Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Saga #7. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and drawn by Fiona Staples (Mystery Society, North 40), Saga’s return after a two-month break is a fantastic start to the second storyline that exemplifies why this has been a landmark year for Image Comics.
Between the New 52, Before Watchmen, and Marvel Now!, 2012 has been an exhilarating year for mainstream comics, but none of these events have been as thrilling as the creative renaissance at Image Comics. High-profile launches from Jonathan Hickman, Ed Brubaker, and Brandon Graham have given readers riveting stories unlike anything at Marvel or DC, and these titles have expanded the publisher’s brand to satisfy a more diverse audience. No new book has done that as well as Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga, a science-fiction fantasy/war romance that’s part Shakespeare, part Star Wars, and all awesome.
Marko and Alana are soldiers on opposites sides of a centuries-spanning war. They’re also the parents of newborn Hazel, and they’re on the run from intergalactic bounty hunters and robot princes, trying to raise a child while dealing with spectral babysitters and the sudden appearance of the in-laws. Saga is the best kind of genre-bender, defying easy categorization but completely accessible to casual and long-time comics readers alike. There’s a perfect balance between the epic and the personal, resulting in a story that consistently resonates emotionally without sacrificing spectacle. And oh, what spectacle it is. Fiona Staples has shot to the top of comics’ A-list with her gorgeous work on this title, bringing Vaughan’s story to life with vivid art that she pencils, inks, and colors herself.
Across Image’s line, there’s a confidence in the storytelling that stems from total creative freedom. With no editorial interference, these creators are able to create the exact type of books they want to see, from the story contents to the production quality. That complete control breeds fearlessness, and these writers and artists are putting out stories that fully exhibit their imaginations. They’re paving new ground for the future of the industry. There’s no reason for comic books to be so strongly defined by superheroes, and Image has taken huge strides to build a library of titles that offers as broad a selection of genres as prose, film, or television.
With each new issue, Vaughan and Staples top themselves in cinematic grandeur and intimate character development. By taking inspiration from issues faced by ordinary couples—dealing with ex-lovers, finding a babysitter, meeting the in-laws—Vaughan is able to keep the fantastic plot grounded in reality, creating characters that are instantly relatable, even though they have horns or wings. After the arrival of Marko’s parents at the end of #6, this issue delves further into his backstory to show how the new guests are going to affect his relationship with Alana.
Saga has a visual aesthetic unlike any other title, beginning with its bold cover images. Dramatic character shots are set against a single color that wraps around to the back, and the simple touch of not having an ad on the back cover makes each issue feel like a big deal. Saga is like having a summer event comic all year round, and there’s a general feeling of excitement permeating the title, particularly in its extensive letters page. In a world of tweets and message boards, where people can make their opinions known with the click of a button, it’s a pleasure to see a book so fully embrace the traditional letters column. (Vaughan also uses it to post pictures of fan-art, like adorable knit versions of the book’s central duo.)
For the cover of #7, Staples chose a color that isn’t often used in the male-dominated comics industry: a soft pink that highlights the red blood soaking Marko’s robe as he cuts through pairs of wings. It’s a violent yet serene image, with Marko holding a relaxed pose as the tiniest hint of a smirk forms in the corner of his mouth. On first look, it takes a moment to notice that the red of his robe is actually blood, but small glimpses of the outfit’s usual brown color peek out at the shoulders. Where did this blood come from? Whose wings are those? Why does Marko seem to be enjoying himself? The issue’s interiors offer no answers, but they do present some clues.
That soft pink on the inside cover beautifully complements the golden yellow of the first page, revealing a child Marko with his horned dog, blowing dandelions in the wind. It’s a peaceful picture that gives way to explosive action when Marko’s mother performs a spell that brings forth images of the war fought on this soil years ago, revealing the enemy to her son in what will be his very first memory. These events are narrated by Marko’s future daughter Hazel (and hand-lettered by Staples), and through the narration, Vaughan has been able to give Hazel a personality, even though she’s still a newborn in the main story. Through Marko’s first memory, new readers are also given any information they need to know to jump into the story, although there’s really no reason not to pick up the first collected volume of Saga.
Marko’s parents taught him from a young age to never forget the atrocities committed against his people, so when they see that he’s shacked up with the enemy, tensions are high. To make matters worse, Marko’s mom just banished their ghost babysitter to a nearby planetoid, so Marko has to go rescue her. Vaughan’s dialogue skills are on full display here, as Alana suddenly finds herself cast in a major part in Marko’s family drama, and her outsider status gives her the opportunity to chime in with comic lines like, “Cool. So glad I got to do this in a towel.” Vaughan is a master of incorporating humor in his scripts, and Staples’ characters are strong performers that land both the comedic and dramatic beats of the dialogue. When Marko’s dad asks if the baby is normal, Alana responds, “No, she’s fucking perfect. Now leave us alone.” The image of her cradling a child in one hand and wielding a gun in the other is a mix of rage and pride, and she’s only wearing a towel, so it’s a little sexy, too.
Staples’ artwork features some cel-animation influence, with sharp character models and environmental details laid over backgrounds that are more loosely rendered to create a lush, painted look. Over the course of Saga’s first six issues, Staples’ style has evolved: Her linework has become more streamlined, using fewer lines to create images that are no less evocative. Her design sense is perfectly in sync with Vaughan’s world, creating people and settings that are alluring, but not without surface flaws. And then there are the times when Staples gets grotesque, like the full-page reveal of the naked three-eyed giant that attacks Marko and his mother, its massive rotting testicles dangling over their heads. This is the kind of nastiness that comes when creators are allowed to do whatever the hell they want, and it’s magnificent.
As Marko and his mom argue about his future, Vaughan introduces a new wrinkle to the story, as Alana and Marko’s father have their own conversation, with him tied up in the vines of their living rocketship. To break out of his bonds, he offers up a secret, then knocks Alana out with a sleeping spell and grabs the baby. The cliffhanger shows him holding Hazel, saying, “Beautiful goddamn name.” Does he just want to be closer to his granddaughter before he dies, or is there a more malevolent agenda at work? The fact that that ambiguity is evident after one issue shows how Vaughan is able to create characters with instant depth, building complicated relationships from the very start, because nothing about family and love is ever easy.
In a year of stellar Image releases, Saga is one of the most engaging new titles to come out of the publisher. Beyond everything else, this comic is smart, not just in terms of story, but scheduling. Books of this quality take time, so between story arcs, Vaughan and Staples are taking two-month breaks, releasing the collections during the first skip month, then taking an extra month so Staples can get enough lead time on the artwork. It’s a genius shipping schedule, giving the creators enough time to make a product that stays at a consistently high level of quality, while allowing new readers an opportunity to jump in on the story, and building anticipation for people who are already invested in Marko, Alana, and Hazel’s adventures. As Saga grows, those two-month breaks are going to be harder and harder to endure, but #7 shows that the end result is well worth the wait.