Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Saga 27, originally released April 8th, 2015.
Grace comes home drunk some times / and beats on the doorway to my guts. / I fumble with the locks / ’til the wound opens up. / She falls in, laughing: “Honey, I’m home.”
I wince as she stumbles up my spine / leaves a trail of bruises on my ribs. / I choke on her dancing on my tongue / she kicks out a tooth. / “Honey, I’m home.”
She lights a cigarette inside my head / blows all the smoke into my eyes / until she sees a tear. / Then she sighs: “just what I thought — another fragile Buddha”
Stuart Davis, “Grace”
Patrick: The language of love and the language of violence are uncomfortably similar. I’d also argue that they are two cultural constants we never really understand. The impulses to nurture and destroy are down deep in the human subconsciousness, ungoverned by rationality. Bryan K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples explore this through Marko’s bad fadeaway trip in Saga 27, suggesting that pacifism may mute more than Marko’s passion for violence, but all of his passions. He wakes up with a clarity, but is that a clarity to be celebrated or to be reviled?
There’s some real-world incident in this issue, but I’m mostly concerned with how we are presented with Marko’s trip. I’m sure we could have an interesting conversation about Prince Robot’s refusal to reach out to official channels to save his “friends” or about the nonchalant way he suggests tossing them out the airlock, but this is Marko’s issue. I remember being immediately taken by Marko’s original decision to be a pacifist in this clearly war-riddled universe. That’s brave: within the narrative, it shows a man of strong moral convictions; outside of the narrative, Vaughan made the decision to cast a science fiction adventure comic book with a man who refuses to fight. That’s casting against type. Marko’s never been a reluctant hero — he just achieves his goals without resorting to violence, which makes the average Saga story fundamentally different from other similarly-dressed stories on the shelves.
Which isn’t to suggest that Saga is a non-violent series. It’s violent as fuck, but Marko presents an unpopular alternative to endless war. This issue asks the question: is it fair to expect this character — and by extension, this genre — to deny his own nature? After all, giving in to unexplainable biological urges is exactly what got Marko and Alana into this situation in the first place.
Vaughan and Staples introduce the connection between sex, love and violence on the very first page, as Marko recalls (or imagines) he and Alana having sex late into her pregnancy. She asks to have to hair pulled and her ass slapped, but Marko recoils at the idea of hitting a woman. Then Marko goes into confession-mode, and Vaughan carefully explains the visual information for the rest of the issue. Crucially, we’re only getting Marko and Alana’s words at this moment — violence during the war, beating up a neighbor kid, being punished. It’s all very moving stuff, but at this point, we’re only exposed to the words.
Next time we check in on Marko’s trip, we’re getting a view of that violence. Staples eases us in with violence we can feel good about.
It’s a warzone, and Marko is doing his job. In fact, compared to the rest of the characters on the page, Marko’s close-quarters engagement seems downright honorable. He’s slaughtering the enemy and being a hero. Marko is set up for another hero-moment as he opens fire one some aircraft, but we are (and he is) robbed of that heroism when we see that he just shot down a friendly (and a civilian at that). The image of the charred vehicle is horrific, punctuated by that poor little boy’s screams of “Papa!” This sends Marko into a bit of a freak-out where images of violence, and the causes thereof, are jammed together, presented in a freely-associative way and without commentary. I love this page.
I’m a big sucker for this layout — starting the top row with one panel and then increasing the number of panels with each successive row, as if to imply that the information is coming to him faster. The information also gets more abstract with each row. That second rows shows Marko slicing dudes up, but it’s literally on the battlefield in a kill-or-be-killed situation. The third row spins the core idea of violence out a little further, making Marko the observer of violence in the first panel, and torturing someone in the third. That middle panel though, is just he and Gwendolyn making love, itself an act of passion. And then there’s that final row, which shows the tools of violence. Marko examines his sword, marvels at one of his spells and reads violent stories. I don’t think Vaughan and Staples are implying a causation between these object and the acts of violence, only emphasizing the connection.
That leads to the bravura sequence of Bar punishing his son for beating up the neighbor girl. The scene starts in Blue and quickly moves to total silence, letting Staples’ artwork do all the storytelling. She smartly ends the beating by tying all of Marko’s passions together — his people, his wife, his daughter. The lesson seems to be that you have to fight for what you value. Bar was a pacifist himself, but he resorted to violence in order to try to instill those values in his own son. That’s what Bar believed in, and it made a difference in Marko’s life. I’ll agree with Ghüs: a properly motivated Marko might just be the scariest thing in this whole series.
Drew, I do find myself a little uncomfortable with Marko’s revelations here. I want him to be successful and a pacifist at the same time — and I want to believe that this story would allow for that. But maybe I’m just a passionless drone too afraid to put any real skin in the game? Also, Ghüs’ longjohns are adorable.
You don’t need to comment on that, I just wanted to make my opinion known.
Drew: I’m not sure “Ghüs is adorable” even qualifies as an opinion, it’s so objectively true. Heck, his costuming here is pure adorable affectation — Prince Robot’s sleepware is just a t-shirt and some boxer-briefs, suggesting that longjohns would be overkill even if Ghüs wasn’t covered in fur. The effect is just about as cute as can be — if I was anywhere near crafty enough, I would absolutely make a plush Ghüs-in-longjohns to cuddle.
Anyway, Patrick, I absolutely understand your discomfort with Marko’s newfound violent side. His pacifism has been such a defining element of his character, I’m not sure we’ll even recognize him going forward. That said, this change might also get rid of some of his more annoying tendencies.
He’s so wrapped up in his own idealism (which turns out to be tied up in some deep-seated baggage) that he can’t give Alana “what [she] need[s].” In the grand scheme of sexual violence, a little hair-pulling and spanking doesn’t seem like a particularly big ask, which puts Marko in the recalcitrant position of not meeting his wife halfway. Their language throughout this scene makes it clear they’re not on the same wavelength, with Alana talking about wanting to feel sexy, while Marko refers to her as “the mother of [his] child.”
So, does Marko’s resolution put them more on the same wavelength? Maybe. Marko’s issue all along has been a volatile temper, one that periodically explodes in uncharacteristic rage. Did his bad trip help him get more connected with his anger, allowing to flow more healthily, or did he simply un-repress those violent outbursts. Does his declaration represent a profound change in this character’s attitude towards violence, or is he simply directing his next outburst in a more productive direction? His language makes it seem like the former, but the art actually makes me think otherwise.
I want to flip back to that page Patrick included, the brief history of Marko’s relationship to violence. I think it’s important to note that that sequence seems to be in reverse chronological order, from the perhaps future event of Marko stabbing prince robot all the way back to what seems to be Marko stepping in when he sees the neighbor girl torturing his pet. When read backwards, that story offers a compelling escalation of violence in Marko’s life. Patrick, you read that panel of Marko punching a guy as “torture,” but I think the fact that we see Gwendolyn in the background in a clubbing dress makes it feel a lot more like a barfight to me. Did that lead directly to their sex in the previous panel? I’m going to suggest that it certainly played a role. Similarly, the explosion that we see interrupting their seemingly sheltered lives appears to lead directly to Marko’s engagement on the battlefield.
What’s really interesting to me about that passage is the way Marko has worked to undo all of those moments — his oath of pacifism, his marriage to Alana, his breaking of that sword. The question for me is whether this issue presents an undoing of the violence against the neighbor girl, or just the undoing of the beating Barr gave Marko in response. Curiously, we never see the act of violence against the girl (though we do see the aftermath), while the violence against Marko is rendered in excruciating detail.
Barr’s last words before the beating begins, translated as “This is for the boy’s own good,” throws the second page of the sequence into stark relief. Marko’s engrained pacifism (which he thanks his father for instilling in him here) led directly to his surrender, his relationship with Alana, and ultimately, his daughter. He needed that moment, which suggests that he needed the action to bring it about — beating up that neighbor girl set him on the path to his family. So long as their safety (or existence) is assured, any violence is justified.
It’s definitely an icky sentiment when laid out like that, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a parent who wouldn’t agree with it. That might be where the parenting elements of this series leave us non-parents behind, but I think enough empathy for the parents we know to understand where Marko is coming from, even if we also value pacifism. It’s strange territory for this series to go to, but may be essential for a story about parenting.
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?