A Portmanteau of Illustration and Language: Saga #3A comic review article by: Keith Silva
Saga #3 is Saga writ large. Artist Fiona Staples and writer Brian K. Vaughan have created a portmanteau of a story that sustains both illustration and language in perfect equilibrium. The best example of this balance of power is how Staples renders Hazel's narration into her work. Vaughan's script becomes an integral design element in Staples's panel composition. It is, perhaps, a bit of gilding the lily to say that Saga is the epitome of what the sequential art form can do, but not by much.
Three issues in, it's clear that Staples and Vaughan are still assembling the musicians. In a recent interview on the Three Chicks podcast, Staples states that the first arc is ''six issues and then we're going to take a couple of months off for the trade to come out and then I think in November we'll be back with issue seven.'' Saga #3 considers transitions and the crossing of boundaries. Given Staples statement about the length of this first arc, this third chapter also functions as the pivot point for the opening act of the narrative. As issue three begins, Alana and Marko are still lost in the woods. Marko is slowly dying (talk about crossing boundaries) after being attacked by The Stalk, a bounty hunter. In order to save Marko, Alana has to decide if she wants to allow her infant daughter to go native.
Let's talk Izabel. Guts unzipped, a knit cap pushed back to her hairline and skin the unnatural iridescence of a carnation, Izabel stands as maybe the most unique character to occupy the world of Saga; which is saying a lot when one considers that this series also numbers a race of humanoids with televisions for heads, a symbiotic cat and an armless assassin who's lower-half hides the many mandibles of an arachnid. As horrors* go, Izabel is grotesque. She is also irascible and petulant because she is what she is, a teenager. Artist Fiona Staples fashions a design for Izabel that is without question, ingenious. Beyond Izabel's free-floating jejunum, Staples also adds little details like star-shaped earrings, bulky bracelets and a T-shirt emblazoned with a heat aflame, all of which flesh out Izabel and make her live. Izabel is the latest exemplar of the idiosyncrasy of Saga. Staples distinctive style complements Vaughan's writing and vice versa to create something that could only be Saga.
Let's talk Cleave. As names of planets go, Cleave is a curious choice; and when it comes to the English language cleave only gets curiouser and curiouser. Cleave is a contronym, a word that has two meanings that are opposite to one another. Cleave means to split apart as well as to adhere. English, right? Izabel and her fellow horrors are the casualties of Cleave, who, even in death, are bound to their home planet (as Izabel tells Alana in air quotes, thanks to Staples) as ''spiritual defenders of Cleave.'' Apart together, forever. Izabel wants out and the only way she can leave Cleave is if she can be ''bonded to the soul of a living native.'' That is, if she can cleave to another child of Cleave, Hazel. No one likes an occupier, least of all the mom of the occupied. Call it Sophie's an Alana's choice situation: allow the spirit of a dead child to be "soul-bonded" (whatever that might mean) to her daughter or watch her husband die.
As semantic swirls go, Saga means a lot. The story begins on Cleave, a planet torn apart by a war being fought by ancient enemies. Marko and Alana (former soldiers, one from each opposing force) fall in love and through their union comes Hazel. As fugitives they must depart Cleave in order to keep their little family together and alive. That's a lot of holding fast and letting go all at the same time and that's before Izabel asks to crash the party.
Let's talk ideas. Genres are a cornucopia of tropes, a "tropucopia"** if you will. Science fiction bursts at its proverbial seams with clichés and cants, all of which have become a part of the popular culture. Such is the burden Vaughan and Staples bear; be familiar, but keep it fresh. Saga does not break too much new ground. At its core, it is a tale of pursuit, a family wholly engaged in surviving in a universe that wants them dead -- a mutation, so to speak, of a story familiar to comic book fans. To criticize Vaughan for taking the same-old-same-old and fitting them out with horns, wings and televisions would be short-sighted and unfair. Instead of trading new lamps for old, Vaughan embraces the work of the masters of the genre and populates his space opera with star-crossed lovers, helpful spirit guides and wise-cracking bounty hunters alike. Izabel may be the possible exception when it comes to the familiarity and recognizability of some of the other characters. Friendly ghosts and even friendly teenage ghosts are not new, but few have such a distinct look as Izabel. Where do Vaughan's ideas end and Staples's designs begin?
Vaughan is at no loss for ideas; however, Saga would be better served if he can throttle off on the cuteness and his occasional and self-conscious winks at the reader***. Izabel's use of "dude" and "whatevs" comes off as cheap. Okay, she's a surly teen. Slang is slang. Whatever. Still, there is no reason for a character from another time and an alien galaxy to boot to sound so much like the teenager three doors down. Given its setting, Saga #3 offers up a remarkable take on what it means to be on either side of an occupation. Izabel's offer to soul-bond with Hazel is juxtaposed with a questioning of the prisoner by Prince Robot IV****. As the series progresses, perhaps Vaughan will interrogate this idea further and choose not to repurpose so much stale vernacular.
These few (and quite correctable) flaws don't darken what is (so far) an otherwise stellar series. Saga sets art alongside language to create a story that cleaves to the very soul.
*The nickname off-worlders give to Izabel's kind.
**I didn't use 'portmanteau' earlier only to sound smart, there's a method to the madness.
***Alana and Izabel's back-and-forth about the difference between "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" lands with a thud. What does Izabel's past matter now that she's dead? Izabel says her ''heart was barely in the fight.'' Let the dead bury the dead.
****Who can literally choose to have a canon for an arm if he should desire!
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words. He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.