Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Saga 28, originally released May 13th, 2015.
Drew: There are few things more depressing than studying altruism at a biological level. In a world driven by survival, what could possibly compel an individual to risk life and limb (or, more modestly, share food and shelter) with another? For sexually mature individuals, the most obvious answer is reproduction — helping your mate or your offspring survive increases the chance of your genes, and thus, the behavior of protecting your mate and offspring, will be carried on to future generations. But what about other relationships? Well, in 1964, W.D. Hamilton proposed that we help others for basically the same reason we protect our offspring: because we share genes with them. Importantly, we only share genes with those that are actually related to us, and a key part of Hamilton’s formula was the “relatedness coefficient” — essentially, you’re more likely to help your sibling than your cousin because you’re more related to them, or, more precisely, because you’re more likely to share genes with them. Which is to say, we don’t help people at all, we help their genes, and only because their genes are our genes. From that perspective, “altruism” doesn’t exist at all — we’re all just working in service of totally self-interested genes.
Of course, we’re not entirely driven by our genes. If genes give us our hardware, culture gives us our software, allowing us to do all kinds of things our genes wouldn’t dream of, from taking vows of celibacy to covering a live grenade to protect our platoon. Those are some extreme examples, but I think they become more relatable when we think of those acts as protecting family. Sure, a religious congregation or military unit aren’t technically families, but they can act as families for those who need it. It’s exactly these types of makeshift families — and the sacrifices they elicit — that Saga 28 is all about.
The families this series has created have always been diverse and volatile, but creators Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have expertly led their cast to ever more diverse and volatile groupings. Our central family is down to just three — a tri-generational matriarchy — though they’re trying to forge a tentative bond with Dengo. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn and the Sophies (and pets) have come together around their love for The Will, taking incredible risks to rustle up some “giant lizard jizz.” This brings them across Halvor, The Stalk’s brother, who is also motivated by family, albeit by exacting (or at least ensuring) revenge for his sister’s death. Gwen and the Sophies (which is a band waiting to happen) promise they’ll get right back on that as soon as they’ve got The Will up and running again. That’s a goal several steps removed from Halvor’s but he’s willing to help all the same, but not, you know, in any practical way.
He wants to avenge his sister, just not in a way that will jeopardize the survival of his kids. It sounds like Halvor is familiar with the relatedness coefficient!
The most unlikely of families, though, is that of Marko, Prince Robot IV, Ghüs, and Yuma, who find themselves suddenly under fire from the Robot Kingdom. Their interests here align logically — they all want to survive — but Vaughan throws an unlikely wrinkle when somebody needs to sacrifice themselves to repair the engine. Marko and Prince Robot are out — they stay on the bridge because they both have combat experience, but maybe also because, like Halvor, they have kids to think about — which leaves it to Ghüs and Yuma. Ghüs is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice (because Vaughan and Staples can’t go an issue without Ghüs melting our collective heart), but Yuma, still feeling guilty over Marko’s bad trip, knocks him out to do it herself.
It’s Bruce Willis at the end of Armageddon meets Spock at the end of Wrath of Khan, but Hazel’s voiceover humanizes the moment enough to mitigate however cheap that sacrifice might otherwise feel. Actually, that the scene so strongly parallels Wrath of Khan actually speaks to the superhuman nature of Yuma’s sacrifice — logic may dictate that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but human nature (and maybe just nature) make us look out for ourselves and our families. Is Yuma being logical here, or is she valuing her shipmates as family? She might actually be doing the much more human thing of trying to make up for past transgressions, which makes the moment all the more tragic.
Patrick, I’m fighting hard to find a unified theory on this issue, but I’m wondering if the simpler explanation is that Vaughan simply needed to get some pieces in place. I’m not sure any of this is particularly vital to the plotting or themes of this series at large, but maybe I’m missing something. Are you finding more to dig into here? Also, is it terrible that my strongest feeling about Yuma’s death is relief that Ghüs will live to fight another day?
Patrick: I also feel a generalized relief about Yuma’s sacrifice and what that means for Marko and Alana. Yuma has come to represent both of our main characters at their least responsible. Even in death, Yuma is “high as fuck” which sort of doubles down on the idea that horrible Fade-Away drug trips die with her. Marko may have learned a thing or two from his trip last issue, but by and large both Marko and Alana have had largely negative experiences with the drug. Yuma’s an enabler, and there’s so much forcibly keeping our favorite family apart; I’m glad there’s one less reason for them to voluntarily put a void between themselves.
There was one thread in this issue that did seem very strong to me that you didn’t really mention. Hazel’s voiceover narration in on point and spins one of the sadder, sweeter truths about war (or any tragedy, really): “Regardless of sex, everyone loses something in war… the first casualty is always the truth.” Heartbreakingly, that voiceover accompanies Alana assuring her daughter that everyone is fine. But there’s a lot of that same kind of thing happening across all three story lines, and our characters are either lying or hiding the truth in order to set each other at ease. Interestingly, the issue starts with an inversion of that.
The Brand, while not exactly forthcoming with details, is open to discussing some pretty severe truths of the universe with her young companion. Part of that may have to do with Sophie insisting that she’s “not a kid,” even if that sloppily toasted marshmallow tells a different story. Even if The Brand isn’t keeping the horrors of war from Sophie (and at this stage of the game, really, how could she?), there are emotionally realities she’s keeping carefully guarded. It’s actually my favorite moment in the issue: right after Halvor gives them the location of some male dragons, he casually uses The Brand’s real name.
Obviously, that little piece of trivia hadn’t been revealed to Sophie yet. If Alana is lying to Hazel to convince her that her loved one aren’t in trouble, then The Brand is lying to Sophie to convince her that the people in trouble don’t love her that much. I know it’s splitting hairs — the whole quest that these three are on is all about saving The Will — but there’s significance to the fact that The Will named his adopted daughter after his own sister. It actually comes back to that relatedness coefficient: The Will symbolically makes Sophie part of his literal family by giving her the same name as his sister.
This same thread is a little less obvious is the Prince IV / Marko / Ghüs / Yuma story, but I think it’s still there. Yuma’s sacrifice is categorically deceptive; Ghüs teases that there are things in his past he’s not proud of; the Prince is either dishonest or misinformed about the clout he still carries with his father’s army. Actually, there is sort of an off-screen hiding of truth between King and Prince Robot.
But I sorta love how difficult it is to find a unifying statement about a single issue of this series. Vaughan isn’t the kind of writer that’s servicing some intricate uber-plot, so it’s also hard to make any statements about what an individual issue contributes to that plot. These middle-of-the-arc issues in particular start to look like they’re crawling, chewing up the pages between the introduction of one status quo and the resolution of it, but it’s in these chewed up pages that Vaughan and Staples reveal the sadder, simpler truths about these characters.
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