Character Reference is a weekly spot where I provide a letter of recommendation for a series you should try, kicking off with a selection of comics. Each Thursday I’ll give an overview of a fantastic comic book series that you might otherwise have missed, covering a range of genres, styles and characters. Enjoy!
This week we’re taking a step back from superheroes to delve into the fantastical world of the critically acclaimed epic space opera Saga. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, this is basically the comic world’s answer to Star Wars and Doctor Who combined; a big, mad space-set war-torn family drama with sex, drugs and TV-headed alien royalty.
In honour of Valentine’s Day, this week’s comic is an emotional, messy, against-the-odds celebration of unconventional love. Saga is astounding on so many levels, but it’s particularly effective as an exploration of love versus hate, and the relationship between the two, whilst never pretending there are simple answers to any of it.
The most obvious way this is explored is in the main narrative, which charts the star-crossed relationship between Marko and Alana, an ex-soldier and her ex-prisoner who are from two species at war. Their love is not only forbidden, it’s completely taboo. Hazel, the mixed-species child born of this love, is a symbol of hope and unity that both sides see as too dangerous a precedent to live. Saga follows this unexpected family as they try and out-run the forces who want to deny their very existence. The themes of intolerance and bigotry and attempts to control the kinds of love, and the types of people, that are considered ‘acceptable’ is a scarily appropriate story for our times.
The characters are believable and empathetic, even when they are doing reprehensible things; Alana, the tough, straight-talking ex-soldier who is adapting to motherhood, the smart-mouthed, ghost teenage baby-sitter Izabel, even The Will, a morally repugnant freelancer who is chasing down the family; all of them feel real and you understand their motivations, even if you don’t agree with them. The best character however is undoubtedly Lying Cat, a blue alien feline who is a walking truth detector, and will snarl ‘Lying’ at anyone foolish enough to attempt such. It’s an excellent dramatic device, as well as just a really, really great concept. If anyone can get me a Lying kitten, hit me up.
The world building is staggering; nothing is too bizarre to be off-limits, be it insectoid set designer drug dealers, farmer baby seals or a king with the head of a widescreen TV, and yet there’s a gritty realism to the writing that keeps it grounded and believable. Couples argue, war veterans experience debilitating PTSD and babies are a messy source of stress and worry to their families. The writing is so skillful and engrossing that you almost forget you’re reading about an eight-eyed, gun-wielding arachnid-woman hybrid having sex. Almost.
What Saga won’t let you forget is the art. Fiona Staples’ visuals leap off the page, they’re so dynamic, bold and definitive, ensuring that every character is distinct and memorable. I love how colourful Saga is; too much ‘serious adult’ sci-fi feels the need to prove its credentials by sticking to gritty dystopian palates of fifty shades of space-grey. Saga shows no such insecurity. The world and the cast pop, emphasising the inventiveness of the whole project.
There is an epic-ness to this story; the expansive setting, the varied and growing cast, the relatable story of familial love at its centre. In some ways this is classic, old-fashioned storytelling at its best, but told on a vivid scale for a modern audience, utilising the freedom and immersive visuals of the comic medium.
There’s some universal truths in here too: the unsavoury ones, that wars are fought until no-one even knows the cause anymore, those in power abuse it, that the things we love have the greatest
Genre: Fantasy meets sci-fi space opera
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Status: Ongoing; currently up to Volume 6 is available in trades, with Volume 7 available from 29th March
Best for: Fans of Star Wars/Doctor Who, lovers of vast, intricately designed worlds