When was the last time you cried over the death of a fictional character? A secondary character? Scratch that. When was the last time you cried over the death of a character who appeared so briefly that they barely count as a tertiary character, and still the thought of their absence makes your eyes burn with tears?
The comic series Saga by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples has made me crumple to the floor, heaving and sobbing, more than once. After a three-year long hiatus and emotional respite, Saga is back. I’m ready to be hurt again.
This Eisner- and Hugo-winning series will make readers forget about comics as the bastion of superheroes and rethink the kind of stories the medium can tell. Here’s what makes Saga so special, and why you should read, or reread, the series with a box of tissues at hand.
More than magic and aliens
Saga is technically a space opera, which… sure, fine. It’s set in outer space with futuristic technology, planetary governing bodies and aliens. Lots of aliens. But for as bewildering and bizarre as Saga seems, at its core the themes of family, trauma and compassion for others make this comic one of the most human reads out there.
Saga takes place in a universe overcome by war between a planet of winged people and a planet of horned people. The two sides have demonized the other and interspecies relationships are illegal. Despite that, a winged soldier named Alana and a horned soldier named Marko find love in each other’s arms. The story opens on Alana giving birth — in phenomenal detail — to their daughter Hazel who bears her mother’s wings and fathers horns. Her birth proves the two sides can get along, a truth that neither side wants to get out.
As the family of refugees outruns galactic governments, their family grows with each new person they encounter. All peoples, no matter their physical appearance, sexuality or previously held beliefs are welcome in this family. Even people who try to tear the family apart end up becoming members themselves. Each supports and cares for the others, but they also fight and argue and tear each other to pieces. Then, when the dust settles and they see the damage and hurt they’ve caused, they come together, put the broken pieces back in place and try to learn from their mistakes.
Be warned: Saga is a traumatic read. Not only are there a lot of major character deaths a la Game of Thrones, but the characters endure and work through some heavy topics and heartbreaking moments. Drug abuse, PTSD, religious fanaticism and LQBTQ rights are some issues explored in stark detail throughout Saga. Because of that, reading Saga feels like watching the news as some of the worst aspects of humanity are put on display at times, but there are no soundbites, just characters learning to cope.
There are no heroes and villains in Saga. Villains rescue people from slavery. Heroes shoot and kill bystanders. Characters trying to survive make horrible choices. Afterward, we are left to consider that maybe everyone has the capacity to be a hero and a villain? Perhaps those terms are outdated and need to be reevaluated.
The way characters rise or fall in these moments makes you forget about their physical differences. Characters cry, fight, thrash at their surroundings and are distant with each other. Their humanity shines through and, like you or I, they learn to live with and carry their trauma, striving to learn and grow, even if it’s not always in the right direction.
Saga’s art adds layers to the story
Fiona Staples is a fearless illustrator. Her pages are vibrant and colorful, offsetting the heavy and dark topics on the page. Without her input, topics surrounding race and gender wouldn’t have had as much impact.
Brian K. Vaughan said in an interview with Mother Jones that when he discussed the story and main characters with Staples, her first question was, “Well, do they have to be white?” This question helped create a series as diverse and complex as the world we live in, just with a few more people with televisions for heads.
Staples’s art also places a strong emphasis on elevating women and placing them on equal footing with men. Throughout the story, women are shown as strong leaders, able soldiers and even bloodthirsty bounty hunters. The cover of the first issue shows a woman breastfeeding a baby, and other covers show various women armed with battle axes, riding on horseback like sheriffs from old westerns and sitting on thrones.
The first panel of the entire comic shows a close-up of the face of one of the main characters as she is giving birth. Her expression, from the way she is gritting her teeth to the small flecks of sweat coming from her forehead, doesn’t hide the pain of childbirth like some movies or shows might. And then when the baby is born, we see a newborn crying and covered in blood. The intensity and graphic focus of the art forces readers to reflect on what just happened and let our thoughts color the page.
Saga is a special piece of storytelling, and one of the most compelling comics out there. It is a great entry point for adults who want to get into comics or are looking for something more grown-up to read. As Saga returns to shelves Wednesday, Jan. 26, now is as good a time as any to get into it.
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