Today, Spencer and
Ryan M. Patrick are discussing Saga 34, originally released February 24th, 2016.
Spencer: Every once in a while, a long running series will introduce a new concept and try to say, “hey, this has been important all along!” This can be frustrating when it isn’t true (see: all the various retcons in Star Wars) or when the concept changes the entire dynamic of the series. Yet, when a new idea seamlessly integrates itself into the structure of the story, helping to express and define concepts that have been there all along, it can be absolutely enlightening. That’s what happens in Saga 34, where Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan use the idea of “diversity” to dig into both the causes and the solutions to all the problems plaguing the world of Saga.
Saga being Saga, of course, it’s an oversimplification to think that any solutions or long-term changes will be easy, or that they can be achieved during Marko and Alana’s (or even Hazel’s!) lifetime. Still, the solution is there, and it’s been there all along: the only way to overcome hatred is to expose people to as many different perspectives as possible, to help them gain empathy and compassion for people from different cultures and backgrounds. This is vital for the young especially (look at how unprejudiced Hazel is!), yet can be effective even on those who are old and set in their ways. Just look at Marko’s mother Klara, who seems to have (largely) overcome most of her prejudices thanks to Alana and Hazel joining the family.
Considering the remarkable variety of species Staples and Vaughan have packed into Saga, in theory this shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. Seriously, even if it’s never been as blatantly stated before as it is in this issue, diversity has always been a priority for Saga, from the various genders, sexualities, and cultures Vaughan explores down to Staples’ designs even for characters of the same species.
Seriously, every Wreathian depicted here has unique horns (not to mention faces and body types), emphasizing that every single one of these women is an individual with unique perspectives and personalities, even if we never get to experience them.
So then how did the world of Saga (which, remember, reflects our own world in more than a few unsettling ways) end up as a place filled with — nay, defined by — such intense hatred? For all their differences, Hazel speculates that it’s instead their similarities that have united all these disparate species in shared hatred and bigotry.
Perhaps the only similarity each of these species have is that they all fear the unknown, and that certainly makes for a cultural powder keg that could explode into a searing wave of xenophobia at any moment. In a way, diversity is that spark that fuels these characters’ hatred, but only because they don’t dare look beyond their differences to see the person beneath.
As I mentioned at the outset of this discussion, it’s only by doing just that that hatred and prejudice can be overcome, but it’s clear that simple exposure to different cultures isn’t enough. It takes effort: not only effort to understand others, but effort to teach others to understand as well. Hazel’s had a lot of great teachers in her life so far and is pretty well-balanced as far as Saga goes, but it’s still significant that her teacher, Miss Noreen, is the first to help her see that the world extends beyond what her parents have taught her.
I’d call Marko and Alana rather cultured and progressive, but most of their worldview is still rooted in Heist’s book — Hazel may be primed to become even more enlightened than her parents, and isn’t that exactly what we want, for each generation to become more intelligent and compassionate and enlightened than the last? That’s why good teachers are so important, no matter where they come from: it usually takes someone from outside the immediate family, with different perspectives and cultures and priorities, to really drive home how big the world is, and how wonderful those differences can be.
Both our world and the world of Saga need more teachers like Noreen. I can’t help but to be inspired by her — I was worried sick throughout this entire issue that she’d betray Hazel, but so far she seems concerned about nothing but her safety. Noreen is an attentive, enlightened, non-condescending teacher who tries to accomplish good even within a system she knows is broken, yet understands the limits of that system and is willing to break the rules to protect an at-risk student. What a wonderful character.
In a similar vein, I’m really impressed by the way Vaughan and Staples are developing Hazel as a character as well. I’ve always loved her narration, but it feels so much more personal and vital now that she can comment on her own exploits and thoughts in the present-day adventure. And Hazel herself is adorable and charming, precocious without being annoying, and full of compassion and empathy. If Hazel is to be the ambassador for the ideas of Heist, Marko and Alana, Noreen, and all those who’ve risked their necks to protect her, than she’s shaping up to be a damn fine one.
Ryan, I’d love to hear your take on any of the ideas I’ve brought up, but I’ve just realized that, by focusing so intently on theme, I’ve missed out on discussing any of the actual plot of this issue. There’s three different storylines to choose from here, and I’m sure there’s plenty to glean from all of them. There’s also Staples’ art we could discuss further; I don’t think we could ever praise it enough. How do you suppose, Ryan, that she manages to make Ghüs somehow look cuter in every single issue? It’s a mystery — an adorable, adorable mystery.
Ryan M. Patrick: Sorry to disappoint, Spencer! It’s just me, Patrick, and I’ve written about how adorable Ghüs is more times than any one man ought to. I believe my whole write-up of his first appearance was just OMFGFUZZY! over and over again until I hyperventilated and passed out on my keyboard. And while I still find that little fucker immeasurably cute, I’m also starting to see one of his companions as equally worthy of my obnoxious cooing: the young Princeling Robot.
Or whatever we’re calling IV’s son. V? The kid is amazing, and has the power to sway the once-formidable fuck-up of a Prince to pity, or at least to action. It’s clear that IV and his son have been playing high adventure in this self-imposed exile with Friendo and Ghüs. They wear gray tunics, and IV slings a bow — it’s like they’re the lamest Legend of Zelda cosplayers int he galaxy. But they’re out there living this fantasy, and its in that fantasy — or the child’s realization of it — where true empathy lies. IV pretty staunchly declares that there’s no goddamn way he’s going to risk anything to rescue Hazel, but his son interjects with the most innocent of questions: is Hazel a fair maiden? Lest Vaughan undersell the preciousness of the question, Staples employs the screen on the young robot’s face.
You know the phrase “how can you say no to that face?” Well, we can apply that literally here — V’s monitor displays an unmistakably rescue-able maiden. I may butt up against the idea of “rescuing the maiden” on modern feminist grounds, but there is something undeniably compelling about that trope as an impetus for adventure.
It’s not clear where the young robot is getting his ideas about adventuring — is he hip to the works of… whatever Saga‘s version of Homer is? Or some kind of Arthurian-esque legends? Or, and this seems the most likely to me, is he simply being raised on the stories that this father (and his hilariously cute caregivers) tell him? We know that Vaughan puts a lot of faith in the power of Heist’s writings to motivate his heroes, but the quality of Heist’s words have always been a little bit suspect. For example, I don’t think we’ve ever read a passage from A Night Time Smoke that didn’t track like a vacuous romance novel. In this issue, we even get Noreen asserting that maybe this particular book isn’t a magic tome, just another tome with magic in it.
And that’s an idea that I’m very attracted to: stories are magic, and can motivate people to peace, to love, to empathy. Spencer’s right that the Saga universe has a lot of diversity to deal with, but it doesn’t have too many ways to process it. Art seems to be in shorter supply here than it is in our world. Even Klara and her cohort find a common bond through literature — not through work or circumstance, but through stories.
I wonder if there’s some of that in The Will’s story too. His is less about telling Upsher and Doff a story and more about demonstrating one. He takes out that giant ice eel like it’s his job, and he looks awesome doing it. The sequence is kind of Staples reminding us how fucking cool her art is. I mean, The Will puts himself in the monster’s mouth and cracks its jaw from within – there’s not much more badass than that.
This is what Upsher is responding to when he finally decides it is not worth resisting The Will any longer. He’s responding to the growing lore about the Freelancer as it’s demonstrated in front of him.
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