Today, Shelby and Patrick are discussing Saga 21, originally released July 23rd, 2014.
Shelby: it’s hard to watch something you love fall apart. Even if that something is a work of fiction, it can still break your heart just as fast (if not faster) than real life. I get very invested in the media I consume; anyone who’s watched a movie with me can attest to the fact I am frequently, literally on the edge of my seat at the climax of the movie. That’s how I find myself as we build toward the end of each arc in Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga: on the edge of my seat.
As our various players move into position, I can almost hear a clock ticking down to what is sure to be a tragic end of this arc. Alana’s currently hating her job because she has to shill some crappy breakfast cereal, but she gets over it when her coworkers encourage her to get high beforehand. Hazel is having an awesome playdate with the dance teacher Ginny’s daughter which is thankfully cut short before Marko and Ginny get too cozy by a massive bathroom accident on Hazel’s part. Dengo has murdered his way onto a ship, and is busy shooting dudes in the face and heading straight for Gardenia. Prince Robot is finally brought out of his stupor by Mama Sun’s lawyer, who figured it was time to tell the prince what was going on. His response to the news that his wife was dead and his nearly month-old son was missing was pretty straightforward: blow a hole in Mama Sun’s chest, and gird his loins to go talk to his father, King Robot.
Now more so than in the past, this book feels like a series of vignettes. It makes sense, if you think about it; in previous arcs, it was Alana and Marko’s love that held them together in the face of everything. Now that their relationship is beginning to splinter, so is the rest of the story. Fiona Staples continues to murder these pages, with most of the little vignettes featuring a character splash page, my favorite being Dengo.
Well, if that’s not the stuff of nightmares, I don’t know what is. This also very quickly escalates Dengo’s threat level. Before, I just thought he was a mad kidnapper/murderer, but this is something else all together. He pulled that man’s spine out of his body! That’s cruel, unnecessary, and sociopathic. He is a far greater threat to the Robot Kingdom than I initially realized.
Vaughan renders Alanna and Marko’s disintegrating marriage with heartbreaking accuracy. Each choice they make seems to make perfect sense in context, but from the outside it’s all too easy to see what these choices will add up to. It’s all the more painful to see that, at least Marko, seems to sense what is happening.
He knows he’s on the crumbling cliff-edge with Ginny, and is desperately clinging to Alanna to keep from falling over. The problem is, Alanna is either going to be too far gone on fadeaway to notice her husband’s struggle, or she’s going to lash out against his clingyness. Normally, my response to this sort of scene would be communication, but it might already be too late. Any attempt Marko makes to talk about the wedge forming between them is likely to make Alanna angry, then guilty for not being there for her family as much as she wants. That guilt will only feed her anger; her resentment towards the situation will translate to resentment towards Marko, which will make him more frustrated and lonely. My parents divorced a few years ago, so this is a story I know all too well.
Honestly, this issue is so heartbreaking, it’s kind of hard to talk about. Prince Robot’s interrupted dream of his now-broken family is especially sad.
I love the mix of refined and crass in the Robot family. And look at the Princeling’s little bathing costume! Too cute. Without even knowing his son existed yet, the Prince found solace in him, and now he has to process the fact he may never see him again. The biggest question, though, is how the meeting with his father is going to go. Considering the Prince would rather get poked in the eye with a needle, as Staples so beautifully rendered, my guess is “not well.” Patrick, what were your thoughts on this issue? Is this arc breaking your heart in slow-motion like it is mine? How about that giant fucking walrus?
Patrick: How about that fucking walrus? You know I love that thing. I mean, if only the little sea-otter-man had traveled with them too, I’d be in heaven. Because I’m so partial to the big lug, I can only assume some horrible fate is going to befall him. I mean, Friendo is such a magical little accident, reportedly created by Fiona Staples to fill the space on a page some issues ago. Accident or no, the creature has a weird kind of charisma, both within the narrative and in the real world. I’m jumping to some conclusions here, but I think it’s safe to say that one of the reasons that thing is still around is because fans responded so positively to that big goofy design. In a non-insignificant way, Friendo is our baby in this series.
I don’t know how exactly we fight for Friendo, but it is nice to finally see Prince Robot roused from his sexslumber to fight for his child. It’s interesting that just as Alanna and Marko retreat into sex, Prince Robot finds himself escaping from it. Where Prince Robot’s experience is so different is that both the sex and the child he experiences are simulated in one way or another. It’s a little unclear whether the Prince is in some kind of simulation, or a drug-induced stupor, or just a pleasant dream while napping, but whatever’s happening is all in his head. Similarly, all of his fucking has been bought and paid for. He’s not dealing with any of the same emotional vocabulary that Alanna and Marko are, who actually live their relationship with their daughter and with each other. The second Prince Robot has to confront those honest emotions — of both joy and loss simultaneously — he flips out, and murders Mama Sun. By comparison, Alanna and Marko are handling the overwhelming emotional reality with an unnerving steadiness.
Occasionally, this series gets saddled with the “slow” label. It’s true that some of these middle issues slacken their pace to explore the characters or setting in exacting detail, but I’m an insufferable apologist for such things. Vaughan has such a gift for consistency of character and really fleshing out worlds, so it’s like having an opportunity to watch a master craftsman at work. This was one of the first issues that actually felt uneasily slow to me, as both Alanna and Marko’s stories circled identical beats as in the previous issue. Ultimately, I think that’s a strength for the issue, which is quietly and non-dramatically insisting on Hazel’s parents’ problem. Instead of flying off the deep end and blowing a hole in someone’s chest, Alanna and Marko relentlessly grind away at each other. That steadiness makes it all the more excruciating.
Luckily, Staples is able to populate the pages with enough intriguing detail to keep any of this from feeling too dour. For starters, the images displayed on Dengo’s screen during his rampage are weird as hell. While he’s mid-kill, the screen shows a roaring tiger, which: fair enough. But when he’s moving swiftly and terrifying through his murderama?
Just like in the spread Shelby posted, I think that’s a dick with a face drawn on it. What the hell? Another pointless detail that I loved: when Sextillion’s lawyer is frightened, his tail falls off. That’s a defense mechanism called autotomy, whereby an animal self-amputates a limb to escape danger. Frequently cited examples are geckos and salamanders. It’s not an important detail, but it’s one more piece of information fleshing out Staples and Vaughan’s amazing universe.
You know, I wonder if we’re supposed to draw a connection between pacifism and the way Marko and Alanna aren’t fighting for their marriage. Even though she thinks it’s horseshit, Marko’s mother keeps reading Heist’s book. She says its to honor the man, but perhaps its also to keep his message of non-violence fresh in our minds. Alanna and Marko refused to keep fighting their wars, and ran from them instead. That’s a totally noble and justifiable position to take, but it’s a much less defensible tactic when it comes to the life they’re letting slip through their fingers. Love and war, right?
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?