With Saga, Vaughan and Staples have created what is perhaps the weirdest, dirtiest, most exhilarating fantasy comic series of the decade. After trying the first issue for free via the Comixology app, which spurred me to immediately ordering the trade paperback collecting the first six issues, I was completely hooked and placed an order for volume two. While I’m tempted to buy the third volume as the issues are released, Saga’s narrative flow gives it a genuine claim to being a graphic novel (rather than simply a collection of comic episodes), so the collected format suits it well.
After the sheer mind-blowing strangeness of the first volume, with its robot sex, phantom children and arachnoid assassins, volume two was going to have a hard time making quite the same impact, and it’s true that the shock of the new is now over. That said, Vaughan’s storytelling, combined with Staples’s utterly spellbinding artwork pulled me into the story once more, and I am more eager than ever to see how this tale develops.
A quick summary for the uninitiated: Saga is a science-fantasy story set in a universe where magic and technology exist side-by-side. Vaughan has spoken about Star Wars being his inspiration, but has agreed that his creation might be best described as Star Wars for perverts. Where it goes further than Star Wars is in embracing its magical angle, with an ingenious magical law that requires each spell to be paid for with a secret. It’s a great way of forcing characters to reveal certain facts about themselves that then spur the story on in new directions.
The story takes place in some unknown galaxy, and although there are recognisably human characters, there is no mention of Earth. This galaxy has been subsumed by war, as numerous worlds are conscripted or coerced into fighting on the side of either Landfall, the largest inhabited planet in the galaxy, or its solitary moon Wreath. With the destruction of this planetary system imminent, the technically sophisticated winged inhabitants of Landfall fight the magically inclined, satyr-like people of Wreath on worlds throughout the galaxy. On one such planet, Cleave, our heroes met: Landfallian gaoler Alana and her Wreathean prisoner Marko. From there illicit union came the only hybrid baby in the universe, Hazel, who narrates the series from a future vantagepoint.
The story is driven by Alana and Marko’s desire to live a quiet life together, and their need to protect their daughter from two civilisations that despise her existence. With Hazel narrating, one might think the jeopardy would be lessened, seeing that she must logically survive the events of the narrative. However, in a universe where ghosts haunt woods made from organic spacecraft and a leyak-like ghost child can be considered a reliable babysitter, such a conclusion is not so definite.
Volume one ended with the unexpected arrival of Marko’s parents, summoned by the destruction of his family’s sacred magical sword. It’s this tortured family dynamic that drives the second volume, while the plot itself is driven by their pursual by the Will, the galaxy’s finest assassin. While Alana and Marko, in spite of their alien appearance, come across as genuine, normal people in an extraordinary and dangerous situation, the human Will is a more perversely complex character, with a skewed morality that gives him a twisted nobility. His primary goal is not the capture of Alana and Marko - although this is his official task – but vengeance for the death of his lover, the Stalk, on her murderer, Prince Robot IV.
Ah yes, the Robot Kingdom. If there’s one image that could stand for the strangeness of Saga, it’s the television-headed Robot people, anatomically human but for this one strange accoutrement and their literally blue blood. Yes, Robot people shit and shag, just like everyone else, and are, for reasons as yet unclear, fighting on the side of Landfall against the Wreatheans. No doubt the politics will become clearer as we go on, but for now, it’s the sheer oddness of the imagery that is compelling. Fiona Staples is the real star of this series, for without her perfectly suited artwork, Vaughan’s universe would remain unrealised. She displays an uncanny knack for creating relatable yet physically gorgeous characters, while also creating some of the most perversely bizarre monsters ever seen in comics. While the seahorse guy is a favourite, I’d be surprised if Staples can ever top the monstrous beauty of the Stalk, the spider-woman assassin.
Saga has courted controversy because of its sexual content, and it’s true that this is an ever present element to this story. It’s missing the point to complain about this, however. The core of this series is real people in an unreal universe, and real people have sex. Couples who are perfectly mild-mannered and respectable in public go home and lick each other’s asses, and Saga embraces sex in all its beauty and dirtiness. This is not a children’s book, and it isn’t pretending to be. This is a Star Wars where Luke and Leia would have banged, even after they found out they were brother and sister.
That’s not to say there’s no gratuitous elements. The major controversy in this series occurred when Comixology refused to publish issue twelve for iOS, citing the use of oral sex imagery that breached Apple’s rules. The immediate objection to this was that many sex scenes had passed by this point without protest, but since this particularly pair of images depicted gay sex, they were reason enough to pull the issue. The issue was later made available with an apology, and quite right too, although the scenes in question were entirely gratuitous and, I suspect, were included primarily to bate the censors. Then again, if Vaughan and Staples want to show a gay bukkake scene on a robotic man’s television screen face, in the middle of a horrific battle scene, who am I to refuse them?
What makes Saga so well is the juxtaposition of the mundane and fairytale, the beautiful and monstrous, the noble and obscene. This is a war story, but refuses to glory in it, and as such does not shy away from the horrors that war creates, up to and including collateral damage, prisoner abuse and child prostitution. The world is a terrible place, and so is the galaxy of Saga. But more than that, at its heart, Saga is a story of parenthood, as Alana and Marko make tough decisions in order to protect their daughter. Vaughan draws on his own experiences of parenthood and embeds them in a fantastical universe, expressing the love parents have for their children, while not being ashamed to admit that they got their through carnal acts. It’s this honesty of storytelling, combined with fine characterisation, unpredictable plotting and stunning artwork that makes Saga such a trimph.