Today, Ryan and Patrick are discussing Saga 40, originally released November 30th, 2016.
Ryan: When I was a child, my least favorite sentence was “Life’s not fair.” As a hyper-verbal kid who was encouraged to talk out her frustrations, things boiled down to those three words far too often. It got to a point where my mother would only have to intake her breath to start to say it and I would finish the sentence, feeling a sense of injustice that the world cannot be bent to fit the ideals of fairness of my ten-year-old mind. It felt glib then, but I understand a bit more now. Fairness is an ideal and is easy to enforce in a tennis match or on tax forms, but when the stakes become more personal, there is no way to find a quantifiable balance. Saga 40 is made up of scenes of characters behaving unfairly to one another and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples use thematic elements to hold together an otherwise scattered issue.
The issue is book-ended with Sir Robot scenes. First, his nightmare is interrupted by Hazel and Kurti spying on him. Later, in a Fadeaway stupor, he corners Alana and threatens suicide. The people of Phang are headed toward a creepy baby planet and Gwendolyn has delivered the box that may hasten Phang’s destruction and the death of the people left behind there. Also, Petrichor meets a talking mushroom whose purpose is to remember the past but has instincts about the future. That scene brings us back to the creepy baby planet.
Staples’ art is never less than evocative and here, she gives us a lot to chew on without necessarily offering anything in the way of exposition. I’ve been calling it a creepy baby, but it looks a toddler that has been shot through the forehead. Staples is able to render both the forehead and the eyes as black holes with a star inside. There is a sense that the viewer may be making a baby out of what is a happenstance of a planet. Given the themes of the series and their preoccupation with parents protecting their young, it seems much more likely that the vacant eyes of this baby planet are meant to seem sinister. We’ve been reading about the plans of the powerful to put Phang at risk for several issues, but this image makes the danger more visceral.
As Phang hurtles toward creepy baby planet, Vaughan and Staples gives us brief scenes on the planet. Only Robot appears in two of these scenes and so is able to have a full arc. He devises a plan and executes it within his pages, whereas the other characters are only allowed reactive moments of character. Robot is proactive, even if his choices include getting high and killing himself. Alana is not given the space in the issue to demonstrate that kind of process, so instead we get smaller moments of revelation.
When Robot approaches her in her room, Alana is wary and quick to call him out on his shirtless chest, but remains tentative and kind otherwise. When he aims the barrel toward her, she loses every trace of softness and is ready to fight him. Vaughan draws on the themes of parenthood and its meaning for this scene. Alana tolerates Robot’s lust for her to some extent, but as soon as her child is threatened, she turns on him. The paradigm for Alana is changed. Vaughan has her indignant over the threat to “us” and she uses Robot’s role as father as a way to talk him down. While the scenes are wildly different, this mention of fatherhood echoes the moment earlier in the issue when Robot cannot let his own subconscious praise him for his fathering. The final scene also borrows dynamics from an earlier scene with Marko as he turns on Jabarah.
While the context is quite different, Marko has an abrupt emotional turn toward anger. His outburst toward Jabarah feels more aggressive and outsized. Staples use of the red background as well as showing the somewhat elderly Jabarah cowering in the foreground completes the picture of Marko as out of control that contrasts with Alana’s justified rage.
So, Patrick, what did you think of this issue? We are still in the mid-arc and have several storylines going. How well did Vaughan and Staples handle the plot movement? Does Gwendolyn’s scene function as part of the narrative? Also, did you parents tell you “Life’s not fair” or did they have another form of torture for you?
Patrick: Our version of “Life’s not fair” was “Well, we’re not the _____s.” I guess my siblings and I always used to try to get our way by demonstrating that one of our friends had something we wanted or got to do something we wanted to do. “Pete Pfarr got to go to skateboarding camp.” “Well, we’re not the Pfarrs.” It’s frustratingly irrefutable, but never brought me any closer to understanding how or why money and opportunity worked like that. When you’re a kid, you don’t have any sense that there are different lives out there – and the people living them have a different set of values, resources, traditions, etc. That’s part of what’s going on in that adorable scene between Kurti and Hazel.
It’s tempting to write that one off as a pat way to demonstrate Sir Robot’s intensely fragile state of mind, but we have to remember that Hazel is being confronted by an idea that she’d never considered before: as a big sister, she might have to help raise the child. In fact, the images on Robot’s face get even more compelling — the bloody-horned figure in his dream literally starts strangling him — but Kurti and Hazel have moved on to their own understanding of Hazel’s problem. However, Staples makes a point of letting the reader see those images flickering on Robot’s screenface.
If there’s a greater lesson floating around in the background of this issue, it’s got to be that a lack of empathy drives people to misunderstanding. That plays out in the scene Ryan pulled between Jabarah and Marko and I think is even at play in that Gwendolyn scene. Gwen might be handing over some kind of mega-weapon, but at least she has the compassion to be disgusted by the notion that the war on Phang is a “theatre” of war.
That actually brings me around to the “bluecap,” the aforementioned talking mushroom on the surface of Phang. The thing appears to be an empathy machine, only, y’know, completely incapable of acting on that empathy.
This guy is fascinating. Fascinating and weird. Petrichor has the decency to ask the audience-surrogate question – “What be you?” But the bluecap’s answer may make it the ultimate audience surrogate:
“Merely an impartial observer. We bluecaps are planted in places of conflict, to remember battles for future –“
Petrichor cuts it off before we can get an end to that sentence. For future what? The bluecap understands what’s happening on the ground in Phang, and even knows enough to sprinkle in relevant color (i.e., that many of these residents were evacuated at gunpoint). The bluecap even does some of the same speculating Ryan just did about that baby-planet, albeit in a much more cryptic way.
It’s might not be fair, but you and I aren’t Alana or Marko or Sir Robot, but merely observers. That’s the curse of the reader — endless empathy, and no fucking way to act on it. Who is the most powerless in that final scene when Sir Robot turns his arm-canon on himself? Alana? Sir Robot? Nah, man. It’s the third set of eyes in that room – ours.
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