Book Title: Saga Book One
Author: Brian K. Vaughn (Script), Fiona Staples (Illustrator)
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Page Count: 504
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 2 hours
Date Finished: 1/20/17
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My impressions: I’m not sure how I feel about Saga. On the one hand, it was a quick and entertaining read, filled with imaginative ideas and populated with interesting characters. The plot by writer Brian K. Vaughn was never predictable and offered a lot of intriguing twists, and the artwork displayed a tremendous amount of talent and capability on the part of Fiona Staples, who’s rightly earned her reputation as a superior graphic storyteller.
On the other hand, I am already having a great deal of difficulty in articulating exactly what the story’s about, and this troubles me, because for years now, I’ve been hearing that Saga is the next big thing in comics I should be paying attention to. On the surface level, it’s the story of two lovers from different worlds who create a child together and have to fight to build a life for themselves. On a deeper level, it’s an examination of conflict and war, and all the ugliness that those things bring and the divisions that are caused by “othering” those who are different.
But it’s also a story where the action’s a little too arbitrary, where people fall in love almost automatically because it’s convenient for them to do so, where shocking violence breaks out pretty regularly and where hoary old writing tricks like dream fake-outs, hidden characters, jarring flash-forwards and sudden flashbacks are used pretty liberally to add tension that isn’t really necessary given that the story’s about a couple on the run from this universe’s equivalent of bounty hunters. There’s an extended plotline where a character named “The Will” decides to stop hunting the main characters to break an underage girl out of an interstellar brothel, and while the reasons for this deviation may become clear at some later point in the story, here they just feel like they happened because the story needed something more for The Will to do besides being the sick bad guy the story’s narrator (speaking from a future point of view) promises he will be.
And therein lies the problem with the story – even eighteen issues in, it feels very much like it’s a journey without a destination taking place in a universe without much in the way of rules (except when there’s a need to create rules to move the plot forward). There’s an interesting point many chapters in where the author character D. Oswald Heist describes a book he’s created as a series of circles he wrote himself in and out of to work towards a sudden conclusion and a paycheck, and I laughed as I read it, because it rang a little too true for how Saga was hitting me. As it happens, the character is lying – the book he wrote is a revolutionary text masquerading as a romance novel, and that is an important plot point for the characters involved. I couldn’t help wondering if it was meant to be a commentary on what Saga is supposed to be, even if I wasn’t feeling it myself.
With all that said, I have a hard time really understanding the massive amount of praise this series has received. Is it neat, and unique, and distinctly different from a lot of other comics out there? Sure. But is it a really satisfying science fiction (or space fantasy) story with character arcs that are clearly defined and which move the action towards a conflict and resolution? Not so much, at least for me. And to be fair, I don’t think it’s bad in any way, and I’ll cheerfully agree that some of it is actually quite good. I just don’t get the greatness so often ascribed to this series, especially when I think of other graphic novels or comic series I’ve really felt are great, like Jeff Smith’s Bone, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, J.M. DeMatteis and Jon J. Muth’s Moonshadow or Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, all of which are rightly celebrated as highpoints of the medium.
Clearly, there’s a passionate fanbase out there, but I’d count myself on the sidelines for now. I’ll check in when the second big compilation drops later this year and see if I feel any better about the next chunk of the series. I hope I do.
(I will say if you ever wanted a good primer on how comic books are created, the extras in the back of the book are quite comprehensive, and well worth your time! An entire script for issue #4 is included, as well as outlines and artwork from all stages of the design process.)