“It was a time of war. Isn’t it always?”
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
In the second volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ graphic novel series Saga (again, please don’t ask me about issue numbers, I have no idea), we meet Hazel’s grandparents – which is to say, Marko’s parents – and find out more about bounty hunter The Will and his fabulous Lying Cat.
I concluded my faintly incoherent review of the first volume by describing it as “defiantly itself”, and I feel like that’s best illustrated by the fact that I still can’t quite get a handle on what Saga is actually about, in the sense that Nineteen Eighty-Four is about fascism and The Lord of the Rings is about a yearning for a pre-industrial England. The book’s mode, with its almost-random storytelling, the hyperreality of Staples’ art, seems to be specificity: every element seems to defy allegorisation, metaphoricisation, reductive reading. It’s nearly impossible to take this story, with its exploding doormice, its on-page full-panel sex, its organic rocketships and its bizarre and unexpected relationships, as anything other than a rollicking and wonderful and exciting space adventure. And yet it has this remarkable sense of depth and humanity to it.
If pressed, I suppose I’d say, at this point, that Saga is about family, the uncompromising immediacy of family relationships, and here I’m not thinking only of Alana and Marko and their daughter Hazel, the central trio of the story, but of Marko and his parents. There’s a moment in this second volume when Marko is struck by a family tragedy. Alana goes to comfort him, but their spaceship’s resident ghost, Izabel, stops her: “He needs to be with his people.”
I guess this is what I mean by depth. We’re never left in any doubt of the strength of Alana and Marko’s relationship – they are, after all, both facing the scorn of their respective peoples to be with each other. But what this moment says is: here is a limit. Romantic love is not everything, and sometimes it just cannot help.
This, then, is what Saga does very well. Because narrative can’t, really, comprehend a war as a whole, it focalises the effects of war through that most immediate of all things, our human relationships. The galactic war it paints in such detail becomes a kind of crucible in which our conceptions of family and love are mired and mixed and put under pressure: where are their limits? Where do they become strong, and where do they break? Unconventional families bob to the surface – The Will and the child he rescues from Sextillion – and traditional family ties are broken – Marko’s engagement to Gwendolyn.
Looking forward to what the next volume does with all of this.