SAGA. Because You Should Totally Be Reading SAGA
SAGA. Because You Should Totally Be Reading SAGA
Every few years, a comic comes along that genuinely defies all expectations. It turns the established narrative of What Comic Readers Want on its ear, and categorically reshapes the industry and its expectations. Comics like these are the zeitgeist, capturing both the moment they are received and the future acclaim of generations. Lee and Kirby’s FANTASTIC FOUR. WATCHMEN. SANDMAN. PREACHER. These are names spoken in tones of awe and reverence, touchstones of geek culture as precious and immediate as any Bible, any Quran, any holy text of note to any number of the devoutly faithful. And yes, after just twenty issues, I’m prepared to say that SAGA, the best fucking comic on the stands today, will be spoken of with that same timbre of adoration. Are you reading SAGA? Because you really fucking need to be reading SAGA.
Any attempt to summarize the plot of this series would by necessity skip a tremendous amount of the nuance and verve that so define the book, but for the uninitiated – SAGA is a science fiction/fantasy Romeo and Juliet, with two members of warring alien species (Marko from Wreath, whose inhabitants primarily work with magic; and Alana from Landfall, who are more militaristic) falling in love in spite of their upbringings and learned prejudices. The twist comes on page one, when it turns out the story is being narrated by their daughter, Hazel – and that it all starts with her birth. Of course, that barely begins to capture the sheer balls-out craziness this series has already brought, including but not limited to a ghost babysitter, a naked Cyclops, Robots with TV heads having graphic sexual intercourse, a Lying Cat (THE Character Find of Last Year) and a childbirth so graphic that it makes a similar scene from MIRACLEMAN seem Broadcast Standard Approved by comparison.
Nope, not that one. It’s also impossible to convey the level of sweetness, heart, and gut-punching sadness this comic evokes issue after issue. Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples have taken a truly fantastic alien universe and populated it with devastatingly human characters. It’s a terrible cliché, but in this case, it’s apt – Marko and Alana feel like real people, and their relationship reflects that reality. They have fights and misunderstandings and get stressed over the kid and that responsibility; they draw strength from one another and pull each other up and have wild, nasty sex when there’s a moment to spare. And it’s not just our protagonists who get the lion’s share of characterization; going into detail would mean spoiling some of the best surprises in the series, but it’s worth noting that there isn’t a single one-note character, stereotype, or archtype among the primary cast of SAGA. Not one.
The dialogue in SAGA is almost completely note-perfect, thanks to Vaughan’s magnificent wordsmithing. I admit, I’ve been in the tank for Vaughan for years – I was an early booster for Y: THE LAST MAN back in the day, and I’ve picked up more or less everything he’s done since (and a bit of his early work, too – man, his SWAMP THING comics are Not Very Good). Vaughan’s prior work relied pretty heavily on the pop culture references to keep the dialogue snappy – which was fine, because that work was set in the present day, with characters whose knowledge of that world made sense. Some critics were worried early on that Vaughan’s work wouldn’t read as smoothly without this particular crutch to fall back on; that the challenge of working without a quip net would capsize the series out of the gate. Vaughan himself seems to have been concerned about this as well – in the letters page for issue six, he jokingly confesses that if poor sales had led to a series’ cancellation, he’d planned to blow up the rocket Marko and Alana had just used to escape. Instead, Vaughan has proven how smart and sharp a writer he actually is; by focusing on the characters and their relationships, he maintains a quick, ebullient pace and infuses his cast with wit, soul, and passion. He’s also honed his last page cliffhangers, already so effective in Y, to a razor’s edge – each issue leaves the reader screaming for the next, cursing the wait (sometimes as long as three months) between issues.
All of this should in no way downgrade or minimize Fiona Staples’ contribution to the series. Indeed, SAGA would be a very different, probably much duller book if any other artist were at the helm. I am not an artist, and I feel laughably unqualified to talk art and illustration with any kind of professional bearing. However, I can say that Staples has a command of form and facial expression that is almost unheard of in serial comics; her visuals articulate the emotion of the story so beautifully that sometimes Vaughan’s words are almost unnecessary. She combines this preternatural understanding of the human body with a color palate that is at once dazzling and unobtrusive – her often matte backgrounds draw the eye to the more vibrantly hued characters, giving them weight and substance while still defining the world they are set against, and reacting too.
It’s also worth noting that Staples has one of the most vivid imaginations in comics. Her talent for character design can simply not be overstated, and even when she’s working from Vaughan’s scripted descriptions, she creates something truly unique. SAGA is populated with any number of strange and bizarre creatures, each one beautifully rendered with Staples’ unmistakable skill. Her talent makes SAGA one of the most visually distinct and pleasingly individual books on the shelf every month.
SAGA is, hands down, the best comic currently in publication. Its success has led to the recent boom at Image, heralding a new age of creator-owned comics from those with a passion for the medium and the story they wish to tell. Three trades, collecting the first eighteen issues, are now available online or from your local book people, and issue twenty hit comic stores last month. Or hell, you can always just pick up the series digitally from Image.