The Hidden Message of Saga, or, Why We Can’t Help But Love It

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During the last few years, I have read tons of books, and just a few of them had what I call a “magic wardrobe” effect.

You might have experienced it too: you open the book, time collapses, and you’re suddenly on the last page and the clock displays 4am. There is some distinctive type of story that transfers the reader to another world, where “normal” time and mundane worries (like early wake ups) don’t matter. My personal list of “magic wardrobe” readings is short; besides some works by King, Bujold, and Rowling, it includes only one comic book—Saga. And since the moment I swallowed Volume One, I didn’t stop asking myself, what’s so special about this graphic novel.

Everybody is crazy about Saga. It got three Eisner Awards, Hugo Awards for Best Graphic Story, six Harvey Awards and, by all reports, obvious, ultimate, universal, indisputable public acclamation. The timeline of the indie comics industry is now divided into “Before Saga” and “After Saga” epochs. But after reading dozens of praiseful articles and reviews, I didn’t find an answer—how come Saga conquered our hearts so easily?

Certainly, behind the ease of the story flow there’s a big and complex work. Saga is loaded with exceptional features, but what exactly makes it so dramatically distinguished from all others creator owned comics? Is it the unique world? There are thousands of well-designed sci-fi and fantasy universes in every media around. The meaningful look at parenting and family life? I don’t think this alone could buy such all-absorbing success among a diverse and variegated community of comic lovers. The colorful artwork with weird and vivid characters? Still not enough. An inventive idea to merge Shakespearian motives with the genre of space opera? C’mon, you can’t be serious! Lying Cat? Okay, this one looks good…

There must be something beyond all these virtues that reviewers praise. Something more powerful than the charm of a Star Wars like-universe, more compelling than the story of family life against the background of the intergalactic war, more eye-catching than a sex scene between a white dude and a giant female spider. Something essential, probably even subliminal. I recalled paranoid theories about The Lion King movie and ended up searching for hidden messages. It’s not likely that Saga has the word “sex” formed by clouds of dust somewhere between its panels—after all, we’re talking about the book with a love scene between… oh, I’ve already mentioned that.

Yet I did find the hidden message, which is big and important enough to glue our eyes to the series.

Here’s the point: to all of us readers, Saga gives a promise of freedom to be whoever we want and make our own choices without fear of being judged or punished. “Diversity is beautiful!” every page screams, as the book gets us acquainted with a Noah’s Ark of fiction species. Let’s look how the pile of polarly different characters promotes the idea of diversity.

 Saga #12, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Saga #12, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

The first and most obvious point of difference is their appearance. Saga’s world is inhabited by creatures of weird origins, yet it’s not a freak show for readers’ amusement. A ghost girl missing the lower half of her body, a Hemingway-spoofing cyclopean novelist, and an arrogant TV-headed guy are here not merely for our entertainment; they are deeply developed characters who start to evoke empathy pretty soon after they appear at the stage. Supporting characters are just as charming. It’s no surprise that a mouse medic and an upright baby seal look cute, but it’s more strange to start noticing some distinctive attractiveness of the giant female spider. In this way, Saga shows that our perception of beauty is unexpectedly flexible.

Sometimes the body image theme dives into the habitual “curvy vs. skinny” discourse—for instance, Marco points out that ex-fiancee Gwendolyn’s hips are “boyish,” while new wife Alana has “womanly” shapes, but at the end of the day it’s not what constitutes the difference between the girls and clearly not what defined Marco’s choice. Saga teaches us that people come in different colors, shapes, and sizes—isn’t it an apt idea for our intolerant world?

Saga #25, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2015

Saga #25, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2015

Also, people differ in how they situate themselves in the world. Look at Klara, Marco’s mother. She preferred a job over housekeeping and fought at the Battle of Cartwright; overall, she creates the impression of a tough and combative woman.

Her husband Barr is a peaceful and gentle person; he claims to be an armorer, but as we see his working, the word “seamstress” comes to mind (and Alana notices that, too!). For the short moment we see Marco’s parents together, the union of a tenderhearted man and a warrior-woman looks like a working idea in spite of the warnings of “traditional family values” advocates.

Marco and Alana go even further in what in our society would call a shift in family roles. He learns to cope with house dad duties while she becomes a breadwinner. Their life is a complete reverse of a patriarchal family from the I Love Lucy era.

Saga #15, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Saga #15, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Even the problems between the two are in fact “traditional” gender misunderstandings turned upside down: Marco deals with loneliness and develops “housewife boredom,” and Alana is overwhelmed by the burden of responsibilities. They split, but I believe that the exchange of gender roles has nothing to do with it. The main cause of the heart-ripping break-up in Issue #22 was their inability to listen to each other. If not for that, they could have been a happy, “improper” family. So here’s the Saga message: choose the way of life that suits you and your significant ones, even if it’s considered “abnormal.”

The discussion about the diversity and freedom within Saga wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the theme of homosexuality. It’s pretty clear how the LGBT characters contribute to the themes we’re focusing on, so let’s just remember them. Journalists Upsher and Doff escape their native planet because of discrimination, Izabel shares her story of romance and loss, and Gwendolyn had a same-sex experience in her past. We don’t know much about The Brand’s personal life, but she definitely prefers to dress and look masculine.

Saga #16, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Saga #16, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

All these characters differ in origins and appearance, but concur in the will to choose their sexuality, identity, and path of living. They are drawn and written the way it’s almost impossible not to support them all, despite the fact a good half of them are Marco and Alana’s enemies. It’s hard just to point to one of these characters and say: “This guy is bad,” because in Saga every position is understandable, every action has a reason, and no place for black-and-white tags is left.

In the first two arcs, Prince Robot IV has a well-reasoned urge to come home for his son’s birth. The Will’s intention to pull Sophie out of sexual slavery is probably the best intention in his whole life. Upsher and Doff’s desire to reveal the truth to the world is easy to accept too. Indeed, “the story with no sides,” as The Brand says. Sooner or later the reader grows attached to those who are supposed to be antagonists, and a subtle hope that in some way they all achieve their goals arises.

Hmm, did you hear that too? That idea “whoever you are and whatever you want in life, you deserve to be happy”? It follows logically from the sympathy we develop towards diverse and confronting characters. Saga creators neither hid it in clouds of dust, nor did they give it straightforward. Instead, they made us feel it empirically, because as Heist said…

Saga #12, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Saga #12, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Thus, as readers, we soak up this idea from every page unconsciously, and I think the message is universally appealing, because as human beings we want to believe that whichever choice we make, people around will understand and accept it like we accept all these weird creatures. We dream of the liberty to embrace our origins, be proud of who we are; we fall in love with the idea that happiness has no common recipe and everyone has a right to fight for one’s own special happiness. It is so inviting to yield to “magic wardrobe” effect and linger in the world of Saga a little longer, because it says: “Look, you can have eight limbs and still look sexy (and wear tulle maxi skirts, yes!).”

Saga #9, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Saga #9, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

It says: “You love all these fellows, despite their differences, and it means you could be loved too, despite your differences from others.” This idea is just irresistible and becomes even stronger as the action intensifies and characters’ struggles worsen.
The sad thing is, they can’t be happy all at once. Page after page, the conflict escalates and it becomes hurtful to decide whom to root for. Prince Robot can’t make it home till he finds the fugitive family, The Will can’t rescue Sophie if he won’t cooperate with Gwendolyn in pursuing the couple, and so on. If one wins, others lose.

The question “Why?” is two-fold. Obviously, complications drive the story. But putting aside authors’ duty to keep us entertained and engaged—why do these people need to harm each other in this universe, why can’t they get what they need without crossing each others borders?

The answer is easy: because of the ongoing war, which set them off against each other, limiting their free choice. The war is a decision that is made by a few and affects the lives of thousands or millions, and to any universe of any time it brings suppression and constraints.

Saga #25, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2015

Saga #25, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2015

In Saga, the war is the only villain, which stands for everything that’s against characters’ well-being, e.g. xenophobia, intolerance, black-and-white vision, and strictly prescribed roles. It not only intensifies bigotry in the book’s universe; in its core, the war is bigotry, a metaphor for it. The way the novel exposes the Landfall-Wreath conflict hints that it’s more likely a literary trope than a real war: the story hardly shows any military actions, the reasons are unknown, and all we can see is mutual hate and resentments.

Saga #7, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

Saga #7, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2013

So the war equals the bigotry, and the first look at the Rebellion, the claimed to be anti-war movement, supports this concept. Appeared in Issue #25, these guys contrived to look super weird even for the world of weirdness. And though we don’t know much about them yet, they are probably interested in “tolerance” like nobody else.

Thus, under the guise of the intergalactic clash, Saga depicts a prolonged fight that shaped our reality—the fight for freedom and diversity, in which “almost everyone in universe have skin in the game.” An itchy theme for a world, where wearing a tattoo or choosing freelancing over an office job could turn you into a Landfallian among angry “horns” or vice versa. Should I say how important this theme is for generations of nerds, comics lovers, subculture enthusiasts, and other “misfits” who don’t follow mainstream mindset? We fall for Saga inevitably because its characters live in a bloodshed since the day of birth, and it reflects our own lives with all struggles against prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes.

Saga #25, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2015

Saga #25, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples. Image Comics, 2015

How to win if the war itself is your enemy? Marco and Alana choose inaction. When they flee from the bloody feud they actually claim their right to choose life, love, friends, and foes by their own free will. Unable to find a safe place, the couple creates a tiny microcosm of the family, where they can raise their daughter Hazel and instill her with their values. It’s their method to beat the system, and it’s pretty similar to one of Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The soldier and the nurse “declare separate peace” exactly the same way. The happy difference is that Alana and Marco succeed, i.e. their child, a symbol of a world without the war, survives. In some sense, they have already won, although the journey is not completed. Their story is important for all of us, because it contains a formula of how to put an end to hate and hostility in our universe.

So there are three big things that compose Saga’s engaging power. First, by depicting a pile of dissimilar and appealing characters, the novel conveys the idea of perfect diversity and freedom. Then, it uses the metaphor of the war to reflect actual struggles against social pressure and stereotypes in the real world. Finally, the book becomes A Farewell To Arms of the nerd generation, as by the example of Alana and Marco it proposes the way to deal with the “war.” It teaches us that the dreamland of freedom and diversity might not be built yet, but if you’re brave enough to make bold choices, you can turn your environment in a dreamland, cozy, and small. After all, such micro-worlds constitute the universe. Now guess what will happen if everybody believes in this idea?

It looks like we all now have one more reason to tell people about Saga.

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About Author

Opinion writer. Born and raised in Russia, Nadia lives in Northern Jersey and is currently pursuing a literary career in two languages. Nadia writes comic book scripts, short stories, and novellas in different genres. She constantly hunts for examples of gorgeous storytelling in various media, e.g. TV shows, Broadway musicals, and retro ketchup ads. You can find her casual chatter about this on Twitter at @nadyabauman and Tumblr at nadiabauman.

2 Comments

  1. I have been looking for someone to put this into words. Thank you, I’ve now shared your piece with everyone i know, truly thank you.