Today, Drew and Ryan M. are discussing Saga 39, originally released October 26th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
The best-laid plans of mice and men
Often go awry
Robert Burns, To A Mouse
Drew: If I had to pick an epigraph for our discussions of Saga, this most well-known line from Robert Burns’ most well-known poem would be it (indeed, I also used it to kick off our discussion of issue 16). It’s a sentiment that comes up often enough to have entered the lexicon as a common expression, and could reasonably describe most narratives where the protagonist(s) could be said to have a “plan,” but I’d argue that it is woven into the very fabric of Saga. Nobody, from the highest princes of the robot kingdom to the lowliest mouse medic ever has their plans work out perfectly, leaving them in a constant state of flux. That leaves them all like the mouse Burns’ poem was written for — the one whose home he destroyed while plowing a field. Issue 39 makes that parallel even more explicit, as the home of our leads is threatened by a force apparently unaware of their presence.
This issue finds Prince Robot confronting the possible failure of the plan he hatched last month: sending out Izabel for reconnaissance. Our heroes don’t yet know how that ended, but face the consequence of figuring it out all the same. It’s interesting that Petrichor is the one who volunteers to leave, absolving Robot of his responsibility for creating this mess. It’s not entirely clear why Robot isn’t going, though I fear the answer may be that Petrichor’s mission is hopelessly doomed.
Or, I guess I should say: doomed more than everyone else. As The March continue their scouring of the Robot Embassy, they learn that plans are already underway to “exterminate every living creature” on Phang. That seems like information that could drive a freelancer away, but The March take it with remarkable nonchalance.
Petrichor and The March will almost certainly cross paths, upending both of their plans with consequences I straight-up can’t anticipate. Writer Brian K. Vaughan does give us a bit of a hint as to exactly who The March are, as The Will refers to them as “those psychopaths” — coming from The Will, you know that must be a bad sign.
Of course, The Will was kind of motivated to talk shit in that moment, as he had just learned he had been replaced on his last job and stripped of freelancer status. Once again, plans are unexpectedly thwarted, leaving The Will without an income or any real direction going forward. Will he continue to hunt Alana and Marko in hopes of winning back his title? Will he hunt down The March out of spite? Will he renew his search for Gwen and Sophie? He could go anywhere, but without a steady income or the license to kill, he may have a rough go of things.
Which I suppose brings me back to Petrichor’s choice to look for Izabel alone — I can’t help but wonder if she knows exactly how this is going to play out, and just wants to save everyone else. That choice may protect them, but it doesn’t absolve them of guilt; Robot will know that he sent Izabel to die, and Hazel will know that she was “mean to her and now she’s dead.” That last bit takes an interesting twist, sending Hazel into a kind of existential crisis. Vaughan walks an interesting line with Hazel’s questioning of the afterlife: on the one hand, her suspicions seem entirely warranted and relatable; on the other, she has a personal relationship with a ghost. He manages to find a balance that is both inquisitive and naive, perfectly capturing a child’s grasp of the world.
A nine-panel grid is somewhat unusual for this series, which usually holds to four or five panels per page, but artist Fiona Staples makes brilliant use of it here, pacing the scene as a series of shot/reverse shots. The success of this sequence comes down to the expressions of the characters, which Staples knocks out of the park, endearing us to this budding romance moments before we realize its even there. The sweetness of that moment is undercut by Hazel’s cynical-as-ever narration, but I’m certainly intrigued as to where their young love might go (and if its inter-species nature might disturb even Alana and Marko).
As for the plans to exterminate every living thing on the planet, I can’t help but think Alana might represent the spoiler there. Specifically, I’m intrigued at the detail that Alana hasn’t forgotten all of her weapons training.
We don’t just get a Chekhov’s gun, we get a Chekhov’s gunslinger. I’m not sure if a firefight will save the day (I would think it would be easier to just bomb Phang from orbit), but you can bet Alana’s handiness with that particular weapon is going to come up again soon.
Ryan, this issue covers a lot of ground, but finds pretty much everyone reacting to unexpected twists. Did any of those draw your attention more than others. And do you have any guesses as to how Robots drink?
Ryan M: I’m thinking Robots have some sort of secret straw hole that they don’t show in polite company that reduces the liquid into component parts and the waste is turned into a gas that is emitted in small enough amounts that there is no visible trace. Not that I’ve given it as much thought as The March.
I think my reaction shot of the issue is when The Will as his tryst is interrupted at the same time that he finds out that he is fired. He is clearly shaken by the news and doesn’t seem to even hear the yelling horned man until he strikes. There is so much to pull apart in the scene. There is the inherent humor in juxtaposing the more clinical dismissal by Erv the Agent and the emotional and physical assault from horn-guy.
Drew, the themes that you noted earlier are in play here as Vaughan shows the micro while referencing the macro. Not only are there forces that will render the plans of men obsolete, those forces are empowered by folks who are focused on their own lives We are deep in election season and the idea that the average citizen doesn’t care what “nightmares his leaders are green-lighting anymore” and is instead focusing on “his next vacation” resonated. It’s difficult to mentally balance the needs of society with the needs of yourself or your family or your clients. For Erv, leaving The Will without his lance or his title is the cost of not fighting the system. Vaughan and Staples don’t let us ignore that cost here. In the final panel of the scene, The Will sits dejected on the floor receiving the final indignity of losing his name, while his own collateral damage, the horned man who wasn’t given a name in the story at all, is doubled over in pain, having received a permanent disfigurement.
There is a wicked layer of nihilism to the way the world works in Saga. People can be good and can love, but greater forces edge toward destruction. The final scene of the issue as The March stands over the dying body of Ambassador Robot reinforces that sense of meaninglessness.
It’s natural to place extra import on the final moments of a life, and the last few panels of Ambassador Robot’s do not reflect a kind world. He implies that the people responsible for the massacre in the embassy and the plan to eliminate life on Phang may not be classifiable along expected lines. He laughs to himself, at a joke he cannot share. He reverts to a human’s first source of comfort, his mother’s breast, and then displays an error message before blinking out of consciousness. There is no meaning to his death and therefore no meaning to his life. He wanted to warn the people of Phang, but his effort to do so left him dead. The world is indifferent to Ambassador Robot, but Vaughan does not let us forget that he once had plans.
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