Saga: Star-Crossed Lovers Fleeing Galactic Pursuers, Changing Diapers

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The comic book series Saga at first repulsed me, then pulled me in.  The opening scene of the first book (all I’ve read so far) is quite vulgar, and I’m just constitutionally not crazy about vulgarity.

But as I flipped more pages, I found myself more and more impressed by the stream of creative ideas and witty dialogue with which writer Brian K. Vaughan kept pummeling me.  The cringe-inducing, romantic-bubble-bursting “humor” is never far away, but the rest of the book more than compensates for this minor stream of annoyances.   Some of favorite lines from the book include: “Good help isn’t hard to find… It’s hard to find cheap”  and  “When a man carries an instrument of violence, he’ll always find the justification to use it.”

And the artwork!  I have to admit:  I read most of the book underestimating the brilliant work of Fiona Staples.  Basically, what she has done here is to PRECISELY match artistic style with narrative tone.  She has blended the super-hero style with the harsher and quirkier lines of edgier comics.  The lines she employs in Saga are rough-hewn…  sometimes shoulders are very unnaturally sharp, and here and there arms and even faces can have a craggy look to them.  And there are abrupt splashes on bodies to symbolize (rather than naturalistically portray) the reflection of light source.

The artwork turns out to be a perfect complement for Vaughan’s concepts and writing style.  Vaughan obviously intends for Saga to be a sprawling, epic tale (if the title didn’t give it away)– while at the same time, he has chosen to include mature themes and situations (dutifully and graphically illustrated by Staples), and a host of very real, domestic-couple details that only an older crowd could fully appreciate (adolescents may be titillated by some of the flesh-baring scenes, but they won’t “get” the couple-jokes for at least another decade).

From the credits, I assume that Staples is also responsible for the colors in the work, and those choices were also well made.  The colors are neither as loud as a mainstream sci-fi/fantasy tale, nor as subdued (or practically absent) as much of the independent or niche comics.  The hues are most-times muted (much olive, yellow-green, beige…), but at times, such as in a certain forest, they do bolden-up a bit.  The robot world is typically colored with pastels, muted purples, dulled-down golds, and ashy skin tones.

When Staples goes splashy with the color, it is oft-times in the promotion of pink.  Both the pink-glow ghosties and the pleasure-planet palette is patently pink.  

By the way, the pleasure-planet reminds me of something from a Douglas Adams book– very silly and over-the-top and just plain fun.

I mentioned the robot world… yes, there are robots here.  And I found it entertaining how they are portrayed:  monitor-heads with humanoid bodies and speech generated in a British idiom.

There’s also a female spider-humanoid who is quite disgusting and simultaneously sexy– though one thing about her did perturb me.  She is drawn with multiple eyes in such a way that my brain kept thinking that my own eyes were seeing double (quadruple, really) and so it kept reflexively (and unhelpfully) trying to help me refocus; I think my eyes actually crossed every time I looked at the spider-woman’s face… So I just focused on her naked torso instead ;)

There’s a monkey-man shown early-on in the book that I really liked.  He was characterized as unabashedly greedy and cowardly.  Unfortunately, he is soon ejected from the rest of the story, and I missed him later.  Maybe his kind will reappear later in the series.

Previously, I said that I began reading Saga with an underestimation of the artwork.  Sometimes when an artist is exceptionally good, the talent can almost escape our notice because the difference between very good and great is in the details– details that our eye and brain can easily skim over whilst we are flipping through a comicbook that is engrossing us with its story and dialogue.

Staples does two things, among countless other accomplishments, especially well– two things that are all-too-easy to overlook:

Number One:  she actually draws her characters to look like the same person from different points of view.  I’ve read way too many comicbooks in which the characters– even the main ones– are presented inconsistently from different angles.

Number Two:  Staples draws really good facial expressions.  Her character’s faces are neither overly detailed nor blandly blank; I can look at one of her characters and immediately tell– as with a good actor– what they are thinking.  Bravo!

For his part, scripter Vaughan knows how to introduce new mysteries into the story at the right pace.  He throws in all the usual tricks:  secrets, pursuers, revelations, love & sex complications…  It can all seem trite to an avid reader and longtime story-plotter such as myself, but hey– there’s a reason why authors keep pulling out these tricks from the toolbox… they work!  And truly, at base, there are really only so many narrative tricks and so many stories.

Vaughan employs a narrator from time to time in the story.  It is a voice from the future– it belongs to the baby-girl in the tale, who –by the time she narrates– is at least a teenager, and probably much older, for her narrative-asides are delivered in a tone of relaxed wisdom mixed with a gentle laughter at human(oid) nature that typically only comes with age and experience.

The book feels epic right away.  First off, we’re clued-in that we’re in for a long tale by both the title and the fact that our narrator begins the story as a newborn.  Then, new mysteries and characters continue to be introduced all through the book, with no abating toward the end.

At the same time that he’s being epic Vaughan is constantly throwing in coarse and unromantic details from every day life– everything from bad breath to baby burping.  This disgusts and disillusions part of me, but at the same time, it adds a dose of reality to an otherwise quite fantastical tale.

In the first few pages of the series, Vaughan immediately sets up the world and scenario for us:  we have a Romeo and Juliet situation taking place somewhere out in Space, where two different species are at war.  One species (Alana’s, the “Juliet” of our tale) is fairy-like.  The other, Marko’s, is somewhat faunish.

Artist Staples does a good job giving us big, up-close portraits of our main protagonists within the first couple of panels or so.  This is a smart and helpful move considering that these characters are completely new to us readers.

Vaughan sets-up scenarios so that various people end-up giving chase to our star-crossed lovers across the galaxy.  These include:  a royal Robot with a post-traumatic stress disorder, a skilled spider-woman bounty hunter, a male bounty hunter who treats each assignment like an actor receiving an audition invitation from his agent, and a giant, pet cat that can tell when someone’s lying.

Throw in a nanny, teen-age ghost and a set of intruding in-laws, and you’ve got yourself an epic journey that never strays too far from home.  Having a baby to care for is not about to slow down our protagonists.  As Alana tells her mate when he is considering that perhaps they should settle down and play it safe:  ” ‘We have a family to think about’ is the rallying cry of losers!”

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