Love, War, and Bodies: Catching Up With Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

While I’m a regular reader of comics, I’ve been tending toward short series or single-volume graphic novels for the past few years. Almost all of them have been queer, the majority of them also coming from small presses, so I’ve been out of the loop on mainstream series.

However, a few months ago a friend of mine was reading Saga and gushing about their appreciation for it. Nonplussed, I asked for some details, teasers perhaps, a bit of information to tempt my palate. Their response was to show me a gorgeously illustrated page in the eighth volume wherein Petrichor says, while performing a magic ritual, “Saints above, I beseech you. In all my years, I’ve asked for nothing. But if you feel I’ve lived a decent life, hear this, my one and only prayer. Please. Send me someone to fuck.”

I have a brand, I guess. And they were right in thinking that this would get my attention.

After nine collected volumes spanning 54 single issues, Saga is currently on hiatus while the creators recharge their batteries and tackle other projects. Considering that it’s been running with only brief pauses since 2012, this break is much deserved—and also offered me a good opportunity to dive in and catch up in one big chunk instead of trying to manage a serial, which I’m mostly unable to do successfully.

Saga has a reckless vibrancy that reminds me of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, or at least the response I had to Transmetropolitan when I first read it. That sense of irreverent—but ultimately tender—gonzo energy fills a reader up to the brim; it’s provocative, fun-poking, and thoughtful. These are artists using the medium and expectations of visual storytelling to push for an improved world, an improved vision of the world, that challenges broad hegemonies. The constant, saturated presence of bodies—bodies enduring violence, bodies offering love and sex, bodies embracing softness and intimacy—is something that comics have and strict prose lacks. Staples and Vaughan are deeply aware of that in Saga. Which is, in one respect, a fancy way of saying that there are a lot of dicks on display, but they’re dicks that serve a purpose.

The thematic arguments of both Saga and Transmetropolitan are writ large through exaggerated SF-nal concepts. In Saga, for example, the racial tensions of a colonialist forever-war are illustrated through simplistic physicality. The people of the science-fictional social order of the planet Landfall are winged beings; the people of the fantastical social order of its moon have horns; on-the-nose epithets follow. Their generations-long conflict has expanded to be fought mostly out on colonized, press-ganged external planets. Our protagonists, Alana and Marko, are a star-crossed couple, one from each society, who have borne a child together that neither side wants alive and kicking—because story is powerful, and the existence of a child like Hazel would give the lie to their argument about the narrative impossibility of peace.

But for a comic series that is on first glance about the familial unit of a man, a woman, and their child, Saga is wonderfully, purposefully queer, featuring a cornucopia of diverse genders, bodies, and relationship structures. This intentional sensibility and the consistent, unremarked-upon presence of varied sexualities as natural to human relationships has resulted in trouble for the series: Saga #12 was temporarily removed from the Apple App Store by comiXology in 2013 over a depiction of a blowjob between men, plus the series’ status as one of the ALA’s Top Ten Most Challenged books in 2014 for being “anti-family” and too graphic in its depictions of nudity, and so on. The physicality of Saga is also the source of its tenderness, though, a tactic common in queer texts that seek to reunite sensual embodiment with social identity rather than cleaving them apart. After all, there’s a lot of sudden and brutal and terrible violence in the series. Bodies are regularly savaged, destroyed, wounded. Post-traumatic stress and wartime genocide are major issues for the protagonists. So why is it that the problem is showing two men fucking? (Or, as happens frequently, Alana and Marko having married-parents sex all over the place as a part of their developing, adult relationship?)

Staples and Vaughan are, at the root, concerned with building families: chosen, biological, and in-between. Characters come and go as galaxy-spanning webs of conflict and connection unravel across the series. Romantic partnerships occur across species, across gender, across race. There is something comforting to me in the constant background presence of love between men, love between women, love between folks who aren’t either, love between whole piles of people. It was just there, just present, just natural to the narrative and treated as such. The exaggerated thematic argument of the text, in the end, is that bonds of affection that allow us to communicate across difference are the building blocks to peace. There’s even a book-within-the-book about it. I take pleasure in that kind of grandiose simplicity, the idea that perhaps story and connection are able to topple empire, right wrongs, instigate cultural growth.

Of course, it doesn’t work all the time—and it’s not that straightforward of a story. Connections also create loss, inspire revenge, and cause unintended bystander consequences. No one in Saga feels particularly safe, and given the cliffhanger that the ninth volume—and final pages before the current hiatus—end on, I do in fact mean no one. This is important to note as our queer characters are equally as likely to experience violence as the straight folks in the series. However, as there are so many characters, it is clear that queerness is not the predictor of violence, though Vaughan and Staples do narratively acknowledge the existence of homophobia and transphobia. It’s a delicate balance to walk between writing some worlds where it’s unremarkable to be queer while also dealing with the realities of oppression in a manner that’s nonetheless deeply political.

For example, the two partnered journalists who appear throughout the series come from a deeply homophobic planet; as part of a hostage negotiation situation, they sell out a man on their homeworld who is in the closet in order to save themselves. Petrichor, one of the latter members of the family group, is a transgender woman who has been housed in a women’s POW camp—which is where she meets and bonds with Hazel, who is also dealing with physical markers of otherness. I adored Petrichor’s sharp wit, her battle-tested strength, and her confident-but-impatient competence on a rather personal level. She has complex responses to people’s assertions about her body and its rightful existence and she is not shy about addressing them, which I found refreshingly delightful. She doesn’t suffer fools or rudeness about her gender or her needs, be they emotional or sexual or intellectual. Her discussions of bodies with young Hazel tend to be the most direct in the series, as well, both in terms of deliberate frankness and well-set boundaries.

The centrality of queerness, of chosen families, and of political/personal power structures in Saga make for a gripping read. But it’s also full of violence and loss, abrupt consequences, and ugly interpersonal cruelty. The thematic structure is simple but the explorations within it are not. The comic is, at its heart, about war and colonial power. Gender, sexuality, race, and class are all part of the structures of hegemony that are interdicted with war, but war is the central concern. As such, though Vaughan and Staples focus a significant amount of care into building relationships, emphasizing interpersonal tenderness, and human growth… it’s still a hard read and doesn’t pull its punches. The constant, often-unexpected incursion of violence and death into the familial space is brutal. There is home but not safety—and in moments of safety, the characters often lack home, except in each other.

I don’t regret having waited until the hiatus to binge this one. Saga is complicated in its simplicity, capable of overshooting or overstating its broadest themes but doing engaging, significant work from a mainstream press regardless. Vaughan and Staples render their characters fully human and fully embodied—across a wide spectrum of genders and sexualities they love, they fuck, they fight, they die, they survive. And through it all, they attempt to create bonds of familial kinship, which might just change the universe…but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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