Radical pacifism and violence collide in one family's epic sci-fi 'Saga'
There's a frog playing drums, an alien on guitar, and a humanoid creature with a television for a head on vocals on the cover of Saga's Issue 58.
It's a collection of characters that's par for the course for the award-winning science fiction epic, which pretty quickly amassed a legion of fans after its first issue in 2012. Then, in 2018, creators Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples announced their saga would be going on hiatus.
Their series returned this year, in February, and Vaughan was ready to get started.
"I can't stop thinking about it," he said. "I think most of my hiatus was really spent still focused on Saga and sort of plotting out the next several years of these character's adventures."
If you call running for your life while dangerous assassins shoot lasers at you "adventures."
The weirder the better
At the heart of the story is a family — Alana and Marko and their daughter, Hazel. Alana and Marko are star-crossed lovers from opposite ends of a centuries-long intergalactic war.
When their home planets catch wind of Hazel's existence, they put a bounty on her head. Hazel's a fugitive from the minute she's born.
"You know, her family is protecting her, cradling her, carrying her, trying to help her to survive," Vaughan said.
In their journey for safe harbor, they meet and battle both friendly and sinister forces across the universe. There are assassins with eight legs and sharp teeth. A cat that can tell when someone is lying. Even stern grandparents appearing out of nowhere.
And this could all be happening on a planetoid that's about to turn into a black-hole-esque creature. It's a lot.
"I think my specialty is sort of writing weird, far out, imaginative, shocking, unexpected things," Vaughan said.
And he credits artist and co-creator Fiona Staples with taking that wackiness and making it so grounded and relatable and easy to digest.
"Her storytelling is so immersive and her characters, no matter how weird they are or, you know, strange looking aliens, I think people just immediately fall in love with them," Vaughan said.
He said he learnt early on that his job was mostly to stay out of Staples' way. Take Alana and Marko, for instance.
"I said, 'Oh, you know, this main character, the male has horns and the female has wings, and other than that, I don't really care what they look like,'" he said. "I said at the time, I think there's a glut of redheads in comics, so maybe don't make the wife a redhead. And Fiona said, 'Do they have to be white?'"
They didn't. So Alana has darker skin — Staples has said she envisioned her as biracial — and Marko is Asian.
Finding art in death
Now, just because this is a series about a young family doesn't mean it's family-friendly. There's full frontal nudity, sex, and a lot of violence in its pages.
Staples explains why.
"I'm a radical pacifist who despises violence, and as a creator, I recognize that violence is just awesome to watch, that it's beautiful and appealing," she said.
In Staples' hands, blood splashes across the page in beautiful arcs. Characters die in gruesome, inventive ways. And unlike some comics, when characters die in Saga, there's no coming back.
"There's going to be no sort of magical resurrection. And because we're telling a story about a never-ending war, that violence and death and loss are always going to be part of this," Staples said.
Vaughan said he wanted death and violence in Saga to have real stakes. Real consequences. It's part of why he started writing the series in the first place.
"I'm a parent now ... and I wanted to tell a story that is not really about escapism so much as me trying to process my misgivings, my fears, my hopes for bringing children into a world that is sometimes nightmarish and beyond comprehension," he said.
Audiences have really responded. Issues of Saga regularly sell out, or need to be reprinted. And it's been honored with some of the highest awards in comics and science fiction publishing.
So the decision to interrupt that momentum and go on hiatus was not an easy one.
Amy Dallen worked at a comic shop in southern California until recently, and said Saga stood out because it mixed so many different genres.
"If you're going to get hooked by an epic science fiction story, if you're interested in a war story, if you have any romance in your heart, there's a good chance this is going to hook you," she said.
"There is sort of a running comic shop joke that there are certain volume ones where you can give them to someone and sort of just say, well, I'll see you tomorrow."
According to Image, there have been over six million copies of Saga sold. Orders for Issue #55 — the first post-hiatus issue — were double the number of orders for Issue #54.
Oh, and for those of you saying "I'll just wait for a TV show or movie," you'll be waiting quite a while.
"When people tell me, 'Oh don't you want it to be a movie? Wouldn't it be thrilling to see these characters brought to life?' I think I have already seen that. They are so alive on that page," Vaughan said.
For both him and Staples, seeing their characters on the page is more than enough.