by Spencer Irwin and Taylor Anderson
This article containers SPOILERS. If you have not read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: In recent months our Saga coverage has focused quite a bit on how Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan have been taking their time, luxuriating in a slower pace and revealing more and more about their characters as they move pieces into place, setting up for a no doubt explosive finale. That said, no matter how much build up they have, grand confrontations don’t work the same way in Saga as they do in many other similar pieces of media; there’s no monologue-and-metaphor-filled matches of will, no intricately choreographed fight scenes, no thirty episode long battles as Namek slowly burns in the background. Instead, Saga’s finales reflect real life violence. They’re quick, brutal, often random, and care very little about the events that have led up to them or who’s right or wrong.
The most prominent showdown in Saga 53 comes when Ianthe takes Squire hostage and confronts Upsher, Hazel, and Alana. We’ve been watching Ianthe’s machinations play out in the background since before this storyline even began, but her plan eventually ends up being rather poorly thought out; not only does she lose her hostage, The Will, before she even finds the rest of her targets, but she’s taken down fairly easily just because she’s outnumbered (and that’s without even considering Ghus or Petrichor, who don’t arrive in time to help but would’ve eventually turned the tides even further against Ianthe).
For all that Ianthe’s been built up, she ends up being way less of a threat than she’d have considered herself. That’s not to say that she wasn’t deadly and dangerous, nor that this confrontation doesn’t leave lasting damage — Alana may never fly again — but it says a lot that her one and only causality, Doff, died in a previous issue, not during the climax of her plan. Ianthe doesn’t get her revenge against the Will nor the prize and recognition she clearly craves and believes she deserves — instead the deadly and talented freelancer is murdered by a journalist, any skill or title or even goals or morality she may have ever claimed to have stripped away as she lies dying in the stand, insulting Upsher and urging him to kill her. She dies nothing but a cruel and arrogant bully.
In any other title this would probably be an anticlimax, but Saga thrives in these kind of moments, in subverting expectations and especially in subverting typical depictions of violence. It’s not something that’s beautiful or can be used or prove a point — sometimes it proves nothing at all, other than that people are cruel, or that they’ll do whatever it takes to protect themselves and those they love.
Saga 53‘s other major storyline likewise subverts the expectations Vaughan and Staples have built throughout this arc. The Will is finally face-to-face with Prince Robot IV, and Marko quickly attempts to come to Robot’s rescue. Really, more is going on in this scenario than I fully have room to recap. The Will is seeking revenge on Robot; Robot’s going further down the path towards mental breakdown, reliving past abuses seemingly uncontrollably; Robot is also attempting to sell out Hazel and her family, and readers are unsure whether it’s all a ruse or not; Marko’s reached the point where he trusts Robot even when he shouldn’t, and seems to have embraced his pacifism more than ever; Marko is also lying to The Will when he tells him they’re the only people on-planet. By the time the storyline comes to a head, only one of those facts actually matters: The Will’s revenge.
This is a stark contrast to the relative anticlimax of Ianthe’s attack. Not only is Prince Robot quite likely the most significant death so far in all of Saga, but he’s likewise murdered by another of the series’ most important characters — a character who, up until this point, had been a relatively minor presence throughout this arc, a hostage rather than a villain. Robot’s death leaves quite a few lingering questions that will likely only be answered in the audience’s heads, while also reinforcing, not only the seemingly random nature of violence, but how violence can drastically alter lives in an instant.
(Also, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen him bleed before, but this is the first time I’ve noticed that the elite, royal Prince Robot’s blood is literally blue. What a brilliant pun.)
The issue’s final storyline delves into similar themes, if in entirely different ways. Upsher and Doff’s ability to sell their story and, in exchange, get transformation spells for Robot, Petrichor, and Squire has always seemed assured — the real drama seemed to be in whether Robot could remain stable until it arrived, and whether Petrichor would ultimately go through with it. Instead, they’re sabotaged by Special Agent Gale, who knows how to use blackmail and propaganda to completely invalidate their story. Other than the (off-screen) murder of a source, there’s no violence at all, but Gale is nonetheless using massive power to push others around and subvert the truth, not to mention destroy a plan that’s taken issues to construct in an instant. Maybe that’s the real, sobering message of this issue: in any confrontation it’s not the person who is right who wins, it’s the person with the most power, whether that power comes from literal strength, numbers and weapons, or authority.
Taylor, what kind of messages did you find in this issue? Did you find these confrontations shocking, or anti-climatic? (or maybe both?!) Do you think there’s any bouncing back for The Will, or has this permanently placed him in a villainous role?
Taylor: The confrontations in this issue are indeed shocking, for the reason that you said, Spencer. They climax so quickly and without warning that when they end, it’s unexpected. In pop-culture, we’ve all come to expect a showdown or heroic sacrifice when a well-known character dies, but that’s not like real life. The verisimilitude that Vaughan creates in this issue is disarming for this reason, and for the way it reflects the current state of the world.
Essentially, violence and power dictate the proceedings of what happens in this issue, and it’s troubling just how recognizable they are to anyone living today. As you said Spencer, Agent Gale uses his power to shut down the free press by eroding the credibility of the reporters who are bringing people the news. He does this not by questioning their methods or their facts, but by creating a counter narrative that would discredit the institution bringing forth the story.
The parallels between Gale’s tactics and certain politicians today is certainly not a coincidence since Vaughn and Staples are frequently make their comic political. Still, the fact that something so outlandish as Gale’s blackmail is recognizable as something real in our own world is more than a little concerning. Just like Donald Trump and his supporters, Gale doesn’t even try to explain away a damning story. Instead, he he hints at the supposed moral failings of its reporters and the greedy and unethical nature of newspaper bringing forth the story. That he uses his power to suppress the truth suggests that Gale is essentially a bully working on a large scale.
That same power dynamic is present in lanthe’s story line. Like Gale, she is a bully who uses her power to manipulate people and get what she wants. This bullying works for her for a while, but more importantly it leads to her death. When lanthe kills Doff she crosses an invisible line that all but spells her doom.
To understand why, let me tell you a little story. When I was visiting my family a couple weeks ago, I was talking to my brother and we got onto the topic of how he was bullied by a kid in middle school. Long story short, this kid picked on my brother every day until my brother had finally taken enough. He pushed the kid into a locker, ripping his shirt, and punched him. My brother is gentle by nature, so such an action was out of the ordinary for him and goes to show that people can only take so much bullying before they snap and react.
By killing Doff, lanthe has crossed that line. She’s bullied Upsher and his friends to their breaking point. When Upsher learns of Doff’s murder, he snaps and leaps into uncharacteristic action.
This too is a reminder of what happens in our own world when people are pushed to their limits. Ever since the current administration took office there have been protests and an increase in civic action to counteract plans and actions by the the president, who like lanthe has crossed a line not commonly seen by politicians.
In this way, the issue resembles problems and confrontations in our everyday lives. This verisimilitude is echoed in the way Prince Robot, Doff, and lanthe have been unceremoniously dispatched. The Will’s actions similarly are horrifying and it begs the question whether he has crossed a line from whence he can never return. While that is a logical question, it seems just as likely that he will continue to operate in a grey area where he is neither good nor bad and just what he is. That’s realism, and in its own way, it fits in with the other events of this issue.
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?