Review: Saga Vol. 1 trade paperback (Image Comics)

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Thursday, August 08, 2013

This is just another in the chorus of voices, late to the party, that have already told you that Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples's Saga is wonderful and you should be reading it. Comparisons have been made between Saga's sci-fi/fantasy epicness and Star Wars, though I think a better comparison is The Wizard of Oz. Despite considerable (one might even say "charming") amounts of cursing and nudity, Saga never loses Oz's sense of wide-eyed wonder, with each new ally, obstacle, or enemy adding to the book's majesty.

In the sum total, not all that much actually happens in Saga's first volume, but it's such an enjoyable ride you'll hardly notice.

[Review contains spoilers]

Saga reads like a demented fairy tale, and in this way Brian Vaughan has redefined what it means to write mature comics (after the last time he redefined such, with Y: The Last Man). Despite its bare breasts and orgies, Saga never once feels gratuitous -- about everything it says and does is earned -- and actually comes off remarkably sweet. The occasional chalk-tone narrations by Hazel, newborn child of star-crossed couple Marko and Alana, told from some vantage in the future, offer a playfulness even when the story seems most dire; the tone is even more remarkable given how clear it seems to be that one of the parents, either Marko or Alana, won't actually live out the story.

Vaughan also does a fantastic job of bringing the mundane into this book, which goes a long way toward selling the characters. Marko is a horn-headed magic user and Alana a winged defector from his oppressors, but when they quibble about whether it's safe to have Alana's raygun around the baby or how many people each of them have "been with," there emerges a relatable normalcy to the couple. Vaughan's story, fantastical as it is, is steeped in modernity, as when Prince IV has to wait to meet with a secret agent because an app on the agent's phone tried to update and now his phone is frozen. Saga is light years away, but it's also in our backyards.

Paths in the book are winding. The bounty hunter "freelancer" The Stalk, sent by Marko's people, encounters the couple and almost fatally wounds Marko. The couple escapes with The Stalk in pursuit, seemingly headed toward a second confrontation; meanwhile rival hunter The Will gives up his search for the couple and goes to the pleasure planet Sextillion. Just as The Will calls for The Stalk's help to free a young Sextillion slave girl, The Stalk is killed by Alana's people's royal troops, also hunting the couple. The Stalk's death is equally as unexpected as The Will's moral about-face on Sextillion, and both underscore the level on which Vaughan is working -- these are nuanced characters that move in surprising directions, and their safety is far from guaranteed.

The following is hardly a drawback, but the first six issues of Saga mainly involve Marko and Alana trekking across the planet Cleve, searching for transport into space. They encounter a variety of friends and enemies as they go, but it's not until this volume's final pages that they actually succeed. Their daughter Hazel is only a couple days old at this point; if Saga keeps up in this way, it will be a very long series (not that that's a bad thing). I wonder instead of Vaughan will at some point jump forward, moving on to the time when Hazel is a toddler, an adolescent, and so on; it stands to reason as the series goes on it could become less Marko and Alana's story and more Hazel's herself.

Saga, Vol. 1 ends with Marko and Alana pursued by factions from both of their planets, and now The Will, on Marko's "side," has his own vendetta against Prince IV (do you imagine this as "I-V" or as "4"?) on Alana's "side." The characters have had more interaction with the bounty hunters, so I'm curious to see them run up against Prince IV in the next book -- and for we as the readers to come to understand the difference between the television-headed Prince IV and the winged subjects of his kingdom.

Vaughan would seem to be making this a much larger story than just Marko and Alana's, however; The Will has his own vendetta against Sextillion and Prince IV is struggling to capture the rogue couple so he can return home in time for his own child's birth. If Saga turned to delve into the royal politics or to the various bounty hunters' other jobs or such, setting aside Alana and Marko for an arc, I don't think any of us would mind.

Equally impressive here is Fiona Staples's art. Like Vaughan, Staples blends genres seamlessly; her work is equally convincing in her depiction of lush planetscapes as it is in showing the Sextillion orgies, and every ghost, rocketship-tree, and winged monkey in between. I'd hardly want to see Staples leave Saga, but the amount she could accomplish replacing any number of DC artists too wrapped up in adolescent prurience would be legendary. (Staples on the first volume of Green Lantern: New Guardians instead of Tyler Kirkham? I get chills.)

In all, Saga Vol. 1 comes with my highest recommendation, and just about everyone else's highest recommendation, too. Does reading Brian K. Vaughan's Saga make me want to go revisit my Y: The Last Man collections? Oh, yes it does ...

Next week, Green Lantern Corps, and we'll get to Saga Vol. 2 before too long. Be here!
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  1. You finally showed up to the party. Congrats!!!!

    Now that you've read vol.1, bet you cannot wait for vol.2. It too doesn't doesn't have that much that happens, but the addition of the parents and a link from Marko's past, set up plenty for volume 3.

    1. Three chapters in right now. Think I know the "link" moment you're referring to -- splash page, end of Chapter 8 -- and I thought it was great, the kind of reveal that reminded me of Vaughan's Y: The Last Man.

      But it's unbelievable how slow this book is, even if it's enjoyable nonetheless. Again, I'm only halfway through Vol. 2, but if the "missions" that Marko and Alana are on are each the "main plots" of Vol. 2, it stands to move the story forward only infinitesimally. I'm not in a hurry, mind you, but there's a surprising difference in pacing between Saga and, say, Green Lantern that takes some mental reconfiguring of expectations.

      "So glad I got to do all this in a towel." :) Is there a bit of Hitchhiker's influencing this book, too?

  2. Hm. I heard a lot of good things about this series and I loved Y - The last Man. But when I read the first issue digitally, it didn't klick. It's just not for me, I guess.