The Once and Future SAGA! A Look Back at the History of the Groundbreaking Comic and Its New Installment

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    owie

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    #1 owie  Moderator
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    The Return of Saga!

    Saga #55 came out this week after being on break since the summer of 2018. Created by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples, Saga is a groundbreaking comic with a pack of obsessed fans and adoring critics. It’s a space opera full of violence, humor, pathos, social and political philosophy, the power of art, and not a little sex. Whether it’s sexy…well, that depends on what you think of a close-up of a giant’s testicles or a dragon…well honestly I can’t even describe what the dragon does on this site. The comic is usually listed as being “for mature readers” and clearly takes it as a challenge to keep that status in every issue (the new issue definitely included).

    But beyond its constantly-entertaining boundary-pushing, Saga has some of the best characterization around, with fully-fleshed out folks of all genders, colors, and ages. It’s about family dynamics, but with families defined not only by blood, but also by companionship, and even as whole planetary clans. It reminds me of the classic ‘80s J.M. DeMatteis/Jon J. MuthMoonshadow in many ways, with a mismatched group of weirdos, some idealistic and some cynical, traveling space while being buffeting by systems out of their control, searching deep into character and philosophy while also rocking action and every form of provocation and allure.

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    The (spoilers free) tl;dr on the plot is that it’s about two lovers who have a kid despite the fact that they’re from two planets at war. The planets seemingly enlist half the universe to try to kill the parents and/or the kid. The parents accumulate an extended family of other misfits along the way, and sexy, violent, philosophical hijinks ensue.

    I’m going to talk about the first 54 issues first, which WILL contain spoilers, but I won’t give away any of the really major shocks. Then I’ll review the new issue, with NO spoilers. If you haven’t read any of the previous issues and want no spoilers, and just want to hear about the new issue, skip down to REVIEW OF SAGA #55 below.

    LOOKING BACK AT ISSUES 1-54

    Saga is planned to run for exactly 108 issues, so their break at 54 was the halfway point. Vaughan and Staples said they’d take a little time off, but it ended up being a lot longer than expected, and Saga fans have been clamoring for its return ever since. Their wish has now come true. I re-read the whole series to catch myself back up and I’m happy to pass on my thoughts.

    The two main characters are Alana, a light-brown-skinned woman from the planet Landfall, a highly-scientifically-advanced civilization, and Marko, a man who Staples has described as having somewhat of a resemblance to the people we would call Asian. Marko is from Landfall’s moon, Wreath, where the people use magic instead of science. These two civilizations have been at war for untold years, and after a point farmed out the violence so that almost every other planet in the universe now does the fighting on their behalf, on one side or the other. Alana and Marko break out of the militaristic brainwashing of their cultures, fall in love, and have a child, Hazel, who is wanted by the leaders of both cultures.

    Brian K. Vaughan set up the two planets’ cultures so they have clear demarcations in some ways, but are the same in others. Landfallians have wings and Wreathers have horns, so they call each other Horns and Wings, flattening each other to their physical characteristics. The Landfallians come across as scientifically utopian but bureaucratically dystopian, a behemoth of a culture that is almost crushed by its own weight, a Rome that hasn’t quite fallen. The Wreathers are more nature-oriented and fringe, and use their magical abilities like they’re engaging in "asymmetric warfare," able to teleport in and set off magic explosions. Both sides remember the horrors of ancient battles as if they were yesterday, unable to forgive the other side for their sins while acting as if everything they themselves do is justified retaliation, as so many Earth cultures do.

    This great-power/guerilla war cultural dynamic even extends to their language. Actually, Landfallians speak “Language” with a capital L, as if it’s the only one, while Wreathers speak Blue, which is actually real-world Esperanto (it’s untranslated, so you have to type it into your Google translator to find out what they’re saying), a marginalized language for a marginalized culture.

    Anyway, while on the run the family meets a number of colorful characters: Prince Robot XIV, a member of the Robot Kingdom who has a humanoid body and a TV for a head, which often accidentally broadcasts his subconscious to the world (and XIV’s subconscious is, let’s say, a little on the adult side, leading to some library bans); Upsher and Doff, two gay reporters for a tabloid with strong journalistic ethos but also strong wills to survive; Marko’s parents, Klara and Barr, who are doting but also do not put up with nonsense from this crazy younger generation; Izabel, the family’s babysitter, a ghost who was originally killed when the lower half of her body was blown away by a landmine, and now floats around with no legs and her intestines hanging out from under her band t-shirt; The Will, a Freelancer assassin hired by Wreath, who is simultaneously hard as nails and lovesick as a baby; Sophie, an ex-child sex slave who now harbors hopes of being a child assassin instead; Gwendolyn, Marko’s ex-fiancé and Wreath apparatchik who has conflicting feelings about The Will but helps him with Sophie; Petrichor, a trans Wreath soldier and ex-prisoner of war who does not care for the lovers’ idealism; Ghüs, a cute little seal-lookin’ dude who talks softly and swings a mean battleaxe; and Lying Cat, who lets everyone know if you’re lying, which sounds like a schtick you might get tired of, but actually never ever gets old, thanks to Fiona Staples’ fantastic rendering of his face each time he has to tell people that they’re lying about the most embarrassing things.

    All of these people and more spend most of their time having sex in various combinations, brutally murdering, having philosophical discussions about the politics found in romance novels, and bantering about why all the others are idiots.

    While Saga leaves almost everything else in a gray zone, the comic takes a clear anti-war stance: it is obvious that the ancestral war is ruining the lives of everyone it touches, as culture after culture, individual after individual, are killed, with Saga detailing the individual pain that comes even from a statistical-level genocide, for instance having Prince Robot’s TV face reflect the trauma he endured in war. But deaths don’t just happen on a statistical level: oh boy are there individual deaths. Let’s just say don’t get too attached to anyone, because Vaughan takes the writing guillotine to major character after major character. The problem is, of course, that you do get attached, because Vaughan and Staples render them so well. And the fact that death always potentially looms makes it clear that you have to embrace them while they’re here. The constant character deaths are, however, one of the few bones I would pick with the series—after a while it seems like Vaughan is almost just killing for shock value. It’s kind of over the top, and honestly by the end of #54, it felt like barely anybody we had met over the past scores of comics was still around for us to follow. That’s not quite literally true, but close. Of course, I trust the creators to make new characters that are just as powerful as the old, but it would be nice to have kept a few more of the old around.

    This mass death somewhat contradicts and somewhat supports another of the series’ themes, which is basically caring for others, and supporting the diversity of lives. As I mentioned above, the main characters have skin tones that associate them with what we humans would call people of color, and there are a number of queer characters (including more than the ones I listed). The comic includes them all in a way that makes their difference natural and unremarked in a way, giving it a very diverse feel, but it also calls attention to their difference through the way they treat each other. Their worlds still include systematic punishments for gay people, cultural and individual biases against trans people, and social mores that allow people to talk openly in racist ways about alien species. The Landfallians and Wreathers have different size wings and horns, which create social differences amongst themselves akin to those of colorism on Earth. So the creators have a very inclusive vision of their characters, but their characters are (realistically) often bigoted as hell. Meanwhile child and domestic violence entangle almost every family in the series and keep them tied into a cycle of new violence that they inflict on others as adults. This sexual and relationship trauma also plays itself out in the way some of the characters like The Will and Robot keep falling into into violent or debasing sex.

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    The series also talks a lot about how much control people want to and should hold on one another—including your partner and your kids. What kinds of freedoms do you feel comfortable giving them? When does paying attention become helicopter parenting? What do you do about that younger woman flirting with your husband? How can you respect others’ individuality and decisions and when do you step in to save them from themselves? Because in this series, people want to do a lot of branching out and growing up, and it’s clear that they need that, but it’s also clear that they have trouble policing their own desires and needs, and need some firm stepping in at times, because they have some real self-destructive streaks. Still, the series won’t decide which is worse…wildness and creativity, or rules-conformity. “Be a good girl tomorrow…but not TOO good,” as Izabel says to Hazel. On the other hand, Hazel’s “challenge chart” from her parents has “learn to take no for an answer” on it.

    The creators also get into some pretty deep territory when they investigate the nature of addiction. Alana falls into drug addiction, which they treat well, but Marko is addicted to violence, and they do a really powerful job exploring that throughout the volume. Marko hates the violent side of himself, he wants so dearly to be a pacifist, but again and again he is forced into severe butchery to save his family. It takes a clear toll on him that is wonderfully realized in both the writing and the art, the way Staples renders his expressions and body language.

    I’ve gone this far without talking a lot about Fiona Staples. Vaughan is an amazing writer, with several masterpiece volumes of comics behind him, including Ex Machina, Runaways, Paper Girls, and Y: The Last Man. We almost don’t even need to talk about him: if you’ve read those comics, you know his indelible characterization and creative, convoluted world-building and plots.

    Fiona Staples is less-known, and launched into the big time with Saga. Simply, she is one of the best comic artists out there. She draws and colors the whole series using an entirely digital process. Her inking is energetic and incisive, with great uses of both angular and curvilinear lines. Her coloring sculpts the space and mood. Her body language is amazingly dynamic but lifelike, with stances that just feel like real people; I have almost never seen an artist with such a clear concept of how the characters’ internal bone structure sets their stances and connection with the ground. She clothes them in fashions that are inventive and also entertainingly related to real-world fashions. I have to cut myself off from gushing more about her; just do yourself a favor and get the damn book.

    The book isn’t afraid to go there. Let’s just say that there’s an entire arc set in a place called Abortion Town where aliens dress like cowboys. It’s funny and sad and talks about the hard middle ground of the issue that’s not what one hardline stance or another might want to admit exists. One great line is, “Every culture in the universe has a very different opinion about exactly when life begins. But we’re all pretty much in agreement on when it’s over.” I mean, Abortion Town has a midwife called Endwife, who provides the abortions. Endwife is also a giant bipedal Red Riding Hood-esque wolf with numerous boobs all hanging out. Just so you have a sense of things here.

    Marko is kind of a model sensitive-type husband (other than the times he’s a mass murderer), but Alana also puts him in his place when he tries to be too sensitive, for instance beating himself up for something he did to her in the past and saying it was unforgivable. While she knows that that thing was a problem, she also holds out for what she sees as the more important issue in women’s agency, saying it’s up to HER what she can forgive or not.

    There are any number of great lines. A teacher, putting down the family’s obsession with a romance novelist’s work, says “Anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books,” simultaneously a burn on the others’ love of that novel and also a self-referential note about people’s love for Saga. Hazel refers to the other kids in her “enemy re-education camp” as “my fellow inmates/classmates (and really, what’s the difference?),” a very cynical, Moonshadow-style line. “If there’s one thing parents suck at, it’s estimating how long any activity is going to take.”—that one might not sound like genius, but as a parent, it is so true. Saga has a lot of idealsim, but also sees things with a hard eye: “In the beginning, love is mostly about lying to each other. It’s like that in the end, too.” “Unlike the real deal, fictional violence is cool as shit.” “Anyone can kill you, but it takes someone you know to really HURT you.” In one of the series’ many statements in the about art and writing, Upsher the reporter says, “putting new ideas in another person’s head is an aggressive act, and aggressive acts have consequences.” “These days, I guess a lot of kids interact with each other over screens. But I’m grateful that all of my early interactions were in person. It’s a real gift for young people to be able to see the face of someone they’ve just hurt.”--perhaps a comment that some of our own users might take to heart when consider going on yet another ad hominem attack.

    There are too many other examples of great writing for me to give them all their proper due. Saga features good people who become traitors, and you can understand their reasons while you despise their weakness, while others who manage to stay true to their responsibilities and kin often undergo real sacrifices because of it. Marko and Alana’s love is about as real as anything you’ll find in comics. Prince Robot’s condescending banter with Alana and Marko, whose naivete he despises, is hilarious every time. There are really beautiful sequences from multiple characters talking about what it means to fear or hate your body, and also to embrace it. The letters pages are hilarious and emotional, with all kinds of features to bring the fans in, such as a regular cosplay contest.

    Re-reading it all at once helped put little details into context, and I was glad to experience the story as a whole, which really helped put into context the larger story arcs and some of the more major themes, which weren’t as obvious when reading them issue by issue, month by month. Not every arc is equally as strong. There is some degree to which it can meander; the issues where Alana and Marko are together, and Prince Robot is either with them or not far behind, are the best, from my perspective. But as a whole, I cannot recommend Saga more, and urge you all to get yourselves out to a comic store and buy up all the back issues, now.

    REVIEW OF SAGA #55

    So, after all that past amazingness, did the new issue, the first installment in the second half of the series, hold up? I gotta tell ya, I was pretty nervous. After all the high-profile deaths in the last arc or two, I wondered how they’d keep things going on with the same spirit. How would it still feel like Saga?

    The issue answered that question very well, in the form of Hazel. Hazel started off the series as an newborn, so in a way she might not be the person whom you first think of when you think of the characters in the series. She grew up and became more of the story in an explicit way over time, sure, but the crux of the plot and the agents of the action usually seemed to come from others. But at the same time, Hazel has always been narrating for us, and this issue continues that, connecting us to that original Hazel-ness. But it also places her front and center, making it more obvious how she was always there, and was always the heart of the series’ atmosphere.

    The issue gives us a view into Hazel’s adaptation to her current life; I love her outfit, which has a great Oliver Twist feel. Alana, who has always been a bit wacky, very much continues to embrace that wackiness in ways that are both hilarious and a bit sad. There is one new character, who we don’t learn a lot about yet, but who has promise. And there is a scene with The Will and Gwendolyn that has something you just did not expect to see. Actually two things, but the first one is the one that is really hard core. Trust me.

    Overall, I was completely pleased with issue 55. It had all the same old feels, but with new growth that respected the old, and all kinds of potential. The art continues to be fantastic, which is no surprise, and there are a bunch of great lines that will stick with you, and that address Saga’s place in culture and with its fans. All of my fears about how the characters or story might struggle to move forward given recent losses, or whether the creative team might lose their spark after such a long absence, were completely allayed. I’m looking forward to the road onward!

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    1 day ago

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    The_Kidd

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    Neat an article.

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    PaleBlood

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    #3  Edited By PaleBlood

    Great write up, I remember reading Saga at some point and eventually dropping it at an unknown issue for the reasons that I don't remember now. Thought that it already have ended.

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    owie

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    #4 owie  Moderator

    @paleblood: yeah, it was on break for a LONG time. Easy to understand if people thought it was canceled.

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    El_mago

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    After reading it gotta say this comeback is well welcomed

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    tparks

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    #6  Edited By tparks  Online

    I thought Saga was done. I fell off of it during one of it’s long delays around issue 25 or so. I knew it came back, but I figured the story just ended or something.

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    owie

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    #7 owie  Moderator

    @tparks: Hey man, great to see that you're back!

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    tparks

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    #8 tparks  Online

    @owie: Thanks! Great post, too. One of these days I’ll catch up with Saga. I bought issue 1 the day it came out, and read it monthly for a good 2-3 years. It was one of the comics I most looked forward to getting.

    Also, are you a writer for CV now? I was surprised and happy to see that the homepage actually updated, and then to see you wrote it.

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    PaleBlood

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    tparks

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    #10 tparks  Online

    @paleblood: Huh. At least the one I’ve seen, which is this one, is good enough to make me think it’s someone who is a real writer for the site. Hopefully that trend continues.

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    PaleBlood

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    @tparks: There have already been few prior ones, tho. This is not the first one and yeah hope it will continue.

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    tparks

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    #12 tparks  Online

    @paleblood: I’ve only recently been randomly browsing CV again after a several year break, so this is the first I saw. It’s definitely a positive thing for the site if people who submit do as good of a job as owie did.

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    PaleBlood

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    @tparks: Yeah, I believe they will.

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    owie

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    #14 owie  Moderator

    @tparks said:

    @owie: Thanks! Great post, too. One of these days I’ll catch up with Saga. I bought issue 1 the day it came out, and read it monthly for a good 2-3 years. It was one of the comics I most looked forward to getting.

    Also, are you a writer for CV now? I was surprised and happy to see that the homepage actually updated, and then to see you wrote it.

    Yeah, anybody can contact Frozen, who's organizing it, through the thread linked to above. Basically he managed to persuade the staff to let users occasionally write articles and the staff will pin them. So this is the third such article. Which I'm really glad to have had the chance to do on a personal level, it feels pretty cool to be on the front page. And I am also really, really glad that we're not stuck with the same front page article for years on end anymore. But it is true that I am doing a bunch of stuff at the moment, between the modding and the Daily Debater. Speaking of which, if you decide to stick around again, we could always use more writers for TDD and you've got plenty of experience you could put towards articles.

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    tparks

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    #15 tparks  Online

    @owie: Well you had me fooled. I thought this was good enough to be the work of a paid writer. I’m glad you took the opportunity to do this, because I had completely forgotten about Saga, and now I want to go read it again, and catch back up.

    Maybe if I ever get the inspiration to write something for TDD. Nothing comes to mind at the moment. It’s cool to see you’re still using the image I photoshopped for it though. Probably the best thing I ever did here. Lol

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    owie

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    #16 owie  Moderator

    @tparks: oh really you made that pic? I didn't know that. Nice.

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    tparks

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    #17 tparks  Online

    @owie: Ya, I was never very good at photoshop, but just competent enough to do all of the old Battle of the Week teaser images (the black silhouettes of characters who would be in the next week), a few other images that BotW used sometimes, and then TDD’s image.

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    ANGELICA10

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    Awesome post

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    owie

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    #20 owie  Moderator
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    Nice

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    Ondskapt666

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    Good news!!

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