Review: Saga: Volume 1
I’ve gotten a request from an old friend of mine to review something other than superhero comics, and I’m going to take him up on that request because I would like to expand the reach of my blog. Unfortunately, the only non-superhero comic I’m reading these days is Saga by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples. This is unfortunate because I would like to read more independent work, but it’s fortunate because Saga is probably the No. 1 most high-profile, independent, non-superhero comic on the stands today. A lot of comic book fans are reading Saga, and I think that makes it the perfect addition to my review cycle. I’ve decided to review the first six issues in one fell swoop – seeing as how they make up Volune 1 – and then pick up from here on out issue-by-issue.
Saga is a strange and heartfelt story about a young couple trying to raise their newborn daughter in the middle of a war. But it just so happens that it takes place in outer space and everybody is some kind of freaky alien. On top of that, it seems like Vaughn and Staples are trying to be as insanely weird as possible, sometimes sacrificing story for weirdness.
Comic rating: 4/5: Good.
There is no denying that Saga is, so far, a very well-written and well-drawn comic. Vaughn and Staples are two professionals at the top of their game, and that shows on every page. It’s the story and the progress that I find at least slightly lacking. After six issues, our two main characters, Alana and Marko, seem to be spinning their wheels as they bounce from one threat or danger to the next. Even though we’re told that they’re on the move, the setting still remains “vague alien wilderness”. They have fought off a new threat or evil menace in every single issue, and none of their opponents have stuck around long enough to make any kind of lasting impact.
It’s like Vaughn thinks we have no attention span and he must fill his book with as much new action as possible. The main characters are in a near constant state of panic from all this action. But I would prefer him to slow down and take time to smell the roses of this universe he is trying to build. As a result, I don’t feel as connected with this world and these characters as I would like to be. I’ve seen my fair share of weird alien worlds in fiction, but Vaughn’s is particularly strange, and yet he’s not giving us much of an opportunity to get to know everything he’s created.
That’s not to say Saga is too out of control. Underneath all of this action and weird excitement, Vaughn and Staples are creating something rather beautiful. I just wish they’d let that part shine more than the constant need for action.
Join me after the jump as I introduce you to the characters and run down the story so far.
First, a little back story. Brian K. Vaughn is one of the most popular writers in comic books today, and not without merit. Vaughn is the writer of two of the greatest series I have ever read, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. Both are like Saga in that they are stand alone stories that took several volumes to tell, and both are amazing in terms of plot, story, characters, art and everything else that is great about comics and fiction. Y: The Last Man is not a superhero comic. It’s about the last man on Earth after a plague has wiped out all others, leaving only women to pick up the slack of running the world. It’s a fascinating story that looks at gender politics in a post-apocalyptic society; all while this lone, last dude goes on a crazy adventure. I couldn’t recommend it more. Ex Machina is about the world’s only superhero hanging up his costume to become mayor of New York City, and then the ways in which his old heroic life and his new political life interact. It’s another great story with fun characters and a truly great world.
Vaughn is also known for work he has done for Marvel and DC comics, especially the Runaways, about a group of kids determined to stop their super-villain parents. Vaughn also wrote for the show Lost, and I absolutely loved that show. So yeah, Vaughn is a pretty popular writer, and a lot of people were eagerly awaiting his return to comics with Saga.
Six issues in, I would definitely I am not disappointed. I just wish the series had more to show for itself at this point.
The characters and setting of Saga are going to be kind of hard to explain, so I’ll try to take it slow. Far out in outer space, there is a war between the planet Landfall and it’s only moon, Wreath. The aliens of Landfall look like humans with wings and are very technologically advanced. The people of Wreath look like humans with horns, and they depend on shamanistic magic. The problem with going to war with your own moon is that if one were to destroy the other, they themselves would lose planetary stability and also be destroyed. So the war between Landfall and Wreath has been “outsourced” to other planets in the galaxy, whose own native people are being forced to choose a side in this massive conflict. Meanwhile, a relative peace has been obtained between Landfall and Wreath.
The first volume of our story takes place on the planet Cleave, which is basically the backwater of the galaxy. In the first issue we meet Marko and Alana, our two main characters. Marko is from Wreath and Alana is from Landfall, so essentially they have fallen in love despite being on opposite sides of the war. Alana definitely wears the pants in the family, and is much more hard-nosed and badass than the friendly, goofier Marko.
The first issue of Saga picks up with the birth of their daughter Hazel, who of course is now a half-breed of both Wreath and Landfall. In the first issue, we learn that Saga is actually Hazel’s story, and she is the narrator from time to time. We also get the back story that Marko was a conscientious objector to the war, and was imprisoned after he surrendered to the Coalition of Landfall. Alana was a soldier for the Coalition, but was reprimanded for cowardice after her first taste of battle. As punishment, Alana was stationed on the backwater Cleave, where she became Marko’s prison guard.
Then 12 hours after they meet, Alana helps Marko escape and the two go on the run. They are in love, get married, and then many months later Alana gives birth to Hazel and the series begins.
What exactly happened during those 12 hours that caused Alana to help Marko escape has not yet been revealed. Nor have we learned much about what the couple was up to while they were on the run and while Alana was pregnant. Which means there are several secrets still to be revealed in the series.
Neither Landfall nor Wreath is happy that Alana and Marko have run away together, and they are doubly unhappy that they would have a crossbreed baby together. Hazel’s mere existence would be pretty damaging for troop morale. So both Landfall and Wreath send out an operative to kill Alana and Marko and kidnap the baby.
First we have The Will, who looks like a normal human and was dispatched by Wreath.
He’s your typical badass with his own moral code kind of bounty hunter. The Will is teamed up with a big, hairless blue feline called “Lying Cat” who can tell if you’re lying. The cat can’t talk, so she’s mostly just around to make comedic meows on behalf of The Will. And sometimes shout “Lying!” when it’s most convenient. Rather than outright pursue the couple, The Will seems to be on a storyline all his own. He comes face-to-face with an old girlfriend/fellow freelancer named the Stalk. This girl is some kind of strange human/spider hybrid who is still kind of hot. The Stalk is also on the hunt for our lead couple, and so The Will backs off and instead goes to visit Sextillion. There’s a whole issue where he’s just touring this insane sexual pleasure palace – until he finds a young girl being used as a whore, then he kills one of the managers and tries in vain to save the girl. Code of honor, and all that.
But basically, in the first six issues, The Will doesn’t really have anything to do with Alana and Marko. But I guess he’s just being set up for later shenanigans.
Next we have one of the most perplexing design decisions in Saga, one that goes a long way to my claim that this series is more about being weird than anything else.
Meet Prince Robot IV:
He is a guy with a TV for a head. He acts, talks, thinks and has sex like any normal person. But he has a TV for a head. All of his people do in the Robot Kingdom. It’s just weird! Though Vaughn and Staples have a lot of fun with what images show up on Prince Robot’s screen. Still, c’mon, he’s got a TV for a head!
The Robot Kingdom is allied with the Coalition of Landfall, and he’s dispatched to kill the couple and their baby. For Prince Robot, this is a political assignment. He’s going to get married soon, and this is a task that he has to compete if he has any hope of retaining any political capital and influence. To fail in this task would be devastatingly embarrassing, so Prince Robot IV heads off to Cleave to find our heroes. He always seems to be several leagues behind them, though, through all six issues.
I think one of the problems I have with Saga is that all of the characters, despite being from strange and different alien races, talk and act like modern Americans. They all seem to have the same language, speech patterns and attitudes of everyday Americans. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started making pop culture references. This robs the aliens of their mystique. Even Prince Robot IV, despite being a robot and having a TV for a head, still just comes off like a normal, ordinary person when all I want to know is why he has a TV for a head!
And don’t get me started on the horrifying, ancient forest spirit who acts and dresses like a mallrat.
But as you can see, Vaughn has created this intricate, expansive universe of characters, aliens, planets and conflict. But very little time is spent getting to know any of it. Marko and Alana are constantly on the run, pursued by soldiers from both sides of the war. What we do get from the couple in terms of interaction is beautiful. Vaughn has done a wonderful job, what little he’s done, of making them seem like a real, legitimate couple. But rather than romantic lovebirds, Marko and Alana feel like a married couple that have been together for long enough that now they’re more like partners in this thing called life instead of giggly teenagers. They’re still in love, but they’ve moved past the lovey dovey stage and are into marriage.
So the bond between them is a focal point of the series, and Vaughn writes it very well. I just wish they had a chance to express it more often through dialogue and calm scenes than in constantly having to stand up for one another in the heat of battle.
The other characters are so far entertaining in their own right. The Will is as cool as any badass county hunter with a heart of gold. His own side adventure has been a little distracting considering how far removed it is from Alana and Marko, but I assume Vaughn has a plan for this. Prince Robot IV, however, remains more of a weird gimmick rather than an actual character. I do hope Vaughn has something badass in store for him. There was that time he brutally interrogated a prisoner.
Alright, let’s get to the synopsis. I won’t be as detailed as I normally am since there are six issues to cover. To sum it all up, the first six issues of Saga make up Volume One, because six issues is the typical cut off before comic books are collected in a single bound trade paperback. In fact, the Volume One tpb has already been announced as coming out in October.
In Volume One, we are rather haphazardly introduced to all of the main characters and the conflict at large. This is the kind of story where the writer expects you to keep up with all the weird alien stuff they’re throwing at you. Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening in the process. The story is about how Alana and Marko flee into the wilderness in order to escape their pursuers and find a way off the planet Cleave, all while dealing with a newborn baby. The Will and Prince Robot IV begin their pursuits of the couple, one more gung-ho about it than the other. And alongside these two hunters,, a lot of other foes and characters seem to find Alana and Marko quite easily every issue.
We open with Alana giving birth in the back of some fix-it shop, because she and Marko are already on the run. The two are adorable together as they bicker playfully about picking a name and various other child-rearing issues. But no sooner is the baby born then soldiers from both Landfall and Wreath show up to grab them.
There’s a quick, bloody battle, and the soldiers kill each other, but Marko, Alana and the baby survive. A friend of theirs, who also sold them out, gives them a map of Cleave and they decide to head into the wilderness to find the Rocketship Forest, because they hope the name is literal and they’ll be able to get off-planet. Good enough idea as any, I guess. Meanwhile, both Prince Robot IV and The Will are brought on board to go after the couple. This is a very dialogue-heavy book. A lot of it is Alana and Marko bickering like a married couple who still deeply love one another, and that can be fun to read. Otherwise it’s The Will and Prince Robot IV getting their assignments from their superiors. There’s a lot of talking, and Vaughn writes entertaining enough dialogue. But it’s the kind of dialogue where the people talking know all about their crazy universe, while the reader is forced to play catch up to all that’s going on.
In issue 2, Marko and Alana do battle with a rather dangerous forest while Prince Robot IV talks to some of Alana’s former comrades to try and figure out why she fled. It has something to do with a romance novel she read, possibly. Marko and Alana eventually come face-to-face with The Stalk, the other freelancer. And let me tell you, aliens do not get weirder looking than The Stalk. But she still talks like everybody else.
The Stalk spears Marko and leaves him for dead, but Alana manages to chase her off by threatening to kill Hazel. The Stalk is supposed to get the baby alive or she won’t get paid, so she backs off. Then The Stalk flees for real when the fearsome, ancient horrors of the forest start to come out at night. Those horrors? They’re the red ghost girl and her other ghost friends.
So much for horrors. Issue 3 is all about the ghost girl, Izabel, offering to help Alana save Marko’s life. This is another problem with the pacing. We’re only at issue 3 and already Marko’s life is in jeopardy? We’ve barely gotten to know the guy and already Vaughn pulls the “main character might die!” plot device. So what happens when he tries this again in the future by hurting Marko? Playing this card so soon robs it of some of its power, since we barely know Marko.
Anyway, Marko knows a magic spell that can heal him, but he needs certain ingredients, including snow, which isn’t all that easy to come by. Izabel offers to take Alana to find some snow, and in exchange, Izabel will bond with the baby Hazel and be able to leave the planet with them. After a long journey up a mountain, a desperate Alana agrees and Izabel joins their party.
Then they cast the spell to save Marko, and the issue ends with him mumbling an ex-girlfriend’s name while he’s still groggy. Not a smart move.
Issue 4 is mostly focused on The Will visiting Sextillion. It’s a crazy, freaky, anything-goes sort of sex emporium. He’s led around by a guide, until The Will finds a little girl as one of the whores. He then immediately kills his guide and tries to rescue the girl. Meanwhile, Marko heals and explains that Gwendolyn was his childhood sweetheart and fiancee. But then when he went off to war, it changed him, and he could never go back. He’s kind of goofy as he tells the story, and Alana forgives him. The two are very cute together. Though Marko does point out that he gave Alana the ring he’d used to propose to Gwendolyn back in the day. So Alana is wearing a scorned girl’s would-be wedding ring.
The issue ends with a Landfall ship arriving full of soldiers. Marko wants to be peaceful about this, but then one of the bullets hits Alana, and he goes psychotic!
Marko manages to defeat every last one of those Landfall bastards, and he’s about to chop off their heads when Alana shoots him with her gun. She was only grazed earlier. The blast calms Marko down. They steal the Landfall ship and head to the Rocketship Forest. Meanwhile, at Sextillion, The Will discovers that he can’t exactly take the girl with him as the owners hold Lying Cat for ransom. So he decides he needs to raise the money to buy the girl’s freedom.
The Will calls The Stalk to tell her that he’ll help her out on the mission to get Alana and Marko, because he needs the money. But during the middle of their conversation, The Stalk runs into Prince Robot IV and his soldiers. The Prince earlier learned that he was going to be a father, and now he’s a little jumpy. He accidentally shoots and kills The Salk – which is a shame, because she seemed rather cool.
In issue 6, Prince Robot IV picks up The Stalk’s phone and finds that The Will is still on the line. This is one of the more badass scenes that we’ve seen so far in Saga.
Prince Robot IV then continues his hunt for the couple.
Alana and Marko find the Rocketship Forest, which literally has trees that grow into organic rocketships. Izabel tells them that they need to make a sacrifice for the tree to let them inside, so Marko breaks his sword. He’s a pacifist now, no more fighting. They get on board and decide to fly to the planet Quietus, because Alana wants her daughter to meet the smartest man in the universe. We then learn – along with Prince Robot – that the author of that romance novel Alana had been reading lives on Quietus.
Before the issue ends, we get one more action scene. Breaking his sword has alerted some of Marko’s people to his whereabouts, and two of them teleport onto the ship. A battle commences as the two attack, with Alana fighting back. But the battle stops when Marko holds up Hazel and introduces his wife and his baby to the two warriors.
Now that was a funny cliffhanger.I gotta hand it to Vaughn for that.
So yeah, that’s the story of Saga so far. They’re going to take a two month break and be back with a new issue in November, which I will review. Unlike mainstream comics, Vaughn doesn’t want to use a fill-in artist. So to give Staples time to rest her hands and get caught up, they’ll be taking periodic breaks. Understandable, I’m in no rush.
Like I said, I’m enjoying the series so far. I don’t think my review does justice to the strength of the relationship between Marko and Alana. Those two are really adorable together, and their bond is just so strong and enjoyable to read. The Will and Prince Robot haven’t accomplished too much, but they have the potential to be game-changing characters. Izabel is funny, but she just seems to weird with her modern-day teenager attitude.
Lastly, the series needs a scene or a character or a moment that really lights a fire under it’s butt. Something that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go, something to really get us excited about Saga. But instead, so far, the series is just characters talking or characters running/fighting. It’s all be very plain. Entertaining, but the series has yet to really grab me and draw me in. Vaughn is creating this huge, intricate universe…but I don’t yet feel like I’m a part of it.
This series needs a really strong kick in the bottom to really take off and be something great.