Today, Ryan M. and Spencer are discussing Saga 43, originally released May 31st, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Ryan M: Part of what makes Saga such a great story is that it operates on both the most literal and metaphorical levels. We are seeing the story of a nuclear family with relationships that are immediately recognizable. Marko and Alana’s romance is not a merely a vessel for a message about the power of love to transcend the boundaries created by heritage. They are two characters that have both the universal and specific complexities of each of us. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples deliver on both premises in Saga 43 as the crew regroups after Alana’s miscarriage and fights some dung people.
The issue opens with Sir Robot and Alana attempting to get an abortion for the fetus still inside her body. They are rebuffed thanks to a law against third trimester abortions and have to travel to a place called the Badlands to get the procedure that will protect Alana’s life. Before the crew can set off across the planet, they are attacked by the aforementioned dung people. Alana protects her family with a blast of power, revealing that something has changed.
Vaughan welcomes the reader to the new story arc with an owl-like creature saying “Howdy” and a sign welcoming us to Abortion Town. It’s a playful image that contrasts the camp with the town’s purpose. Staples does an excellent job melding the western elements with the alien reality of this planet. Pinks and yellows bleed into the landscape, giving a sense of the unnatural. The creature design of Doctor Sheriff is similarly strange. She is an owl in a cowboy hat, but also somewhat humanoid. The pink three-toed boots belong at a honky tonk. That said, the curl of the toes on the raised foot have an oddity that makes Doctor Sheriff more weird than an owl in a dress.
Underneath the goofy humor, there is political commentary in the form of Dr. Sheriff’s aside about the men making laws for women’s bodies which adds to the more literal level of the story. Yes, these are characters with wings or televisions for heads, but much of the dialogue could have been lifted from the real world.
It’s that very connection that makes the characters and worlds of this story so easy to empathize with. When young Hazel asks rude questions of Petrichor regarding her biology, Vaughan doesn’t ask us to judge either of them. It’s a real moment between two characters with great affection for one another.
The universality in the specific is made explicit here as Petrichor assures Hazel that she is both a singularity and part of a world of them. Staples renders Hazel with such humanity that it’s easy to read her emotional state through body positioning alone. In the first panel above, Hazel is fearful, her head bowed, arms crossed over her middle and leaning off balance on one foot. Her physicality suggests that Hazel is trying to protect herself from whatever Petrichor will say next. In the second panel, Hazel’s soft sidelong look tells us that she is taking in the affirmation. The final panel, offered without side borders, is such a recognizable image of a child in full, fierce hug.
Part of what makes Hazel such an effective narrator is that she is telling the story from the distance of adulthood, but that she experienced these events with the clarity of a child. Her speech about miscarriages has the maturity of a woman with much more worldly experience than young Hazel. It’s one of this series’ great strengths that we get to see the same character make discoveries and tell us with adult hindsight about where those innocent first leanings stack up in a grander view of life.
Aside from the moving contemplation on life and relationships, Vaughan and Staples also deliver the fantastical. The dung people are a pretty clear example of the kind of metaphorical work that Vaughan incorporates so well.
These characters are dealing with their own shit coming for them. It’s an upsetting idea made even more disturbing with Staples’ work on making the dung people recognizable as the characters we love. The reaction that the sequence evokes is visceral. The approaching creatures, unresponsive to weaponry, are coming for little Hazel.
Spencer, what did you think of the issue? There is an effort to bring new readers up to speed. Do you think that it was handled effectively? Will Hazel ever learn how to use the word “fucking”?
Spencer: I’m pretty sure we’ve seen Adult Hazel drop all manner of effective, context-appropriate f-bombs in the narration, so I’ve got no doubt that she’ll catch on soon enough. In the meantime, I’m more than happy to enjoy her precious, youthful mangling of the word for as long as Staples and Vaughan deem fit.
The effort to make this issue “new reader friendly,” meanwhile, is an interesting one, mainly achieved by the recap of Saga‘s premise early on and the choice to focus the issue’s entirety on Marko, Alana, and their family. Hazel’s narration lends itself to the former, but the latter is an unusual move for Saga, which routinely juggles two or three plots per issue in order to better serve its universe-spanning cast. I’ll admit that I miss the likes of The Will, Sophie, or my beloved Ghus and am eager to see what they’re up to, but I think this choice pays off narratively. Hazel and her family best embody the spirit of Saga, and the time and space devoted solely to them gives any new readers solid, fleshed-out characters to anchor themselves to.
Actually, while I tend to roll my eyes when indie/creator-owned books advertise “jumping on points” for new readers (these kind of stories are meant to be read from the beginning!), I think it works well for Saga. While every issue of this series is worth reading and while having knowledge of previous issues enriches your Saga experience, the characters Vaughan and Staples have created feel so real and personable that you can jump in at any point and still appreciate their adventures. It’s like meeting a new friend: you don’t need to know every little detail of their life to appreciate who they are today or to understand what they’re going through now.
That said, Hazel’s recap did help teach me something about the world of Saga I’d never considered before.
The war between Wreath and Landfall is so petty, pointless, and destructive that I’d long ago come to believe that there was no real cause behind it at all. The science vs. magic conflict presented here certainly doesn’t justify any of the violence either world has carried out, but it is easy to see why these two worlds may have initially clashed, long before they were driven solely by hatred.
An infamous luddite, Vaughan uses the above scene to take a dig at the dangers of blindly embracing technology, but that doesn’t mean he’s any kinder to the ancient traditions of Wreath. The fact that some of its inhabitants actually worship women who have had miscarriages is obviously meant to make us all feel a little uncomfortable.
It’s sad, yet refreshing to see Vaughan address a topic as complex and painful as miscarriage as frankly as he does in this issue, both in the scene above and later in Hazel’s closing narration. I can imagine that Petrichor’s belief has brought comfort to some women on Wreath much in the same way a belief in the afterlife might on ours, but the attention only reminds Alana of what she’s lost. Grief is not one-size-fit-all, especially a grief that’s often as private as miscarriages.
Of course, the fact that Alana’s miscarried fetus actually seems to be granting Alana magical powers (similar to the spells of Wreath, except more intuitive) complicates matters. I’ll freely admit that I don’t exactly feel qualified, nor all that comfortable, tackling the implications of this just yet, but it does seem worth noting that a Landfallian using Wreath magic is probably just as unprecedented as Hazel, or Alana and Marko’s love itself. This family is always doing something unexpected, which can be thrilling to readers, but absolutely horrifying to the characters living it.
This conversation is the result of Hazel asking about Petrichor’s penis, which is obviously and understandably a touchy, sensitive subject for Petrichor. Her (clearly practiced) response is correct, and would be completely justified if delivered to an adult, but it’s not exactly the best way to address a young child who’s just curious and scared. Like most children, Hazel doesn’t understand everything going on around her and has to make some grand leaps to try to make sense of it all, something complicated not only by her truly unique nature, but by the diverse cast of characters she’s encountered in her short life. While this will no doubt eventually make her a far more empathetic and well-rounded adult, it’s no wonder she’s so confused in the meantime, and Petrichor acquits herself nicely with her heartfelt response (which Ryan discussed in her half of this article).
As adults, we tend to feel like we’ve got a pretty firm handle on things. We can dismiss Hazel’s fears because it seems rather obvious that her mixed race shouldn’t effect her gender or sexuality, but in all truthfulness, that’s still only an assumption, and this is the same comic that has a miscarriage victim suddenly sprout flames from her hands a few pages later. The world of Saga is one where anything can happen at any moment, and while that kind of magic keeps readers on their toes, it should also remind us that our own world isn’t all that different from Saga‘s. The world is far more complex, wondrous, and downright weird than we tend to give it credit for, and one of Saga‘s greatest qualities is the way it presents the unpredictable and often unfair nature of our lives in a way that allows us to process it at our own pace. That’s the power of fiction for you.
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?
Love the design of Doctor Sheriff! Great pull, Ryan. It’s another classic Staples design that sort of gleefully leans into the animal qualities of the character. Like we all flipped out shit of Ghus, and he’s essentially just a seal pup in hello overalls. There’s a moment where Dr. Sheriff is walking away and his head is turned 180 degrees to say goodbye to Alana (and the readers) and it just made me squeal with joy.
It’s also sort of astounding that the asking price on this issue is a fucking quarter. It’s one thing to make the narrative approachable for new readers (by staying focused on one set of characters AND including a universal recap), but making the piece physically accessible is also cool. Welcome new Saga readers!
Also, I don’t know if we’ve seen this before, but there’s an ad for Barrier at the end of the issue. That’s Image advertising a non-Image comic (and a pay-what-you-want comic at that). That BKV’s got some pull, yeah?
I also want to praise the flash-forward opening of this issue as basically putting newcomers on the same footing as longtime readers. I mean, sure, we recognize Alana and Prince Robot’s story is a lie from the start, but I had so many questions about why these two were trying to sell this lie in particular. We need that flashback/recap as much as the newbies, which is kind of a neat formal trick.
To be clear, yes, BKV has sway, but at Image creators are given a lot of leeway for placing ads in their books. And Image has a relationship with Panel Syndicate as well, as BKV did his WALKING DEAD one-shot for us there and Image put out the hardcover of THE PRIVATE EYE. But also how awesome is SAGA? 🙂