[17 October 2013]
If you’re not reading Saga, you’re robbing yourself of Lying Cat. Introduced in the title’s first issue, the concept behind her is exceptionally simple: other than being oversized, she’s just like any other domesticated housecat, except that she always announces out loud if anyone tells a lie. As far as we’ve been shown, “Lying” is the only thing she can say, but it’s also the only thing she needs to say. Her owner is The Will, a freelance bounty hunter, and the two of them work quite well together. Not only does she keep the people with whom he does business honest, she also acts as his conscience, calling him on his own nonsense and feeble attempts at self-deception. These are not her only roles; she handles herself well in combat, her adorable and quizzical facial expressions are great for comic relief, and she softens The Will’s emotional edginess so he’s more likable than he’d otherwise be. But she’s at her best as a lie detector, and I’ve been very pleased with writer Brian K. Vaughan’s ability to keep Lying Cat from being a one-trick pony, despite how narrowly focused her powers are. Her tiny vocabulary may mean her dialogue is limited, but she’s no less important a presence in the series, and Vaughan has found a surprisingly large variety of situations in which to have her say “Lying” so that every new instance feels fresh.
On the other hand, Saga also features a character named Sophie, formerly called Slave Girl, with whom I’ve been notably less impressed. The Will meets Sophie on Sextillion, which is basically a planet-sized red-light district of the most depraved order. Sophie was, as her old name/title suggests, a child sex slave, and The Will goes through an immense amount of trouble to save her from that life. That’s admirable, and certainly better than having him leave her there, but once Sophie was rescued she began to feel a bit cliché. In television crime procedurals especially, but also other forms of fiction in pretty much every medium, I’ve seen countless abused children characters who manage to maintain their innocence in spite of what they’ve been thorough. That’s not at all an invalid archetype to play with, but Sophie has yet to bring anything new to it. All she is so far is a precocious young girl who we know is internally struggling with severe damage, and without another layer or a twist on this idea, I don’t find her all that compelling. She has yet to do or say anything surprising, up to and including having some kind superhuman location power that makes her extremely useful to someone in The Will’s line of work. His reasons for saving her in the first place were always rather vague, so giving her a way to practically benefit him felt pretty inevitable. I don’t dislike Sophie as a person, and Vaughan does a superb job of making her sound like a believable child, helped considerably by the blend of naiveté and observant wisdom that shines through in Fiona Staples’ renditions of her. But the part Sophie plays is one that’s been played too many times before in more or less the exact same way, and I want her to be more interesting and unpredictable.
So I have somewhat opposing opinions of these two characters, who are both inextricably attached to The Will, a guy about whom my feelings fluctuate all the time. Sometimes he’s a chilling villain, sometimes a sympathetic sap, and all too often he’s just kind of a bore. Along with Gwendolyn, who has hired The Will to hunt down her ex-boyfriend (and for whom The Will now has romantic feelings), Sophie and Lying Cat form a sort of bizarre family unit that has been fun to see develop. The Will and Lying Cat began as a close-knit partnership, but by adding an adopted child as well as a possible love interest to their ranks, they’ve grown into something far more complicated. As a group, I love reading about them, and having Sophie be a relatively thin character is at least partially made up for by Lying Cat being my favorite member of Saga’s entire cast. They balance one another, which has been good enough for me up to now.
Then in this month’s Saga #14, Lying Cat and Sophie shared a one-page scene that reestablished their core concepts in a beautifully boiled down, purified way, and also made me like them both a lot more than I ever have before. It was such a straightforward, simple, and heartwarming moment, at once making Sophie’s lack of depth feel earned and using Lying Cat’s abilities in the best way we’ve seen thus far. Check it out real quick and join me below:
As you can see, it’s a lovely interaction, and in a mere five panels it summarizes succinctly what both characters are all about. Sophie’s dialogue is trite—age, favorite color, what she wants to be when she grows up—but it has to be like that for the scene to be as quick and effective as it is. For the first time since she showed up, Sophie’s one-dimensionality works in her favor, letting the reader into her frame of mind right away through universally recognizable kid speak. Had she been a more fleshed out, nuanced character prior to this exchange, her side of the conversation would’ve felt cheap and watered down. Instead, because she’s been a stereotype all along, the little speech she makes here is exactly as it should be, which adds to the scene’s power by allowing it to get right to the point through familiar avenues.
As for Lying Cat, this is her finest hour, the only real time that she’s said “Lying” as a positive force. It has been helpful in the past, for her and The Will alike, but still basically negative. Nobody likes to be called a liar, especially when they’re in the midst of a lie, so there’s always been a sharpness, even nastiness when she’s done this before. Here, Sophie’s practically fishing for it, needing to be reassured that she is not, in fact, as disgusting or broken as she worries she may be due to her hideous past. And it’s important to note that Lying Cat cuts Sophie off before she can finish the thought, before she can disclose the sordid details of the awful things she was forced to do. This means that it’s not that Sophie is exaggerating about her time on Sextillion, trying to make her time there seem worse than it was for pity or special treatment. The lie being told is that she’s “all dirty on the inside,” and for a creature with a supernatural sense of the truth to declare this notion as false must be deeply reassuring for the young girl.
Vaughan and Staples also structure the scene impeccably, with silent beats at both the beginning and end. The opening panel, larger than the rest, sets the scene and gives us a snapshot of where each character is emotionally. Lying Cat is peaceful, content, perhaps not even wholly aware of Sophie leaning against her. Sophie, meanwhile, is actively pensive, absent-mindedly poking at her teeth with some found object while her eyes look to the sky. She’s obviously got something on her mind that wants out, but seems reluctant to set it free. She’s smiling, but it’s a forced, toothy, rather unconvincing smile, because there’s a nervous energy beneath it. By contrast, in the last panel, her mouth and eyes are closed and her hands and head are down. This is real relaxation, her body language mirroring that of Lying Cat’s for the entire scene, with her head resting on her hands.
I also love the second-to-last panel, which is where the magic happens in the dialogue, so Staples makes it happen in the art there, too. Sophie’s shift in tone is well done, facing in the opposite direction as she was for her other lines, her eyes cast down and her mouth less widely open. She’s afraid to speak this sentence, afraid to face this part of herself, so she tries to hide from it even as she brings it out into the world. That’s all to be expected, but Staples really does it justice, clearly putting a lot of thought and attention into how Sophie holds herself in that frame. As per usual, though, it’s Lying Cat who steals the show in this moment, with her ever-so-slight head raise as she utters the only word she knows. Staples doesn’t have her open her eyes or move her ears or in any other way change the way she looks. This implies that for Lying Cat, this particular lie is so blatant and ridiculous that it only merits the smallest possible amount of energy from her to address it.
In the past, we’ve seen her hiss or spit or angrily mumble “Lying” but this time she just lets it fall out of her mouth. Sophie’s so off base in accusing herself of being dirty because of the things she’s done, Lying Cat seems to call it out impulsively, reflexively, without it even disturbing her rest. It’s so much better and more satisfying a reaction than something bigger or more dramatic. Had Lying Cat jumped up and screamed, “Lying!” it would still have meant Sophie had no reason to feel bad about herself for her previous life, but it also might well have made her feel guilty or ashamed for bringing it up in the present. The way it is now, Lying Cat gets to call Sophie a liar while still being kind and a friend to her, which is a big deal for the future of their relationship.
It’s just one page of one issue of a book that calls itself Saga, so by the time this series is through I suspect this particular scene will not be one of the narrative’s more major events. Even within this issue, it’s not a huge deal, and it doesn’t do anything to advance any of the myriad plot threads currently being developed. All the same, it’s a page that got to me when I read it the first time, and has been regularly popping into my head and bringing me joy anew since then. Because for Sophie, who’s always seemed a tad stale and shallow for my taste, this was a chance to prove she had a place in this title, even as a character type that doesn’t do a lot for me. I see now that having her as an immediately understandable child victim can actually enhance the efficiency of Vaughan and Staples’ storytelling. For Lying Cat, this was the small slice of positivity she more than deserved, a chance to show off the versatility of her powers and to bring some warmth and hope into an often-dark tale. It brought one of Saga’s strongest characters much closer to one of its weakest, and gave them both a spotlight tailored to their personalities.