Saga 23

Alternating Currents: Saga 23, Drew and PatrickToday, Drew and Patrick are discussing Saga 23, originally released September 24th, 2014.

Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.

-Alan Moore

Drew: In looking for an epigram for this piece, I sifted through about a dozen quotes that boil down to the same point: fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Ultimately, I chose Moore’s quote because it goes into a bit more detail (and because Alan Moore has a bit more cachet on a comics site than, say, Albert Camus), but I think its the pervasiveness of this notion that is truly remarkable. I understand the sentiment — fiction is by definition not true, but must be emotional honest in order to succeed — but I’m not sure I agree that fiction and lies exist on the same continuum. Lies exist to obscure the truth, either for the benefit of the liar or the person being lied to, while fiction simply seeks a novel way to approach the truth. There’s a difference between fiction and lies, a notion that Saga waded into in its fourth arc, and one that absolutely permeates issue 23.

Elephant in the room time: we were all devastated in issue 19 when Hazel suggested that her parents end up splitting up. She repeats that line here, but adds that that wasn’t quite the whole story. I could shake my fist at writer Brian K Vaughan for so openly manipulating our emotions, but I think making us think Alana and Marko would actually split up made us way more invested in the possibility that they could. Not being emotionally invested in the danger of the situation is a perennial problem in comics, where you kind of know Superman is going to make it through this okay, but Vaughan managed to put us right there with the characters by paradoxically giving us more information than they had. Not being a total monster, he gives us that glimmer of hope just as Marko sees his wife flying away with his family, as if to assure us that things might still get better. But, being Brian K Vaughan, he immediately follows that up by shoving a gun in Marko’s face.

Prince Robot is pissedThat’s the second of two splash pages that bookend this issue, which seem to highlight the villains Hazel refers to in her opening voiceover:

A lot of people who came into my family’s life looking like heroes ended up acting more like villains. I wish I could say the opposite was also true, but that was pretty fucking rare.

The second half appears over images of Prince Robot, but the first half (and villain of the opening splash) is Ginny. As long as we’ve thought Marko and Alana were headed towards ruin, Ginny has been on our radar as a potential home-wrecker. She does try to put the moves on Marko when he shows up on her doorstep, but he manages to avoid sinking to our expectations, charging back to his family with renewed determination to set things right before he does anything he would regret. All of which makes Ginny not so much a villain as a footnote in family history. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of villains elsewhere in this story.

Dengo’s an obvious bad guy — artist Fiona Staples gets some space here to remind us of the carnage he wreaked on the robot ship — but the real curveball (and rightful recipient of Hazel’s “looked like a hero, acted like a villain” label) is Yuma. Bargaining for her life, Yuma gives up Marko and Alana (and Hazel) in some kind of ill-advised attempt to prove herself valuable. Ultimately, Dengo still shoots her and leaves her for dead, but I’m more intrigued by his refusal to believe that Marko and Alana could exist (“There’s no way a man from Wreath would willingly procreate with one of his oppressors”). His world-view splits the world into the Landfall/Royal rulers and the innocent people they oppress, so can’t fathom a human connection across those boundaries.

Alana also finds her worldview challenged here, as Izabel confronts her about the fight with Marko. Alana feels entitled to her anger, but Izabel manages to knock her down a few pegs before landing a strikingly cogent point about forgiveness in relationships:

If you find someone who can forgive all your bullshit… the least you can do is try to forgive them.

Not that this stops Alana from marking down her last one and a half tabs of fadeaway. Actually, its the sequence that follows that most captures my imagination, as Hazel almost breaks the fourth wall in her voiceover about whether people can change. The Open Circuit has served as a strikingly accurate reflection of the comics industry throughout this arc, but this question of whether or not people can fundamentally change their behavior extends beyond comic book characters, beyond even fiction, and gets down to some actual philosophy. Ultimately, I think either opinion is supported by most heroes journeys — characters experience growth AND return to the comforts of home — but I think it’s interesting that Saga doesn’t allow for that kind of return, as the characters never had a home in the first place.

Man, I could go on at length about all of this, but I’ve already blown through my word count. As usual, there’s way too much going on here for me to justify trying to direct your focus, Patrick, so instead, I’ll direct everyone’s attention to Lying Cat’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

Lying

Patrick: Hey, what’s up with the helmet that Lying Cat appears to be wearing in that image? Also, I have to assume that’s the Lying Cat that’s been bumming around with The Will. Remember The Will? I had sorta forgotten about him, and his show-stealing cat, but the Robots’ screens have this unsettling ability to introduce or reintroduce characters, concepts and ideas in a way I’ve never seen in comics before. It’s not as though the images on the screens betray their thoughts, but their emotions – like expressions on a face. Prince Robot senses his baby is alive and suddenly, his face is a sunrise, warm and full of possibility. At the end of the issue, there’s an “oh shit” moment for Marko, but “eureka!” moment for the Prince, which produces what I can only assume is Marko’s mug-shot, in the scene Drew featured above. That’s a specific choice, and I can’t quite decide whether the character is electing to flash that image or the creative team is forcing that specific image (and whether or not there’s a functional difference). On one hand, Prince Robot could be utilizing an intimidation tactic, reminding Marko that he was once a powerless and broken prisoner of war, and he can be made that way again. Or perhaps that’s the image he originally had on-file when searching for the winged-horned menace, and we’re meant to be reminded that Marko represents the unattainable goal that wrecked the Prince’s life. I think the most compelling argument is that Staples and Vaughan want to remind the reader of what Marko used to be, and let that information settle around Hazel’s “no one really changes” voiceover.

Of course people change. There’s a bunch of evidence in this issue to suggest that they do, but the most interesting one to me is Alana’s pacifism. In her conversation with Izabel, Alana states a zero-tolerance policy for domestic abuse. She’s specific in this point, almost out of necessity, because she’s also about to play the “you don’t know what I went through in the war” card. Both her service in the military and her childhood with an abusive father have their roots in violence, and Alana has opted out of such violence. How’s that for change?

But I want to get back to the images that splash across the robot’s faces, specifically LC’s cameo. (Drew, you thought that was just going to be a tossed off observation, did you not?) This set of chapters has been very tightly focused on our young family and the Robot Royals, all but ignoring the rest of the cast of Saga. We’ve been so preoccupied with the false flag of “this is how my parents split up” that we’ve forgotten there’s a whole universe swirling around out there. Hell, I only just now remembered that The Will was last scene in a hospital bed, with Lying Cat and Gwendolyn by his side. Remember when we got a glimpse of those two reporters in the previous issue? LC’s appearance — albeit on the screen of an old black-and-white — forces the reader to process that information, which in turn triggers memories of the other characters related to Lying Cat. It’s always risky to declare that something is foreshadowing before knowing that the payoff exists, but I’m guessing that this heralds the return of that trio of characters. The audience is now subconsciously primed for their return.

I don’t totally know what it would mean to reintroduce those characters, other than a redirection of the focus of the narrative. Drew wanted to call out the big misdirect from this story arc right up top and I think that’s going to be a vital part of the conversation about all of these issues. Is it fair to say that something is going to happen, only to nit-pickingly add five months later that Simon didn’t say? Honestly? I don’t know. Reading Saga 23, I simultaneously felt a sense of relief and betrayal. I think I expressed this in the comments of our write-up about 19, but that last page absolutely floored me. I put the book down and had a totally involuntary swell of emotion. I wouldn’t trade that moment for the world, but there was an uneasy feeling that accompanied the issues that followed. Again, take a look back at our coverage of the previous three issues, and you’ll see us compare the disintegration of Marko and Alana’s relationship to a “watching a car crash is slow motion” like four or five times. Vaughan somehow managed to spare us the logical (and stated) outcome, and subvert our very strong expectations. I do feel as though it comes at the cost of some authority, though, and we’ll all be a little more wary next time Hazel portends the doom something we love.

There’s one more thing that I think is creeping into the pages of Saga, but I don’t think there’s too much that Vaughan and Staples are saying about it just yet. I’m talking about class, economics and oppression. Yuma would argue that those concepts are political, and therefore boring, which is why they haven’t been made the main thematic material of series. But, Dengo’s actions are motivated by the economics of war. The rift between Marko and Alana seems to stem from their economic need for Alana to provide for the family — and we can extend that to Alana’s inability to understand Hazel, who’s only asking for a toy her mother would know by name if she didn’t have to be at work all day. Drug use, domestic abuse — these are also issues with their root causes in economic disparity and the systematic oppression of one class by another. Vaughan’s never going to stand in front of the camera and broadcast his opinions on the subject, but he sure can tell a sexy story with that as a bubbling undercurrent.

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?

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6 comments on “Saga 23

  1. Well, Alana and Marko may not have split up, but they’ve BEEN split up, and I can forgive a toddler for not quite getting the difference 😛

    It was a pretty big, and a pretty welcome, surprise to me too. I’ll be honest, I fully expected them to split up as forecasted by Hazel, but I never expected it to stick. I thought it might last an arc or two, not permanently; it would just change what this series is about too much.

    I’m reminded of something that happened on Justice League Unlimited. Batman and Green Lantern (John Stewart) travel to the future and meet a Justice Leaguer named Warhawk, discovering that he is the child of John and Hawkgirl. The thing is, in the present day, they’ve broken up and John is dating Vixen, and when the series ends this is still the case. When asked about it, the writers say that, oh yeah, Warkawk will still be born. Who says he’s going to stay with Vixen forever? Maybe they’ll date a few more months and break up. Maybe they’ll date a few more YEARS and break up. Maybe they’ll get married but later get divorced. Maybe they’ll get married and stay married until Vixen dies, and THEN John hooks up with Hawkgirl. Who knows? They guaranteed that John and Shayera would eventually have Warhawk, it’s foreordained, but there’s any number of paths that could be taken to get there, and that’s what I originally thought was going to happen with this twist. I thought Alana and Marko would split up but that it would be far from the end of their story and that there was any avenue of ways they could end up back together.

    Of course, that’s all moot now. And I don’t feel betrayed, I feel relieved. That’s just me though.

    Also, I never noticed Dengo was a black-and-white set until now. What a clever idea.

    • Yeah, it’s not the cheapest thing Vaughan could have done, but it does feel a little cheap. I stand by my assessment, though, that it was necessary to get us invested in the thought that they might not end up together. “It’ll all work out in the end” is such a strong force to work against in comics that I can understand the tactic of telling us it doesn’t work out just to get us emotionally invested. Like, I feel played, but 1) it worked and 2) I’m relieved.

      Though, as you point out, their eventual reunion could also be temporary. This is Vaughan after all — no characters or relationships are safe.

    • In the Batman Beyond comics they explain what happens to GL and Vixens relationship. They are having dinner in Paris when they get attacked by a super villain, which I can’t recall, and Vixen is killed.

      • Hey, thanks for the heads up! I actually did read that comic, but I don’t know how much I count the tie-in comics as part of continuity, especially since the writers of the show didn’t write the comic.

        Like, I know the events of the DCAU are canon in the Batman Beyond comics, but I don’t necessarily count the events of the Batman Beyond comics to be canon in the DCAU itself, if that makes any sense.

        Also I really didn’t like that story. I thought it would’ve been much more mature if John and Vixen just eventually broke up, especially since killing Vixen almost entirely so John and Shayera could get back together was several shades of icky.

        • I had read at the time that the Beyond comics are cannon for DCAU but I do agree that story was pretty weak. I collected that whole series in print out of nostalgia for the cartoons and dropped the book when they changed writers. One really has to be brutal about which books one buys these days. So much comic goodness!

        • I’m in the process of culling my pull list a bit myself right now, so believe me, I feel you. I’ve actually enjoyed the Batman Beyond book much more since they changed writers, but I’m almost relieved that it’s ending soon, as DC essentially made that decision for me haha.

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