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Fundamental Comics: ‘Saga’ and the Perilous Responsibility of Creation

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.


Saga
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Publisher: Image Comics, Inc.
Publication Date: 2012 to Present
No. of Issues: 54 single issues have been published to date. The creators have promised another 54 issues (release date pending) for a total series run of 108 issues. The Saga series to date has been collected into a 9-volume trade paperback series, a 3-volume deluxe hardcover series, and one Compendium.


Introduction

“This is how an idea becomes real.” With this opening sentence, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples invite us into the universe of Saga. It is an enigmatic statement. An “idea” could be anything. The creator could be anyone. It promises limitless possibility, boundless adventure, and a feast for the imagination.

In the panels that follow, we discover that the immediate “idea” referred to is the birth of a child. The creation of another being is perhaps the biggest idea of all. Its impact reverberates through everything that surrounds it, affecting the lives of an ever-increasing number of people. It is the creation of a family and a community, in spite of overwhelming opposing forces. It is the idea that people can come together and love each other. It is the idea that humanity, however it is defined, can choose to create, not destroy.

Of course, we can simply read this opening statement as a description of Saga itself. The birth of this story carries with it an infinite potential. Saga is an idea that fulfills all of these promises to its readers, and so much more. Vaughan and Staples have created a wildly imaginative fantasy story that is rooted in stark realism. It is described as an “epic space opera,” and truly there have been few stories so epically operatic as this one.


The Plot of Saga

Saga is the story of forbidden love, intergalactic warfare, and familial bonds. At its center are Alana and Marko, soldiers in opposing armies who meet, fall in love, and run off together in an attempt to live a peaceful life. Alana gives birth to Hazel, a daughter who carries traits from both her parents’ species. This outcast family is immediately beset on all sides by those who would punish their love, who view Hazel as an abomination, and who are threatened by the very existence of this one revolutionary little family.




Alana, Marko, and Hazel are pursued back and forth across a whole galaxy by armies, assassins, and bounty hunters. As they have traveled from planet to comet to moon, they have gathered a fascinating group of characters into their little household, including a ghostly babysitter, a cyclops writer of trashy romances, and a prince with a TV for a head. They have met an even more diverse groups of foes, including a freelance bounty hunter with a “lie-detecting” feline sidekick, an arachnid assassin, and an intergalactic spy with wings…just to name a few.

The story of Saga has just reached its halfway point, and there is really no predicting what fantastic places it will take us to next.


Reception Upon Release

The first issue of Saga went through five printings and sold over 70,000 copies in the first 6 months of its release. The first trade paperback release (collecting the first 6 issues) was a New York Times Graphic Books Bestseller and sold over 120,000 copies in the first year of its release. All nine of the Saga trade paperback volumes appear on Diamond Comic Distributors list of the Top 100 Graphic Novels of the 2010s.

Saga has received widely critical acclaim throughout the first half of the series’ run. From 2013 to 2018, it was nominated for and won numerous awards for the series, writer Brian K. Vaughan, and artist Fiona Staples, including Eisner, Harvey, Hugo, British Fantasy, Joe Shuster, Ringo and Inkwell Awards.

Due to its mature content, Saga has been subject to censorship, specifically of Issue #12 by Apple through its digital platform (which was swiftly reversed). Saga also appeared on the ALA’s list of Banned and Challenged books in 2014.


Critical Analysis

At first glance, Saga seems like a story that shouldn’t exist, much less work. The scope of the story and setting is almost unthinkably vast. It is both extreme fantasy and stark realism. It is both wildly funny and filled with horror. Its content is extremely mature and, at the same time, deals with themes of childhood and family. It is easy to wonder how Vaughan and Staples have managed to bring all of these disparate themes together into one cohesive story.

It is perhaps the constant juxtaposition of opposites that explains their success. While the visuals emphasis a no-holds-barred imagination (and really, very little is left to the reader’s imagination), the dialogue, character development, and emotion of the story are very much rooted in realism. We are constantly introduced to people and places that defy understanding, but we are always given a key to unlock the strange new thing - some bit of dialogue or some detail of character or emotion that is instantly recognizable and familiar.

And that brings us to the unparalleled character development we find in Vaughan and Staples’ intricate story. Every character in this story matters, even if we’re not entirely sure what they are. Everyone has a purpose, regardless of their species, appearance, sexual orientation, or even their status as “living” or “dead.” These are characters who are as complex in their inner lives as their outer appearances are imaginative. We feel a connection to all of them, hero or villain, central character or sidekick.  




Vaughan creates a story in which all of the terrible paradoxes that exist in humanity are brought to light. As parents, we feel both profound connection and separation from our offspring. In romantic relationships, we can feel both incredible intimacy and distance from our partner. We find good and evil present in both hero and villain. We are all capable of both acceptance and prejudice.

Vaughan moves this complex story forward with deft dialogue and steady humor, all while allowing for frequent moments of emotion. The action is swift and the suspense is relentless. The overarching narration of the story is told by Hazel from some point in the future and serves to provide a steady and ominous foreshadowing, as she eludes to the knowledge she possesses for what will happen to her fragile family. “Future Hazel” is a constant reminder of the unpredictable nature of the story.




From the outset, Brian K. Vaughan has maintained that the only place he could tell a story of this imaginative scope is in a comic series. In Fiona Staples, Vaughan has found the perfect visual expression for his words. Staples' vision for this universe is bold and uncompromising. Her splash panels are completely unparalleled in their scope and visual beauty, perhaps especially so when they are depicting something utterly horrific. These full-page panels usually serve to introduce us to some new character or place. They are unsettling and appealing at the same time, reminding us there is beauty and horror in everything, that we shouldn’t overlook the weird because we’ll miss the beauty.

Everything in this creation comes together to present the reader with an entirely unique universe populated with beings and places that are wondrous, lovely, and terrible. There are no guarantees in this universe. As Alana and Marko strive to protect their own creation, they are constantly learning just how little control they have over it. The price of creation is found in equal measures of love and fear, in fierce protection and inevitable letting go.






Relevancy Today/Why #StoriesMatter

It is difficult to quantify all of the many, many ways Saga is relevant for today’s society. It grapples with themes of warfare, genocide, immigration, collateral damage, environmental collapse, socio-economic struggle, class separation, racism, sexism, substance abuse, and so, so much more. It explores diversity across sexual orientation, gender identity, and body image. Vaughan and Staples approach each of these themes with a generosity and sensitivity that is a too-rare commodity in today’s fiction.  

And perhaps, most relevantly, they have created a story in which all of the endless facets and paradoxes of existence are openly acknowledged for the beautiful creation they are. Saga is a story that matters, because it shows us all of the beauty and the messiness of love, parenthood, and family. There is no one right way to be in love, no textbook approach for parenting, no cookie-cutter to stamp out a family. We all make our own way in this universe, and Saga gives each of us our own place in our own story.


Other Points of Interest

Saga is a fully creator-owned property, with ownership and full creative control shared by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

Both Vaughan and Staples have expressed their desire that Saga NOT be adapted into a film or TV series.

Merchandise based on various Saga characters (including Lying Cat, Ghüs, Alana, and Marko) have been available from Skybound Entertainment, Essential Sequential, McFarlane Toys, Yesterdays, and Pop! Vinyl.




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