[16 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Of science fiction, author and academic Mark Bould once wrote that it has often been dismissed as a tedious exercise of mass culture. This is especially true of the high culture minded literary and cultural elite. To add insult to injury: whenever a piece of science fiction happens to move beyond those expectations, such as Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is generally given the adulation of transcending the genre, as if the genre itself is too crude to amount to anything significant.
This assessment is both stupefying and rife with misunderstanding. Science Fiction is not only good entertainment, but is a thoughtful lens for us to transcend the barriers of our critical thinking – to examine further the concepts for which our world is based. While some pieces excel at this, and others only achieve this rudimentarily, the place for which science fiction inhabits is only enhanced by the medium it is presented in. Films tend to reach a larger culture than books, and that is true of comics too.
Comic fans are well aware of the wealth of titles that peel back the layers of society and expose the soft underbelly of our understanding and experience in the guise of epic space battles. Some of it is easy to understand and translate; others not so much. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga gives us something in between, with layers upon layers of cultural understanding examined through the lens of space fantasy. However, don’t let the operatic science fiction presented in the two issues so far fool you. Saga offers, among other things, an experience.
Essentially, and to add reference, we are presented the exploits of two lovers from opposite sides of a long and never-ending war. There are two warring races, one with a scientific base and the other with a magical base. It’s a comic convention where science fiction fans and fantasy fans have taken up arms to eradicate the other.
In the middle of all this strife and death, a baby is born. This is the opening that Vaughan writes. He opens this new world he’s built with birth. The symbolic and metaphoric nature of this event could take critics years to fully dissect. And that the baby just born is narrating this story, speaks to rationalization and realization that we are not just being treated to the kind of escapist literature science fiction is often lumped with. We are in the midst of high-minded creation.
As we move through these first two chapters, issues one and two of Saga, we are introduced to a variety of concepts, creatures, settings and characters. Leaving issue two aside for the moment, essentially issue one offers us a treatment of characters and environments that most series take 12 issues to introduce. The efficiency of this effort is startling.
And it’s digestible.
Much of that digestibility is in the hands of Staples and her artwork. She combines divergent elements in just about every place – there are characters with TV sets for heads – and yet nothing is difficult to interpret, not on the symbolic level but on the rational level of probability and fidelity. The foreign and the familiar are merged with sharp pencil lines and sublime colors.
That familiarity also comes from choice of language and overall narrative. Unlike Vertigo’s Spaceman, which uses language to show the evolution of culture, Saga uses dialogue, exposition and plot to ground itself in our consciousness. To achieve a readability that pulls us in to its world. The high level to which we are able to relate is perhaps its greatest strength.
The issues and subtext could be mistaken for being political critiques. Such is the nature of our world currently, and in that we have that lens that science fiction, and all good literature, uses to explore the concepts of reality.
Saga is a dense experience and it makes few apologies for being so. It’s name, in and of itself, is a not only a reference to its scope, but a reference to the literary tradition it is derived from and the involvement of its narrative. It is as much a play on words as the setting, characters and action are a play on current events and mass culture. To say we are at the beginning of something that further eliminates the divides over the meaningfulness of genres to the human experience is accurate. Saga is also that piece that could weaken the divide between mediums and their place in cultural understanding. This comicbook gives us love amongst a war and gives us an attempt at critical unification.