Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Saga #19. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Under The Dome, The Private Eye) and drawn by Fiona Staples (Mystery Society, North 40) with letters and design by Fonografiks, this issue takes advantage of the time jump at the end of the last arc to drive the story in new directions. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples like to begin issues of Saga with a full-page image that aims to elicits a strong, specific reaction, and they really outdo themselves for the start of their newest story arc. Behind that hazy, theatrical cover of Alana in a costume, picking a wedgie on the Open Circuit set that is her current workplace, waits a full-page close-up of a gray robot vagina pushing out a small television-headed baby, accompanied by text of a doctor yelling, “One last push!” The visual that high school health students have averted their eyes from for years is plastered on the first page of one of the most critically acclaimed, commercially successful creator-owned series of the past decade, and that fearlessness is a huge part of why Saga has achieved such a high level of acclaim in just over two years.
As has been the case with many of the new Image titles of the last few years, there’s absolutely no way of knowing where Saga’s story will go next, because the creators are free to take it anywhere they want. The first storyline introduced the main characters and set up the overarching plot, following two soldiers from opposing sides of a galactic war who learn to become parents as they run from forces that want to see them and their baby daughter wiped out. Vaughan switched up the relationship dynamics by introducing in-laws and ex-girlfriends in subsequent arcs, but things started to fall into a groove at the end of the last storyline. Being on the run wasn’t enough drama anymore, so Vaughan accelerated events with a cliffhanger time-jump, bringing Hazel into her toddler stage to introduce new complications for her parents.
Judging by the last page of Saga #19, things are about to change dramatically for this family, and that graphic opening splash page of a baby being born reminds the audience of where the book began. Vaughan is an expert at making sure the start of an arc provides expository information to jog the memories of returning readers and give any potential newcomers the context to jump right in, and that opening sequence smoothly provides background information while introducing a new aspect of the narrative.
Showing the wife of Prince Robot IV giving birth to his heir allows Vaughan the opportunity to recap the current circumstances surrounding the series’ primary antagonist, and in a particularly slick transition, the newborn’s solar system mobile provides a map to detail the interplanetary conflict at the core of the series. Fiona Staples’ hand-lettering of Hazel’s narration is used to great effect during this scene, showcasing how this book makes lettering an important part of the storytelling.
Staples’ work with Hazel’s narration adds a juvenile touch to the story by using the kind of loose writing one would find in a teenage girl’s diary, and Fonografiks’ digital lettering for the speech bubbles plays with font to differentiate characters through the appearance of their dialogue. The speech of robot characters is printed in blocky text reminiscent of a retro computer to highlight their mechanical nature, and while the non-technological characters speak in a standard font, Fonografiks alters the colors depending on who is speaking or what is being said: Marko meets a young woman learning to speak “Blue” while he’s watching Hazel on a bounce castle (her text is blue, of course), Alana’s character voice when she’s playing Zipless on set is purple, and Hazel’s ghost babysitter, Izabel, speaks in bright pink lettering that matches her rosy appearance.
That attention to color shines through in Fonografiks’ slick monochromatic design, which, combined with Fiona Staples’ evocative character portraits, has helped Saga covers pop on comic stands. An emphasis on the design of its titles has elevated Image as a publisher in recent years, and this week’s output is a great example of how this strategy makes each book stand out. Titles like East Of West, Prophet, Rocket Girl, Undertow, Velvet, and Zero each have a distinct graphic aesthetic that matches the tone of the series, which translates to a more attention-grabbing design. Here’s a fun exercise: During your next visit to the comic shop, stand a few feet away from the books and look at which covers pull the eye most. The majority of those titles will be published by Image.
Each arc introduces new supporting players to the narrative, and the opening sequence in the Robot Kingdom ends with the debut of a robot janitor who isn’t particularly happy to have the responsibility of cleaning up the blue mess in his mistress’ bedroom. It’s not clear how big a part Dengo the janitor will have in this arc, but giving him a name suggests that we’ll see more of him as a way of getting a deeper look at the Robot Kingdom’s social structure. “We’re commoners,” Hazel’s narration says, paired with a panel showing an angry skull on Dengo’s television-head. The narration continues as the scene switches to a full-page splash of adorable toddler Hazel flying in a bounce castle, “And our castles are made of air.” It’s a jubilant image from Staples, capturing the simple, unbridled delight of youth as Hazel soars in front of the neon bounce castle background, and that still shot establishes the huge store of energy that leads to Marko getting an invitation to enroll his daughter in the dance classes of a beautiful purple stranger.
Marko is a bored stay-at-home dad while his wife supports the family by appearing on the Open Circuit in crappy serials about characters in flashy costumes fighting and fucking, and the arrangement has brought some friction to their relationship. Despite the family’s status as wanted fugitives, Marko can’t just stay in their tree-rocket-house all day, so he risks exposure by going to the park with his daughter wearing bandages on his face—“the world’s shittiest disguise,” according to Alana. His refusal to follow agreed-upon rules infuriates Alana after a lousy day at work, and seeing the couple butt heads proves that the time-jump brought an end to the honeymoon phase of their marriage. They’re trying to settle down, and now that they’re not distracted by the threat of imminent death, Alana and Marko are discovering each other’s character flaws. Their fight is diffused by the appearance of a sleepy Hazel, who wants to know if Mommy is mad and asks for a “skish” (“squish,” which means “hug”), but just because their conflict is pushed to the background doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear anytime soon.
With their daughter nestled between them, Alana and Marko declare their love for each other before Alana asks, “We’re going to be okay, right?” Anyone who knows Brian K. Vaughan’s work knows that this question does not bode well for the characters, and surely enough, the cliffhanger last page answers Alana with blunt narration from future Hazel: “This is the story of how my parents split up.” The pairing of the bleak text with the melancholy image of two nervous parents holding their smiling, oblivious child delivers an emotional gut punch that lends gravitas to this opening chapter, and much of that impact comes from Staples’ hugely expressive artwork.
After getting snubbed by the Eisner Awards last year, Fiona Staples received Eisner nominations this year for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art) and Best Cover Artist, and she’s a frontrunner for both categories based on her work in this week’s issue. Her linework is becoming more refined with each new issue, achieving a Fábio Moon-like delicacy at certain points in this issue, and her incredibly imaginative designs push the fantastic elements of the story while still maintaining the emotional honesty of Vaughan’s script. Her coloring is particularly impressive, as evidenced by a striking splash page of Alana making out with her co-star in front of a sherbet-colored landscape while small pink bugs fly around them. “Some of the special effects are cool,” Hazel’s narration reads during that moment, an understatement that amplifies just how cool the visual looks.
The four splash pages each represent a different aspect of a specific stage of development, starting with the utter vulnerability of infancy before moving into the energy of early childhood, exaggerated emotion of adolescence, and the depressing reality of adulthood. Alana may not be a teenager when she has the spectacular kiss on camera, but the image still evokes the hormonal passion of that period in a person’s life. The range of those splash pages reveals the wide range of Vaughan’s story, which uses an extraordinary environment to tell a deeply personal narrative about the human experience.
As the characters age, the plot finds new topics to address; in the case of Saga #19, that means exploring the dissolution of a marriage. There’s still plenty of humor in the story—Izabel berating Hazel’s grandmother for letting her pet walrus menstruate on the floor is a highlight—but the creative team is adding more dramatic weight to the events by moving in a gloomier direction. The reality of being a parent isn’t flying through the stars in a giant tree and fighting robot royalty, it’s dealing with the pressure of building a family and supporting its growth. Alana and Marko are about to crumble under the stress, and their strife revitalizes Saga as it starts its fourth arc.