By Zack Quaintance — There’s a weird thing in long-running comics, wherein writers and artists work hard to give their characters enough suffering and challenges for them to show the audience what they’re really made of, so much so that stories can border on becoming unpleasant. This is a thing in all storytelling mediums, from film to novels, but in monthly comics it feels far more acute because of the pace at which the story is doled out.
Basically, if you don’t like what an author or director is doing to your favorite characters in a book or film, you need only continue reading or watching. In a matter of minutes or days, the happier ground that eventually appears in most stories is found. Not so in comics. In some of the most involved stories and arcs, it can take years for beloved characters to get any peace. This is part of the bargain, and a big part of why I myself enjoy reading monthly. I like the experience of lingering in emotional beats (both bad and good), because it feels so much more like real life. And that’s certainly the case with this fourth full arc of Saga, with Marko and Alana having marital troubles and so many scenes feeling just awful.
It’s all a lot more noticeable within this weekly re-read schedule. Just an observation (which could be the unofficial motto for this site), now onward to the details!
Here’s the official preview text for Saga #21, which was first released back on July 23, 2014. Nobody forgets their 21st birthday, especially not a free-wheeling book (what does that even mean?) like Saga. Anyway, here’s the bygone solicit text for this issue…
Not every robot is lucky enough to be born a royal.
Oooo, a story about class struggle. That’s definitely one of my thematic buttons. It was also foreshadowed heavily in the previous issue. So cover aside (more on that below), this all adds to an issue I’m pretty excited to be re-reading. I’m off to go do that. Okay, still here? Great. Let’s get onto my thoughts, separated out as always based on individual elements.
The Cover: I’m a proud fan of pretty much all of the covers that feature Prince Robot IV, because of the way his TV face lets the creators play with some messaging within messaging. This robot character, obviously, has the same potential, but for whatever reason it doesn’t land as well with me. The regality and stature of Robot IV lends an air of surreal absurdity to his covers, whereas the murderous janitor on this one just looks a bit schlubby. The blood squeegee, however, does the trick in terms of setting a fairly horrific tone before we even get to page one. Speaking of which...
The First Page: ...this page one is fine. Staples artwork is evolving to a level of clean precision that will appear throughout the rest of the series. The actual concept for the opener isn’t all that memorable. It’s Alana in her Circuit garb (looking a bit like the Spider-Man villain Black Cat, from the long white hair down to the cleavage...don’t worry, there’s an in-story reason she’s being objectified) juxtaposed against an aggressively-mundane domestic setting, seated at a breakfast bar eating a bowl of children’s cereal (we find out later she’s on set). In keeping with the overall what we sacrifice for our kids motif of this arc, I suppose it does the trick.
The Surface: These past two arcs have had similar pacing, in that the middle issues are akin to watching a football team drive up the field with short-yet-constant passes that grab eight yards here, twelve yards there, and set the team up for a touchdown (I used to play a lot of Madden). This one pushes forward three plots: Alana falling into drugs while working on the circuit, Marko flirting with the dance teacher who tells him often that her husband is away (and in this issue that they also have an understanding), and the murderous kidnapping janitor coming to get Prince Robot IV, who pushes his own plot forward by snapping out of his indulgent stupor. This issue is not as dark as last week’s, which set the tone for the deepening complications we see here. Still no sign of Gwendolyn or The Will. Oh, and Izabel’s joke about being an indentured servant made me chuckle.
The Subtext: There’s not much new subtext in this issue, not that we didn’t cover in the last two anyway. There’s a really sad sex scene that almost tips into subtext territory, but then the narrative voice kicks in and directly outlines all that’s happening. That’s all fine, too. There’s so much going on there’s not that much time for metaphor and the like. I suppose Marko’s mother reading (and hating) Heist’s novels in the bath hints at a deeper grieving process that she’s going through. I’d say she should probably be grieving for Barr, but I miss Heist too. Barr was a sweetheart, but the latter was just so much more instrumental to our plot (and I’m a plot guy, what can I say?).
...an incredibly sad love scene between our couple (maybe not subtext, given how the narration lays out what’s going on)...
The Art: As I noted above, I think Staples in this art has evolved yet again, ascending to a place where her art is so precise and clean that the book looks like it was dropped fully-formed from some kind of ideal sci-fi artwork generator. It really is that well-done, and what’s incredible to me is how (relatively) early in the series it still is. One last thought that occurred to me: this vibrant and clean style creates a really engaging juxtaposition with some of the grizzlier violence in the series.
The Foreshadowing: The stuff about Alana and Marko’s forthcoming marital troubles is so blatant I’m not sure I’d even call it foreshadowing. Ditto with Alana being ashamed of her drug use. This arc is a lot like the previous one in that the first issue promises us a bunch of plot points, and the following chapters work efficiently to make good on them. That’s all really great for the effect it has on the pacing.
Check out past installments of our Saga Re-Read.
Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.