What’s the best space opera about an intergalactic war fought by weird alien species? (It’s not “Star Wars.”) What’s the most emotionally investing fantasy series since “The Lord of the Rings”? (It’s not “Game of Thrones.”) And what’s one of the best comic books — evidenced by nearly consecutive Eisner Award wins for best continuing series for four years — of the last decade? (It’s not a superhero comic.) If you guessed “Saga,” illustrated by Fiona Staples and written by Brian K. Vaughan, you’d be right.
For those of you who are caught up on all 54 issues, know that Staples and Vaughan’s year-long hiatus pains me as much as it does you, though it’s certainly well-earned. And for folks who haven’t picked up an issue of “Saga,” hopefully you will by the end of this article.
“Saga” is wildly innovative in a number of ways, but the series hinges on a classic story: a forbidden love. Here, the Montagues and Capulets are transposed onto the planet Landfall and its moon Wreath, two celestial bodies locked in an interminable conflict. The Landfallians are technologically advanced, winged humanoids, while the Wreathers are horn-headed, magic-wielding warriors, and both sides have outsourced their war to planets all across the galaxy, spreading violence and hate as they go. It’s a premise that Vaughan uses as a springboard for discussions of racism, but which has since been abstracted into deep explorations of other issues such as reproductive rights, drug use and religion.
Enter our star-crossed lovers. Alana is a Landfallian soldier who’s assigned to guard a Wreath prisoner of war, Marko. Lo and behold, they fall in love, desert their respective armies and have a daughter, Hazel. This tiny, adorable baby — proof that Landfall and Wreath can coexist — threatens troop morale and, thus, the very integrity of the war. And through it all, Alana and Marko never use Hazel as a political tool. They just want to survive and raise her as normally as possible, which results in storytelling that’s grounded in emotion. See that photo below? Adorable.
To keep the news of Hazel’s birth under wraps, Landfall sends its ally, Prince Robot IV (imagine a “Hamilton” getup with a TV for a head) after the new family, while Wreath puts a caped and cowled mercenary, The Will, hot on their tails. As villains, they’re unilaterally richly sketched with a sympathetic edge. Ultimately, we invest in Hazel, Alana and Marko’s pursuers as much as in the family itself, which speaks to the series’ insistence on empathy.
Perhaps we see this best in the series’ representation. Lately, comics have been making strides toward diverse storytelling, but “Saga” is particularly laudable, as its diversity was central to its conception. When Vaughan pitched his story to Staples, she immediately asked “Well, do they have to be white?” As a result, whiteness, straightness and maleness are not the default in “Saga” — Alana is a mixed-race, brown woman, while Marko is characterized as an East Asian man, all without invoking in the stereotypes of either. Likewise, the series is full of characters of varying classes, genders and sexual orientations.
More importantly, though, such characters are compelling and central to the action. For instance, LGBTQ+ characters such as journalists Upsher and Doff and the babysitting ghost Izabel become subsumed into the family. Similarly, Petrichor, a transgender Landfallian woman, becomes a fierce protector of Hazel. Many narratives would be content with leaving such characters on the sidelines if they bothered to create them at all, whereas “Saga” goes to great lengths to put them at the forefront. And by making its peripheral characters diverse, too, “Saga” avoids tokenism, resulting in a fictional universe that reflects our own.
It should be noted that “Saga” is somewhat notorious for its explicit sex scenes and graphic violence, which draw immediate comparisons to “Game of Thrones.” But where the latter can sometimes feel exploitative, “Saga” leverages its capacity for mature content for the sake of representation. Rather than dance around a character’s LGBTQ+ identity, as “Harry Potter” and “Beauty and the Beast” have done before, “Saga” shows such characters in bed — and with Staples’ art, a spectrum of sexualities are rendered with a beauty seldom seen in fiction.
Still not convinced to pick up the first issue immediately? I’ll let the comic do the talking. Without context, here are four excellent moments, pages and cover images from the series:
- “Saga” always features gobsmacking covers, and here’s an example of how the series balances a variety of tones, maneuvering among the grim, contemplative and playful, the latter of which is seen here as Petrichor takes a much-needed moment of relaxation.
- “Saga” is also known for its splash pages, which are often at once beautiful and provocative. Perhaps none better represents the series’ aesthetic than this splash page.
- If you’re a cat person, you’ll love “Saga.”
- In the end, “Saga” is a deeply emotional story, and for those who have read the most recent issue, these panels should be particularly stirring.
Now, what are you still doing here? Go read “Saga”! And don’t wait for a film adaptation — Vaughan and Staples have made it clear that the story will be limited to comic books. Though, as a parting note, Tessa Thompson would be perfect as Alana… Oh, and Steven Yeun as Marko… What am I doing? Go forth and read!
Harrison Tunggal covers comic books. Contact him at [email protected].