Before I even laid eyes on the first collected edition of Saga, by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples, I had it pegged as a certain nominee for and potential winner of the 2013 Best Graphic Story Hugo. The online comics commentariat had greeted the series rapturously. The internet was awash with folks calling it the best sf comic of 2012, and there were plenty calling it the best comic of any kind.

I already knew Brian K Vaughan has some remarkable technical gifts as a comics writer, and therefore pretty much believed the hype. I was prepared to be entirely blown away by Saga. When I did read it, though, I was not blown away. I liked it well enough, but was not struck dumb by its awesomeness.

Then I thought about it for a bit, I read it again, and – belatedly – I got it. Saga is very good, just not in quite the dramatic ways I was half-expecting. It’s not wildly innovative in technique or narrative; it’s not a revolutionary statement of new possibilities for comics.  Rather, its goodness – perhaps even greatness – is of the comparatively quiet, unshowy sort, making the difficult and sophisticated look simple and effortless (and thus, perhaps, invisible).  It’s all about the craft, this one.

SAGA, VOL. 1

written by Brian K Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples, published by Image Comics

Two warring races (one winged and technologically inclined, one horned and magically inclined) have exported their never-ending conflict across the galaxy. Amidst the slaughter, a man and a woman from the opposing sides meet, fall in love, run away together and have a baby. Agents of both races pursue them, intent on killing them and taking possession of the child. In essence, that’s all there is to Saga so far.

It’s equal parts science fiction and fantasy. The whole is simple, fun and immensely accessible. There are no complicated narrative tricks, no dense expository world-building, no messing about; just a linear story told with verve and in straightforward language. That language is a bit NSFW, mind you, as is some of the imagery and plot content. The good thing is that for adults who appreciate good story-telling there’s a lot more that’s grown-up about Saga than just a bit of nudity and swearing.

First example: the dialogue is frictionless. I noticed not a single carelessly chosen word, clumsily constructed phrase, indulgently unnecessary flourish or implausible rhythm to trip the reader up. It manages to be not only concise, clear and full of character but also entirely believable as real people speaking real words. This is nowhere more true than in the interactions between the two lead characters, Marko and Alana. (See how even the names are unfancy, unflashy?) Their bickering, bantering and affection is utterly convincing for two young people in love and dealing with parenthood for the first time. (As an aside, there are little bits in here that I’m pretty sure could only be written by someone who’s a relatively recent parent, so true to that experience are they.)

Both have strong and distinctive personalities that are displayed through both action and dialogue. Marko is a lethal warrior-wizard attempting to renounce violence; Alana a feisty soldier more inclined to think it might be a handy tool to keep in the kit, but sympathetic to the ambition. An elegantly, and eloquently, simple moment: when Marko does let loose, and starts to slip into berserker-style rage, Alana shoots him with a stun gun to end his rampage. After a perfectly timed wordless beat in which he surveys his handiwork, he thanks her. She only shot him after he’d got the job done, though.

Then there’s the art. On a first read through I certainly liked it, but wasn’t exactly dazzled by it. On a second look, I came to a realisation: it’s the faces, stupid.

Staples is the finest genre comics artist I’ve seen in a very long time when it comes to the depiction of real people. There’s relatively little by way of background detail in Saga’s art. Enough to create mood and setting, for sure, but not the kind of meticulous world-building detail you see in some sf comics. Here, the focus is on the characters. And boy, is she good at characters.

Marko and Alana are by some distance the most convincingly and engagingly attractive lead characters I can remember seeing in a comic. They have strikingly beautiful/handsome faces that look entirely real, unlike the vast majority of allegedly good- but somehow fake-looking superfolk that populate most comics. This, combined with the strong personalities and dialogue Vaughan gives them, makes them ridiculously appealing and a powerful focus for reader attention.

But Staples does bodies wonderfully well, too. The humanoid figure is near-perfectly posed and rendered in every panel, as are the clothes they’re wearing. Everything looks utterly right. The art is, like the dialogue, frictionless.

And so to the details. Two kinds of details, in fact: the detail of invention, and the detail of storytelling in this particular medium.

Saga is not the kind of speculative fiction that throws an avalanche of wild invention at the reader. It’s a bit more carefully rationed than that, which in some ways helps to keep the crucial focus on the characters and their interactions. But it’s nevertheless a constant presence in the story. The Lying Cat, a big feline sidekick to a bounty hunter which has no dialogue save a purring ‘Lying’ whenever someone speaks an untruth. The bluebloods, an apparent robot royalty of the technological race who have, instead of heads, TV sets perched atop their necks, and are all called things like Prince Robot IV. The Rocketship Forest, where wooden spacerockets grow.

I find the little details betraying writer and artist’s skill and engagement with their medium more interesting, though. The whole thing is unobtrusively narrated, in a hindsight voiceover, by the woman Marko and Alana’s baby is going to become. The first chapter ends with a conjunction of words and image that is so specific to the comics medium, and so expertly executed, that I’m now going to spend time and space I don’t really have trying, probably inadequately, to unpack it in mere words:

Narration (over an image of Marko and Alana): ‘…thanks to these two, at least I get to grow old.’ Page Turn. That physical beat, the imposition of pause and revelation that’s so integral to comics, is crucial to the impact of what comes next: a lovely full page image of the two of them kissing, baby held between them, with the narration floating above it: ‘Not everybody does.’

Separated from the visuals, that snippet of dialogue might simply have a general meaning, an irrefutable observation on the nature of life in a galaxy at war. Paired with the emotive image of the narrator’s parents, it retains that general meaning but invites another one too, in which narrator/writer might be speaking directly to reader: Not everyone in this picture survives. The message is sharpened by the presence of a host of threatening red eyes in the background creating an expectation of immediate danger. But for me it has yet another layer of meaning, more tonal than immediately predictive: These characters, the ones you’re being invited to care about, are not safe in what is to come.  That’s the kind of story this is going to be.

The economy of effect is startling, and something I don’t think any other medium does as well as comics. Two images and two sentences are conveying information (the narrator survives to grow old), multiple meanings and multiple emotional charges to the reader, all at the same time. The characters have been so well written up to this point that the reader is already engaged with them. Their embrace and kiss is affecting; but the ‘Not everybody does’ line overlays that warm emotion with a kick of anticipatory loss. The reader is invited – forced, even – to taste now, as a kind of premonition, the sorrow they, and the other characters, will experience if and when Marko and/or Alana dies.  And, over and above all that, the passage is performing yet one more technical function: it constitutes a good old-fashioned narrative cliff-hanger to drag the reader expectantly into the next chapter.

And Saga is full of that kind of graceful artifice. I’ve talked about that one instance too much to get into others I wanted to mention, but I can’t resist touching on one of them (even though it might constitute a bit of a spoiler). A potentially significant plot development occurs when one of the aforementioned TV-headed bluebloods kills a bounty hunter. It’s a simple scene: bounty hunter makes a subtle move that may or may not be threatening, TV-head opens fire.

The cleverness is in how the reader knows why he reacts so quickly and perhaps excessively. Some time earlier, he has found out his consort is pregnant. Even earlier, it’s been established (by showing, not telling) that the TV screens atop these bluebloods occasionally display images indicative of their emotional states or inner thoughts. At the moment when he instinctively opens fire, TV-head’s screen flashes up the image of a baby’s rattle. Simple, but very neat. Very clever.

I think this might be the perfect comic for fans of speculative fiction prose who are not existing comic fans (with one caveat). It’s not just that it reeks of understated quality. More than any comic I can ever recall reading, this first volume feels and reads notably like the opening salvo of an epic fantasy or space opera novel, in terms of its pacing and structure. It offers no particular obstacle to someone who’s never read a comic before.

The caveat is that, despite the overall fairly light and often humorous tone, some of the content is pretty strong stuff. The swearing is not infrequent and not mild, the sexual content is less frequent but pretty explicit and not entirely conventional when it does show up, and one of the subplots deals with (very young) child prostitution. If that is not the sort of thing to deter you (and I should add that none of it feels exploitative or arbitrary, and that the explicitish sexual content absolutely does not relate in any way to the child prostitution), Saga comes highly recommended for the discerning reader.

I’ll be … puzzled? Is that the word? … if it’s not on the Hugo ballot next year, and not particularly surprised if it ends up the winner, so if you want to know what all the current and future fuss is about, here’s the invitation.

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