Saga #1 (written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples, published by Image)
One of the most admirable qualities of Saga is its playful nature. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples experiment with form quite a bit in this first issue, whether it’s the narration of the main characters’ daughter Hazel, elegantly integrated into the page by Staples, the blend of world-building and darkly comedic tone, or the little touches thrown into the images, like a soldier clutching an informant’s tail to make sure he doesn’t run off. Saga is set in a fantasy universe of the “galaxy far, far away” variety, where war is waged between different humanoids: horned mystics on one end, winged soldiers and their robot masters on the other, with other races and species falling somewhere in between in an almost dizzying variety; two members of the opposing sides, Alana and Marko, have fallen in love, gotten married in secret, and had a child, and are now hunted by their armies for treason. This premise is as old as storytelling gets, but the way its creative team explores this culture clash is both visually and thematically refreshing.
While Vaughan is the more marketable name on this comic (see this article, which only mentions him and people not working on Saga), Fiona Staples is the real star. Her imagery has a dreamlike quality, a feeling aided by the hazy blues, greens, and browns that form the backgrounds, and is very symbolic. Much of the plot hinges on cultural differences between the warring sides, filtered through racial and religious terms–whether it’s slurs thrown at one side or the other, or an argument between Alana and Marko that mirrors the circumcision debate–and the alien designs, with variants amongst the races, suggest far more nuances within each faction than the other side will care to admit. It reflects humanity’s tendency to paint a people they see as opposition, or “the Other,” with one broad brush. Cunningly relevant to post-9/11 America and it’s relationship with the Middle East, much like Vaughan and Niko Heinrichon’s lion-starring war fable Pride of Baghdad.
Another sly bit of commentary in Staples’ art comes with the robot leaders: dressed in the aristocratic garb of colonial Europe and sporting TV screens for faces, these contradictory elements show disconnect, from their subjects and from the war, which has been “outsourced” to other planets so the civilians don’t have to worry about their homes being destroyed (much like the War on Terror). This apathy is explored a bit in a…let’s say jarring…sex scene between two robots (from the royal family), where one shows disdain for their subjects, referring to them alternately as a “godforsaken flock” or “customers,” much to the chagrin of the other, who suffers robo-PTSD from a battle that’s hinted at in the story. Staples’ ability to express themes and characterization in a scene that could have been just as gratuitous as it is surreal shows her to be a major talent.
If there’s one thing that holds Saga back, it is Vaughan himself, a sentence I’m surprised even now to be typing, considering just how good of a writer he is. The plot is fine, and Vaughan uses Hazel’s narration to connect storytelling with childbirth through the word “idea,” which is fairly interesting, but the problem comes from what usually makes Vaughan’s comics so likeable: the banter. Just like his other comics, the dialogue is very snappy and witty, but rarely does it connect this time. A lot it makes references to ATMs, apps, and other concepts rooted in modern day Earth, instantly dating a story that should be universal, and hews too closely to the worst tendencies of Brian Michael Bendis. Also, no matter what reasons he has for writing this way, the line “Suck my hemorrhoids!” is something I wish my eyes could unread, but can only pass it along like a virus. Vaughan does manage to pull off Hazel’s narration, which makes droll observations, teases future stories that give an epic scope to the plot, and is often humorous. Even then, the main charm is how the words, which Staples hand-lettered, flow across the page and mingle with the background, when normally they would be segregated into a caption.
In spite of its glaring weakness, Saga holds so much promise, in its ideas and in its characters, and Staples’ art carries the dead weight of the inconsistent dialogue. The creators take chances with how to tell their story, even on the first page, which I won’t spoil, and don’t pretend that their fantasy is separate from our reality. Now, if only they would dial back the Bendis-speech.