What is a monster? The easy answer is an “unnatural” being—your zombies, ghosts, or vampires. Stories from Frankenstein to The Walking Dead showcase the idea that humans can become monstrous through action, perhaps even more monstrous than the undead. Critics like David J. Skal and Stephen King argue that fictional monsters are metaphors, vehicles to
What is a monster? The easy answer is an “unnatural” being—your zombies, ghosts, or vampires. Stories from Frankenstein to The Walking Dead showcase the idea that humans can become monstrous through action, perhaps even more monstrous than the undead. Critics like David J. Skal and Stephen King argue that fictional monsters are metaphors, vehicles to reflect a society’s anxieties back at them. In Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, monstrousness can be interpreted through all of these lenses. “The Horrors” on Cleave are traditional monsters, ghosts who try to scare off outsiders, and The Will is called a monster for his acts of casual murder and violence. But for readers, the most monstrous of the regular cast—at least physically speaking—is The Stalk.
Staples’ alien designs are one of the most consistently engaging aspects of the comic, and The Stalk is one of her most memorable. With multiple red eyes and hairy spider legs, The Stalk taps into some pretty common fears, despite a torso that recalls the Venus de Milo. In fact, her lower body is made even more monstrous by juxtaposition with her human features, which conform to common concepts of White beauty. The Stalk’s body blends the repulsive with the alluring, like many a vampire before her–she even shares their strong sexual desires, one of things that, historically, have made these monsters most threatening. Unlike most traditional monsters though, The Stalk has credible motivations for her actions, is only briefly a threat to our heroes, and is not treated by them as a monster. In a state of shock, Alana initially calls The Stalk “it,” but then she and Marko talk to The Stalk like a person. A dangerous person, a murderer. But still a person.
The Stalk dies soon after meeting Marko and Alana, but not before she’s positioned as an object of desire (the role she’s performed in the comic since). Even after her death, The Stalk has stayed around as The Will’s hallucination, his idealized object of desire. After the original striking splash page revealing The Stalk’s spidery lower body, we really only see her from The Will’s subjective viewpoint, drugging himself to keep her around. She’s merely another alien, one who we can read as beautiful, with her perfect breasts and blonde hair.
While The Stalk’s body quickly becomes normalized, the body that is continually read by other characters as monstrous is ultimate protagonist Hazel’s. In his “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that “the monster is an incorporation of the Outside, the Beyond… monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial.” Both sides of the war possess distinctive physical characteristics, wings and horns, so characters’ loyalties are written on their bodies. Hazel carries traits from both parents and therefore both sides of the war, so she belongs to neither side. She’s seen by leaders on both sides as a potential symbol of harmony, making her dangerous. “The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read,” Cohen notes. The leaders on both sides of the conflict want to keep Hazel out of the public eye, to discourage readings of her body that encourage peace. Vez, representing “The Horns” from Wreath, believes that when Marko fell for Alana and fathered Hazel, he “betray[ed] The Narrative” that the soldiers and citizens of the moon need to believe to continue the war. While Vez doesn’t think that Hazel should be killed, she knows that Hazel’s body tells a new narrative, one that could threaten those who want the war to continue.
But maybe she needn’t have worried. In the first issue, Prince Robot IV is incredulous that Alana could have consented to a relationship, certain that Marko “forced himself on her,” despite assurance from Landfall’s Secret Service. More recently, Petrichor caught sight of Hazel’s wings on the Landfall detention centre. She assumes that Hazel’s father must have been a soldier from Landfall who assaulted Hazel’s mother. It doesn’t occur to her that someone from Wreath could have “willingly laid down with one of those monsters,” as Prince Robot IV said at the beginning of the series. To these characters, monstrousness is no longer tied to specific, proven action—monsters are simply the other side of the conflict. As a result, Hazel’s body becomes a representation of monstrous action, since the idea of love between members of both sides is too horrible for either side to contemplate. These characters wouldn’t bat an eye at a spider-person like The Stalk, but a child with horns and wings is truly monstrous for what they believe her body must mean.
Monstrousness isn’t inherent, but something that must be socially constructed and interpreted. Vaughan and Staples use real-world sexual taboos to shock their readers sometimes, like the monster with the giant scrotum that Marko and his mother confront, or the dragon that The Brand, Gwen, and Sophie see sucking on its own giant penis. They also insert real-world prejudices into the comic, like the homophobia that forces Upsher and Doff to hide their relationship on their home world. In the case of The Stalk, they use recognizable stereotypes to evoke a woman who’s nearly a Barbie; most readers will recognize the signifiers like her tiny pink cell phone and her bright pink lip gloss. She possesses a familiar kind of commonly-fetishized, passive femininity, but by combining that with her monstrous profession and monstrous legs, the creators can do some subtle world-building, demonstrating the difference in acceptance of The Stalk’s body against Hazel’s.
A lot of readers complained early on about the recognizable devices in the world of Saga, like low-tech VHS tapes and ATMs, since they were too low-tech and close the real world. But those electronics are just one of the ways the creators align the world of Saga to the real one; still, the most vivid mirror to reality is the way that Hazel’s body is inherently politicized. It’s not just Hazel’s body either—Alana breastfeeding on the cover of the first issue was seen (by some) as obscene, so the first hardcover volume featured a close-up on Alana’s breast with Hazel feeding as a challenge to the book’s detractors. Such criticism reveals a world that sees women’s breasts as appropriate only when they can be read as sexually appealing, they can’t have meaning (or function) beyond eliciting sexual desire.
This attempt to force a reading on women’s bodies isn’t dissimilar to the narratives characters construct in response to Hazel’s body. Years of war and propaganda haven’t prepared them to accept their political enemies as people, and Hazel’s body places her in the middle of the conflict. From what we can see in Saga, the entire sentient galaxy has chosen a side in the war, so no matter where she goes, Hazel will always be partly Other. As a part of both sides, she disrupts the binary and belongs to neither. Hazel occupies a liminal space: her body exists between Landfall and Wreath, the way vampires and zombies exists between living and dead, or werewolves exist between human and animal. Readers will see her as a person, but in her own world, Hazel will forever have to hide her body, lest she betray herself as a monster.