BY AARON BLOCK
[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan.]
Had last month’s column not been waylaid by end of semester chaos and other roadblocks to productivity it would’ve featured Saga #1, from Image Comics, as my Spotlight read. That I’ve selected Saga #2 as my Spotlight book for April shouldn’t be read as a consolation prize, or a way to make up for last month; I would’ve happily celebrated the first ever back-to-back Spotlight pick for the Pull List, had last month gone according to plan. It’s a brilliant title, unlike anything else on the shelves and well worth discussing at length. And if it’s brilliant again next month and I have to rename this column “Saga and Some Other Comics” then so be it.
What Saga does best is open up the science fiction adventure story, filling it with ideas and trusting to reader to follow along. Whereas a lot of sci-fi comics follow the Blade Runner model, where the entire fictional world seems to grow out of a single design choice, Saga feels more like Star Wars, filled with weird creatures and technologies that don’t necessarily make sense together but we accept them as a whole because the story never stops to let us figure out how the giant gangster slug fits with the admiral who looks like a prawn. The characters in Saga (and Star Wars and Blade Runner, for that matter) are rich and complex enough that I don’t really care about the how – I only want to know what they’ll do next, and what the consequences of their actions will be.
Saga’s main story concerns Marko and Alana, alien soldiers from opposite sides of a war who have fallen in love and deserted. Saga #1 opens with Alana giving birth in hiding, just before the pair are tracked down by Alana’s former confederates. They escape, and begin searching for something called the Rocketship Forest that they hope will take them far away from the war where they can raise their daughter in peace. Along the way we meet Coalition officers with humanoid bodies and televisions for heads, giant turtles with laser eyes, and bounty hunters with names like The Will and The Stalk, the latter of which is the principle threat in issue two. Alana and Marko are also humanoid, but are distinguished by a pair of wings and a set of ram’s horns, respectively, which are the unique characteristics of their particular races. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples understand that a well-constructed story will sweep that quantity of detail along and use it to set-up even more sophisticated plot points, and that readers are more likely to appreciate the richness of everything than to complain that everything and everyone looks too weird.
All of that oddity would mean nothing if the characters weren’t relatable and interesting, though. Marko is an awkward new parent, nervously optimistic about their chances of escaping the war but also slightly a bit of a bumbler, while Alana is more collected and pessimistic. When The Stalk (a bounty hunter with a forked, weaponized tongue) stabs Marko and tells Fiona to hand over the child, Alana points a stun gun not at the monster, but at her own daughter, deadpanning that she’ll do anything to keep her away from the powers that are hunting her family. Even The Stalk is shocked, and as a reader I found myself in the strange situation of relating to the ruthless professional killer. So far, Saga is made up almost entirely of quiet character moments like that, with a smattering of action sequences mixed in. When the action does inevitably pick up, the stakes will be even greater because we’ve come to care about Marko, Alana, and even baby Hazel, who narrates the story from some point in the future.
Outside of the clever plotting and rich character work, Saga is notable in that it represents Vaughan’s return to comics. A critical darling of the 2000s, who built a loyal fan following around titles like Y: the Last Man, Runaways, and Ex Machina, Vaughan was celebrated for his deep plotting and dynamic characters, which made him a natural to make the transition to screenwriting, most notably three seasons writing for Lost. It’s too early to speculate about how that time away might’ve changed his writing, but nevertheless it’s good to have a gifted writer, especially one capable of drawing a non-traditional comics audience, working in the medium.
That said, the star of this series is clearly Staples. She broke through with Mystery Society (written by Steve Niles) in 2010, but Saga is the first in hopefully a string of high-profile gigs for the artist. Her linework is a bit sketchy but still clear, and suited to rendering all of the detail necessary for the kind of world-building she and Vaughan are up to. Staples particularly excels in acting – her characters are expressive, not only in their faces but in postures and gestures. When Prince Robot IV enters in issue two he is upright, striding as his position would dictate, but as soon as he learns something new about Alana his confidence is shaken and he takes this stance, somewhere between petulant defiance and a slouch, that tells us everything about Prince Robot in a single panel.
Staples’s backgrounds don’t quite grab me, though. They’re rendered digitally, and appear hazy and soft, whereas the foreground figures (also, I suspect, rendered digitally) are clear and defined, outlined in black lines. The result is a cel-animation feel, which is interesting in some ways but seems to rob the story of some of its depth and richness.
I never would’ve suspected this would happen, but Image Comics has been slowly taking over my pull list in the past few months. I’m reading more Image titles than ever, and gradually dropping Marvel and DC books. I still enjoy superhero titles, but I’m finding that books like Saga are making me all the more excited to visit my local store (Boston’s Comicopia) every Wednesday. Continue reading