Why Saga #54 Hurts so Bad

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for Saga #52 - #54.

By Zack Quaintance — Saga is my favorite comic. I jumped on after the first arc (dumb, still hunting early issues at a feasible price...ugh), and I’ve since shared the trades with friends, family, even coworkers....simply put, I love Saga. It has a plot that fits its name: there is galactic and generational war between two species, and now for the first time, members of those species have reproduced together. The comic follows a would-be family hunted by powers vested in keeping their coupling from becoming known so as to maintain forever war.

Artist Fiona Staples’ landscapes, spaceships, monsters, and aliens are among the most imaginative illustrations ever, and writer Brian K. Vaughan’s characterization is deep and honest. It’s all so good. I, however, never realized how real it felt to me until Saga #54 hit, until...here comes the spoiler…Marko dies.

Not to be histrionic, but I gasped when I read it and choked a teary no when I realized it was real. Even now, I have a lump in my throat. I was and still am devastated, perhaps more than I’ve ever been while reading comics (and I’ve read lots of comics). Marko’s death hurts. Through my grief, I want to look today at why it hurts.

Normally, this is where I’d say Let’s do this! but I’m in no mood. So, with all respect, let’s proceed...

The Hero’s Journey

Let’s start with the writerly reason this hurts so bad: Marko was engaged in a hero’s journey that was abruptly ended. Killing protagonists isn’t new. Jason Aaron did so at the end of his first arc of Southern Bastards, and George R.R. Martin made a career sending Starks to their dooms. But I struggle to think of a protagonist that died while on as dynamic a hero’s journey as Marko's in Saga (he was even writing a novel!, or rather...more of a secret novella, really, as he put it).

Ned Stark certainly wasn’t (being stuck in his ways did him in), and neither was Robb, who in both the books and show earned death via youthful hubris. Hell, in Southern Bastards we barely knew Earl Tubb when he died at the end of Coach Euless Boss’ big stick (the names in that book rule). Marko, however, spent 54 issues at the heart of Saga, making mistakes, learning, growing from them. Saga has ample side characters, but for protagonists there are only three: Marko, Alana, and Hazel; and there was precious little to suggest any were in danger. That brings us to our next point...

The Surprise

The death of Prince Robot IV in Saga #53 seemed to suggest the following issue would be more about repercussions than the loss of another major character.

Marko’s death came as an abrupt surprise, and being unprepared exacerbated the hurt. Characters in modern serialized fiction die more frequently than perhaps they have in the past. We also have rabid and engaged fandoms that demand stakes stakes stakes, as if death is the only consequential form of defeat. As such, a pattern has developed that precedes main characters dying, and Saga didn’t follow it. This wasn’t a milestone issue, there was no fanfare, no one leaked a spoiler, and, perhaps most significantly, the book just knocked off two other characters, one of which was prominent.

I mean, just consider that over the course of its run, Saga hasn’t been a story in which every character was liable to die at any time. So, losing two in three issues seemed to imply safety, especially for our leads. In Saga #53, The Will tears Prince Robot IV’s head from his shoulders, and in Saga #51, photojournalist Doff dies at the hands of Ianthe. I don’t think I was alone expecting this issue to be about repercussions not about upping the body count, but, hold on, Ianthe and The Will merit closer inspection, which transitions nicely to...

The Will

Marko’s death hurt because of who killed him. The Will. You know The Will. The heartbreak. The weight gain. The enslavement by Ianthe. The saving of the girl on the bordello planet. The Will isn’t admirable, but he’d become relatable, human. He seemed to be humbled in a way that would allow him to join our heroes. The Will making all this progress and then ultimately getting his revenge on the family he considers responsible for the death of his beloved is downright Shakespearean. 

Even so, Vaughan and Staples warned us often that he would kill Marko. Check out this foreshadowing:

Hazel tried to warn us about The Will...(from Saga #4).

  • During The Will’s first appearance, Hazel’s narration says But if he’d known what wheels had started spinning over Wreath, my father never would have left those tunnels.

  • That same issue, she notes for the first time she doesn’t become a great war hero or all-important savior, and that her parents gave her a chance to grow old, saying...Not everybody does as below the text they kiss.

  • When The Will saves the girl from Sextillion, Hazel says Like every freelancer I had the misfortune to eventually meet, he was a fucking MONSTER.

We were told repeatedly who The Will was and what he would do, yet we ignored it, wanting reality to be different. Oh, how it hurt when it was not, which brings us nicely (yet again) to...

Paying for Mercy: A Lesson for 2018

Marko’s death hurt so badly because it happened when he showed The Will mercy. In Saga #54 it is established that Marko was abused, not severely, but enough to realize violence is an ineffective solution for solving problems. His past trauma stops him from delivering a deathblow when The Will is prone beneath him, and it’s this mercy that gets him killed.

During this year of much tumult , it has become difficult to see the world as a place that rewards kindness or mercy, that rewards anything other than selfishly protecting one's interest above all else, even if to do so involves lying, cheating, betrayal, or corruption. Conversely, responding to those things has also seemed to be universally done with rage. I know my own often-optimistic worldview has certainly been tested. This was part of my read of Marko’s death, although admittedly, maybe I’m proscribing more meaning to it than is actually there, which (yet again!) brings us to our next point...

Family

The last reason this hurts so bad is because Marko’s death was tangled with ideas of family. Hazel has told us before and tells us again in this issue that she doesn’t grow up to be a great hero or messiah. That her life is only as meaningful as any other life, and that, as such, her parent’s sacrifices within are happening to give her a chance at that life. It’s a nigh-universal sentiment, one that readers can relate to (hard) both as children and potential or current parents.

Essentially, this is a story about family and generations (as the most powerful stories often are). It’s about the sacrifices Marko and Alana are making for their child, flashing back at times to their own childhoods when they’re informed by the sacrifices their parents made. It’s about Prince Robot IV (who flashes a rattle on his screen before shooting The Stalk, which eventually earns his own death via The Will) doing the same, and that’s a heartbreaking notion, at least for me as I move further into my 30s and come to face parenthood.

There you have it. Five reasons I think Marko’s death has hit harder than most in comics. I should note that most comic deaths also involve superheroes, which means they often come back, and Saga isn’t that sort of story. I should maybe also note this could all be over-analysis, and that Marko’s death is maybe best explained on a primal level: someone we loved is gone and we’re sad. As David Foster Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest, maybe...sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That’s certainly how I feel after the latest turn in this story.

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Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.