Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Saga 22, originally released August 27th, 2014.
Drew: The interpersonal relationships within families are insanely complex. They’re necessarily the longest relationships anyone has, meaning each one has years of subtle dynamics informing our behavior. Moreover, the stakes of any conflict within family are significantly higher — it’s one thing to be alienated by a friend, but quite another to be alienated by a parent. With all of these subtle dynamics and amplified emotions, it’s easy to understand why families are so often at the center of great dramas, from King Lear to Breaking Bad. As Saga’s fourth volume passes the halfway mark, it’s decidedly become a family drama (as opposed to the parenting focus of the first volumes), yet writer Brian K Vaughan finds tragedy not in the inflated stakes of family relationships, but in the all-too relatable act of taking family for granted.
That’s most obvious in Alana’s behavior, as she has so numbed herself to her work on the Circuit that she seems more absent than not, flubbing lines, risking blowing her cover, and taking a hit of Fadeaway as she returns home (ostensibly to the family that all of the mind-numbing work is for). Marko catches her in the act of that last bit, and takes exception to the idea of Alana being high in front of Hazel. Alana attempts to change the subject by confronting Marko about Ginny, but Marko loses it, making the confrontation physical.
It’s a visceral moment that seems carefully calculated by Vaughan to make neither party solely at fault. For me, up until the moment he throws those groceries, Marko hadn’t done anything wrong. Sure, he was apparently having sexy dreams about Ginny, but as someone whose had sexy dreams about sharks, I’m a pretty firm believer that 1) sexy dreams do NOT represent any intention to have similar sexy times and 2) someone can’t be held responsible for the content of their dreams. That actually makes Alana all the more despicable for attempting to shift the focus off of her behavior, which makes Marko’s anger that much more understandable.
But then he throws those groceries.
In an instant, it’s no longer about who is wronger, but about violence and safety, and Marko and Alana are exactly the people to understand that violence is always horrible. Actually, the fact that Marko — the guy who made such a scene about breaking his sword and becoming a pacifist — gets violent demonstrates just how mad he must be. Artist Fiona Staples is crystal clear in how immediately Marko regrets his actions (and how shocked Alana is by them), but none of that negates the fact that he threw them. Suddenly, both Alana and Marko are being shitty, making the ever-quickening erosion of their marriage feel that much less one-sided.
Of course, Alana and Marko aren’t the only ones taking their families for granted. Prince Robot IV is finally back home, but his father has asserted that IV will not be pursuing Dengo. It’s a pretty firm “screw up a mission and go nuts once, shame on you; screw up a mission and go nuts twice, shame on me” explanation, but it leaves IV without any agency — precisely when he wants it the most. Fortunately, Special Agent Gale is on hand to feed IV some information regarding Dengo’s location. Oh, right: Dengo has come to Gardenia in hopes of broadcasting something to do with the little princeling on the Open Circuit. Might that send IV hurtling back towards our intrepid family? Probably!
I mentioned in the introduction that Saga has slowly shifted from a study of parenting to a study of family. That is, the immediate concerns of the series have become less about protecting children, and more about how individuals do or do not function within a family. In true Vaughan fashion, a lot of that examination comes by removing families from the equation — literally, in the case of Prince Robot, or emotionally, in the case of Marko and Alana. More importantly, it turns the focus on the characters, allowing Vaughan to carefully catalogue how a series of understandable steps made by both Marko and Alana could contribute to the eventual heartbreaking dissolution of their marriage. It’s a small tragedy in the grand scheme of things, but in a story where their relationship is our whole world, it’s as earth-shattering as things get.
Vaughan knowingly tipped his hand about this eventuality at the beginning of this volume, but that hasn’t made any of this easier to watch. Indeed, knowing where this was going made each chapter that much more frustrating, as he forced us to understand how the thing we don’t want to happen was simply the result of the characters being placed in this particular scenario. It’s kind of devastating how powerless we were to stop this, but I think that very accurately captures the perspective a child would have in this situation.
Intriguingly, Staples makes sure we’re aware of how oblivious Hazel is to her parent’s falling out. That may just be setting us up for the awkward explanation of where daddy is next month, but I think it also keeps us from getting too obsessed with the fatalism of these events. We all saw this coming, but that doesn’t mean everyone did. Of course, we also see Hazel acting as a mediator this issue, which may foreshadow her role going forward with her parents, but I suppose time will tell on that front.
Patrick, I know each issue of this volume has been a little more heartbreaking than the last, but I’m wondering if you feel any catharsis now that the bandaid has been ripped off. There’s obviously a lot of emotional cleaning-up to do, but it really seems like Alana and Marko are past any delusions about the state of their relationship. Maybe we can finally stop fretting the impending end of their marriage and move on. Oh, and how do you think translator rings work when you’re trying to teach a baby how to talk?
Patrick: I thought the translator ring exclusively worked to translate the Esperanto to English (or Wreath to Basic, or whatever Vaughan is calling it). I do think it’s fascinating how much power appears to be in the hands of language throughout this issue, only to have a fairly mundane action throw everything into a lurch. Don’t get me wrong: any domestic violence is regretable, but Marko’s transgression is objectively minor. Emotionally, it’s devastating — I gasped as loudly here as during any of the previous issues shocking deaths (Princess Robot, Madame Sun, etc.) — but the simple fact of the matter is that Marko threw some food at his wife.
I’m a pretty firm believer that any kind of violence between people who love each other is unacceptable — to the point where I drop into my serious voice whenever someone (usually a woman) playfully hits me. There’s so room for it in a loving relationship. But I’m also quick to understand where the impulse came from, and to forgive the person their need to express themselves. That’s obviously a slippery damn slope, so I’m not suggesting that Alana could or should have turned the other cheek in that moment — nor am I suggesting that as a viable course of action in real domestic abuse situations — but it is remarkable how Marko and Alana are immediately unable to talk to each other after that.
Words are so fucking powerful in this series, as evidenced early on by Marko’s magic being language based, and then emphasized by the impetus for Marko and Alana’s defection being a book. Vaughan takes special care to remind us of both in this issue. First, Izabel can’t understand Klara because Marko’s translator ring is out of range, but this doesn’t stop Klara from trying to express herself. I’m intentionally not going to look up what she was saying, and will take Hazel’s word for it that she’s concerned about “mommy and daddy.” Klara’s also continuing to complain about the content of Heist’s books (she appears to have moved on to a new one called Untouched by Man), which segues nicely into the scene of Alana improvising in the Circuit. The line she improvises is straight out of Heist, and it catches the attention of one of those reporter dudes from the previous story arc. Just as Heist’s words set Alana free, so too could they be putting her in danger.
But then words fail in a moment and suddenly, a tossed bag of groceries can send a family into a tailspin.
That’s all so fatalistic and depressing, but I don’t want to cast this issue in an issue in an inappropriate light. For all the domestic violence and death of peripheral characters (Dengo scores a deuce), it’s not entirely without a sense of humor. I mean, it starts with the Izabel reenacting some kind of goddess farting the cosmos into existence. My favorite joke is the introduction of King Robot:
Of course the King has an even bigger TV for a head – OF COURSE. Not only is this another example of visuals succeeding in a joke where words would have failed, it’s an opportunity for Staples to draw the fuck out of that waterfall. I don’t think she’s ever given a character a two-page-splash (puns!) introduction before, and the fact that Staples makes an exception for this joke tickles me in just the right way. I never know what to expect when reading Saga, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this.
I usually find it a little frustrating to write about Saga — Vaughan and Staples tell such an evocative story with such efficiency, I usually feel that articulating my experience is redundant — but this might be the first time that I’ve felt like our inability to recap the events might be the point. It’s not enough to know that Marko tossed a bag of groceries at Alana, it’s all the shit that leads up to that moment.
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?