There are many ways to explain the appeal of Saga, the hit graphic-novel series by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which has sold over one million copies (by Your Humble Narrator's estimate) since its debut in 2012. Most explanations lead back to the authors' attempts to answer a central question of the sci-fi genre: what happens when ideas become real? And can one introduce a healthy dose of reality into idealized forms of fiction, like love stories and war stories and adventure stories? The answer to the last question is clearly “yes.” Twenty-five issues in, Vaughan and Staples's series remains as exciting as ever, while retaining its commitment to the authors' initial questions and principles.
What makes Saga unusual is the authors' refusal to bind themselves to a clichéd, shopworn definition of “realism.” The core human-interest story of the series is the relationship between Alana, ex-soldier from the high-tech world of Landfall, and Marko, ex-prisoner from the “magic” (or “exotic-matter”) -using people of Wreath, Landfall's moon. Vaughan and Staples clearly had Romeo & Juliet in mind when writing the series, but Alana and Marko are too busy running for their lives, and too busy raising their baby Hazel, to waste much time on moonlight and poetry. Theirs is an earthy relationship, defined by blood and dirty diapers and furtive sex and the all-too-occasional hot shower or peaceful meal with family members. On the other hand, both lovers recognize that romantic ideals are important, insofar as they first bond with one another over a romance novel, A Nighttime Smoke, that Alana reads to Marko while he is a POW. On the third hand, the novel's author, D. Oswald Heist, appears about midway through the series as a major character, equal parts genius and drunk. Heist indicates that there's both more and less to his novel than meets the eye; it's both a cheap potboiler and a veiled statement of Heist's philosophy of love and war. The core relationship of Saga, the story that created that relationship, and the author of the story, are all bundles of contradictions.
The series' setting, an interstellar civilization convulsed by the Landfall-Wreath war, reflects the tensions and contradictions within the authors' vision of reality. Terrible things happen on the worlds of Saga: world-spanning symbionts turn unwitting visitors into killers, children are sold into sexual slavery, animated skeletons attack those who disturb their boneyards, poison gas attacks blow up non-combatants' heads, landmines cut teenagers in half, and giant space babies (or “Timesucks”) destroy starships with black space goo. Vaughan and Staples could easily have turned this universe into a dystopia, but instead they infuse the grittier details of the milieu into a setting with many of the features of a children's book. Staples uses a bright, colorful palette, and paints worlds not merely wondrous but almost-unbelievable: thousand-faceted “Clockwork Stars,” pleasure-worlds with moon-sized spangles and signs, and moons that become giant eggs. Most of the universe's intelligent inhabitants, moreover, are humanoid-animal hybrids, mouse-headed medics and diminutive walrus-herding seal-men and the like. This makes them seem more childish and “cute” than humans; even a belligerent rhino-headed prisoner amuses us when he smilingly tells Prince Robot IV how many robots his men once buried. It's worth noting, too, that the more monstrous aspects of Saga's universe all have justification for their actions. The aforementioned giant space baby attacks our protagonists' spaceships because they set off a missile near its head. Planetary symbionts turn visitors against one another because they want to incorporate the survivors into their ecosystem. Skeletons attack intruders reflexively, without malice. There are no intrinsically evil races in Saga. Hazel's babysitter, Izabel, makes this point the first time she meets Alana and Marko and learns that they refers to her race of psychic ghosts as Horrors. “'Horrors,'” she replies, “ is that...what you guys call indigenous peoples? That's kind of racist.”
Why then do people do evil things? The greatest evil in Saga is the war between Wreath and Landfall, which is a very modern conflict: little chivalry, constant atrocities, and a huge accountability gap between home-world civilians' experience of the war and the pain and violence their soldiers inflict on others. Vaughan and Staples haven't told us much yet about the causes of the conflict, and their narrator, future-Hazel, tells us early on that “It was a time of war – isn't it always?” But we have a few clues. Vez, the woman who hires The Will to kill Alana and Marko, tells him that our heroes' relationship and child violate Wreath's “Narrative,” which suggests that Wreath is fighting the war for the sake of a story. Another mercenary, The Brand, tells two journalists that Wreath and Landfall both want the star-crossed lovers neutralized because they don't fit into the warring worlds' approved narrative - “It's the stories with no sides that worry them.” Stories, in the form of the virtual-reality costume dramas broadcast on the interstellar Open Circuit, anesthetize home-worlders and distract them from the battles fought and bodies broken on their behalf. Even the least human-seeming race in Saga, the television-headed robots whose prince numbers among Alana and Marko's pursuers, seem lost in their own fantasies, fragments of which periodically flicker across their face screens. Stories, Vaughan and Staples tell us, are both powerful and dangerous. They can make us love, like Heist's novel, or make us fight, and each of these leads to crude and permanent consequences. Hazel, of course, is one of those consequences, and since she's the narrator, she and the authors tend to favor the love-and-babies kind of stories. I'm not one to say that's a bad thing, particularly since there's hardly a shortage of guts-and-glory war stories in comic-book form.
P.S.: One can't finish an article about Saga without mentioning Lying Cat, the giant lie-detecting blue cat who accompanies The Will. Apart from occasionally advancing the plot, Lying Cat's main function is to help protect the main characters and please the audience.
(The first image above, the cover of Saga issue 1, is by Fiona Staples and is licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia. The second, of authors Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples (New York, Oct. 2012) is licensed under Creative Commons by Luigi Novi.)