By Todd Allen
You remember Brian K. Vaughan? He used to write comics. Y:The Last Man. Ex Machina. The vastly under-appreciated Dr. Strange: The Oath. Then he left comics to write television. Some show called “Lost.” Its not on anymore. Well, Vaughan is back. In style, no less. This Wednesday, his comeback project drops. Its called Saga. A double-sized issue for $2.99. And it’s really, really good.
This time out, Vaughan has teamed up with Fiona Staples for the art. If you haven’t heard of Staples before, don’t worry about it. This is her highest profile project and after a few pages you’re not really going to care whether or not you’ve heard of her before. You’re just going to like her. It’s a good pairing.
I would describe Saga as a surrealist blend of science fiction and fantasy with political overtones based around a family relationship with a little bit of fugitives on the run built in. Which is to say, there are a lot of moving parts here. This also isn’t a book for younger readers. Never mind the breast feeding on the cover (and in the interior), you’ve got some nasty alien robot sex going on. Unwrinkle that brow, it’s not quite as prurient as it sounds. It occurred in a character building context.
What we have here, as you’ve found if you’ve read any press about Saga, is a couple from opposite sides and species of an armed conflict falling in love and having a baby. Unfortunately, they’re army deserters, so the powers that be would like to have them in front of a firing squad for that and that’s before they’re horrified by the relationship.
What’s going on in the first issue is world building and establishing the personalities of the players. You have a bewildered new father who’d really like to just stay low to the ground. You have a mother who may be less of a pacifist now that she has a child to protect. You have a mercenary pursuing them who’s disgusted by the entire situation. You have a royal chasing them who’d much prefer to be having his own child. As all this goes on, the story is narrated by the child born in the opening pages from sometime in the unspecified future.
The motivations are there and, perhaps more strikingly, the world created is immersive. A lot of the immersion credit should go to Staples. At the Image Expo, she described her art process and going back to animation cells and thinking about figure and backgrounds. The result has the landscape playing as much a part as the foreground in some places. There appears to be a conflict between a race of magicians and a race of technologists (there’s also a race of robot people, but I’m not entirely sure how they fit in the hierarchy). Our heroes are stumbling around in a world where the rayguns and magic wands converge and neither seems out of place. Where styles could clash, sense of wonder and surrealism are invoked. Not an easy trick, but one that’s pulled off well. I think my favorite oddity of the book was something called a “lying cat.” There are plenty of oddities in this book and most of them are glorious in their strangeness.
Much like last month’s relaunch of Prophet, Image has another book with a flavor very much its own. Where prophet skews toward plot and battle, Saga skews towards motivations: both character and political.
The political dimension is timely and deserves a bit of discussion. The general premise is there’s been a war between the two factions that’s gone on for so long nobody really remembers why. You can read just about any geopolitical ethnic conflict into that part, if you want to try hard enough. Such things tend to be deep-seeded and go back centuries. The exact nature of this conflict causes the opposing factions to outsource the war to other planets and subcontract it out to other races.
This is where it gets very interesting. You’ve got a little bit of cold war in that. Conflicts between the east and the west played out in third world countries. You got a bit more of sending the troops overseas to hot spots like Iraq, which is a bit more where Vaughan said he was drawing influence from at the Image Expo. He wants to explore, among other things, the idea of conflicts that the general population doesn’t see first hand. Blending it into this setting, it becomes a bit more than the sum of its parts, and with call-outs against political and religious dogma in the first issue, I expect such things will have their moments in the spotlight before too very long.
To put it in science fiction terms: on the surface, you have a slightly romantic space opera. Beneath the surface,sociology and politics lurk.
Summing it up: The plot’s wheels are set in motion. You know who the major players of the first act are. You have a good idea where things might be going. Great first issue.
As I said with Prophet, if this sounds like something you might like, you might want to consider letting your local shop owner know. While I think this one was a bit more realistically ordered than Prophet was, it would not surprise me if this one disappeared pretty fast.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.