a valid hope. Because--and we’re heading into spoiler territory here, so beware--in Volume Four, Alana turns to drugs as an escape from the job that sucks her soul out of her ears and takes her away from her family for long stretches of time. And Marko, upon learning that Alana has been high in front of Hazel, takes a swipe at her.

I want to believe Alana can kick her addiction (which I strongly suspect she doesn’t consider an addiction, because that's how addiction works) and move forward without the drugs, but addiction is really fucking hard, and Alana tells her dealer this ain’t her first rodeo. She doesn't get into drugs; she gets back into drugs, and that's liable to make a big difference.

You never stop being an addict. You’re always recovering, never recovered, and most people need a lot of support to get--and keep--away from the focus of their addiction. Hazel tells us Alana confides in her about some things when Hazel is still far too young to hear it, so we can assume Alana gets some support from that quarter, but who's gonna help her until Hazel is old enough to semi-understand? Izabel can listen, but she's noncorporeal and can't physically affect anything. Klara's pretty wrapped up in her own shit. Marko is gone.

I'm so worried about Alana.

Similarly, I want to believe Marko would never hit Alana again, but statistics show that if someone hits you once, they’ll hit you twice. And we’ve seen that he’s prone to berserker rages once he gets going. Alana had to stun him to keep him from killing those soldiers back in the first volume. As I said above, I suspect he sheathed his sword in the first place because he recognized this capacity within himself.

Except on top of this known violent history, the things he says after the incident make me think he doesn't entirely understand why what he did was so wrong, and that's scary. I love Marko, but Alana's safety has to come first.

So my soul, it aches for them both. I want everything to be okay, but this comic? It’s realistic. And realistically, I just don’t see how it’s all gonna come back together.

I lie awake at night worrying about it. Honest truth.

That's how I know this is the comic, not a comic.

When I’m not worrying my arse off, I’m trying to focus on the Unlikely Team-Ups from the arc’s final issue instead. Unlikely Team-Ups are much more fun than crumbled relationships, and I so very much want to see where these ones go from here.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read SAGA, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy SAGA through The Book Depository or Amazon.

  1. Past examples include Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN, Wendy and Richard Pini’s ELFQUEST, Terry Moore’s STRANGERS IN PARADISE, Jeff Smith's BONE, and Linda Medley’s CASTLE WAITING.


  1. I just finished the first volume and I LOVE it!!

    1. I can't wait for you to read the rest of the series! It's beyond amazing.

  2. You nailed it re: Vol 4 (and everything else, really). I desperately want them both to be okay, but you know that when certain lines are crossed in a relationship there can't be any going back. I wouldn't want them to get back together if that meant what happened was swept under the rug, and I just can't see how they could work through it. MY HEART.

    1. If they weren't pangalactic fugitives, I'd hope for therapy of some sort, but I don't even see how they'd manage that with things as they are. MY SOUL HURTS, ANA.

  3. Oh man, I wasn't sure whether I should've been worried about the bag-throwing incident but now that you've put it in clearer terms I see that I definitely should be worried. The thing Izabel said in the aftermath of the incident kind of threw me (something about 'it's only vegetables' I think?). I was confused about what I should feel about this for literally DAYS (like, 'his anger is understandable but he shouldn't have done that, right?' kind of way). Like you said, one doesn't simply ever stop thinking about SAGA I guess.

    Also Unlikely Team-Ups! Super excited for that aspect because the relationship dynamics are sure to change and SAGA is great at unconventional relationships/friendships.

    And OH MY GOD KING ROBOT'S HEAD. Fiona Staples' sense of visual comedy is fucking brilliant.

    Your amazing review is giving me renewed SAGA feels, thank you.

    1. I'm pretty sure Marko's thinking of it like, "I hit the bag of groceries, not her." But of course, Alana was holding the bag of groceries, and having it ripped out of her arms hurt, and that makes it an enormous deal. It hurts my soul.

      The Unlikely Team-Ups, though! It's such a great way to shake things up, and to give a nod to the superhero comics tradition.

  4. I so much want Alana and Marko to find a way to be okay. I want that very much. Hazel's parents! I want them to find a way to be happy even though awful things happened! I am sad thinking about their current situation.

    ALSO: I like it that Sophie is older now and feels so comfortable with her posse. More of that please. SOPHIE.

    1. I share your sadness, Jenny. The spoilers I'd read pointed towards something like this happening, so I reread the first three volumes like, "How does Hazel refer to each of her parents? Is it super-duper obvious that one or both of them isn't around after a certain point?" And I kept seeing all this stuff that could be foreshadowing, but wasn't definitely foreshadowing because Vaughan and Staples are so good at misdirection, and I had no choice but to reread all twenty-four issues in a single night so I could make sure everything turned out all right.

      And of course, everything is not all right.

      SOPHIE, though! I'm so happy for Sophie, learning how to do stuff with Gwendolyn and helping save The Will and being buddies with Lying Cat. You go, Sophie. You live your dreams.