WE GOT ISSUES: Looking Back At 50 Issues of SAGA

The world of comic books, like any of our cultural constructs and inspired inventions, experiences change slowly. At the forefront of these changes are visionaries, revolutionaries, and ripples from the larger collective procession of humanity; you can spot them if you’re paying attention. In March of 2012, one appeared on the horizon line, announcing its arrival with a splash page both profound and vulgar. That comic book is Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, and that first page looks like this:

In case it’s too small to read, she is talking about pooping, using the naughty word.

Chances are at this point you’re either completely on board or at the very least intrigued. If you’re easily offended then you’ve no doubt checked out in a huff, and that’s your loss, but also for the best. After all, this book isn’t going to sugarcoat the harsh realities, or the harsh fictions; it’s going to be as real as the land of make believe can be. The wild and woolly fantasy and sci-fi trappings are a fun way to help the medicine go down and hold up the mirror without you really noticing. Despite all that, the allegorical center to this narrative, that hub of connective tissue wrapped in alien worlds and magic spells? It’s the power of family.

Surprise.

When you flip through the pages of this comic, you stand upon a very modern bridge, one that connects the awe-inspiring world of imagination, the candor of contemporary vernacular, and the fundamentals of the human experience. Regardless of why you decided to read it in the first place, you stayed for the family at the heart of it all: two lovers from warring lands who found each other, and thus a way out of the endless cycle of violence and hate, and then poured it all into their child. Through the high and lows, the laughter and the heartbreak, we stick around month after month for these characters, and what their existence says to a planet full of people who are simultaneously more and less unified than they ever have been before.

Not so interested in all those warm and fuzzies? Well, for those who measure success with more phlegmatic quantifications, this monthly (though with breaks every six issues) Image Comics title has made its presence known just as feverishly at the point of sale. Debuting in the Top 50 of the Diamond Comic Distribution sales charts for units sold to shops, it has managed to stay there for most of its run, only slipping into the ’60s a few times when Marvel and DC were busy rolling out the latest crossover event or company reboot. The trade paperbacks move hundreds of thousands of copies, and in 2017 alone it had every single one of its softcover collections (eight at that point) in the Top 40 for units sold. It has so far won 12 Eisner awards, 17 Harvey awards, and a Hugo award. It has been referenced in TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Supernatural. It has made an indelible mark on American culture, and it has done it all on its own creator-owned terms, no expansion beyond the source material required.

This month, Saga reaches its 50th issue, marking six years of stories. What I’d like to do here is celebrate this milestone by going through each storyline and saying a few words about them and how they have resonated with me, in the hopes that I can straddle that fine line between rousing elevator pitch for the curious and rose-tinted roundup for the initiated. So yes, there will be some spoilers ahead, but none that would ruin your enjoyment of the series. We’re going for a quick skinny dip; the deep dive is all you.

Buckle the fuck up. Here we go.

 

Book One, Chapters One through Six:

So this is where we meet our narrator, Hazel, and her parents, Alana and Marko. We learn about the neverending war between the planet Landfall and its moon, Wreath, and thus why these two former soldiers having a child together is such a powerful transgression. We see enemies dispatched to intercept our fledgling family in the form of Prince Robot IV and the freelancers The Stalk and The Will. We get our introduction to Lying Cat, everyone’s favorite Saga creature.

She’s a pretty, purring polygraph.

Their quest away from their enemies and towards a new life leads them to confront the less obvious horrors of war on foreign soil firsthand. It’s here that the family gets its first new member, the ghost girl Izabel, who soul bonds with Hazel and becomes the official babysitter. Meanwhile, The Will encounters an evil that this galaxy-wide conflict propagates that even he cannot stomach while on the pleasure planet Sextillion. As they leave the carnage behind and head for Quietus, the most intimidating threat of all arrives: the in-laws.

This first story arc is really all about trying to outrun your past, while still having to occasionally confront it despite your best efforts. It addresses the ugliness of war, the danger of keeping secrets, and just how hard it is to care for the little shit factory you’ve birthed into the middle of this mess we call life. Vaughan paces it all just right, balancing action, humor, and drama like the seasoned pro that he is, and Staples makes her digital art dance across each page with wispy, elegant lines and glowing color that pulses with vitality. In the fourth issue we also get to see the results of the very first reader survey, where this appears:

My mom is so proud of me.

 

Book Two, Chapters Seven though Twelve:

Well for starters, issue eight is my favorite issue ever. I think. So far it is, anyway.

It involves falling in love with a book and then trying to convince someone else that it is a life-changing work of genius, a giant with the most unsettling set of male genitalia I’ve ever seen, a dying person’s wish to protect the people they love, and the introduction of the infamous Gwendolyn.

Holy jumping gesticulating Jamiroquai, what an arc this turns out to be. So much death, so many threats of death, all orbiting nefariously around this wayward family tree. If your heartstrings aren’t thoroughly tugged by now, then there’s just no hope for you. There’s probably not much for D. Oswald Heist, the author of the irreverent, subversive little tome that brought Alana and Marko together. But we’ll get to that. Speaking of the residents of the planet Quietus, we get our first glimpse of the adorable Ghüs!

 

Book Three, Chapters Thirteen through Eighteen:

Enter Upsher and Doff, the tabloid controversy-chasers, and their quest for the biggest scoop in the universe. Lying Cat makes a new friend, one who isn’t a delusional scumbag. Board games are described as high art, which is a sentiment guaranteed to win me over. The Circuit is introduced, which is basically a VR show that combines our finest examples of drama: the soap opera, superhero stories, and professional wrestling. Then, even more freelancers show up; this time it’s The Brand and Sweet Boy. Saga is quickly turning into every Star Wars fan’s dream: a story populated with tons of cool, deadly, oddball bounty hunters.

Wow. So there is some death this time around (R.I.P. Mr. Heist), but far more mental, psychological, and emotional damage. My one big takeaway in this book is a doozy, though, and I’m going to share it with you now. At this point in the narrative, 18 issues in, the creative team has shown numerous, distinct alien races, all with their own customs and ways of life. We have seen hetero, homo, and bisexuals, in various relationships or without them. I bet you, like me, barely batted an eye. Would the average person have done the same if all of the characters were human? Stripped of storytelling abstracts and action beats, are they aspects that suddenly become more controversial? Because they shouldn’t be. If you’re crafting tales that are at all a reflection of the world at large, then make them just that. Representation and inclusion are vital, and the creators of this work get that in a big way. We can do better, and we should always be striving for that. These fictive mirrors don’t mean shit if we can’t all see ourselves in them.

Rant over.

 

Book Four, Chapters Nineteen through Twenty-Four:

It’s trouble in paradise time, friendos. Our hero parents are doing their best to settle in and give Hazel some time to grow up, with Alana acting on The Circuit (thanks to the recommendation of Heist’s ex, the drug-dealing hippie Yuma) while the others babysit, but we all know that was only going to last for so long. Along comes Dengo, a commoner robot working as a custodian, who intends to use Prince IV’s own newborn to start a revolution. Then there’s Ginny, our potential homewrecker, and fadeaway, an edible drug that blisses people out enough to tolerate soul-crushing jobs. Things fall apart fast, and a very real rift develops by the time we hit issue twenty-four.

It’s rather impressive, the way this book does not shy away from uncomfortable truths, like the ones that this storyline tries to come to terms with. Things like the banality of everyday life leeching the spark out of a relationship, and how those in power are fucking us six ways to Sunday with divisive shit that does not really matter, and how easily we run to mood-altering substances and an ill-advised night in the arms of a stranger for respite that only makes our wounds worse.

I’m here for the fun stuff, too. It’s not all gloom and doom, I promise. I’m amused by the hierarchy of the robot kingdom, and how the TVs that act as their heads get larger and more advanced the higher up they are. I love Fiona’s mastery of facial expression. I appreciate how the dialogue and analogies are just clever enough to elicit a chuckle, but not a groan. Case in point: there are literal patent trolls in this arc. I will adore the creators forever for that.

 

Book Five, Chapters Twenty-Five through Thirty:

Okay, maybe it kinda is all gloom and doom. The theme for this one is definitely ‘sacrifice’. Still, what you need to know most is that it’s also about dragons. Yep. Big, nasty lizards, full of disturbing fluids. Fluids like piss and spunk. I’ll just let you discover those particular visuals all on your own. Have fun.

My lack of commentary this time around does not mean that it was a boring or unsatisfying run in any way, so don’t consider skipping over it. Okay? Cool. On we go.

 

Book Six, Chapters Thirty-One through Thirty-Six:

And now for a bit of a time jump. Hazel and Robot IV’s son are now a few years older, the former held in a prison camp, and the latter with his father, who is officially cut loose from the royal family. The tabloid reporters Doff and Upsher are now free to continue chasing down their story, though it could be the end of them. The Will has put on some… bulk. We are introduced to Petrichor, who gladly steps in as the newest hard-headed Wreath native, and one who introduces us to a trans perspective. In graphic detail, someone learns that you do not fuck with Ghüs. There’s a big tearjerker of a family reunion, just in time to drop the news that it’s about to get even bigger.

Preach, teach.

 

Book Seven, Chapters Thirty-Seven through Forty-Two:

Now forced to land on the wartorn hellscape that is the comet Phang, our moody band of misfits takes in a family of refugees, which is not something everyone agrees with. Then the latest freelancer badass to make a run at Hazel and her folks, The March, brings more death to the story, though they’re merely the harbinger of something much worse. Meanwhile, Sir Robot, who has never been the most stable person even under ideal circumstances, wrestles with who he is and what he has done. Getting back to freelancers, The Will is now technically not one anymore, and is going to learn the hard way that sometimes you can’t just pick up where you left off.

At this juncture, things get dark. Darker than we’ve seen before, and that’s saying something. So dark that the final seven pages are nothing but black silence. There is going to be tremendous, unbearable loss, and all of the blind faith and good intentions in the universe won’t be enough to grind it to even a temporary halt. This is the part of the story where hopelessness takes hold, and even though you’ve been around the block and through the grinder, you still haven’t seen the bottom. In fact, there might not actually be a bottom, and that thought alone can break the strongest person into jagged shards.

But this isn’t the end, and you know that. You’ll move on to the next issue. Even as an observer, you’re a part of this now, and things will get better even if you have to will that onto the page using barely-understood magic that you heard Alan Moore talk about once.

 

Book Eight, Chapters Forty-Three through Forty-Eight:

In the immortal words of deceased comedian Bill Hicks, “Let’s lighten things up and talk about abortion”. The good, the bad, the politics, the preconceived notions, and even the spiritual. I won’t go into details about why, but I’ll say that this comic most definitely addresses it, like all of the sticky subjects with parallels to our own world, as the complex, multifaceted beast that it is.

In addition, there’s a bit of new romance in the works, though it’s between two massively damaged people. Petrichor has at the very least earned some freaky bump and grind time, though I’m not so sure about her partner. And then we get back to The Will again. Yep, he’s still alive, though thanks to the diplomat-bent-on-vengeance known as Ianthe, he probably wishes that was not the case. There’s even an adventure story with Ghüs and Squire, Robot’s son! It’s once again a time for reunions, as Marko, Alana, Hazel, and their crew are back together just in time to avoid more misfortune.

 

The Beginning of Book Nine, Chapters Forty-Nine and Fifty:

Hazel has had Petrichor as a martial arts instructor and Squire as a playmate, and she’s old enough to start testing boundaries and piecing together who she wants to be. True to their journalistic roots, Doff and Upsher still want to write up an exclusive about the lives of their new companions. True to his self-absorbed roots, Sir Robot wants to stir up some shit with a bombshell story of his own in order to achieve his ideal ends. Ianthe closes in, and wants to use the truth she ripped from The Will’s memories to “pull every last world off its axis.” It is about to do down, and it’s going down on Jetsam, the aquatic world that loves a good headline, and despises unions outside the established norms.

That brings us up to date, as of this writing. Like any family we’ve known, the comic book coterie we’ve followed around from planet to moon to comet has grown and shrunk and grown again, sharing joy and pain in equal measure, and their biggest obstacles are yet to come.

So after all that, the big question lingers: what is it that makes Saga so special, so popular, and so enduring? From my perspective, it comes down to what I said at the very beginning of this piece: that while change happens slowly, there are always beacons that light its way. This book is undoubtedly one of those. We’re all standing at a crossroads, and our entertainment, our modern myths, are just as responsible for how we got here as they are for where we go next. Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, and the characters they’ve breathed life into want that destination to be loving, peaceful, and open to the fullness of diversity that life has to offer.

Let’s join them, shall we?

Jared Blumberg

Jared Blumberg

My personal idiom is simple: Comics in, comics out. You can see my reviews at oneofthemreaders.wordpress.com, find me signal boosting on Twitter @rabbit11comics, and behold my scribbles on Instagram via rabbit11comics.
Jared Blumberg
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