Thursday, April 23, 2015

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

Short review: Two tabloid reporters try to track down Alanna's story while everyone else takes a brief break to develop some interpersonal relationships. Then The Will is stabbed in the neck and everyone starts fighting again.

Tabloid reporters
On the trail of a story
Warned off by The Brand

Full review: Volume Three of Saga continues the story begun in Volumes One and Two, recounting both the events which took place immediately before the final panel of Volume Two, and at the same time showing the consequences of the decisions made by the many characters leading up to this point in the story. Although this volume is clearly part of an ongoing story, it has the feel of the ending of a chapter, as several story lines come to a head and are wrapped up after a fashion. As with the previous two volumes, the story is beautifully illustrated by Fiona Staples, who uses her artwork to tell Vaughan's story in a brilliant and flawless manner.

Although this serves as kind of a "season finale" for this section of the overall Saga story, the volume opens up by introducing a pair of new characters to the cast: A reporter named Upsher and his photographer Doff, bother working for the tabloid Hebdomadal. The pair have been called in by a wounded Landfall soldier and placed on the trail of the hottest story of their careers - unraveling the reasons why Alana ran off with Marko. Adding these characters gives the story some much needed humor as well as an opportunity to further explore Alana's background and flesh out the universe around them. The trail takes them from an interview with Alana's stepmother, who also happens to be her former high school classmate, to an encounter with Alana's former commander, to a rather odd meeting with a Landfall intelligence officer who asks the pair to drop their investigation. And when that doesn't work, Landfall sends a new freelancer - The Brand - to dissuade them.

Hidden in the humor of two tabloid reporters' misadventures is an indication of the danger Alana and Marko's union is to the powerful forces that control Landfall and Wreath, and the extreme lengths to which each side will go to strike at their foes. Alana's former commander states that the reason he had her transferred to prison guard duty is that she didn't follow an order to destroy a bridge full of fleeing civilians quickly enough - opining that the local civilians were, by definition, enemies and therefore fair game for killing. When a sniper takes a shot at the tabloid reporters (hitting Upsher), the robot officer nearby responds by calling an orbital artillery strike against the entire building he believes the sniper to be in, clearly heedless of any civilian casualties that might result. Time and again, the ruthlessness and callousness of the forces fighting the central conflict of Saga is reinforced in blunt terms.

The second story line that weaves through this volume is the ongoing brooding of the freelancer The Will, accompanied by his growing entourage consisting of the former slave Sophie, Marko's former fiancee Gwendolyn, and his constant companion Lying Cat. With their starship damaged, the four wait for the repair company to come and make it operational, hunting flying sharks to pass the time and feed themselves. Unfortunately, they begin having visions, with The Will seeing, and having extended conversations with, his deceased girlfriend The Stalk, leading to the aforementioned brooding. This interlude allows the various characters to develop their relationships with one another, resulting in Sophie getting her name to replace being called "slave girl", Gwendolyn and The Will to have a relationship that is at times caring and at times violent, and a fairly surprising turn of events. The most critical sequence in this portion of the book is a scene between Sophie and Lying Cat, in which Sophie expresses some self-criticism, and Lying Cat provides the perfect counter. Despite the sweeping scope of the overarching story, it is these kinds of small character moments laced throughout that make Saga so compelling.

The meat of the volume is, of course, the story focused on Alana, Marko, and Hazel, as well as Klara and Izabel as they travel to Quietus to meet J. Oswald Heist, the author of A Nighttime Smoke, the trashy romance novel that brought the star-crossed lovers together. After dealing with some of the rather unpleasant fauna of Quietus, the troupe finds Heist, who turns out to be somewhat different than they expected. Following some awkward introductions, everyone settles in for a mostly tranquil interlude of drinking and board games in a lighthouse surrounded by a vast field covered in the bones of the dead - symbolism that is both rather obvious and rather heavy-handed. As with the other story-lines in this volume, character development is front and center, leading to the discovery that Alanna seems to prefer to avoid conflict, or even making difficult decisions, with sex. This contrast, between the impulsive and somewhat flighty Alanna, and the steady and contemplative Marko serves to demonstrate both that they balance one another out, and hint as potential problems for their relationship in the future. When she conspires with Heist to push her daughter-in-law towards a career the reader is shown how manipulative Klara can be, but Vaughan also takes care to show that Klara is both a grieving widow and a caring sexual being in a sequence that suggests that Izabel may be much more than those around her have assumed she is.

These somewhat idyllic intervals crash into one another, because in Saga no peace can last for any appreciable length of time. In a story with a war set on autopilot as the backdrop, it is perhaps fitting that the catalyst moving Gwendolyn to arrive on Quietus just after Prince Robot IV is the result of a crisis caused by compulsions beyond Sophie's control. The collections of confrontations that results resolve multiple threads, at least on a temporary basis, and result in a character's death that is at the same time both shocking and completely expected. What makes this death even more significant is that the identity of the killer is a detail that should have significant repercussions in the future. In a larger sense, all of the threads in the story resolve in a manner that is somewhat shocking and yet somewhat completely expected, which serves to create an interlude in the action by the end of the volume, but an uneasy and easily broken interlude.

Saga, Volume 3 manages the difficult task of wrapping up the first three installments of the series in a satisfying manner while also setting up the next set of stories. Though much of this volume is dedicated to character development, it is punctuated with incidents of action and extreme violence, which shatters the tranquility, making them seem even more distressing. The shock and horror engendered by the violent highlights are so effective because this volume does focus so heavily on character development, investing the reader not only in the lives of the protagonists, but also those hunting for them, and even the comic relief tabloid reporters. By painting the ground-level characters on all sides of the conflict in a sympathetic light, Vaughan has created a story that illustrates the true cost of warfare, while also showing the indifference and callousness of those who quite willingly send those characters onto a collision course with one another. Saga, Volume 3 paints a beautiful, but deadly picture that wraps up much of the story that has developed to this point, but also leaves enough threads hanging to leave the reader looking forward to seeing what lies in the future.

Previous book in the series: Saga, Volume Two
Subsequent book in the series: Saga, Volume Four

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