Back when I reviewed Babylon 5, I argued that with sufficiently different trappings, even the most standard storylines can be fresh and exciting.
And comics, with the benefit of visuals and a willingness to be ‘edgy,’ can help make the story look as well as read different.
A friend recently recommended via Facebook the ongoing series Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and drawn by Fiona Staples, currently up to volume 3. Despite the strangely bland title, I was sanguine that it was worthy of my attention when I saw the cover:
Epic battle couple side by side? Nothing special. Epic battle couple of mixed ethnicity side by side, the lady breastfeeding their baby? Unique. So I grabbed it at the first opportunity.
In a galaxy far, far away (I assume), the people of the planet Landfall have been at war for so long with their moon, Wreath, that it’s become a habit. But since the destruction of one would destroy both (being as they orbit each other), they take the Cold War approach of pitting proxies against each other.
It’s a war of forces: the Wreath folk (distinguished by their peoples’ various horns and antlers) use magic in tactical applications, while the Landfallians (distinguished by having wings) use more conventional, if advanced, technology. Indeed, one of their proxies, the Robot Kingdom, are advanced technology.
Marko, of Wreath was, like so many, a fresh-faced young soldier who, sickened by his first sight of combat, surrendered to Landfall on the spot.
Alana, of Landfall, was a regular grunt, stuck on prisoner duty when she hesitated to bomb civilians.
Marko, as previously mentioned, was a prisoner. As they came to share their mutual doubts about the rightness of the cause, they fell in love, and at the point we commence the tale, they’re on the run, while also welcoming their new baby daughter, Hazel.
Neither of the warring leaderships are pleased by this development. Ostensibly for the purposes of general morale, both want Alana and Marko dead, while the Wreath leaders, at least, want Hazel captured alive for reasons as yet unclear.
Marko and Alana remain on the run, picking up, at various points, a teenaged ghost babysitter, a rocketship grown from a tree, and Marko’s hardboiled but gentle-hearted mother. All the while, Prince Robot IV (as in ‘four,’ not ‘the Fourth,’ I think) of the Robot Kingdom, despite his own new family and his wartime trauma, is sent by his Landfall puppeteers to hunt the couple down, while Wreath has contracted a freelancer known as The Will, a sombre killer with a soft spot for innocents, who ends up with his own band, comprising his living lie detector the Lying Cat, a rescued slave girl and Marko’s Amazonian ex-fiancee.
The setting is both awesome and slightly ridiculous. It clearly owes much to Star Wars, but it reminds me of ElfQuest in that, apart from taking place in space, it has the hallmarks of a classic fantasy: the Landfallians and Wreathfolk both look like the types you’d run into around Oberon’s court. A lot of the other ‘aliens’ look like anthropomorphic animals of various sorts. They curse and use military jargon a lot more than average. Oh, and did I mention that they grow rocket ships out of trees?
Then you have the Robot Kingdom, made up, seemingly, of silvery aristocrats with televisions instead of heads and, for robots, very enthusiastic sex lives. Then there are the freelancers – sort of like what you’d get if the bounty hunters in Star Wars were unionized – who all have aliases starting with ‘The’ like ‘The Will,’ ‘The Stalk,’ ‘The Brand,’ ‘The March’ and similar.
A universe structured thusly is wonderfully fertile ground for interesting characters, and not only did Vaughn and Staples do that, they did it with more flourish and daring than most fiction even today has the gall to do.
People of colour abound, including but not limited to Alana – given her appearance and tough-gal demeanour, if this was a movie I think she’d be played by Zoe Saldana. Neither Wreatheans nor Landfallians lack for diversity in appearance. There’s a B-Plot involving two investigative journalists who are also a gay couple. No Steven Moffat-esque jokes at their expense, their relationship is just there, and apart from suffering cultural persecution on their homeworld, it isn’t a dominant part of their story so far. Being gay isn’t the point of their character, as is so often the case.
The villains – or perhaps I should say antagonists – are very nuanced characters: The Will may be a cold-blooded mercenary, but he’s got a strict code and a soft heart worthy of Commander Vimes. Prince Robot IV is a snob and a racist, but the war has messed with him pretty badly, and his desire to see his wife and start a family makes him, for want of a better term, more human.
And something the authours seem to love is mucking about with gender roles. Our heroes are quite the juxtaposition: Marko is a buff warrior man, but his natural disposition is gentle, fussy, and nurturing. He might rip into anyone who threatens his family, but you’d have to push him far before killing comes into his range of options. That said, he’s uncompromising, flawed and possibly a bit whiny.
Alana, by contrast, is aggressive, curses like a sailor, would drink like one if she weren’t pregnant and then breastfeeding, and has a quite spectacular appetite for sex, food and corny literature, and then can turn into a gooey-eyed puddle when her baby smiles at her. She’s also abrasive and insecure. But unlike a lot of tough action girls in fiction, she has a soft side that she can show without forever discarding the toughness.
Fair warning however, that the daring of the story does come with a certain discomfort factor: sex and nudity and foul language are not spared, and are often quite graphic. When the time comes to break out the gore, it’s done with vivid aplomb, and some of the gore and monsters are so extreme it’s actually legitimately nauseating.
Unlike my sometime nemesis Game of Thrones, however, the gore and general spectacle isn’t in every single frame. It comes in exactly as often as it needs to and that’s part of why it’s so very effective. It’s deployed for maximum punch and not just splashed across everything. Juxtaposition of imagery is done quite well. A good example is Isabel, the star couple’s ghostly babysitter. A wisecracking, rather gangsta teenager who loves babies, you’re reminded her being a ghost is no joke by the entrails hanging out past her t-shirt, the product of having been killed by a landmine.
Other than that the only thing that I find jarring about the story is a criticism I’ve felt about a lot of comics: the medium does not lend itself to indepth or paced storytelling. We get dropped into the tale in medias res, as they say, and the plot proceeds in a way that’s so brisk it can seem like it’s skimming by too fast. Characters come and go really fast, and keeping on top of their names can get tricky. Having said that, the addition of the visual element lets you remember character profiles if not names, and as the numerous elements pile up, over time they add up to a sense of the wider universe you’re in.
Saga, therefore, is unique. It’s built on classic tropes and then painted over spectacularly. It’s truly bold – sometimes a little overpowering – but fresh and different, in ways that hit so many socially important notes.
For the beauty of its art, for the depth of its characters, for the colour of its universe, for its socially responsible storytelling choices, Saga is well worth checking out!
“This is an original fantasy book with no superheroes, two non-white leads and an opening chapter featuring graphic robot sex. I thought we might be cancelled by our third issue.”
– Brian K. Vaughn