Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review - Saga, Volume One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Short review: Two soldiers from opposite sides in a galactic war fall in love and have a child. Both sides try to hunt them down and kill them.

Galaxy-wide war
Improbable love affair
An unlikely child

Full review: In the story of Saga the inhabitants of the world of Landfall have been at war with the inhabitants of its moon Wreath for so long that no one seems to remember when the war started, or even what it is about. All anyone seems to know is that the war has spread across the galaxy, drawing virtually every other known race into the conflict, and the two opposing sides loathe one another with an intense hatred. Against this backdrop Marko and Alana, originally soldiers from opposite sides in the struggle, have deserted the armies' of their respective homelands and fallen in love, gotten married, and had a child together. And this union sparks a crisis for both sides.

There is some rather obvious symbolism in centering a story around the birth of a child whose parents come from opposite sides of an ongoing intergalactic war, and there is no doubt that the story of Saga intends to use this metaphor quite often. The child, named Hazel, is born in the first few pages of the volume, and representatives of both Landfall and Wreath immediately show up to try to kill her parents and claim her as their prize. The rest of the volume details the efforts of Marko and Alana to find a way off of the planet Cleave to the relative safety of being on the run in interstellar space.

What makes Saga work so well is the world-building that shows through at the edges of what is really a fairly straightforward story. When the opposing forces show up for the first time, the reader gets a brief taste of the almost ritualized rules that have come to define the conflict - Marko protests to the Landfall contingent that they cannot attack him and his wife because they aren't on a sanctioned battlefield, and later the commander of the coalition forces radios for permission to engage the Wreath forces off-theater. Fleeting glimpses such as these build the world around the central characters tiny brick by tiny brick without becoming intrusive or distracting one from the action. The backdrop is fleshed out piece by piece - from the apparently human The Will with his sidekick Lying Cat, who is somehow able to determine when people are lying, to the spider-like The Stalk (who happens to be The Will's ex-girlfriend and ex-business partner), to the "horrible" ghosts of Cleave, who turn out to be the remnants of the planet's population wiped out by a war they didn't want to be part of, including the child Izabel who floats above the ground, her bottom half gone and a handful of ghostly entrails dangling below her torso. All of these elements blend together to create the bizarre and alien setting for the story that hint at a wider world beyond the panels that are presented to the reader and which elevates the book from an ordinary space opera to something special.

As two superpowers who fight their unceasing war by proxy, there are some fairly noticeable parallels between the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., as each seems to only rarely engage with their foe directly, preferring instead to fight against one another's allies. To a certain extent this serves to highlight just how similar the inhabitants of the two warring worlds are - the inhabitants of Wreath all have horns, while the inhabitants of Landfall all have wings. There is no identifiable pattern with respect to these attributes: Marko has horns that curve backwards like a bighorn sheep, while his mother has little goat horns and his father has antlers. Alana has delicate insect like wings, while others from Landfall are shown with feathered or bat-like wings. In some ways, the variation among each individual planet's natives seems to be at least as great as the variation between the two sets of adversaries. And this makes the intense revulsion each side has for the mere appearance of the other seem all the more interesting - a revulsion that has been passed on to their allies, as evidenced by the reaction Prince Robot IV of the Robot Kingdom has when he is told that Alana had willingly had sex with Marko. Each side sees the other as monsters, with very little justification or reflection upon the actions of their own side.

As both Wreath and Landfall seek to hunt down and kill Marko and Alana and claim Hazel as a prize, they farm out the job to others to do. Landfall's government calls upon their allies in the Robot Kingdom to do the dirty work, while the rulers of Wreath contract with a collection of freelancers to track down their targets. Not only does each side want the star-crossed lovers killed, but they want the child that resulted from their union as their own - a seeming indication that each side regards the child as having some sort of importance. Because each side seems to think that news of Marko and Alana's relationship would scandalize everyone, one would think that having the child would not be of any propaganda value - as publicizing the child's existence and the reason why it is notable would rather clearly make keeping the parentage secret an impossibility. Like so many elements in Saga, the actual reason for each side to want to claim the child is a mystery, but one that the reader can have some confidence will be unraveled later.

And the plethora of unexplained elements is one of the most interesting things about the story of Saga. The tale is told in retrospect, apparently by Hazel after she has grown up, which raises the possibility that the narrator is unreliable, as the recollections related are ones that she had to have been told by others, making much of the story hearsay. But hints are dropped that things in the "present" for the narrator are very different than the way things are in the "past" of the story being told - the most tantalizing being when Hazel describes the time of her birth as being during a time of war, implying that by the time she is recounting the story for the reader, it is no longer a time of war. But there are smaller mysteries, such as why all of the freelancers are called "The", as in "The Will", and "The Stalk". Or why the princess of the Robot Kingdom describes the conflict as one of "good versus good". Or how does the magic used by the warriors from Wreath work? And, of course, the biggest questions: Is there any reason for the war to continue other than inertia, and can a single book provide the tiny spark of hope needed to stop it?

The further one digs into Saga, the more one finds. On the surface the story is fairly conventional in ways, but as one peels back the layers, one finds more and more layers of meaning underneath them. Questions raise more questions, which raise still further questions, most of which are as yet unanswered, and in some cases, seem impossible to answer. It is a story about love told using a setting defined almost entirely by hate, in which a dead teenager becomes the regular babysitter of a newborn baby, and in which lethal individuals such as The Will are indifferent to the human misery their murderous profession causes, but who are deeply affected by the plight of a young girl they come across. Saga is full of puzzling contradictions and and troubling questions, but also, and most importantly, complex and fascinating characters that make the reader care about the story and look forward to the next volume.

Subsequent book in the series: Saga, Volume Two

2012 Best Graphic Story Winner: Digger (Volumes 1-6) by Ursula Vernon
2014 Best Graphic Story Winner: Time by Randall Munroe

What are the Hugo Awards?

Hugo Best Graphic Story Winners

2013 Hugo Award Nominees

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