Not many comics start with a woman giving birth in the back of an old body shop asking, “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting.” Hell, not many stories do period. But Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga (Image) does. And when the baby is born, it’s not a sanitized depiction. She’s covered in blood and has her umbilical cord attached. Her parents are happy. Her father cries. But it’s not a view of birth or family that covers up the blood, the umbilical cord or the experience of giving birth. There’s joy, blood and corporeal weirdness all mixed up together, which is one of the things I like about Saga (tree rockets, Lying Cats, magic and alien species aside). If I were more concerned about the state of comics’ respectability, I might use Saga to defend the medium. But I’m not. I’m just glad Saga is around. It’s hands down the best comic in print right now. It is consistently excellent in art and writing. It’s innovative and complex but also accessible and effortless. Saga is also one of the most mature comics around.
Saga is set during a galactic war between the galaxy’s largest planet, Landfall, and Landfall’s only moon, Wreath. Because the inhabitants of Landfall and Wreath realized that damage to either will destroy both, they outsourced their war to other planets and peoples. And so peace became more unthinkable as the war moved further away from home. Alana is a Landfallian soldier stationed as a guard in a prisoner of war camp on the planet Cleave. Marko is a detainee, a soldier from Wreath who declared he was a “conscientious objector” and surrendered to Landfall’s Coalition forces. Alana had been reading a romance novel, A Night Time Smoke, by the Louper-nominated novelist, D. Oswald Heist. She shares it with anyone who will listen, including Marko. Inspired by the novel’s message, Alana breaks out Marko and they go on the lam after only knowing one another for twelve hours. They are hunted by both sides for their icky, miscegenous love, and, even worse, for conceiving a child.
Saga is rated M for “Mature” and recommended for readers 18 and older and “may contain nudity, profanity, excessive violence and other content not suitable for minors. The American Library Association has reported Saga as one of its one of its ten most frequently challenged books in 2014, in part for being “anti-family,” which is really interesting because Saga is very much about family, among other things*. (In fact, Saga feels like a letter from Brian K. Vaughan to his children using the conceit of a science fiction comic illustrated with great radness by Fiona Staples). An issue of Saga was “made unavailable” in the Apple store. And Fiona Staples’ cover of issue #1 was controversial for depicting an image of Alana breastfeeding Hazel. Staples and Vaughan’s response has been to make the cover of issue #1 also the cover for the first volume.
“Mature” has come to mean some things in comics, mostly: killing; sex; swearing; sticking it to the man; ladies in poorly fitted lingerie and fetish-wear; and cynicism passing as realism. But that’s mostly adolescent nihilism posturing as maturity. Mature in comics is usually the side of adult life that teens yearning to breathe free dream of. Sure, there is sex in Saga. Some is of such perversity that it might even make Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s sex criminals blush. There is a giant with enormous, possibly infected genitalia who surely would. But adulthood isn’t only sex, violence and sticking it to the man or showing that bitch. Adult is also messy love and childbirth, grief and parenthood, surviving loss, forgiveness and refusing to ever forgive–as well as sex, violence and swearing. Rarely is a comic rated M for instances of existential despair**; wanting just one minute to one’s self; figuring out what to eat; managing to get out of bed when heartbreak or grief are boring a hole inside you; wondering if you should get that thing checked at the clinic; waiting in line; learning to talk honestly about what you want and need and learning to listen; doing the shitty because the shitty won’t do itself. Saga is a mature comic, an adult one in the most mature, adult sense.
People die in Saga. Sometimes they die horrible pointless deaths. Sometimes they die just because people die. But the deaths never feel lazy. I’ve said before the resurrection of dead characters that doesn’t bother me in mainstream superhero comics. That just feels mythic. What bothers me is the overuse of death and killing. There are other things that happen in life and other things that motivate people. And if killing isn’t your go to as a writer of an essentially mythic and ongoing genre, well, then you don’t have problems with clunky resurrections. Death happens in Saga because Alana and Marko meet during war and because death is a part of life. But in Saga, life is more interesting than death. As Hazel says, while talking about her time in an internment camp as a four year old: “My fellow inmates/classmate (and really, what’s the difference?) showed me it was more interesting to concentrate on the living. Because death is so fucking predictable, but life has science experiments and free time and surprise naps and who knows what comes next?” (Saga: Vol. 6. Image: 2016).
Love is messy and complicated in Saga, but it’s also very ordinary. Alana and Marko love each other enough to take a chance after knowing each other for only twelve hours, but they have more problems than survival. They have in-laws, conflicting personal morality around killing, past relationships the pop up, substance abuse issues. And most of the other characters love someone because love is part of life, too. All these loves are both mundane and special. The love that inspires Alana and Marko to walk away from war could not be more ordinary, even though it is between a rock monster and the daughter of a quarry owner. Alana tries to get one of her fellow guards to read A Night Time Smoke, saying, “That’s the thing, this is a love story! The monster and the girl meet, but instead of trying to kill each other, they mostly just hang out and play board games, except sometimes they leave their apartment to eat sandwiches at the movies” (Saga, Vol. 2. Image, 2013).
Eating sandwiches at the movies is so much better than dying or killing or outsourcing your war. It is a noble ideal.
As Saga‘s cast of characters expand, antagonists become sympathetic—or mostly sympathetic—because they are also people with motivations and loves and losses creating fortunate and unfortunate confluences of characters and events. In Saga, the aftermath of Alana and Marko running away together affect so many other people: a robot aristocratic; two investigative journalist mer-men from an extremely homophobic planet; a jilted fiancée; a writer of seditious romance novels; the ghost of a teen girl killed in a massacre on Cleave; a freelance mercenary and a Lying Cat. We see everyone’s point of view, no matter how noble or how vengeful. And they all make sense, and sometimes lead to tragedy where no one and everyone is simultaneously to blame. Which is very, very adult. The relationships, actions and consequences ripple out, but the amazing thing is that Saga never feels dense. It’s always an easy read. In fact, I read Saga only in collections now, because single issues are never enough. As it is, I have to resist the urge to run out when I’ve finished a volume and look at the next issue, just to see what happens.
The book is narrated by Hazel, but her parents remain fully realized characters. They exist in relation to her, but not only in relation to her. And she exists in relation to them, but, as she ages through the six volumes (so far) not only in relation to them. Having a comic narrated by a child–even partially as Saga is–having any story narrated by a child but written by an adult in a child’s voice can result in something unpleasantly saccharine. There’s always the risk of forgetting the challenges and frustrations of childhood. There’s always the risk of nostalgia. Staples’ art and Vaughan’s writing never let Hazel’s story get saccharine. Her voice feels true, as do the people and worlds at war around her. The world isn’t always a good and safe place, but it’s not always an irredeemable shithole either. Nostalgia and optimism can obscure hard truths, but cynicism and nihilism blind us, too.
*Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth certainly should be rated M for Existential Despair.
** *cough* Imperialism *cough*
“You’ve got to read this book,” exclaimed Carol Borden. “They eat sandwiches at the movies!”
This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on July 14, 2016.