Saga: An excitingly new same old story
There is a longstanding observation, which contends that writers are thieves and liars who steal stories from their daily lives and lie about the details. While this reflection is comical in nature, at its heart is a kernel of truth. Each of us — not only writers — is a storyteller who steals tales from the world and often fudges the facts, just a little, in the retelling. Don’t think you’re a storyteller? Ever post on Facebook? Compose tweets on Twitter? Send text messages? Talk to someone in person or on the telephone? If so, you’re a storyteller. In fact, it’s hard to image someone who, at some point in his or her day, does not relay some sort of information in a narrative form.
Furthermore, because we listen to and tell so many stories throughout our lives we are all experts on the format and rules of storytelling. We know the tricks to build suspense, to encourage audience support, and provoke an emotional reaction. We understand the complex word choices and delicate thematic structures inherent in every kind of story. (i.e. the cheating husband who fails the DNA test on Maury needs to look contrite and sound defeated, whilst the newest Bond villain should have a foreign accent, a physical defect, and hopefully a lap cat.)
Paradoxically, in a world filled with stories and storytellers there are no new stories. Unquestionably, we create millions, if not billions, of different stories every day, but each of these tales is just a refurbished version of an older narrative. There are no new kinds of stories only new understandings of classic plots. Don’t believe me? Think about it. When was the last time heard, read, or watched a tale that was unlike anything you had seen before? You probably haven’t had that experience since you were a child. Amazingly, though each of us knows the basic types of stories (romance, war, revenge, quest, etc.), we constantly crave new accounts of the accepted standards. On a basic, almost primal level, we, as human beings, need to constantly give and receive more stories.
That brings me to the comic book series Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. On its face there is nothing new about Saga. It’s a space opera epic that features a young couple in love on the run, bickering in-laws, a bounty hunter, and an ongoing war. It’s Star Wars meets Romeo and Juliet with a dash of The Terminator thrown in for good measure. Thematically and structurally there is nothing new in Saga, and that’s why it’s so incredibly good. The simple truth is that Vaughn and Staples create an exceptional tale about extra-terrestrial characters that in no way seem alien. The reader knows the characters, understands what they need and how they feel, roots for or against them, and patiently waits every month to read more about their lives. Vaughn and Staples do what all good storytellers do, they makes us care about what happens on the next page.
Saga is narrated by Hazel, who is a newborn within the story’s confides but seemingly an adult during the future retelling. (This voice-over flashback style that has been used before in the movie A Christmas Story and the TV shows The Wonder Years and How I Met Your Mother also works well here.) Hazel tells the reader the story of her newly married young parents Alana and Marko — star-crossed lovers whose species are at war with one another. Alana and Marko are clearly in over their heads; not only are they wanted suspects being chased by bounty hunters and royalty family members, they also are naïve parents and a newlywed couple who are still trying to adjust to their new living arrangement. They are tired, scared, stressed, and often utterly clueless, and in remarkable storytelling fashion their love almost permeates the page. Anyone who has left home, gotten married, had a baby, started a new career, or done a thousand other things that has made him or her feel vulnerable and more than a little uncomfortable will identify with Alana and Marko. Anyone who has ever been in love will understand the couple’s bond and will feel the terrifying helplessness of knowing that you cannot protect someone who you care about more than yourself. Alana may have wings and Marko ram-like horns but the two are the most human characters in comic book stories in recent memory.
One of many example of Saga’s storytelling power is found in the tale’s first few pages. The story opens with Alana giving birth to Hazel and Marko trying to help. Hazel’s future narration is scribbled on the page and stands in contrast to Staples’s beautifully expressive art. Hazel opines, “This is how an idea becomes real. But ideas are fragile things. Most don’t live long outside of the ether from which they were pulled, kicking and screaming. That’s why people create with someone else. Two minds can sometimes improve the odds of an idea’s survival. . . but there are no guarantees.” Here Vaughan is commenting on childbirth, storytelling, he and Staples’s new undertaking, and probably a dozen other things. While Hazel (and Vaughn) are commenting on high-minded ideas, Alana is giving birth and providing the following earthy comments to Marko, “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting! Seriously, you’ll never have sex with me again if I defecate all over you. Unless you’re secretly into that. Please don’t be into that.” After Marko tells her that she is beautiful Alana replies, “Right, because nothing’s more lovely than a fat woman spread-eagle in the back of an old body shop. It’s like something out of a fairy tale.” (By the way, do you see what Vaughn’s doing here,? Having a woman with small wings on her back meta-textually commenting on fairy tale narrative whilst she, herself, is essentially in a fairy tale.)
Needless to say, Saga is something special. I haven’t even discussed the other characters. The Will, the violent and yet moral bounty hunter who is pursuing Alana and Marko. Prince Robot IV, a television-headed member of a royal family. There’s also a Lying Cat, a ghost babysitter, a naked giant, and a visit from Marko’s parents. All of this comes together to create a narrative that uses the structure of what has come before to comment on both the medium and our lives. More importantly it’s a great story. It draws the reader in and makes one angry that he or she has to wait another month for the next edition. There is little new about Saga but that’s why it’s the best comic book I read every month.
Jeffrey Johnson is an avid reader of comic books, watcher of television and film, and an annoying fount of 1980s and 1990s trivia. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University and has written numerous journal articles and book chapter about popular culture. His latest book is entitled Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. He currently lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii.