A nice little gem from Image Comics, Saga chronicles the life on the run of a young family of army deserters in a wonderful science fantasy world that is just brimming with imagination. Written by Brian K Vaughan, the genius behind the award winning Y the Last Man, Saga is chock full of well written and complex characters. A hallmark of this incredible writing talent. It is actually quite a rare thing for a unique intellectual property to make real waves in the comic book industry anymore since most things like that focus on too narrow a viewpoint. Not Saga. Warfare, hypocrisy, racism, classism, environmentalism and the power of love are just a few of the many issues this work seamlessly tackles. At its core the comic comes off as an anti-war sentiment. This isn't however the case.
The comic starts with the birth of its narrator, the story being told to the audience as a massive flashback of Hazel's upbringing. Her parents, Marko and Alana, were deserters from opposite sides of a galaxy spanning war and are now on the run from the various interest groups that want them. On one side is Wreath, a species of Satyr like people who use magic who want the baby Hazel for their own purposes. On the other is the technologically advanced Landfall who want the entire family executed for fear of what their relationship would do to morale.
The comic presents a cavalcade of species and factions all varied and unique that really sells the nature of the comic. This isn't a terrestrial battle between two factions but a galaxy spanning conflict in which each and every species is forced to pick a side. For example, it is Landfall's military policy to treat any civilians who are not resisting the Wreath are to be treated as combatants. This war has been going on for centuries and for most it has become background murmur. Who cares about the deaths of thousands of civilians when the galaxy is home to trillions? Time and again we are told in passing of past massacres and atrocities inflicted by and upon both sides of the conflict, so much so that it becomes apparent that such things are now commonplace. Alongside this is the burgeoning industries that spring up around protracted conflicts. The major one being the use of Freelance bounty hunters by both sides of the conflict.
If there is one thing the comic does well it's that it shows the reader a very lightly filtered myriad of the way people live during war time. For one combatant, his thoughts when being nearly killed on the battlefield weren't about home or some sort of afterlife, but a massive orgy with his entire platoon. There is an entire planet that deals in just the sex trade in all its myriad forms up to and including child prostitutes. What's more, these things aren't thrown into the comic for shock or emotional value, they are the simple realities of war time and are used to show us more about the complexity of even side characters, something that Brian K Vaughan is masterful at.
No character is wasted as each of them reveal a richness to both the world around them and the story that they inhabit. Both Alana and Marko appear to have some major history that we are not yet aware of judging from Marko's prowess in battle and Alana's quick tactical thinking. This is of course balanced by the fact that Marko is sick of the war and refuses to fight, an odd place to reach for someone so new to it. Meanwhile Alana reverts to sex obsession as a defence mechanism any time she's overly frustrated at a situation. What's more is that the comic lets this show through without devolving into pointed character pieces. The complexities of these characters comes through as the story proceeds and it really feels as if the story works independently of the characters but in the best way possible. It isn't the case that these characters have no control over their lives, just that they don't have control over wider events and have to adapt to make the best out of what little they have. You could easily imagine any sort of character in this sort of struggle and that's what makes it so compelling.
The other half of the equation is exactly what the comic's central theme is. Saga is not a call to pacifism or even an end to violence. Instead, Saga is the story about the people who live through and within times of war. To quote one of the smartest characters in the comic "Peace is just a lull in the action.". No; this comic is not spreading a message of peace, but of reality. Nothing in fiction exists without strong connections to our world, if it did, it'd be utterly un-relatable to us. Saga can be seen as definitive of our own history of violence. That war is going nowhere and these are the realities of the world. That we exist at the fringes and the breaths between the action. No matter who you are, you are going to find some characters that resonate with you because they are all us in all our various ways.
Drawn by Fiona Staples, the comic comes to life in a beautiful colour pallet that always feels stylized but never crosses the line into becoming artsy without a point. This is a world of magic and advanced technology, science fantasy at its finest and Fiona has done a great job in capturing that with her colour choice. Everything is just slightly off colour from what you'd expect objects to look like and it only adds to the atmosphere of the comic in much the same way as using a blue filter enhanced the style of the movie Underworld.
The greatest selling point I can give to the comic is that it has a definite end that Brian is working towards (we're only at issue 18). According to him, he was planning on ending the first six issue arc with the deaths of the main characters if the comic didn't sell. Since it has not only sold but won critical acclaim to the tune of three Eisner awards and a Hugo awards it looks like we get to see the read ending Mr. Vaughn has planned for us, and get to see all those tantalizing hints of Hazel's future she keeps murmuring about.
The comics have seen some disapproval in that none of the female characters seem to be able to talk about anything besides their relationships and families. While the comic seems to fail the Bechdel Test the argument seems to miss the central point of the comic. This is about families. This is about the struggle of people to survive in a world that isn't just hostile, but literally would prefer you as a corpse than leave you in peace. In the face of that, what else matters?
Saga isn't just a good comic, nor is it just an acclaimed comic. This is a masterwork to rival Y the Last Man. It is a must read to anyone that's ever enjoyed science or fantasy fiction. Wonderful art, great story, spectacular characters and a refusal to pull punches about the realities of war makes this comic a powerhouse that simply must be read to be believed.