With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, sparkly tights, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals, and things that go bump in the night.
For our hundredth column, we’re welcoming back our friend Scott Redmond, as Brendan takes a brief break, to talk about the title that launched the Image renaissance!
Prior to 2012, Image Comics had been struggling a bit with its identity. While it had multiple long-running titles, nothing had really made a huge splash in a while. When Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples debuted Saga (with lettering and design by Fonographiks), it was an instant hit, and understandably so.
It was a creator owned title with a level of depth and world building that few others had shown. Instead of being centered on a group of heroes of some sort, it was centered on a couple just trying to survive incredible circumstances. It became probably the most beloved creator owned comic of all time, and this week it returns from a years-long hiatus.
Marko and Alana were soldiers in centuries-long war between their worlds. Then they found each other and fell in love. Now, with their newborn daughter Hazel in tow, they just need to survive long enough to live lives of their own, away from the war and hatred.
Tony Thornley: Scott, welcome back and thanks for filling in for Brendan! So this is a doubly special occasion. This is our hundredth edition of the column, but we’re also covering a book that’s pretty special to a lot of people. The series is back on Wednesday after a four year hiatus, and I think it’s fair to say that this is probably the biggest single issue of the year.
Now Scott, I think I remember you’ve read this before. Have you revisited it at all?
Scott Redmond: Happy to help out! Funny enough, before you reached out about this column I had only read the first issue of the series and that was quite a while back. During this hiatus I kept meaning to dive in and get caught up on the book, and well that didn’t happen. Until now where I’ve read the whole first arc, so I’m on track to finishing at some point I’m sure.
Tony: I think I’ve re-read the first arc a couple times since it was released, but it had been a long time before this read-through. I was struck by how much I still enjoyed it, but there are a handful of elements that jumped out in negative ways. I think this is still a stellar comic, but it’s good to re-read it without the recency bias, and with some years under my belt.
So a couple things I loved- the Marco and Alana relationship still rules. These two feel like a real couple, and not just in the sense that they have chemistry. Even though this volume only covers about two weeks, with no flashbacks, you get a sense of who they are as people. They’re both rich individuals with their own internal lives and interesting histories. You see their relationship grow, but you also see conflicts between them, and disagreements. Their relationship isn’t glorified, it’s very real.
I think my favorite example of this is when Marko’s bleeding out, and he accidentally reveals that he never broke off his engagement to a girl back home. That reveal is great, but the resolution to it isn’t clean and tidy. Marko has a good explanation, but Alana doesn’t just go “oh okay, makes sense, all is forgiven!” It hurts her for a while.
Scott: It was definitely very interesting to dive into this at this point rather than where I was as a reader in 2012, and yeah there are definitely some things that don’t hold up too well.
That is definitely something that stood out for me as well, that this couple sort of stuff felt more ‘real’ than what we get in a lot of media at times. This wasn’t a “I’m mad because I cut you off and didn’t let you explain” type of sitcom/comedy drama that makes me roll my eyes so hard they might fly out of my head one of these times. As you said, for two characters we’re meeting in the middle of their story they feel very fleshed out. Honestly, just the first issue pretty much tells you who and what they are and the following issues just take that deeper.
Tony: I adore the supporting cast too. Though the plot is entirely driven by Marco and Alana, everyone has their own story. We see that with The Will, and his vacation gone bad. We see that with Prince Robot, and his hunt for our core couple that gradually grows more reckless and deranged. It’s a story that grows and changes, and you care about these characters more by the page. Really, as far as that goes, the biggest problem with this volume is that it’s just the beginning, so we don’t get some of the best characters in the book much or at all.
Scott: I found myself becoming very partial to Izabel, even though the visual they went for with her can be quite disturbing to look at. World building is definitely not an easy feat especially in a way that will invest readers quickly, but this series very much pulls it off. Some of these supporting characters got more backstory and growth in this first arc than some supporting characters get in the entirety of their existence in other stories.
Tony: Oh yeah, Izabel, the ghost babysitter, was very disturbing, but in a tragic way. There’s examples of that through the story too. Staples does some stunning stuff with the art. I was completely unfamiliar with her prior to this book, and she just does some stunning work, both on the linework and the colors. Where Vaughn makes the character feel real, Staples makes the world the same. The work she does in making people and tech that feels fantastic but also authentic comes through on the page. Outside of the Royal Robot Family, pretty much all the designs are based on earth animals, and I think that’s a great touch that makes them all very relatable. The tech is all weird, but it makes sense within the world, even if it defies the laws of physics as we understand them.
Scott: Interestingly, my first full exposure to Staples work was the Archie reboot, outside of seeing glimpses of Saga stuff off an on through social media at times. There is just such an energy to her work, that is hard to even put fully into words. Over time my taste in comic art has really changed, and the type of work that does interesting things with the space really speaks to me. Such as how here there is a sort of hybrid of the detailed ‘realistic’ sort of style and the more sort of out there stylized depictions of things. Sailing right into that real but fantastical sort of vibe that I’m looking for in these types of stories.
Lettering is something that I’ve come to really appreciate and pay far more attention to now compared to when I was younger, and having the narration often look like handwriting across the pages is the kind of stuff I love. Brings just such a different artistic energy that I’m all about.
That’s a very good point about the tech and the designs based on Earth animals, all very much tied to how well this book world builds right off the bat. Sure there are all these space elements and fantastical elements but visually it at least feels familiar enough that it’s more warm and welcoming than jarring.
Tony: You’re so right about the lettering and design work by Fonographiks is just fantastic. I love the lettering they use for Hazel’s narration and they do just top notch work for every bit of lettering on the story.
Now there’s something you and I talked about throughout the past week that I think is worth talking about. A lot of stories from this time did it and we still see it. Shock as a storytelling trope is an interesting idea. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t.
The issue here is that Saga does it A LOT.
I mean, page one is literally shock value- Alana’s first line of dialogue. Now in that case, it’s scene setting and character building- she’s brash and she’s a little (a lot) rough around the edges. In some cases it works- look at the introduction to Sophie or Prince Robot reacting to The Stalk. But for each moment that works, I think there’s a ton that doesn’t- such as Prince Robot’s introduction mid-coitus, the images that show up on his screen-face, The Stalk’s introduction, EVERYTHING about Sextillion, hell even one point when Alana uses the r-word in tearful frustration. The list goes on for a bit.
Vaughn and Staples have crafted a wonderful comic here, but it can be so hard to swallow.
Scott: Yeahhhhhhhh, there is a whole lot of that going on here. I’ve heard a lot about some of the shock of this book in the past but honestly I was not prepared for just how much is in this first volume. I’m not opposed to shocking stuff, I’m a big fan of horror films and other stories that can go there, but this felt a bit much. This actually reminded me of the conversation I had a ton years ago about how HBO, Showtime and the other premium channels were pushing sex and violence and shocking stuff into every show they were putting out often just because. It’s like that moment where a kid grows up and realizes they are alone or become an adult and they can say and do “all the adult stuff” now and goes wild.
As much as I spoke before about the world building and character development, there are a lot of moments including some of these shocking moments where it does feel like they were trying to do way too much at the same time. I’m sure it leads somewhere but a lot of the stuff with The Will felt almost disjointed from the current moment, despite it diving into some very dark stuff that is very much a gross reality far too often.
Oh yeah and glad you mentioned The Stalk, cause what the heck was going on there. A whole lot of shocking shock that all seemingly goes nowhere very quickly after the encounter with Prince Robot. As much as looking at what ifs about reality things is not something I like to do (I love them in story capacity), I do wonder how this book would have been if it had been made just a few years later or even now. How these types of books are approached has definitely changed in the ensuing years.
Tony: Yeah The Stalk’s story isn’t over, even if she is dead. But there is nothing about the character that isn’t shock value, even when we see more of her later in the story. I know there’s been a lot of talk about Saga was made to be unfilmable, and if that’s the only reason these moments exist, it’s for the wrong reasons. It’s very much the comic equivalent of the quiet kid who goes absolutely nuts their first semester of college because they realized they’re an adult now.
There are some of them that come back around and work in retrospect. I look at the introduction of the Slave Girl (later Sophie). That could have been just a shock moment but it evolves into something deeper, and talks about a topic that exists in the real world but everyone shys away from for various reasons (which those reasons have completely evolved in the last four years since the series went on hiatus). But not all of them pay off like that.
This is a series that got and continues to get a lot of press. And it deserves it. I think it also needs a slightly more critical eye on it too though.
Scott: I would very much agree with that statement. Far too often the collective we looks at the stuff that we like and let our feelings of liking it obscure the things that should be looked at more critically. Not that we have to stop liking said thing (depending on what the critical issues are), but be aware that some things within it aren’t great. We’d be a healthier society for it if we did this all around more often.
The context of hearing that some of the stuff does lead to something later does help in taking this all in and examining it. But yeah, holy crap is there just a lot of “I can do all the adult stuff now” energy going packed into such a confined space. Almost expecting Andy Samberg to pop out and scream “I’m an adult” at me. Dropping in those 2011 era pop culture references.
Tony: Coming back to it after all this time, I feel like I still really enjoy and love this book. However… I can definitely see the warts where I didn’t before. It’s far from perfect, and if it played things with better thoughtfulness, I think it would be stronger for it. So where did you fall on it?
Scott: Seeing it with fresh first time eyes I very clearly was able to see the reasons that this book became such a hit, to the point where even going on hiatus for four years hasn’t slowed the fandom momentum one bit. At the ssame time like you said seeing it at this point in time the areas that aren’t so great stand out even more, because we’ve evolved in some of those areas or have a more critical eye for these types of situations. A few tweaks here or there and it could have stood the test of time just a bit better. It’ll be very interesting to see where a story like this stands even further from its origins, which probably depends on where it eventually ends up now with its return.
Long story short, I enjoyed it for what it was and am down to read more of it, but it definitely brought quite a few frowns to my face too.
Tony: From the looks of it, Brendan has one of two books queued up for next week- either Bunn & Crook’s Harrow County V2, or Way and Ba’s Umbrella Academy V1. Either way, it’s going to be a fun chat!