Great Literature, Circuits Through Time: A Deeper Look at "Saga #12"
Great literature is instantly recognizable, regardless of how its stories are relocated in historical context. Brian K. Vaughan's Saga reminds us that the same is easily true for the medium of comics…
Since it seems like all the saber rattling, name-calling, and fear mongering is finished, I think it is time to actually talk about the content of Saga #12, in context with the rest of the series. Although I had an opportunity to write on the subject recently, Saga #12 is about much more than a couple scenes of presumably homosexual sex acts; #12 is the culmination of the series thus far and sheds light on to the comic’s major themes and, perhaps, placing it as a powerful interlocutor in our modern discussions of war, peace, family, love, sex, and hate.
Our ‘modern discussions’ include quite a few topics, and I for one am having some difficulty determining what exactly to talk about when it comes to Saga as a series so far. It is almost like sitting down to write criticism on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Where do you start: the rhetoric of revolution, and the creation of a nation; the personal history of a genius media manipulator, and the problems that presents for readers; or the always already present problems and peculiarities of Franklin’s writings as a whole? It is all interesting and important. When I sit down to write about Bryan K. Vaughan’s Saga, I am compelled to ask some similar questions. Suffice it to say, exploring Saga's popculture relevance and its importance is akin to reading it—you are awash in a Vaughan and Staples’ sea of contiguous and surreal, yet all too timely and concrete elements. Do I: study Vaughan’s Saga through rhetoric, linguistic turns, and formal components; conduct a thorough genre analysis of this space opera/fantasy/political thriller; or peruse the comic's psychology undergirding, with its anti-oedipal leanings and libidinal explorations. Perhaps, I’ll try to do all three.
As Michael D. Stewart has mentioned, Saga's rhetoric and use of exposition is an invitation for investment. This investment on the readers’ part comes both in the form of identification with the gorgeously whole characters and also the struggle to understand the series’ internal logic and rhetoric. We are prompted to ask so much when reading this comic. Why does The Will save a young sex-slave? What is this comic trying to tell me? Why is it being narrated by Hazel?
The series notably begins with Hazel, yet unnamed, narrating the events of her own birth. She says, “This is how an idea becomes real.” And later, at the end of issue #1, she explains:
“I started out as an idea, but I ended up something more. Not much more to be honest. Its not like I grow up to become some great war hero or any sort of all important savior…but thanks to these two, at least I get to grow old. Not everybody does.”
Vaughan’s use of the first-person, omniscient in the instance of Hazel’s narration, combined with the lettering design choices from Fonografiks, gives us, at once a profound sense of hope that this family survives its ordeals, and a profound sense that it is not an easy journey by any means. The unknown age of our narrator, belied by the font chosen, tells us that Hazel is perhaps too wise for her years. And more importantly, it tells us that she survived to hear the tale of her time as an infant and her parents’ struggle.
The rhetorical strategies of Saga are controlled by this emerging logic of temporal shifts; the development of Hazel as a narrator telling us these past events develops parallel to the events themselves. As Hazel interjects and informs us of the Saga universe’s foundations less and less, we as readers become more and more dependent on her for hope as her parents make riskier decisions. To put it another way, the narrative tension placed on the reader by Marko and Alana’s transition from running away from battle to fighting a different kind of battle altogether (as in the case of joining up with the radical pacifist D. Oswald Heist) is mollified by the always already apparent condition that Hazel survives to tell the tale.
For example: at the tumultuous beginning of Saga, just as Hazel is being born, in a mechanics shop with soldiers banging on the door (or teleporting in as the case maybe for the ‘moonies’), we are given a sense of hope that she and her parents will survive this encounter by the very fact that Hazel is narrating it.
Or another example: the cliffhanger ending of issue #12, in which IV displays so much raw rage and his potential for violence, is softened by Hazel’s statements about it. “Prince Robot IV was almost always right,” she explains as he sits down to wait for the family, “But he was dead wrong about my family coming to Quietus anytime soon. We’d already been there a week.” Hazel’s narration here, indicates subtly that she has some experience with IV, and thus, at least for me, that she survives the encounter with him.
I keep using the word survival when talking about Alana and Marko’s growing family of misfits and misanthropes. I think it is the right word to focus on because death chases them, and haunts Saga, in such profound ways. The very violence of the series, the war that permeates the universe of the series, and the ever-present specter of the family members’ deaths prompts us to be concerned primarily about their continued living. Nevertheless, if we step back and ask why, we encounter a deep psychologically resonant well to plumb.
The reasons for the specter that chase Alana and Marko are quite simple. As a desiring couple that has created an inter-species child, they have disrupted the dominant social order and must be regulated by it. The powers-that-be cannot allow the child, which represents peaceful and productive co-mingling of the geopolitical factions, to live. Deleuze and Guattari, authors of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia volume I, argue that in a fascist state (which I believe Saga's universe is a clear example of), desire is explosive; "there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors." They continue to explain that, "Despite what some revolutionaries think about this, desire is revolutionary in its essence… and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy being compromised."
More important than the disruptive nature of Alana's and Marko's love for one another and the very existence of Hazel, is the way they intend to raise Hazel. Early in issue #1, right after giving birth, Alana and Marko argue about whether or not Hazel would endure a ritualized bloodletting of the wings. They had agreed, before Hazel's birth to "no politics, no history, and no more barbaric religious nonsense." This statement, made by Marko, is really quite telling of their parenting strategy and of their way of thinking. Abandoning the old philosophical and religious underpinnings of the galactic conflict they are embroiled in, Alana and Marko cleave to new ideas of pacifism and peace. They reject the old, not because it is old, but because their very love invalidates it.
Sometimes, I often wonder if the best authors begin, not with a story or a character in mind, but rather themes or emotions they wish to explore. All the books I’ve read on storytelling have told me otherwise. Yet, all the trappings of our best and most intrinsically satisfying stories are fungible, and at the heart of each of them lies a kernel of something more. I am likely to say truth, but that is a little far a field. Instead of truth, some of these stories examine the human condition in a way that makes their characters and plots and settings emblematic and iconographic rather than integral. Macbeth is recognizable as Macbeth in film, opera, television, literature, and visual arts. We’ve seen it set in feudal Japan in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood; we’ve even seen it set in a fast-food restaurant in Billy Morrisette’s Scotland, PA. We can change every aspect of the Macbeth tale, but at the heart of it is an examination of extent of human ambition and violence.
Since this notion can be applied to some of our greatest literature and our most important stories, it follows that the same could be said of comics—perhaps even more so because of the always already-iconographic art in comics. The comic books medium’s ability to explore the human condition, emotion, and mind is not rooted in the fungible characters that come to represent the exploration itself, but in the stories being told. Replace the Hulk with Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde and you’re still telling a story of monstrous transformation and the human capacity for anger. Replace Wolverine with Dorian Grey and you’re still telling a story about the fear of loneliness in immortality and the depths of decadent violence.
I say all this, concerning the fungibility of characters in a well-told story, to say that Saga is more about the ideas being explored than the characters; albeit, Marko, Alana, The Will, and IV are incredibly rich characters gorgeously rendered, this story could just as easily be told as a western, just as Taming the Shrew can be told as a high-school drama.
But why then do care if Saga is a story about big ideas? Ideas like the birth of a child, the emergent family that surrounds and protects that child, pacifism in the face of never-ending war, the urge to remove oneself from a cycle of hatred and violence—do not often make it into comicbooks or movies or really much popculture, and thus elevates the whole genre.