By Ashley Zhou
When most people think of comics, they automatically think of that section in Sunday’s newspaper or the massive Marvel and DC comics universes. It’s easy to make the overgeneralization that comics are just about superheroes with superpowers having spectacular fights. Yet comic books, even before Marvel and DC, have been pushing the boundaries of storytelling for years, starting with early graphic novels such as “Watchmen” and the “Archie” comics. These classics have quietly influenced the way Marvel and DC and other comic book publishers tell their stories today. One of these groundbreaking masterpieces is Image Comics’ space opera epic “Saga”.
Written by Brian K. Vaughan (creator of Marvel’s “Runaways”) and illustrated by Fiona Staples, the world of “Saga” takes place in a galaxy that is constantly at war between two opposing planets: Landfall and its moon Wreath.The story centers around new parents, Alana and Marko, who are Landfallian and Wreathian respectively. They struggle to raise their daughter Hazel, who occasionally narrates the story, while trying to stay alive in a universe that wants them dead because of their forbidden love. The story is also about their struggles with morality and the difficult decisions they make, challenging their relationships and their ideas of right and wrong.
“Saga” can very much be compared to “Game of Thrones” in its themes and storytelling, despite their very different settings. Characters drive the story and make decisions that drastically impact the unfolding of the plot. Each character in the story, even the antagonists, has their own tragic backstory and character arc that intertwines with other characters’, so there are often situations where opposing characters team up together. Politics play a huge part in this story and further complicate characters’ goals and behaviors by introducing new characters or laws that make circumstances even more difficult to survive. Unfortunately, beloved main characters, just like “Game of Thrones”, are killed because of their own wrong decisions and many of these deaths shape other characters’ behaviors. For those who want a more adult comic book experience, Saga has so much sex and violence that even “Game of Thrones” pales in comparison; it is not for the faint of heart.
If the storytelling wasn’t fantastic enough, “Saga” has some of the most gorgeous art that I have ever seen in any visual medium ever. Unlike your typical space stories in which aliens have many eyes and tentacles and limbs that grow in the wrong places, all the character and architectural designs are based on animals and plants with added magical elements. For example, the main rocket that is used to transport the family from planet to planet is a tree-like entity that is semi-sentient and uses magical artifacts as fuel. The Landfallians, Alana’s race, are is a race of humans denoted by their avian, bat, or insect wings and their use of advanced technology, while Marko’s race, Wreathians, look normally human apart from their goat ears and horns and their ability to cast magic. Fiona Staples’ beautiful background art is bizarre and imaginative enough to hold the reader’s attention on any page, from scenes of gory but beautiful violence to scenes of awe-inducing environments of the planets to horrifying scenes of Timesucks (giant fetal entities that act as sentient black holes) destroying entire planets.
What is most impressive about “Saga”, however, is the way it pushes storytelling in ways that are rarely done in comics. Though Marvel and DC have tried to push boundaries with their own superheroes by reimagining fan-favorites as different genders, races, and sexualities and framing their stories through different demographics (Miles Morales and Supergirl come to mind), their storytelling remains very much on-brand and sticks to the typical superhero formula, so much so that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell their storylines and superheroes apart.
“Saga”’s storytelling not only contains adult themes, as earlier mentioned, but also discusses topics that discussed in more nuanced and candid ways than in any other comic before it, such as transgender identity, abortion, PTSD, and the dangers of journalism in times of war; for example, Hazel meets Petrichor, a transgender female Wreathian, and strikes a kinship with her over their desires to be seen as people outside their physical characteristics (Hazel has wings like a Landfallian and horns and magic powers like a Wreathian). While these heavy topics could be seen as touchy and existing in the comic purely for shock value, critics and fans have lauded the series for discussing them, and the series has received twelve Eisner and seventeen Harvey Awards between 2013 and 2017. These discussions already have largely affected comic books and their storytelling, especially now when Marvel and DC comics are decreasing in popularity and third-party comics like “The Wicked + The Divine” and “Paper Girls” (also created by Brian Vaughan), themselves largely inspired by “Saga”, are becoming more popular. This increasing popularity of third-party comics has also introduced many new people into the world of comic books, all of whom were previously intimidated by Marvel’s and DC’s years of history and giant comic universe crossovers.
If you love the space fantasy of “Star Wars”, the tragic love story of “Romeo and Juliet”, the political intrigue and adult themes of “Game of Thrones”, or just want to be introduced to comics without having to follow seven different storylines or know years of history of a Marvel series, “Saga” should absolutely be on your reading list right now. Currently, the story is on hiatus after six years of publication, so now is the perfect time to catch up. The first nine volumes (54 issues) are available wherever comics are sold.