Saga by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan – OK, Now I Get It

In a war torn universe a child is born to soldiers from opposing sides. Her mother has wings and a laser gun. Her father has horns and magic. She has the cutest little smile, and half the scumbags in the universe hunting her.

Welcome to Saga.

sagaA Graphic Classic?

I first tried Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s science fiction comic Saga a few years back. It was one of the hottest properties in American comics, I’d heard nothing but rave reviews, and I’d enjoyed other Vaughan books. So I picked up the first trade when it came out.

I was underwhelmed. I enjoyed it – the art was bold, the writing characterful, the universe it portrayed a feast of weirdness like nothing I’d ever seen before. And yet I felt no compulsion to read on. This was a well made comic, but it didn’t blow me away like Transmetropolitan, Preacher or 100 Bullets. It didn’t live up to the hype.

A Strange and Compelling Saga

So a couple of weeks ago I was visiting my friend Mags. I told him that I hadn’t read much of Saga. He looked shocked, and sent me away with five whole volumes. I thought it would be a while before I got through them, given my initial reaction, but boy was I wrong.

Saga is strange. It’s a mad mixture of science fiction and fantasy that carries the “this universe could contain anything” thrill that Flash Gordon must have had for an earlier generation. It’s also a crazy mix in terms of the issues it addresses. At the core is family – what makes one, what they mean to us, and how they shape us. But there’s far more than that. There’s war, justice and morality. There’s sacrifice and selfishness, conformity and defiance.

This is a saga both in being an epic genre adventure story, and in telling a soap opera style tale of a community changing over time. Characters join the cast, live, change and in some cases die. Years stretch out.

Then there’s the design of the universe and the characters, which is dazzlingly eclectic. There are people with televisions for heads; red light planets surrounded by hologram belts; water-dwelling dragons with beautifully mottled skin; living spacecraft. It’s confusing at first, busting through genre expectations, but it’s also amazing in its richness. And every time I thought I’d got a handle on the style, something new would come in to surprise me, like Ghüs, the cute little dungaree-clad seal who goes from sealion shepherd to axe-wielding galactic adventurer.Ghus

With its disparate strands and patchwork style, Saga isn’t as powerfully focused as 100 Bullets or Transmetropolitan. But it is every bit as rich and compelling.

Now I get it.

Don’t Blame Canada! Vaughan and Skroce’s We Stand On Guard

I love science fiction that’s full of strange and shiny future devices, from spaceships to laser guns to talking robots. I also love science fiction that focuses on the social and the political, relationships we take for granted shifting in the near future. But you know what I love best of all? Science fiction that has both, like new Image comic We Stand on Guard.

This Is Not the War You Were Looking For

We Stand on Guard is set a century from now, and tells the story of Canadian resistance fighters struggling against an invasion by the USA. That’s an unusual and intriguing idea. It’s an unexpected underdog story, with giant mechs thrown in for good measure.

And lets be honest, I think most of us outside the USA feel somewhat intimidated by that country, even a little trodden upon as we see our governments, economies and cultures drift ever further into the thrall of American dominance. The idea of America as a bullying invader has an immediate resonance, fairly or not, and the idea of watching plucky underdogs fight back against dastardly Yanks will have many of us cheering in the aisles of our comic shops.

I know, American readers. It’s not entirely reasonable or fair for us to view your nation this way. But think of it like this – usually Americans get to be the goodies. Why not mix things up this time?

Quick Clear Characterisation

Though I’ve never been there, there’s something hugely appealing about Canada. It seems like the USA’s more mature, thoughtful sibling, rugged and polite but living in the shadow of its sister to the south. Sure, I hear the name and I instantly start humming the ‘Blame Canada’ song from the South Park movie, but that’s doesn’t mean I can’t take a serious interest in the place too, so Canadian protagonists biased me in favour of the book.

But what really won me over was how well these characters are written. We don’t meet most of the resistance fighters until halfway through the first issue, but they’re a varied bunch, well enough written to make several of them stand out in the space of only a few pages. Actions speak as loud as words, and writer Brian K. Vaughan lets those actions show character almost as much as the dialogue does. I want to spend more time with these people. I want to see their struggle, not because I fear the stars and stripes, but because of who these characters are.

I also have to mention Steve Skroce’s art, which brings the characters and scenery to life. There were a couple of panels early on that felt awkward to me, but once the story got going his art really flowed, full of life and character.

I don’t read many comics monthly as they come out, but this one’s going on the list. I want to know why this war happened. I want to know where it’s headed. But most of all, I want to know what happens to there characters, and that’s what damn good fiction’s all about.

Lets finish with the Canadian national anthem, as sung by the country’s most exuberant son.