An epic, exotic space opera delivers a dramatic impact for the ages.
When it comes to epic space operas, an entire generation of sci-fi fans is at a disadvantage. They live in a world where it seems that the only games in town are either Star Wars or Star Trek. Between the box office returns of Star Trek: Beyond and the glut of toys from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there's this flawed impression that there's no room for more space operas. Brian K. Vaughan is out to prove that notion wrong and Saga keeps finding ways to reinforce that proof.
There are few non-superhero-basic stories that garner all the right praise for all the right reasons. Saga proves that great comics need not involve superhero civil wars, constant retcons and reboots, or sterility plagues. It can simply be an epic journey between two lovers from different worlds. That it occurs in an alien world with exotic creatures, including an entire race of humanoids with TVs for heads, is just a nice bonus.
Saga is unique in its structure in that it undergoes various twists and turns. There are times when it focuses on certain characters and side-plots more than others, but resists the temptation to create a spin-off series that would further complicate the narrative. That's a temptation that Marvel and DC Comics are all too eager to succumb to these days. Some plots, however, resonate more than others and help bring out the best in Saga.
The narrative of Saga #38 takes it a step further by setting up a new dimension of drama and capping it off with the kind of emotional gut punch that lingers for weeks. Saga gains much of its strength from heavy drama. Whether it's Marko and Alana being separated from their daughter or adorable furry creatures getting horribly maimed, Vaughan makes a concerted effort to leave a dramatic scar on the audience. The scar left by Saga #38 is sure to fester for quite some time.
The stage for this impact is set with a familiar situation. Marko and Alana are on the run again, trying to protect their daughter, Hazel, from a long list of unsavory and exotic characters. They end up stranded on Phang, a comet that also happens to be one of the many war zones in this exotic world. In a series where trees fly and TVs count as heads, this setting feels perfectly appropriate.
Like many other warzones in Saga, this one has its share of civilians turned refugees. It's easy to sympathize with these characters and not just because the real world has its share of refugee issues. These refugees also happen to be a race of small, furry woodland-like creatures with the sad eyes of a panda. Even the most ardent xenophobe can't deny the impact of such inherent cuteness.
The presence of cuddly, furry creatures who also happen to be war refugees add some new dynamics to the narrative. They don't just become part of Alana and Marko's struggle, they convey a powerful sentiment, helping those ravaged by war. Marko frames it as a lesson to his daughter about helping others, but it's a lesson that everyone of any age can appreciate.
In addition to conveying the real-world lessons that too few heed, Saga #38 uses this new situation to develop Hazel in an important way. For a good chunk of Saga's narrative, she's just the adorable half-breed child stuck between two worlds trying to tear her family apart. Like every adorable child, though, there will be times when that youthful purity gives way to being a little brat.
Hazel, who finally makes some new friends with the refugees, lets this moment come at the worst possible time. As many kids learn at some point in their lives, making new friends can sometimes drive old friends away. In this case, that old friend is Izabel, who has been her ghost / babysitter since she was a baby. This helps set up the dramatic impact that makes Saga #38 a true testament to its admittedly bloated genre.
What happens to Izabel is very much a "Luke, I am your father" type moment, albeit from a different angle. There's no bitter fight or epic light-sabre battle. Instead, there's a tragedy in play, one that begins innocently enough and then goes horribly wrong. It gains even greater weight when Izabel makes it clear how loyal she is to Marko, Alana, and their family. She credits them with showing her a universe that she never got to see in life. That makes what happens to her truly devastating in terms of drama.
The impact isn't just felt by the audience. It's felt by Hazel, too. It's very much a shared impact, one that preys on the connections that these characters have made with one another. It lacks the gratuitous violence and bold callousness that Game of Thrones uses to make an impact. What it lacks in blood though, Saga #38 more than makes up for in heart.
That heart is, by far, the greatest strength of Saga #38 and Saga as a whole. There are other elements at work within the narrative, but some of them are muted. Side-plots involving Gwendolyn and The Will don't progress by much, but at the very least, their presence reaffirms their relevance. It ensures that they are still part of a larger narrative that's hard to keep up with at times, but that's appropriate because the promise of more dramatic impacts makes the added scrutiny feel worth it.
If the true success of any space opera is its ability to inject heart into exotic sci-fi settings, then Saga is already wildly successful. It makes it so easy to develop an attachment and fondness for each character. Saga #38 further supplements these elements by making it feel personal. It may not be personal enough to inspire sequels, prequels, and its own rides at Disney World, but it's well on its way.