Volume 4 of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ graphic novel series Saga returns to doing some strong, satisfying character work after the disappointingly mechanistic third volume. It’s a few years after Alana, Marko, Hazel, Izabel and Klara left Quietus, and they’ve settled down on a small backwater planet. Alana is working all hours on the Open Circuit, an improv entertainment channel, to support her family; Marko’s left at home with Hazel, cooped up inside their space tree in order to stay out of the gaze of forces from Wreath and Landfall trying to suppress their story. Tensions arise: Alana gets into drugs to escape the misery of her job, and a lonely and jealous Marko gets a little too close to Hazel’s dance teacher.
The most obvious thing here to talk about, of course, is the gender role reversal: mother Alana is the breadwinner while Marko is the house husband taking care of his infant. (It’s just occurred to me that I’m not sure why Marko couldn’t work and leave Hazel with Klara. There seem to be a heck of a lot of people on that ship for him to be quite so grumpy.) This is interesting primarily because, in fact, Saga isn’t that interested in exploring traditional roles; more exploding them. It careens through them as if they simply don’t exist; it queers them without so much as a by-your-leave, more interested as it is in telling intimate human stories about relationships and emotions.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I went to a panel at Nine Worlds about LGBTQIA representation in Saga, an overriding theme of which was, unsurprisingly, the ways in which the series not only represents queerness (in the sense that it features gay, bisexual and transgender characters) but actually enacts it. Look, for instance, at its loaded title. Western SFF readers are primed to expect specific things from a saga: politics, war, explosions, magic. Saga has all of that – in the background, made latent in Fiona Staples’ gloriously in-your-face art; but it’s not interested in them, not solely for themselves anyway. It’s interested in its characters and their emotional lives. The emotional lives of people who are ordinary, who are women, people of colour, refugees, children, gay, disabled, dispossessed, exiled, poor.
Which is to say: the series is engaged in the work of queering the traditional saga in a way that goes fundamentally beyond twisting up a few gender roles. It’s making the highly political statement, with that self-important title, about which stories are important to tell: not stories about kings and politicians, but stories about those who have been literally marginalised in traditional SFF. The people in the spaces between the chapters, who suffer the effects of great and noble wars most and whose voices are heard the least.
Yes. I loved this volume and the work that it’s choosing to do: as I mentioned in my post on Wednesday, I feel like its exploration of a long-established relationship is something quite rare in SFF, which, if it features romance at all, tends to concentrate on its first giddy beginnings. There’s real emotional nuance here, belied and yet enabled by Staples’ zany, technicolour art.