Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #200: Saga Vol. 1 by Vaughan & Staples

There are two mutually exclusive ways I could go forward with this review, and I'm vacillating between them. On the one hand, I could moan about how I've seen a lot of mediocre to crappy SF in comics form lately, and then gush about how wonderful it was to see Saga dive straight into smart space-opera territory, make no excuses for itself, explain no more than it had to, and charge forward to tell a great story that also was very good (if also very soft) SF. But the other hand remembers how I was equally thrilled and energized by writer Brian K. Vaughan's series Ex Machina, back when it started in 2004, and how that whole machine trundled on too long, wandered down too many blind alleys, and ended with a deflating, side-stepping whimper.

What I'm saying is that I'm almost excited enough to forget that Vaughan got me this excited once before. There's all kinds of metaphors for that feeling, nearly all of them inappropriate. But I'm cautiously optimistic that Saga won't fall into the snares that hobbled Ex Machina, and that Vaughan both has a real ending in mind this time and will get there.

Anyway, Saga, Vol. 1 collects the first six issues of the series of the same name -- the biggest success in comic-shop comics of the past couple of years, more or less, and definitely so if you use a "not Big Two" special pleading. It's written by Vaughan, who'd been away from comics writing things with real people standing in front of cameras for a while. And the art is by Fiona Staples -- no one else is credited, so I believe she laid it all out, drew all of the lines, and chose the colors as well. (It's a modern standard comic, so the palette is large and flexible -- unlike the image of old newsprint comics in garish four-color.) Staples' work is entirely exemplary: she reminds me just a bit of Mark Buckingham on Fables, with an equal ability to visualize anything Vaughan throws at her, making it look real and solid and entirely part of this world from the instant it appears.

Saga is a space opera, set in the middle of a galactic war. The combatants come from a world and its moon -- I don't think Vaughan means the echo of The Dispossessed, but I could be wrong -- but their battle has spread across countless stars and involves millions of troops. On the planet Landfall, the regular folks all have wings and the nobles are TV-headed humanoids with "Robot" in all of their names. (Again: Vaughan may explain everything eventually, but for now he's telling a story, so things are as they are, and the reader has to pick up hints and put the bigger picture together himself.) On the moon Wreath, everyone has horns, and they seem to mostly use magic rather than science. (Another thing to make me uneasy, but so far Vaughan is using it for color and atmosphere rather than some metaphor about science vs. magic.)

In a hard SF story, Vaughan would have to explain how both worlds could send ships outward from their home system -- there does seem to be something like a truce for ground combat at home, but, still, I would expect major space-naval battles on a daily basis -- but this is very far from hard SF. There are two neighbors fighting a proxy war across the galaxy, or perhaps a hundred thousand smaller proxy wars. In the middle of all that, on a planet named Cleave, somehow a girl with wings named Alana met a boy with horns named Marko: two soldiers on opposite sides, conditioned to hate each other forever. Instead they fell in love, and the first page of Saga has Alana deep in labor with their daughter, Hazel.

For reasons Vaughan never quite specifies -- probably because he can't blatantly say "it makes for a better story" -- both societies want their respective deserters dead or worse, precisely because they made a baby together. So Alana and Marko are on the run, at first on a world where both sides are fighting, with a newborn in tow. (Alana, even for a highly trained soldier in excellent shape, is ridiculously active in this period.)

What's brilliant about that is that Vaughan jumps over the whole Romeo-and-Juliet moony phase: his protagonists are a family with a baby to protect, not just star-crossed lovers. To hammer that home, the narrator of the series is Hazel herself, looking back from some as-yet-unspecified point in the future. (Though Hazel's narration does sometimes introduce events that it would be difficult to explain how she knew about -- Saga's central focus is on the family on the run, but a secondary focus is on the various people chasing them.)

So we have a big, exciting universe full of wonders and strangeness -- most of the characters so far are Star Trek-y humanoids who could be created with makeup and prosthetics, but not all of them -- and a good-sized cast of engaging and interesting people, including an intriguing "freelancer" (bounty hunter) named The Will. It is more than a little derivative of Star Wars, certainly -- but derivative of the early Star Wars, where there were more questions than answers, not the stuffy and dull Star Wars of the last decade. Vaughan claims to have a real ending in mind, and I have no reason to doubt him. I just hope he can keep the story as simultaneously grounded and high-flying until he gets to that ending.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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