Rereading the Saga comics is definitely worthwhile. On first-reading, I was a little off-kilter, so engrossed in some panels that I missed others completely, only occasionally remembering to retrace my steps. Discovering wings or horns on characters who appeared humanoid at first glance was delightfully but consistently distracting.
Readers are aware almost immediately that the story is actually being narrated by the character being born in the first volume’s opening pages, Hazel. So what we’re reading belongs to the past, the story revolving around her parents: Alana and Marco, in love Romeo-and-Juliet style, each a member of the opposite faction in an interplanetary-scale war.
Our narrator’s voice sounds a little world-weary and reflective; evidently she is no longer a squawling infant, but grown, and she is intelligent enough to recognize that we need help situating ourselves.
Quickly, we are offered a shifting scale: we can see Cleave (where she was born) and its passageways and buildings, its streets and throughfares, finally the planet in the sky. Then, the perspective shifts again, and a planet like Cleave is just a yellow dot on the page.
This is how we will experience the story; at times we will be directly engaged, feel the story intimately (there are a lot of body parts, on display, sometimes feeding a baby and sometimes loving a partner) and, at other times, it’s as though it’s happening far away.
The dialogue is credible, sometimes thoughts and sentences are incomplete. Which leaves room for striking images. For instance, a pair of legs attached to a head can look like it is simply all mouth. Colour contrasts are also notable, with some story sequences in jarringly bold shades and others in sombre muted tones.
Even in this first volume, the emphasis is on relationship-building, against a backdrop of tension and conflict (war between Landfall and Wreath, personal vendettas). With this focus at work throughout, communication must be concise: a single comment can be both angry and affectionate. Sometimes also humourous, which is key.
So, babies come complete with drool and fingernails like hypodermics; commentary on them suits the character and entertains readers:
“I know, I’ve dressed gangrenous wounds that were less disgusting than this whole cloth diaper routine.”
In the second volume, readers are introduced to one set of parents (parents to a parent, as Hazel is still narrating).
This is an unexpected and intense scene, in which namecalling is replaced by spellcasting. The tension is lightened by having one member of the young couple clad only in a towel, because nobody was expecting company.
(In this series, people are naked or scantily clothed for believable reasons, rather than to sass things up. The nudity is prominent but not gratuitous. If someone is grieving while wearing a robe, there is no swell of flesh to tantalize. If someone has been away from their partner for some time, that robe is probably on the floor.)
Introducing the parents invites readers into another layer of the story; they represent a heritage of conflict and resistance and, so, the story expands organically.
We also develop more of an understanding of the Brio Talent Agency, whose hired assassins featured prominently in the first volume as well. (This is also an excellent opportunity to illustrate the breadth of the universe, in which swaths of dialogue can appear without translation, although the context clarifies the content.)
Another character introduced is the author of the book that Alana was reading when she and Marco met: A Night Time Smoke by D. Oswold Heist. He occupies an important role in the story and the simple importance of storytelling is underscored. In the third volume, this theme occupies a more prominent place: “When I was younger, your stories literally saved my life.”
The line between a war story and a love story shifts and wriggles – battles and break-ups mingle – so that the plot moves forward amidst broken hearts and broken treaties. Readers are caught in page-turning swells, with alliances of all sorts at stake, and betrayals both personal and political unfolding.
The final page of each comic is likely to contain a kind of revelation, particularly in sixes, where the last page serves as the last not only of a comic but of a bound volume in a book-length collection.
An identity, an unexpected interconnection or someone’s (something’s) true nature: readers can expect things to take a turn at the end of a volume. Figurative or literal.
In the second volume, for instance, “Thataway” prepares readers to turn elsewhere in the next volume. The third ends with “Thatagirl”. (There are more notable examples which revolve around spoilers.)
The women in these stories are not pale-faced damsels in need of rescuing; they are many hued and they, themselves, are rescuers. From the first volume, a man is as likely to be cradling an infant as a woman, and a woman as likely to be fighting with her other hand while cradling with the other.
These women are fierce and those who need rescuing are in need because of circumstance not prescripted roles (with one notable exception, which draws attention to her capable and active counterparts, and even this instance it is more about being a princess than it is about biology).
Readers also meet the other side of the family, a step-mother and father. And another distraction in the third volume is a pair of journalists: Upsher and Doff, from Jetsam, writers for “Hebdomadal”, who introduce another aspect of story-telling and truth-telling. Their passion for getting to the bottom of the story (as well as their passion for each other) reminds readers of the essential need for a free press and free expression.
This question of determining who benefits from silence is an intergalactic concern, along with the related matter of who can afford to pay to have things covered up and eliminated. This, too, is increasingly complex as the series progresses.
Relationships between hired assassins also develop another layer of complication in later volumes; assassins, too, have families. Interconnections are not necessarily what readers will expect. Even characters with objectifying titles (like “The Will” and “The Brand”) have and develop attachments. Some of those attachments last beyond a lifetime.
“After that, things got action-packed.”
With less need for extension character-building and relationship-building, there is more room for plot as the series develops.
But, simultaneously, just as the conflict is notched upwards, the populace requires more from any given coping mechanism and the system is strained. “Like all stories involving real princes and princesses, there wasn’t a lot of happily ever after.”
Allusions made to industries designed to compensate for this kind of intense stress and sorrow crystallize in this volume, with readers gaining access to working behind-the-scenes of just such an endeavour.
“Open Circuit” exists “to pacify an angry and hopeless population”. Here readers meet an ex-wife mentioned briefly in the series’ second volume, demonstrating that these storytellers are patient, willing to allow their stories to unfold over many installments.
Now that readers have some sense of the main characters’ family backgrounds (albeit imbalanced) and a clear sense of the official conflict, including all the jargon which represents members on each side of the conflict (a Landfallian might also be called a ‘wingnut’, a resident of Wreath a ‘moony’), the conflict can broaden and intensify.
After all, “the whole point of having enemies abroad is getting to ignore the ones back home”. Politics simmers beneath the series as a whole but now readers are invited to peek behind the curtains, to glimpse quieter revolutionaries whose sacrifices are not necessarily newsworthy.
Previous volumes have also included images of bookplates in the supplementary materials which follow the comics, but those included here (particularly of Ghüs) are brilliantly bookish. (A set would be just lovely! Okay, even one.)
Throughout the series there are casualties and betrayals (some accidental, some deliberate). In the earlier volumes, readers were unprepared for these losses, unable to judge the depth of pain related to them for some of the characters who were profoundly affected by them.
In the fifth volume, readers are as attached as the characters, now forced to face not only the loss but forced to tease out the differences in their nature, to consider – for instance – the difference between rebellion and revolution.
Questions loom. Whether/when to take a life. Who bears the lion’s share of suffering in war. These are ultimately unanswerable, but the story continues to play with possibiliities, developing on more than one level to afford readers multiple entrances to the fundamental philosophical questions bubbling beneath.
“Every relationship is an education.” The cast broadens, so that readers meet Halvor (brother to “The Stalk”) and Quain (Captain of the Fourth Cell) and other planets are named also. In the sixth volume, a doctor and teacher are introduced. Whether or not such “new” characters will play prominent roles in the story ahead remains to be seen.
The sixth volume introduces a prison once more (echoing the prison in which Marcus was held in the first volume). The prison industrial complex introduces another layer of ever-present conflict. But this is not a binary conflict; alliances are unpredictable and there is fluidity where one might expect rigidity (and vice versa).
A young Hazel discovers a storybook which she remembers being read to her, a relic from her past (even though she is still a young girl), with which the writers remind readers that “anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books”.
Trust remains a cornerstone of the story. When someone says that you can tell them anything, to what extent do they mean it? What happens to good intentions when pressure intensifies?
The threat (and support) is not always immediately clear. One might only see it in a reflection in someone’s eyeglasses, rather than clearly presented in a panel of its own.
“Families are goddamn wildfires.” This opens the seventh volume but could have easily opened any one of them, as family is at the heart of this saga. This volume ends, however, in an unpredictable way: a series of black pages. But this is wartime, remember?
None of the threats of extinction in this volume are faceless (although what constitutes a face is more open-concept than in some graphic novels), but the most disturbing scenes are of the one-on-one violence (also: two-headed one-on-one violence).
Ironically, less of the story in this volume is page-turning conflict; rather, there are a number of broader threats, which readers become aware of, but the focus is the impact of this news on the characters more so than the events themselves (but the story does still unfold in view and remains entertaining).
Questions of belief and homeland, belonging and identity, transitioning and extinguishing, addiction and rehabilitation flourish: things are messy here.
Until now, Hazel has been so young that it’s been easy to overlook the coming-of-age aspect of the series. As a narrator, she has already come of age, and that’s what has enabled the tale-telling. But it’s easy to fall into Hazel’s accounting as though it’s real-time. Now, as a character, she is old enough to make decisions which are dramatically affecting the course of events.
Drawing attention to this process, is the experience of another young girl who was rescued earlier in the series from a life of servitude, who is just a little older than Hazel; she faces a decision regarding her apprenticeship, which reminds readers that everyone here – even Alana and Marco – once made crucial decisions like this one, long ago, changing the course of their lives. And Hazle is not far removed from this kind of juncture.
(Of course, Alana and Marco’s relationship, their decision to start a family is the most obvious example, not only fundamental to their experience but to the series as a whole. Otherwise, Hazel would not exist as a narrator!)
Observing this decision from a young person’s perspective is an excellent reminder that significant shfits sometimes carry an ominous sense of corner-turning with them. But, not always. In this volume, a series of small decisions are made, revolving around larger issues, which leave emotional marks, and readers can expect to feel the sting in future volumes.
Have you been following this series as well? Do you have a favourite character or plot-line?