Review: Saga Vol. 2 trade paperback (Image Comics)

Precious little happens in Brian K. Vaughan's Saga Vol. 2, but I don't think ardent fans will mind. If ever there was a comic that favored (strong) character development over plot, it's this one.

Irrespective, Vaughan takes the opportunity here to pair the characters in new and interesting ways, giving us a chance to experience them differently than in the first volume; artist Fiona Staples continues a remarkable creative streak, depicting some of the strangest aliens to ever make the page. All in all, as long as you prepare yourself for the book's pacing, the second Saga collection won't disappoint.

[Review contains spoilers]

Saga, Vol. 1 very directly (over the course of six issues) moved characters Marko and Alana from point A to point B; for a good amount of the time, their only sounding boards were one another. Vaughan breaks that up almost immediately here, sending Marko on a mission with his mother while Alana remains behind with Marko's father. Though the characters do reach another "point B" by the end of this book, Saga Vol. 2 is much less about the journey nor is it much about the destination, but mainly about the talking in between.

Also, of the six issues collected here, for the first time Vaughan spends two with barely an appearance by Marko and Alana, spotlighting instead, respectively, the bounty hunter The Will on behalf of Marko's people, and Prince IV on behalf of Alana's.

The two are the veritable villains of this piece, though Vaughan has a knack for making no character unsympathetic. The Will comes off the best as he finally rescues the Sextillion slave girl, and then Vaughan actually makes the slave girl essential to the plot rather than just a device to demonstrate The Will's character. Prince IV is harder to relate to, computer-headed as he is, and his confrontation with the author D. Oswald Heist drips with the threat of violence; still, it's hard not to sympathize with the Prince, trapped far from home and away from his pregnant wife.

Vaughan gives us more insight into Marko's past in this volume; one expects Alana's spotlight is still to come. A common facet of this series is the mix of the fantastical and mundane; despite that Marko's childhood memories are of learning to ride a giant grasshopper, every reader can relate to a child's frustration as their parent teaches them to ride a bike. Saga is an allegory for many things, but in Marko's upbringing we begin to see the struggles of the post-9/11 generation, born in a wartime where the war goes on in other lands (and in Marko's case, other planets). Marko's experience is the strange sense of living in peace while trying to subsume the idea that war is taking place somewhere else.

The meta-idea of books as tools for war and peace grows stronger in this volume, too. The reader finally understands that the smutty novel that inspired Alana to defect from her people is actually a coded anti-war tome. The penultimate end of the story, Chapter 11 (and the last time we're with the main characters before the end of the book), ends with the book's narrator Hazel noting that she uses a scrap of the armored onesie that her grandfather made her now as a bookmark, a veritable symbol of beating a sword into a plowshare.

And Vaughan himself can't help some jabs at the reading public -- "This is why I never trust reviews," one character quips under her breath, and the tenth chapter begins with Marko seemingly asking the reader to continue with the book (as if we'd put it down now). Ironically, the book's final chapter -- the one that deals with the peace-promoting novel -- is the one that was supposedly censored in digital format for depicting homosexual sex, though later this turned out to not have been the case (maybe).

The end of Chapter 8, when Gwendolyn arrives, is the kind of surprise that reminded me of Vaughan's Y: The Last Man, but in some ways there the similarities stop. Y: The Last Man was much sharper, plot-wise -- this is the collection when the astronauts return to Earth, this is the one where the journalist is following Yorick -- and each Y volume had a distinct name.

In contrast, a good amount of Saga Vol. 2 is spent on Marko recovering their lost babysitter Isabel (more a device to show Marko's relationship with his mother than any real storyline), and only at the very end do they arrive at the planet they set out for in the last collection. Neither Saga nor Y's approach is wrong per se, but it's striking just how far the construction of these books differ from one another.

Fiona Staples drew majestically lush landscapes and engaging grunge ghosts in the last volume, but she outdoes herself here. Certainly the giant monster with the giant testicles is something to behold -- if you can stand it, study just how many details went into that image, from the wispy hairs to the clumpy debris -- but I was even more taken by the Sextillion guards in The Will's dream in Chapter 9. They have eyes on their chests and tongues for their bellybuttons! We haven't seen aliens like this -- truly alien -- in a long time, and that's even before the tentacle-faced goons, the witches with upside-down heads, and the three-eyed giant space baby. Staples sets her own bar high in this volume -- can she possibly top it in the next?

I don't wish "something would happen" in Saga -- rather, I'm kind of enthralled with the book's slow pace, like watching a high-wire act -- but I suspect it can't last. It seems inevitable that the next volume's confrontation between Marko, Alana, and Prince IV must be a taut, action-packed firefight -- though the fact that Vaughan has set it up that way equally leads me to suspect the next chapter might defy those expectations. Either way, Saga, Vol. 2 is more of the same great stuff, and now that I'm caught up, I'm waiting for the third volume with the rest of you.

[Includes a variant cover, book plate images, and a sketch.]


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