Today, Drew and Shelby are discussing Saga 1-6, originally released March 14th, April 11th, May 16th, June 20th, July 18, and August 15, 2012.
Drew: Eight months ago, Patrick floated the idea of covering Saga. At that time, we weren’t really considering expanding our coverage outside of DCs publication line, so we tabled the discussion. Almost eight months later, we’re finally expanding our coverage, and Saga is still at the top of our list. We like it. The only problem is, so does everybody else. I’m normally not worried about agreeing or disagreeing with fans or critics, but with a comic as universally loved as this one, will we have anything meaningful to add, arriving eight months late to the party? Looking back on the density of Saga‘s first six issues, I realize that we’re in no danger of running out of new things to say.
In the very first issue, Brian K. Vaughan deftly introduces everything we need to know about our small cast of characters and their circumstances. Alana and Marko are star-crossed lovers. Standing in for the Capulets and the Montagues are Landfall and Wreath, a planet and its moon respectively. They’ve been warring so long, nobody really remembers why, but that war has spread across the galaxy, forcing every being on every planet to choose a side. Issue 1 opens with Alana giving birth to a daughter, Hazel, who narrates the series as though the whole thing were a scrapbook. The Landfallian (Alana’s people) monarchy of Robots fear what effect such a crossbreeding would have on troop morale, so dispatch Prince Robot IV to kill them quietly. Wreath leadership has the same in mind, and dispatches The Will, a “freelancer” (a kind of mercenary/bounty hunter), to kill the parents and collect Hazel. With some difficulty, Alana, Hazel, and Marko manage to escape the planet — in an organic rocket ship, and with their new ghost nanny, Izabel, in tow — but not before doubling everyone’s resolve to catch them.
Intriguingly, all of the major players are largely motivated by parental instincts; Marko and Alana are just trying to make a good life for their newborn, Prince Robot IV is trying to wrap things up so he can be home in time for the birth of his own child, and The Will takes the job in order to buy a six-year-old girl out of slavery. Their capacity to kill each other, then, relies heavily on their lack of empathy for one another. Vaughan has done an incredible job setting up that lack of empathy, making essentially everyone view each other as monsters.
Both armies view the other as amoral killing machines with no relatable human needs. This is a horrifying fact of all war, as soldiers need to justify to themselves the thought of killing other people. Vaughan cleverly inverts this assumption when the Prince is interrogating a Wreath prisoner.
He doesn’t ask “can you understand my language?” just “can you understand language?” as though his is the only one. His dismissal of the soldier’s response as “good enough,” emphasizes the fact that he doesn’t recognize the Wreath language as a language at all. Hilariously, the wreath language is Esperanto, which was designed specifically as a global language, culling elements from many languages. If anyone can be said to speak “language,” as in “the abstract idea of language,” it’s the character speaking Esperanto.
Vaughan contrasts that isolating nature of war with the unifying nature of parenting. Now that they have a child (though clearly a little while before that) Alana and Marko want only peace. They want safety for their child. Their fears are no longer the trumped-up urban legends of what the other side is capable of; they’re more concerned with proper burping technique and just finding enough time to sleep. They’re parents of a newborn, and Vaughan cleverly observes that those concerns trump EVERYTHING, including an all-out galactic war.
One of my favorite new parent fears Vaughan taps into is the fear of letting anyone else care for your child. This abstract idea manifests itself as the legendary “Horrors” that inhabit the woods of Cleave (where the first six issues are largely set). Alana learns that those stories are a smoke screen put on by the local ghosts to scare away intruders, and eventually accepts one of those ghosts as Hazel’s new babysitter. It’s a clever representation of a common concern for parents — babysitters aren’t horrible monsters, after all, and maybe they can actually be helpful, thoughtful individuals.
Of course, Izabel can’t really DO much, being intangible and all (which may speak to the ineffectual nature of such temporary help), but I’m anxiously awaiting her first opportunity to cut loose and scare the crap out of somebody.
Geez, I’ve spent so much time talking about themes, I haven’t really left any time to detail why Fiona Staples art is so effective in selling the reality of these situations. I trust Shelby will have some things to say about that, but like I said, this title is so dense, who really knows? I’ll refrain from giving you any kind of specific prompt, Shelby, for that same reason. I can’t guess what you’ll want to focus in on, so I’ll leave it to you. Shelby: Saga. GO!
Shelby: Vaughan has a way about him of writing believable characters. At its simplest, Alana and Marko are a man and a woman, trying to keep their new baby safe, and raise her to be a good person. That’s the very core of our story, and it’s something we can believe, something we all understand. We look outward, and we see that they are on opposite sides of a war no one understands, and they want to take their daughter to a place where she won’t be clouded by hate. This is still a very understandable story for the reader; even if we’ve never experienced the “star-crossed lovers” thing, we are familiar with it. Furthermore, it cements our story core into place and ties us to the characters with drama and romance. By the time we look outward again, and realize we’ve got two different races of creature, one ruled over by robots, fighting to escape a planet in a spaceship tree with their disemboweled ghost babysitter, we’re too attached to think twice about the strangeness of it all. Vaughan has spun a web of characters which are all, at their very cores, very simply motivated. I can relate to their struggles, I find myself rooting for them all at various moments. This is, to me, the best kind of science fiction: tangible, believable characters in a fantastic and well-built universe.
The love in this book is incredible. Marko was willing to break a sacred vow of peace, and then physically break is sword out of love for Alana and Hazel. Alana was willing to kill her own daughter to keep her away from the enemy, her love for Hazel was so strong. Robot IV happily killed The Stalk out of love for a child who hasn’t even been born yet, and The Will will just as happily kill Robot IV for his love for The Stalk. How is it the characters of this universe have taken love to such an extreme? They would all die for their love, or kill for it, or both, probably. I believe the war between Landfall and Wreath is the cause. These groups of people have turned unabashed hatred into a fine art; their passion for their hatred is so strong, it blinds them to everything, including the reasons for their hatred in the first place. If they feel hatred that strongly, why wouldn’t they feel love just as strongly? Their passion, paired with a desensitization to murder that endless horrific wars tend to breed, has turned them into loving killing machines.
So, what’s next for this story? The Robots are still after Alana, just like I’m sure there are still a couple free-lancers out there looking for Marko. They are bound to be some hilarious shenanigans between Alana and her recently arrived in-laws. The Will is, I imagine, going to give up his hunt for Marko and Alana to hunt down Robot IV, but if his new quarry leads him straight to his old, I’m sure he’d take the hit. He strikes me as a “two birds, one stone” kind of guy. And in the middle of it all is Hazel. She’s the one character we know makes it out, at least long enough to write the diary/scrapbook we’ve got in our hands. She’s also, at this point, the least developed character as well as the one we feel the least tied to (we’re not wholly ambivalent to her, of course, I can’t deny the character appeal of “baby”). If there’s anything I know about Vaughan, especially when paired with Staples’ beautifully rendered expressions, it’s this: I’m going to be bawling like a baby once this title is over.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?
Can we talk about what a weird choice it is to not give the robots faces? From a design perspective, it’s a super-compelling blend of old and new technologies, sorta slapped on a humanish body. But from a character perspective, it means the audience has to do a little extra work to sympathize with those characters. I must have read that scene with Price Robot talking a shit and finding out that his wife was pregnant four or five times trying to figure out how he felt about it. There are clues in the text, but a flat, blank screen is the absolute opposite of emotive. And that’s a STARK FUCKING CONTRAST to the rest of the characters Staples draws. Any guesses as to what it means?
Its funny you see it that way — I actually see the monitor faces as extremely expressive. Sure, Prince IV is damn inscrutable in that latrine scene, but I actually took that to be a very flat affect on his part (which is why the princess isn’t convinced by his excitement). The way his monitor occasionally flashes random, often violent images suggests to me that he’s actually barely repressing his memories of his tour of duty (which was, by all accounts, horrible). I read the difficulty in reading his emotions as him intentionally being difficult to read — he’s hardened himself to not feel any emotions too strongly, for fear of totally losing it.
How awful would it be to have all your thoughts literally drawn on your face? Everyone knows exactly what you are thinking about, because there’s a god-damned picture of it in front of them. It would take Vulcan-level emotion suppression to just get through the day.
So, star-crossed lover stories always act as a bit of an indictment of the conflicts that make them unlikely (wars, gang wars, family feuds, etc), but Saga seems to be focusing on these elements. Perhaps having Marko and Alana already resigned to their love allows the focus to shift back to how the war affects them and their new family. A developing theme already seems to be the loss of humanity during war, but it will be especially interesting to watch the conflict play out through Hazel’s eyes, since she simply won’t be able to buy that either side is inherently evil. Maybe both sides of the war are right to fear her existence (you know, unless they want the war to stop or something).
When BKV talked about this series at the midnight release, he said that he wanted to show more how it doesn’t matter what else is going on in your world – when you have a child, THAT becomes the center of your world. There’s obviously going to be some balancing of old priorities with new priorities, but the driving idea is that Hazel is the only thing that matters anymore. The War is backdrop, and I don’t expect Hazel plays any role in unifying anything. Like it almost feels emotionally insincere to make her some kind of element of peace throughout the galaxy – Saga is more personal than that.
I totally agree that it would feel emotionally insincere, but we’ve already got the Prince of Landfall involved in this, and we can more-or-less assume he doesn’t kill Hazel. Will the birth of his child affect his decision when he eventually catches up with the family? Will his desire to get home cause him to give up the hunt entirely? Will The Will kill him before he has a chance to do any of this? Given the Prince’s importance on Landfall, how he deals with this situation could have profound effects on policy regarding the war.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never considered dropping the book or anything like that, but I don’t seem to be as in love with Saga as the rest of the internet. There are a lot of well-thought-out characterization set-ups in the first 6 issues, but I also feel like not much of anything really happens besides meeting the characters and a lot of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. We check in with the bounty hunter but he never runs into the group – to the point that it feels like a sidestory rather than setting up a potential adversary
This first arc is definitely more about sowing the seeds for interesting conflicts than it is about interesting conflicts itself, but I think it does so brilliantly. I’m looking forward to The Will’s pursuit of Prince IV, and how that might smash into the Prince’s pursuit of Marko and Alana. Hazel’s voice-over has teased a lot of adventures, suggesting that they most certainly will encounter The Will, and that he won’t be the worst person they do encounter. I would probably gladly read this story if it were just about the colorful universe Vaughan is crafting, but I think there’s a lot of emotional gold to mine here.
I would definitely agree, and I can see why someone interested in more slice-of-life comics may be interested, but I feel like they pulled a District 9 a little bit – where I was drawn in by the cool sci-fi elements only to find an allegory for Apartheid. Here, I’m seeing a book about personal relationships dressed up like a space epic
Yeah, I’ll cop to this: after issue 4, I was a little bit turned off and in that mild cooling, I neglected to read 5 and 6 until just this morning. With the whole arc under my belt now, I’m swinging back toward absolutely loving this series. Issue 4 was just a little too VERY DARK for me and I sorta feared that The Will’s adventures were part of setting the over all tone for the series. But getting back to Marco and Alana has lessened those fears.