Friday, March 1, 2013

Review of Saga Vol 1: Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Last night I finished Vol 1 of Saga, the series called "Star Wars meets Game of Thrones" by pretty much everybody. Spoilers ahoy!, as well as some NSFW language and art, and trigger warnings for difficult content. 

Saga Vol 1 is the trade paperback of the first 6 issues of the comic of the same name. At the helm as writer is Brian K Vaughan (of Runaways, Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man). Let the record state that I have not previously read any Vaughan, (although I've been meaning to read Runaways for years, arghh). Art is by Fiona Staples, a Canadian artist with some serious talent.

Critical reception to Saga approaches worship levels. Everybody likes it. And not just "likes," but universally praises for ingenuity and knockyoursocksoffness. I was bracing myself for something amazing. 

Look at that art-- THAT'S AMAZING


Saga is set against a galaxies-spanning war between the planet Landfall and its moon, Wreath. Two humanoid races, each indigenous to their respective moon or planet have been battling it out for decades.  Their differences from our kind of humans are pretty simple. Landfall folks come standard with a set of wings. Wreath inhabits have some type of horn, be it a unicorn horn, antlers, ram horns, etc. Drop a tail or two in there and you've got the idea. Aliens from other planets tend to also be human + modification; human with TV head, or  human with spider legs.

wings, TV heads, robot arms, monkey-people, ohmy

Because the planet and the moon are dependent on each other for a stable orbit, the respective militaries of Landfall and Wreath outsource the fighting to other defenseless or less military-capable planets/moons. Those planet's landscapes are brutally decimated, and likewise are indigenous peoples. Naturally this leaves Landfall and Wreath relatively unscathed. 

The story narrows its focus to a star-crossed couple, Alana (a Wing) and Marko (a Horn). Both are military deserters who run away together. However, the narration does not come from our star-crossed couple, but instead from the couple's first child, an unheard of "half breed" of the warring races, born to Alana in the first few pages. Powerful folks on both sides of the war view the child as a threat and want the parents killed and the child taken into their custody. 


Let's start with the best part! The art is superb, and Fiona Staples is ah-mazing. The mood is captured perfectly with a pastel color palette and evocative drawing style; it's stylistic without the cartoon.  Her line work is heavy and sketchy, which gives everything a beautiful quality. To contrast the free-flowing quality of the lines, the color work is simple, pastel-based and color-blocked heavy. The combination is emotional, beautiful, and gives the pages a dreamy look.  My only constructive comment would be the paneling choices, which for the most part are simplistic. I think work of her caliber would really benefit from more creative page layouts. But we're splitting hairs here. ANYWAY.


As far as story and writing goes, the good things are what I'd call Gaiman Good Things*, which translates roughly to great ideas with lackluster execution.  There are some winners in here folks, casualties of war are ghosts who wear their wounds, there are beautiful rocketship forests (exactly as wonderful as it sounds), who are living, temperamental  tree-ships. The blend of both sci-fi and fantasy is nice for those of us who like both genres equally. The moments where it's done correctly can be exhilarating. The moments where it isn't, fall flat and ring untrue. It's risky business, obviously.  

What leaves me feeling shorted with Saga is in the writing. Plain and simple; it just isn't as good as it should be. The character development and depth of conversation that happens comes from events happening around the characters, not the characters themselves or the dialogue. What makes it good, and what makes people like it, is that it's a "plot" book.  It moves fast, and cool stuff happens, and cool people do it. And because of that, there is relatively little depth in either the characters, ideas, or plot development. I'll elaborate.

You catch on to the shallowness pretty quickly. The most obvious example, is that everyone in Saga talks like a teenager.  Dialogue is cavalier, flippant, and occasionally a little dated. Like Joss Whedon, you wonder, you may wonder, the master of awkward, flippant, teenage dialogue. Except there's an integral difference here between what becomes a mistake for Vaughan and is usually a bonus for JW. Whedon-dialogue still has a purpose, it's clever and charming. It isn't trying too hard, or trying to sound "adult" or edgy.  Take cursing for example, where Vaughan's word choices are strange and gratuitous.  "Retarded" and "sluts" were a few that stuck out and borderline broke my fourth wall. Who wants to watch your adult SciFi hero call something or someone retarded, or a slut? Not me! "Suck my hemorrhoids!" "I'm alive" and "stupid" are 7/8ths of the dialogue in a scene where Marko, Alana and Hazel are almost killed, and relieved to see they lived.  This is the depth-of-emotion-in-the-writing problem. And it isn't just one character- all characters, across all borders speak the same way. They may not all be saying "retarded," but they are conversing shallowly, and it's distracting.  Introspection is rare or nonexistent.   

Perhaps Vaughan was going for a lighthearted tone? Maybe I missed the intention?

It's possible, but I doubt it. The arc of the story is trying awfully hard to be adult; too hard for intentional nonchalance. There are full on depictions of sex, story lines involving child-rape, and war.  If the dialogue was shallow as a choice, it was a terrible error in contrast to the seriousness of material. And this is a pity, because the art depicts a genuine human tenderness.. The character's faces show a range of depth and emotion, and the words coming out of their mouths never seem to enhance it.  


Hard sci-fi & fantasy fans, let me be clear, SAGA WILL ANNOY THE PISS OUT OF YOU. It's another depth problem- we have very little explanation for the way anything works in this world. We've got magic vs. technology, we've got cats who can tell when humanoids are lying, we've got humanoids with TV heads, and inter-species mating that isn't "allowed" or just doesn't happen. Want some hard- sci fi explanations, sociological background or motivations? Wondering how those TV headed humanoids came to be?  Not happening, and obviously not Vaughan's goal. This is not a worldbuilding novel. If you don't expect it to be, you'll have a better time.


I don't know. It's drawn well. It is captivating, but it is not flawless. There are a lot of major issues. With this kind of hype, these kind of reviews, and people saying it's the best thing of 2012, I expected much more. But I did start asking myself the same question. I found myself wanting to read reviews of people who loved it, to see what they felt that I obviously missed. I checked out Amazon & Goodreads to see what the public thought, and read major reviews at ComicsAlliance at IGN. I gotta be honest, there isn't a whole lot to go off of there. People just say "It's awesome, I love it!" Or "It's unique," or "edgy" or "cool."  And it is! Those things are true. It is unique, edgy, and cool. I also saw a lottttt of "This is an adult comic, and if you have problems with adult stuff like sex and language stay away!" 

Your Lieutenant here feels that it isn't sex and language that makes something for adults. Teenagers have sex and talk fouler than many adults--that isn't how we separate adolescence from adulthood. I DON'T HAVE ANY PROBLEM WITH ADULT STUFF OR GRAPHICNESS. I wish the birth scene had shown more birth! I had no problems with the consensual adult sex depictions. What I didn't like, was the fact that the most prolific bounty hunter in the universe, "The Stalk", is a hot, topless, armless, spider-human. As far as I could tell, everyone in the universe wears clothes at all times in public. So when The Stalk shows up with no arms and topless, (at all times mind you, even when bounty hunting), consider my fourth wall broken. THIS IS THE DEFINITION OF RIDICULOUS. A bounty hunter, who is traveling space, planet to planet, with different weather systems, (do spiders even have mammary glands?! does that matter?) is LITERALLY NEVER WEARING A SHIRT. She kills people, and is stealthy for a living, and her girls are out, all. of. the. time. I physically cannot roll my eyes harder.  In a world where comic book writers and illustrators are finally starting to take flack for having their badass ladies in high heels and bra tops- you can imagine my surprise when I see a topless bounty hunter. Picture below, for your viewing pleasure. 


With that said, Saga comes in as a solid C+ on a feminist reading. Pluses include: Super strong female characters. MAJOR BRAVO. Other pluses include a variety of female body types and shapes, no distorted hip to boob ratios, and otherwise A+ efforts for depicting the female body like a really body, and not cartoon porn stars. The Stalk, as discussed above, being the only exception. What kept it from being an "A" in my feminist-friendly book- were the following:

1) Language referring to women regularly as sluts, whores, etc. Language assuming the irrationality of women because of hormones. Language that talks about how men might need women who will completely bend to their every will, with no implied agency, to "wind down." This is a completely fictional universe, why does the patriarchy exist? What societal background exists that calling people sluts is even a thing? Is slut shaming inherent in every universe? IF SO THAT SUCKS.

2) Whole sex trade planets? And not just planets with brothels, mind you, we're talking actual sex slavery, and sex slavery of children. One of your protagonists (bounty hunter, "The Will") visits the planet and a pimp tries to sell him on a 9 year old girl. He's horrified, (thank god) and kills the guy and tries to rescue the little girl.  However, the rescue plan runs amiss when he realizes she's implanted with a device that will kill her if she leaves the planet. The story cliffhangs here, but we can only assume our esteemed bounty hunter will figure out a way to free her in the next issue. Fortunate for the little girl, but very unfortunate for our universe, which we now realize has child (and likely adult) sex workers not operating under their own free will. These means our universe has all the worst elements of Earth patriarchy, include rape and sexual slavery of children and adults. BUMMER, DUDE.

My biggest pet peeve in any Science Fiction or Fantasy, whether it be a book, comic, RPG or video game, is when the worst things of our world and history by default spill over into fictional worlds.  I understand that it is possible that racism, sexism, and other shitty-isms might exist in other worlds, but why necessarily? And why is always the same kind? Women get called sluts and little girls get enslaved. And did I mention rape camps? Cause Saga's got those too. Gets old, man. It gets old. For arguments sake, I do believe the right story and right author can draw attention to real world -isms in fictional universes, and in that way do good. They can make excellent moral points that show us the failures in our humanity when we let bad isms get the best of us. SciFi and Fantasy don't always have to be escapism. They can be mirrors, and lessons. But doing that requires a couple things, it requires authorial awareness, intent, and purpose. It isn't calling women sluts and fictionalizing rape camps for edginess


I really love that the story started out with Hazel's birth. It was a great choice for Vaughan to skip the parent's courtship (even though they're the main characters at this point of the story) and start with birth. It sets a high-intensity, action tone that never lets up. 

I also love the choice of making the real story about people on the edge. These characters aren't controlling the war--they're living in the war. This isn't Luke and Leia, these are just two regular soldiers. They aren't the big players in the game, they're just trying to live through the extraordinary circumstances around them. A fantastic storytelling choice. 

I also love the strength of the female characters. They're tough, gritty and smart. Natural female acts are not shied away from or depicted as gross-out. Women give birth, have bodily functions, breast-feed. It's all normal business. That's a huge plus. Female characters aren't fleshed out any more or less than male characters, and with the exception of The Stalk, they aren't randomly sexualized. Some female characters are sexy, and that's totally acceptable. We all love beautiful people and beautiful things. As long as there is variety and realism to the sexuality of all genders in the world, your Lieutenant is happy. 

And in the end, I am glad I read Saga Vol 1. And I'm going to pick up Runaways next chance I get, (note, I have been saying this for years), because I want to get a better idea of what Vaughan is about. Were these dialogue choices I found so shallow and distasteful a specific choice for Saga? Or is this what you get when you read Vaughan? QUESTIONS.

Til Next Time.

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