For the aspiring comic book creator, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is equal parts inspiring and intimidating. The moment you finish the first chapter, you immediately find yourself sitting down to write or draw something that aims to be every bit as unique and artistically accomplished, even as you are simultaneously crippled with terror by the thought that you’ll never succeed at making anything even a fraction as good.
Yes, make no mistake: the universal acclaim Saga has received from critics and fans alike, and the many awards its won are all very well deserved: it’s easily one of the best comics created in the last decade, and those wondering where they should start in the vast sea that is comics could do a lot worse than dipping their toes in the water with Saga.
Saga takes place in a universe made up of a mishmash of sci-fi and fantasy trappings, where young couple Marko and Alana find themselves on the run from both sides of a galaxy-wide war.
The reason these two lovers deserve all this attention? Well, she’s from Landfall and he’s from Wreath – a technology-driven planet in conflict with its own magic-using moon – and they’ve not only deserted their respective armies, but audaciously, they’ve also had a child together.
Over the course of the first six chapters that comprise Saga – Volume 1, Alana and Marko face the struggles of parenthood (which includes appointing a ghostly teenage girl as daughter Hazel’s first babysitter), all while being chased by Prince Robot IV (a guy with a television set for a head) and a bounty hunter who owns a cat capable of telling when someone is lying.
In short, its bizarre, exciting, funny, moving, silly, and any other adjectives you can think of to describe great fiction, made by artists at the top of their game.
Thanks to work on titles like Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man, Vaughan has established himself as one of the best comic book scribes of his generation, and Saga might well be his best work yet.
While he has always shown a knack for dialogue and layered characterisation (both of which Saga certainly has in spades), this series represents the first time Vaughan has used first person narration in his storytelling, and he excels at it, scripting tight, effective prose that hits the necessary plot or emotional beats, but otherwise letting the pictures tell the story.
And what pretty pictures they are. If, like me, you’d never encountered Staples artwork before reading Saga, prepare yourself for a revelation. Her incredible style genuinely stands out from the majority of contemporary comics artwork, with its marriage of pen and ink figures on animation-inspired backgrounds, and her page layouts are always designed to service to the needs of the story first and foremost.
But what really makes Saga special is that it’s the product of Vaughan and Staples bringing their individual talents together (something that ties into the overall theme of the series itself, but I’ll get to that in a moment).
Vaughan’s excellent characterisation and deft scripting coupled with Staples brilliant “acting” brings each of the story’s wonderful characters to life, so that even amid all the spells and sex planets (I’m not making that last one up…) these imaginary men and women look and feel utterly real (oh yeah, while we’re talking about women – this might be a great book to start with if you’re a comics newbie, but it’s the perfect book start with if you’re a feminist comics newbie).
Staples also does a sterling job handling the hyper-violence, explicit sex and liberal profanity that Vaughan expertly deploys, and they both do a great job of contrasting this with the innocent narration provided by Hazel.
You could make a pretty strong argument that the way Hazel’s monologues are handled is the critical component that makes this first volume of Saga tick. Staples’ handwritten letters are perfect for the words Vaughan has given to Hazel, and the way both have worked together to arrange this text in a similar format to that used in a child’s storybook lends the work an overall air of whimsy, even as it ties the prose and pictures even more tightly together.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
As a result of how well all its creative elements flow together, Saga – Volume 1 is a breeze to read through, and I imagine it’s possible to get to the end without taking in anything more than the highly entertaining top level story. But aside from all the ray guns and rocket ship trees (again, not making that up…), what is the story actually about?
Well, for all the crazy set dressing in Saga, when you get right down to it, it’s really just an examination of parenthood.
Ok, so it’s not quite as simple as that. As Vaughan so eloquently said in an interview with Time:
“I wanted to write about parenthood, but I wanted to Trojan-horse it inside some sort of interesting genre story, to explore the overlap between artistic creation and the creation of a child.”
The parallel between the creation of art and birthing a child is a smart thematic observation, and one explored from the beginning of the very first chapter in the series, as Hazel retrospectively narrates her own birth, linking it to the idea of individuals coming together to take something fragile and help it to survive and flourish.
The need for parents to ensure the safety of their children is key to another major theme that runs through Saga, that of violence.
Throughout the first volume, we’re shown that Marko has sworn off violence, based off the sensible reasoning that engaging in violence will only lead to yet more violence, forming an unending cycle of bloodshed.
When faced with losing his wife and child however, Marko finally breaks his vow of pacifism (with a gusto, it must be said) in order to keep them safe, raising the question of whether violence is ever justified and if so, how the cycle can ever be broken.
Vaughan is a mature enough writer not to try to provide any neat answers for these types of philosophical puzzles, and rather leaves them for the reader to reflect upon.
He also does a solid job of weaving political undertones into the story, most notably in the outsourced nature of the galactic conflict (if you’re a planet at war with your own moon, you can’t very well go and blow it up, now can you? Better to have other planets fight on your behalf to decide who wins!), which highlights the plight of the average person caught up in all this kerfuffle without any interest in the wider political ramifications, and who just wants to be able to live their life in peace.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
There’s a tendency when you’re reviewing something to try to find something to be critical of even when you love the work in question, in order to avoid gushing and provide a well-rounded appraisal.
Well, I’ve tried finding fault in Saga and I honestly can’t – its well written and drawn, entertaining and thought provoking, and most importantly, bold and original.
Even thinking about it now makes me want to pick up my pencil and get cracking on a groundbreaking new comic book of my own, despite how scarily high Vaughan and Staples have set the bar for all those who follow in their footsteps.