Saga

11 Aug

Saga is an epic space opera/fantasy comic book series written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, published monthly by Image Comics. A tree that doubles as a rocket ship. Aristocratic villains in 18th-century military dress with televisions for heads. A hairless cat who growls “LYING” at any knowingly untrue statement. A planet-sized bordello hosted by a pair of women’s heads on fishnet-stocking-wearing legs. This is but a dash of the unbelievable imagery you encounter in just the first six issues of Saga – a comic-book epic proves there’s still room for originality in the over-franchised world of sci-fi. The space opera—a sub-genre of science fiction that tends towards vivid, romantic fantasy and swashbuckling action and away from “harder,” more speculative sci-fi—has never really gone fully out of vogue since the success of Star Wars. But it’s gotten pretty stagnant, recycling the most universally recognizable tropes. What Saga is doing feels different and invigorating. It’s inspired by a fictional universe Vaughan created as a child and never stopped revisiting, and its core elements have the kind of loopy, fearless freshness only a young mind could generate.

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. 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. 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.

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. It might sound weird to call a comic which prominently features half-naked spider-women as “real,” but when it comes to the characters, Saga feels tremendously authentic. Marko and Alana aren’t cogs on The Hero’s Journey, they’re two fully realized people that love each other tremendously without it ever once feeling sappy, that fight and fuck and tease each other like real couples do, that don’t give two shits about their peoples’ war, but only about their new child. As mentioned above, the “villains” of Saga have their own completely understandable motivations, and aren’t even close to 2-D bad guys. But Saga is primarily a story about new parents bringing a child into a world that often seems awful; Alana and Marko want the joy of a child, while The Will calls them assholes for bringing a baby into such a horrible universe. Vaughan was partially inspired to write Saga as a new parent himself, and it’s not hard to understand the dilemma that any parents — new, old, or to be — are too often wrestling with these days.

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