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Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, Image Comics
If you’ve stepped into a comic book shop in the past few years, then chances are you’ve seen Saga on the shelves, front and centre, probably on display with a recommendation on it from the shop staff. With 40 issues out so far, this series has barely flagged in its quality and critical acclaim since its first issue in March 2012. Its collected trades are a best seller, and it has won eight Eisner awards, six Harvey awards, a Hugo award and a Goodreads Choice Award. It’s been compared to Star Wars and Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. This series is probably the biggest hit to come out of comics in the 2010s, and definitely one of the best independent comic series. And that reputation is completely earned.
An epic space opera/fantasy about two parents trying to raise their daughter in the middle of an intergalactic war may seem like a niche concept. Particularly when you consider the comic’s 17+ age rating (do not let a child read this, believe me, this is strictly for grown-ups). But as those bestseller numbers would suggest, Saga is still one of the most broadly appealing comics I’ve ever read. It has action and adventure, yes, and its set in a galaxy far, far away, but at its centre is a deeply resonant story about parenthood, prejudice, and the opposite of war. The series is narrated by Hazel, the daughter, telling the story of her birth and the chain of events it caused across the galaxy. Her parents, Alanna and Marko, have found themselves unwittingly in the centre of a political maelstrom; their daughter bridges the ideological gap between their races, cemented by centuries of warfare, and both sides would go to any length to ensure it is never known that love between their people could exist. A Romeo and Juliet story with magic and robots.
Saga’s creator, Brian K. Vaughan, has cited lots of sources of inspiration, one of the more obvious being his childhood love of Star Wars – in fact the words he used, somewhat jokingly were “Star Wars for perverts”. Ultimately it was his wife becoming pregnant with his second child that prompted him to move forward with the series, and his personal investment in the concept is very apparent. Parenthood is an ongoing theme, with several characters becoming parents, joyfully or reluctantly, over the course of the story. One of Vaughan’s other inspirations when he was considering writing a series were his fellow comic book writers, who warned him off starting a new series in a time when the economy was at a low. According to Vaughan, he realised that his comic books were like his creative children, and he wanted to explore the act of trying to cultivate an ongoing series in a difficult market in an exciting and interesting way.
But you cannot discuss this series without mentioning Fiona Staples’ artwork. Gripping as Vaughan’s storytelling is, it is rendered a thousand times better by the incredible character design and artwork of the series’ head artist. She has been given total control over the design of the characters and the setting, and it really shows. Vaughan set out, with Saga, to create something so ambitious in scope that it could never be adapted to the screen; it is meant for comic book form only, and that has given Staples artistic license to create the most fantastical characters she can imagine. Whilst the two main characters at the beginning are mostly humanoid, the supporting cast boasts an incredible range of design that makes the whole piece very visually entertaining. Some of the characters who’ve gone on to become fixtures in the story and central figures in the plot, like Ghüs, that adorable little psychopath, where entirely created in Staples artwork.
This divide in responsibilities between writer and artist also created, in my opinion, an interesting effect on me as the reader as well. Suffice to say, a good rule of thumb for Saga is that the less you might want to sympathise with a character, the more human they really are. As consumers of media, we are so used to being told what to think and how to feel about characters based on their appearance. In films, a moustachioed old man with an English accent is a guaranteed villain. In animations they give animals human eyes if they want us to like them, and animal eyes if they want us not to. Not so in Saga. I remember being oddly confused the first time I read it, particularly about one of the villains, The Stalk; a character I thought of as a monster, inhuman and villainous, being given a sympathetic backstory and people who cared about her? The idea seemed jarring to me. A re-reading made me realise that the character’s design had not simply made her into a villain for me. It had, in my eyes, immediately stripped the character of any humanity I would have attributed had the character looked like a human. It’s the sort of artwork and storytelling that immediately makes you question yourself, and how you perceive the people around you. So much of the story is about prejudice and how the culture you grow up in shapes your world view.
Saga is a hard hitting, emotional and action-packed story. How can a graphic novel make me care so deeply about the emotions of a robot man with a computer for a head? I have no idea. But everyone, whether you’ve got horns or wings, should be reading this as well.