Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is a dense experience and it makes few apologies for being so. Its name, in and of itself, is a reference to its scope and to the literary tradition it is derived from. As science fiction and fantasy goes, the merging of distinct genres into a meditation on culture, politics, racism, love and war is an undertaking that takes perspective and fortitude. You must not get so lost in the fantastic elements that you lose sight of the themes. Nor do you want to forget your characters “humanity”—a strange word given the story. Issue ten presents all of the book’s various layers, but what it really hones in on is a surreal meditation on life and war, and how the two can seem almost inseparable. Birth, strife, love, anger, casualties: a never ending cycle that feeds off each distinct action and emotion.
Saga opened in the midst of strife, just as baby Hazel was born. The metaphoric nature of those events, the birth of our narrator and the introduction to this new universe, is as sublime as anything in modern literature. This is not to thrust Saga to a place where its merits become uncomfortable with its praise. It is to say that as far as space fantasy goes, you would be hard pressed to find anything that connected to the very essence of its overriding themes.
I’ve written often about science fiction being a thoughtful lens for us to transcend the barriers of our critical thinking. It allows us to examine concepts at a distance. Saga and its two opposite-side lovers forming a new family in the foreground of an endless war is a perfect example of this type of examination. We see the nature of our conflicts about race, love and war in new lights. But much of that would be lost without an investment in the lives of the characters.
“Please. Keep reading,” Marko says in the opening panel of Saga #10. It is a plea to his soon to be lover Alana and to us. What we are about to discover is the moment where these star crossed lovers chose to throw off their shackles and make a go at their future together. It is also an invitation to us, the reader, to invest our time in this meditation on life and conflict. That we are invited in, that we are asked, forgoes the confusion of being thrust into the middle of their origin as a couple. It is a trick and a carefully crafted play to be sure, but it offers that chance for investment.
Investment is a key to many mediums. I’m reminded of the sonic instrumental invitations of post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, namely their 2003 track “Your Hand in Mine”. It’s a fitting song for much of Saga, the narrative qualities of each capitalizing on elaborate layers of emotions and listener/reader experiences with other genres. Melodies crash into climaxes. Climaxes showcase raw emotions that thrust us into worlds we had never previously considered. We find something of ourselves. In Saga, we find Izabel, the birth of a new fearsome creature and the possibly of a causality. In “Your Hand in Mine” we find that other hand, that connection to something beyond our singular body and the uncertainty of what’s to come. We are at the height of our senses and then nothing but a loss of sound, of a piece of ourselves. There is an intense yearning for optimism, yet the last part of each piece seemingly dashes those hopes.
We must always consider consequence and loss in any type of conflict. Collateral damage, a term in vogue now for various reasons, is a key phrase for this issue and for our present. Austerity measures taken to avoid economic calamity point to that, so too does the seemingly endless war we find ourselves incapable of avoiding or stopping. What was the beginning point? We are not sure anymore, and in that the perpetual cycle is fed.
This is where Saga captures our raw emotions. Vaughan’s words and Staples’ pencil work taking the fantastic and translating it into something clearly understandable. The relation to our own understanding is derived directly from the core concepts and emotions that anchor the book in our consciousness. It’s a book about a horn-headed boy and a winged girl and the child they created, surviving in an ugly time. Let the metaphors speak for themselves, and let this single issue meditation overwhelm you in every way that can be allowed.