Saga strikes a difficult balance. On the one hand, author Brian K. Vaughan is best known for the intricate plots and grim subject matter of Y: The Last Man and his work on Lost, and Saga is decidedly not for young readers. On the other hand, he’s set Saga in a fictional universe he’s been developing since childhood and the setting’s chaotic exuberance is heavy with a child’s inventiveness and glee. Such mismatched energies could tear a work apart, but in this case they provide a crackling tension that brings the story to life.
In some respects, Saga is a love story. Alana and Marko, soldiers on opposite sides of an intergalactic war that started long before they were born, have fallen in love, conceived a baby, and deserted their posts. Their love is made clear by both their life-changing choices and numerous small, sweet moments of tenderness. But the romance is made more believable and compelling by the moments where Vaughan subverts our romantic expectations, allowing his characters to bicker and snipe before reconnecting to each other. Vaughan adopts a similar approach in portraying the birth and early life of Hazel, Alana and Marko’s daughter. The new parents have moments where they’re overcome with the beauteous miracle of birth, but they also have moments where they’re struck more by the mess and indignity of it all. These nuanced complexities are what I wish people always meant when they talked about “mature” or “adult” comics.
To be clear, Saga is also mature according to our usual usage of the term. With so many soldiers and bounty hunters tied up in the story, profanity and bloody violence abound. There’s also a fair amount of nudity (much of it rather more sexualized than the breastfeeding that caused a small bubble of controversy around the first issue of the series). One character takes a detour to the pleasure planet Sextillion, where he wanders through an angelic orgy and a wide variety of other perversions. So, unquestionably, this series is not for kids or even teens, but the graphic content never seems gratuitous or pandering. And it doesn’t hurt that even the most depraved bits are illustrated gorgeously.
While Vaughan may have conceived of this universe years ago, artist Fiona Staples gets a very well-deserved co-creator credit. She nails the multitude of character designs required by the outlandish space opera cast and her colors give everything an appropriately otherworldly glow. She draws her characters with heavy black outlines that make them jump off the page when contrasted against her moodily ill-defined backgrounds — an effect that works even better with the backlit glow of a digital comic. She also does great work with emotive facial expressions, often on decidedly non-human faces. I can’t overstate how important this is for establishing a strong emotional core for a book that also contains dragon-trains, topless spider assassins, and exploding heads.
This is just the first volume of a series that Vaughan and Staples have said they’d like to continue for a good long while. It leaves a lot unexplained about where these people come from and how their world works. As much as I’m clamoring to know more, Vaughan writes with a confidence that makes it clear the details will come as the story demands them. Ultimately, the largest complaint I can make about Saga is that there simply isn’t enough of it to satisfy the curiosity it engenders.