The Saga Re-Read #23: Saga #23 is heavy with betrayals (plural)

Saga #23 was released 9/24/2014.

By Zack Quaintance — Here we are at Saga #23, the penultimate issue of this story’s dour fourth arc. I have to admit, upon first reading this series, this arc was not my favorite, which in retrospect is a testament to how accurately writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples convey the marital discord. I didn’t like this arc—which follows a time jump—because the romance and resultant little family was so severely threatened by problems I myself could relate to.

Murderous cosmic bounty hunters and robot nobles who can turn their arms into cannon are scary, theoretically, but wanting to escape one's routine for something more exciting? Well, that was a threat I could easily see in my own life. I’ve been ready for it this second time through though, and so I’ve enjoyed this arc quite a bit more, coming to understand how pivotal it is within the plot. What is this touching romance worth if it’s not tested on its own merits, rather than an increasingly wacky parade of independent threats? It’s hard to say. The fact that mundanity is as difficult as the extreme makes the love feel more authentic and the story all the more engrossing.    

Anyway, on to the individual elements!

Saga #23

Here is the official preview text for Saga #23, which was first released back on Sep. 24, 2014. I don’t want to call it time travel, not exactly, but it’s starting to feel wild that our weekly reading schedule is moving at a faster pace than the issues came out (it makes perfect sense, obviously, but still…)...

Betrayal.

Whoa. It’s just one word, but what a word! I once had a friend I hadn’t seen in a number of years come visit me somewhat out of the blue. He’d been living with a woman in New Orleans, and when he got by me in Austin, he drank like crazy and didn’t want to sleep, like at all. When I asked him how his life was going, he told me, “There’s been a betrayal.” I haven’t seen him since. Anyway, onward to this issue of Saga!

The Cover: Perhaps it's the meta nature of this cover’s concept, but I think this is one of those occasional Saga covers that can stand alone as an independent work of art, independent of its association with these characters and this series. It’s not as politically relevant as some of the other covers that fit this description, but a hunchback plant woman with an obscured face in reality but a pretty and concentrated look in the canvas reaching out and into her work to paint herself—my head just exploded, but still, my point is this concept and cover are intriguing.  

The First Page: Sticking with the one-word pattern established by this issues preview text...salacious. This issue opens with Marko’s flirtation—the dance teacher and kindred mom spirit he met bringing his kid to the park—leaning casually in the doorway of what is presumably her home, wearing naught but a concert t-shirt (The Mistook) and a come hither look as she says, Why am I not surprised to see you? This arc has promised us marital complications, and with the last issue ending with Marko being tossed from his home after pelting his wife with a bag of groceries, well, none of this is good for our little family, none of it at all.

This first page conveys the biggest threat the little family has faced yet: relatable marital discord.

The Surface: This issue moves forward our various plotlines, curiously pitting Marko’s pelting Alana with a bag of groceries in a fit of rage against Alana’s descent into drug use. I suppose it’s not the story doing this so much as the ghost babysitter character Izabel. Either way, it’s an interesting juxtaposition, and the main case the character is making here is that both have a vast potential to damage a child and ruin a family, which is the central conflict of this arc. Also, Izabel has the ultimate high ground to make any point about ruination she wants, having herself been a victim of the conflict between Marko and Alana’s two sides, ultimately losing her life. Anyway, things really move here, to the point the promised separation between Marko and Alana (which turns out to be literal) occurs at the end of the issue, with Marko and Prince Robot IV coming face-to-face.

The Subtext: There’s some heavy subtext about the ongoing forever war here, and the way that regular members of society enable it. I’m thinking specifically of when the drug pusher/costume designer from The Circuit tells the kidnapper, Even if I could get you on the air, once you start ranting about politics, ninety percent of your audience is just going to change the channel. This wasn’t as painful to read as the first time I came across it, back in the halcyon political times of 2014, but now with a reality star wrecking brutal chaos in the White House, it hits so much harder. The drug pusher goes a step further to suggest Marko and Alana are analogous of the wings and horns higher powers, propagating a fake war while hooking up behind the scenes in an effort to oppress the common man. This is an idea I don’t recall being revisited often (although in many ways this very notion is why higher powers don’t want Hazel’s existence getting out), but I think it’s ripe for further exploration once this book returns from its hiatus.

The Art: Fiona Staples does an incredible bit of work here with facial expressions, using almost every central characters face to convey feeling and set individual tones within the plot. Here are some of my favorite instances of this....

The Foreshadowing: There’s not really all that much in here. Hazel makes a disparaging comment about her dance teacher, which sort of hints at how that woman’s role develops in the family mythology moving forward, but other than that, this issue is short on hints about the future.

Saga #23
Writer:
Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Letterer: Fonografiks
Publisher: Image Comics

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.

The Saga Re-Read: Saga #22 is all anger, drugs, and disloyalty

Saga #22  was originally released on 8/27/2014.

Saga #22 was originally released on 8/27/2014.

By Zack Quaintance — The holidays are over, which means many of us spent (and survived) time with our family. I know I spent quite a bit of time with my parents, who have been divorced for years but came together to spend time with me in the same room because I rarely make it from California home to Chicago. And you know what? It wasn’t all bad!

I’ll spare you the details of our own familial complications, noting only that what’s happening here in Saga right now—with Marko and Alana buckling under the pressure of raising a young child in a challenging world—feels familiar to me, as I’m sure it does to a good many readers. Reflecting on my own childhood while doing this re-read really impressed upon me the universality of this book, the way that as a married adult now I can see myself in both the parents and the child. I know I know I know...I’m a broken record heaping praise upon Saga (see our Best Comics of 2018!), but I really do like it that much.   

And now, our usually weekly deep dive into the twists, turns, and bliss that is this individual issue!

Saga #22

Here is the official preview text for Saga #22, which was first released back on Aug. 27, 2014. Ah, what a time that was, amiright? Anyway, below you will as always find the bygone solicit text for the issue...

The family is tested.

Really, you all? This could essentially be the preview text for literally every last issue of this series. That said, upon re-read it certainly seems like this is the arc in which the family is most tested. At least, until the arc that concluded last summer, anyway. But I digress. Let’s keep the focus on this issue! Vamos haber...

The Cover: This cover isn’t one of the most visually-stunning, but I do like it in concept. Featuring Marko’s mother seated with Izabel and that big alien walrus thing to each side, I suppose the intention behind this one is to show just how odd their little family unit has become. Perhaps odd is the wrong word. Maybe unlikely is better. Either way, I like that notion, even if this cover isn’t as illustrative of the ongoing quiet family conflict as the arc maybe demands.

The First Page: Okay, so maybe I’m in a bad mood today, but I also really don’t like this first page. Which is maybe the point? This page shows a homely-faced character in pastels and a mini-skirted rollerskating outfit having a cosmic digestive issue and remarking, Oopsie, I made a universe! This character is actually Izabel pretending for Hazel. Which is why I’m supposing part of the aim here is to be in annoyingly poor taste. I suspect either Vaughan and Staples had been watching some bad kids TV with their own kids at the time of inception...so yeah, mission accomplished, in that it re-enforces the idea that pandering to kids all the time becomes a difficult environment for adults to totally lose themselves in. Showing this annoying joke at home re-enforces (to me, anyway) why both Marko and Alana are elsewhere looking for escape.    

The Surface: Marko and Alana get wind of each other’s mutual escaping from the mundanity of the routines they’ve settled into, doing what must be done for the sake of their young child, Hazel. This gives rise the heated conflict that has been building between them for several issues, tears and yelling and regret. It’s uncomfortable to watch, but done tastefully in a way that stands to show us what our characters (and more importantly, their marriage) are really made of. Meanwhile, Robot IV’s plotline progresses in two place: with him visiting his father at home and with Dengo (the kidnapper) showing up at Open Circuit, looking for access to mass media. This all ends in one hell of a cliffhanger, with Alana’s friend/co-worker/drug dealer (whose name escapes me) offering her up as a bargaining chip, a recurring plot point throughout this story.

The Subtext: There is an idea laid out pretty blatantly in this issue that has floated under the surface throughout the entire story. Agent Gale tells a disgruntled Robot IV that The whole point of having enemies abroad is getting to ignore the ones back home, as the duo stand on a palatial balcony overlooking an obvious slum, in which the homes are built atop one another. It’s a bit heavy-handed, straining the definition of subtext, but it does tease out some past subtext. This is becoming an increasingly difficult section to write, as the subtext (so much an emphasis in early orienting issues) fades into the background in favor of rapid plot points. I’m not complaining.

The Art: The headlining art in this issue is the visage of King Robot, which, to my mind, is one of the most memorable designs in the entire series. It’s a pretty risky one, extrapolating the concept of a kingdom of cyborg’s with TV heads to an extreme that could have looked really silly. Staples, however, transcends that and pulls it off, which in my opinion is yet another testament to the vast contributions she makes to the book every damn issue.

The Foreshadowing: A little bit of foreshadowing in Alana’s storyline, with Upsher and Doff noticing her use of a line from one of Heist’s novels. That will certainly come back to be relevant later. Perhaps more interesting (and subtle) is the return of Marko’s volatile rage. He pelts Alana with a bag of groceries here before immediately regretting and apologizing. We’ve seen Marko erupt before, but we’ve never seen him look so despicable doing it. The creative team is seeding his rage well, which stands out upon re-read, knowing what we do now about where this plot is headed.

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.

The Saga Re-Read: Saga #21 continues the discomfort

Saga #21 was first released 7/23/2014.

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!

Saga #21

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.

A perfect example of that juxtaposition between violence and clean/vibrant art.

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.


The Saga Re-Read: Saga #20 is about parenting and escape

Saga #20 was first released 6/25/2014.

By Zack Quaintance — We didn’t really plan the schedule of this Saga Re-Read, just sort of jumping into it soon after Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples announced the book would be going on hiatus for at least a year. As such, the issues fall where they will. This week sees us just days out from Christmas...while reading one of the bleakest thematic issues of Saga yet.

Yes, in Saga #20 we get a story about parents who—for varied reasons—are haggard and discontent, mostly fulfilling their responsibilities but finding themselves desperate for a little self reclamation as they do. This is the first two-thirds of Saga #20. The book ends with a violent punctuation, a reminder that as difficult as circumstances can get, there are extremes in this world and our own troubles often pale in comparison. As a result, Saga #20 feels like one of the most honest issues of the story to date, and while it may be an uncomfortable read, it’s early in this story arc, which essentially promises some relief as it progresses.

Let’s take a closer look!

Saga #20

Here’s the official preview text for Saga #20, which was first released back on June 25, 2014. This is maybe when the series really settled in to its late-month release schedule. Anyway, here’s the bygone solicit text for the book…

Something terrible happens.

Yeah, this sort of cryptic and ominous teaser becomes somewhat standard as the book wears on. The book being a sales hit has probably created the luxury of keeping previews vague, seeing as by this point in the run they knew each issue would move a ton of units, and, more importantly, that the trades would sell like crazy in bookstores and other non-comics venues. Now, onto the terrible something(s).

The Cover: A sweet cover featuring disguised father and rapidly-growing daughter. The gold star balloon, stubby-horned toddler, and bandaged man are all striking visual features, but the real story of this cover is told by the facial expressions. The young girl, Hazel, is just so innocent and happy, while the father is more serious, not dour by any means, but looking equal parts burdened and contented, a man with a great many responsibilities who wouldn’t have it any other way. Saga covers are rarely so sweet...

The First Page: ...and then we arrive on a classic Saga first page, one of the sex ones, as it where, in which Prince Robot IV (who last issue just became a father, albeit while he himself was still missing in action) is in what is pretty evidently a bordello, nude and being entertained by a harem of young ladies from different planets. His cracked screen, a relatively new reality at this point in the story, alludes to Robot IV being unwell. The women, later referred to as sales associates, are doing things to him, and he has one word in exchange: ...more…I’m hard pressed to think of a first page and cover more at odds with each other than these two.

The Surface: This issue—in terms of both surface and subtext—is all about escape. Marko seeks his escape by flirting with a stranger, Alana finds hers in drugs, and concussed Prince Robot IV (who as we noted above may not even realize he’s a new parent) disappears into a brothel planet. Even Ginny, the dance teacher Marko flirts with, notes that she’s essentially escaping into her own work, stashing her kid in daycare four days a week while her husband is out on the road, doing something related to the war (as most characters do). After seeing all the haggard new parents fighting to reclaim parts of themselves, we get a stark and sinister contrast: the robot royal’s goes to murderous extremes, monologuing as he does about how painful it was to lose a child because of his station in life. More on the significance below...

 The Subtext: The subtext to the way this issue is structured (the first two acts about escaping new parenthood, the last about the devastation of losing a child to poverty) is a stark reminder that tiring as it may be, being able to even raise a child in health and comfort is an increasingly privileged luxury, one we shouldn’t take for granted. The subtext in this issue is essentially twofold, with another part about the very nature of escapism within a society and, more specifically, whether even well-done art truly has the power to change the world. Vaughan is at his most cynical here (not to sound cliche, but it’s always darkest before a dawn…although I’ve read through Saga #54 and we haven’t exactly gotten that, yet), possibly wondering at the impact of his own work as he notes that even shows that are well done function like drugs, providing a brief entertainment high that changes how people feel without altering their actions once it’s over. If I recall correctly, this will be explored in greater detail in the coming issues.

The Art: Fiona Staples work is as wonderful as always, with a standout sequence being Alana getting high for the first time. I feel like this point in my life as a reader, I’ve seen so many narcotic highs rendered (and well) in comics. Staples goes an almost subtle route, having only two pages to convey what Alana’s feeling but still getting it all across.

Alana gets high for the first time.

Foreshadowing: Not all that much here. We got a pretty direct bit of foreshadowing in Saga #19, and, as a result, we can see here the marital trouble accelerating between Marko and Alana. I’m not sure I’d call that foreshadowing; it’s more just standard machinations of the ongoing plot. Notably, The Will, Gwendolyn, Lying Cat, and Sophie are still totally absent, marking the second consecutive issue for that.

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.


The Saga Re-Read #19: A major shift in the plot

Saga #19  was first released 5/21/2014.

Saga #19 was first released 5/21/2014.

By Zack Quaintance — There’s a lot going on in this week’s Saga #19. This is the first issue back from one of those Saga hiatuses, a five-month break which now in retrospect seems downright abbreviated. There’s been a time jump, characters have moved around, and the central family seems to have settled into a new status quo. More on all of that later. What I’d like to touch on briefly in this intro is what Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples were working toward here.

Saga, especially in its early days, was a book built on not shock value, but definitely on provided comic book readers writ large with visuals, feelings, and even a few ideas that had maybe never before been captured on the paneled page. With the start of its fourth arc, there’s definitely a feeling here that the creators are working to keep things fresh, to keep readers on that unpredictability high, and to find new places in this universe that will enable them to do so. I remember on first read being just a bit ambivalent at times in this arc (just a bit, because, as this feature should probably make evident, Saga is my favorite comic), and I’m anxious to see how it plays on re-read.

With that in mind, let’s get to this week’s comic!

Saga #19

Here’s the official preview text for Saga #19, which was first released back on May 21, 2014. We were all so young then...sigh. Anyway, here’s the bygone solicit text for the book…

Saga returns! New planet, new adversaries, and a very new direction, all from the same old Hugo Award-winning team. Mature Readers.

Saga took a five-month break between #18 and #19, and when it returned, it came back with a time jump (teased at the end of last issue) and a new direction. This is the point where I recall the book not exactly losing momentum but definitely settling in after a pretty rapid pace of plot developments over the course of its first three arcs. I’m interested to see how my memories square with the actual story upon reading reading.

The Cover: The new direction mentioned by the solicit text is evident in this cover, which like some of the other most memorable covers is clearly indicative of the Saga world and aesthetic, yet basically contains nothing we’ve seen before. This one is also different, in that it features an established character in a costume/storyline that we’ve barely seen hinted at as of yet.

The First Page: So, this one’s a doozy...a close-up shot of Prince Robot IV’s baby being born, like a really close-up shot, as a voice from off panel yells, One last push! This is one of those Saga first pages that reminds you what this book is really about: an unflinching look at love and life and family, depicted with some of the wildest sci-fi designs you’ve ever seen. The baby having an old TV stand-by pattern on its screen as it’s born is also incredibly funny, btw.

The Surface: This first issue of the arc didn’t represent as drastic of a shift in the plot as I seemed to remember, potentially because I’ve read another 30-some issues past this and can see it in the context of the whole. Either way, at our slow one-issue-per-week pace, Saga #19 to me felt like a pretty natural extension of all that has come before it, even if what the characters are actually doing is a major shift. Alana has a job acting on the pirace circuit, Marko is a stay-at-home dad, and Prince Robot IV is MIA. Notably absent are Gwendolyn, Sophie, The Will, and Lying Cat, who were all pretty instrumental to the climax of the previous arc.

The Subtext: There’s not much room for elaborate metaphor in this issue. There’s a lot of subtle work done to hint at what’s gone on with the characters in the time jump, though. There’s also a couple of hints (granted, easily missed) that the raging forever war has maybe not done wonders for the economy, that everyday folks—the janitor for the Robot royals, as well as our central family—are facing a larger challenge to provide and survice. That all makes sense given that this came out in 2014 and was presumably written and drawn sometime before that, when we had maybe just then started to really put some distant between ourselves and the devastating 2007-2008 global recession.   

Saga #19, the book simultaneously being ominous and adorable.

The Art: Staples often seems to put together some of her best work in the return issues following a Saga hiatus, and this one is no exception. In addition to the opening page splash, there’s a more vibrant full-page here that depicts a now-toddler-sized Hazel playing in a bouncy castle with other kids, her little horns now starting to show with an expression of pure joy on her face. It’s incredibly well done and also welcome after the danger the family has just faced (at least in our minds as readers), and Staples nails it. Also, shout-outs to the one-pager with Alana smooching another actor on set amid a buzzing throng of adorable flies, and the ending page with its perfect mix of dread and cuteness.

Foreshadowing: Tons of it in this issue, really. This is the story of how my parents split up. That last line, of course, sets the tone for the marital drama that will play out in this arc. There’s also Alana’s job stress and Marko’s hesitant friendship with the dance instructor on the playground. Meanwhile, in the Robot Kingdom, the presence of the embittered janitor who broadcasts a skull on his television face screen when someone walking away mentions the royals is something to keep an eye on. Also interesting is how this issue starts to pay off so much of the foreshadowing done in the last arc: Alana acting on the circuit, the job being important, the kids settling into family life, etc.

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.

The Saga Re-Read #18: End of a well-built arc

Lying.

By Zack Quaintance — I think the fact that we’re doing a literally 54-part series on Saga, which is written by Brian K. Vaughan, speaks to the respect and admiration we have for Brian K. Vaughan as a writer. But you know what? All of these weeks in now, I don’t know if we’ve really heaped much praise on the guy, especially not his scripting.

We’ve talked quite a bit about the plotting and the accompanying subtext he brings this series, but we don’t often get into the nuances of his scripts, not past just saying he writes great dialogue most of the time. Here he does one of the things I think is supremely valuable for a good comic book writer to know how to do: he walks an expert balance between stepping aside and incorporating prose-based flourishes, stepping aside during the action and arguing, and incorporating a brief and rapid flourish to almost eulogize poor D. Oswald Heist.

Mom and Dad wanted to stick around for a proper burial, but my devastated Granny argued that Heist would have appreciated where he ended up...mixed amongst the ashes of his creations.

It’s good stuff. Now onto the rest of the issue!

Saga #18

Here’s the official preview text for Saga #18, first released on Jan. 29, 2014, which is (duh) juuuuuust over 4 years ago. So so so much has changed right? I was still living in Austin, Texas back then! Anyway, summary time…

Our heroes' stay on Quietus reaches its inevitable conclusion.

...the ol’ inevitable conclusion. We’ve known this issue has been coming since pretty much the start of this arc, since it kind of tipped what was about to happen (while withholding most of the context) back in issue #13. If you are savvy enough to know these things happen in increments of six, well then, the writing has been on the wall.

The Cover: One of my favorite characters here...but not one of the my favorite covers. It’s an ultra-detailed closeup where Lying Cat has gore of something slain hung from its lips. For those who don’t know the outcome of the arc, though, maybe this whole thing plays as ominous, which makes sense given the shadows. The idea of this cover being aimed at generating suspense connects right on to the issue’s first page...

The First Page: ...which is Lying Cat sticking its fangs into Marko’s mom’s face, while a voice off panel (presumably Gwendolyn's) tells it: If she gives you any trouble, kill her. Now that, folks, is a suspenseful opening to the finale of an arc that has essentially been three plot points heading for a single intersection.

The Surface: The plot in this issue all felt sort of inevitable, which is a testament to the good and thorough job the creators did throughout this arc building up to it. While a bit predictable, the execution is engaging as hell, with the scene where Alana rises up on her wings to save the day (and show us her and the baby aren’t dead) inspiring me to all but through up a fist in triumph. There’s almost a happy ending all around here for a our three separate sects of characters, albeit with Marko’s mom weathering the loss of Heist. Oh! And a time jump at the end of this one sees Hazel develop from infant to toddler.

The Subtext: Like most of the rest of this arc, this issue was pretty light on subtext. Really, there was just too much rapidfire plot for that. The scene with Gwendolyn and Marko felt real and familiar, but it was still pretty overt. I do suppose, though, that the journalist being magically silenced under threat of death (and deciding to ultimately drop their story) is a metaphor for how vulnerable the press can be at times when targeted by vast resources and power structures. Again, as a former newspaperman my own self, I dig this sort of thing.

The Art: The thing that maybe most amazes me about Fiona Staples work on this series is how she continues to improve throughout. The art in this issue is phenomenal, with a panel in which Prince Robot IV emerges ominously through smoke and flames as a standout visual (although all the shots through the flames are absolutely stellar, and also so is the action storytelling and Gwendolyn’s face when she confronts Marko and Alana, and...), but you know what? It’s not even her final form. Not even close. The work in this issue will be topped and then topped again and on and on until we continue through this series.

Foreshadowing: I didn’t think there was any in this issue...until Doff tell’s Upsher No story’s worth dying for...and my heart just about cried out through my chest. Oof. Why am I doing this to myself? It’s only going to get worse...and I can’t wait for the devastation. See you all next week! We are now fittingly within nine months of finishing this long long long reading project.

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.

The Saga Re-Read #17: Death of a beloved character

By Zack Quaintance — The first time I read Saga, I consumed it rapidly, perhaps even a bit too fast, so greedy was I to get through the story. I was a late-comer to the book, a trade waiter back then who messed up and didn’t get hip to this one until it had progressed well into its 20s. Once I’d gotten the first few volumes though, the issues fell away so fast I maybe missed some key details. The shared structure of each issue of this arc was one of those details. I’m really enjoying the pacing of these issues the second time around, the way they all start with Upsher and Doff, before moving into Marko and Alana, with a splash of The Will and Gwendolyn and Sophie and Lying Cat (do they have one of those t-shirts for Saga? I bet they do…).

It just speaks to something I deeply believe to be true of comics. Talent is one thing. A great idea is one thing. Great creators make great art, though, when they’ve accrued a critical mass of experience. The way these past few issues are structured show off Brian K. Vaughan’s impeccable writing chops, chops that maybe weren’t as sharp while he wrote some of his past efforts (like all of which I love, but just saying…). The bottom line is that during a second a slower read this arc is incredibly tight, with the excitement of each issue owing as much to the telling as it does what happens from panel to panel.

And now? On to the story!

Saga #17

Here’s the official preview text for Saga #17, first released on Dec. 18, 2013, just (obviously) a week shy of Christmas that year, although the issue doesn’t have anything to do with all that:

Prince Robot IV gets everyone into trouble.

Oh, that old storyline again! To borrow a cliche, he sure does—and it wouldn’t be the last time either. We’ll probably talk about this a bit more below, but Prince Robot IV’s role in this story as an interesting one to me. I halfway suspect he was originally planned to be more of a villian than he would later become, but as Vaughan and Staples humanized him, an attachment took hold, ultimately causing the creators to make him into the sort that complicates the plot out of well-intentioned mistakes rather than something like selfishness or greed, but I digress…

The Cover: The cover to Saga #17 combines two of my favorite regular Saga elements: a slight hint of salaciousness and Prince Robot IV. The latter is such a valuable asset for Staples as a cover artist, I think, for a couple of reasons. The first is that he’s a visually-striking character. If newsstand comics were still a thing, I reckon any cover with him on it would sell just a tick better than most of the others. Second, it allows Staples to use his face to broadcast (heh) just a bit more of what’s going on, essentially giving her a cover within a cover from which to convey more plot info, and she uses it well here, as well as in a later Prince Robot IV cover maybe 20 issues or some from now. But more on that in the future.

The First Page: A sweet and understated front page that is basically just Upsher and Doff spooning in bed, with Upsher (I think he’s the reporter, not the photag), pondering the location of the family. The past three issues or so have all opened with Upsher and Doff, pushing their search for the story of our central family along in quick increments before cutting to said family and advancing their action. It’s a sound structure, one that has served this arc well as it works hard to pack in a borderline unwieldy amount of plot, which could be bad but is done so well here it actually helps to make this story all the more compulsively readable.

The Surface: All that plot about to slam together at the end of last issue? Well, in here it does. SPOILER: The biggest twist here is the death of Heist, killed almost inadvertently by Gwendolyn, Marko’s former fiance. He was a great and gone-too-fast character. Here were some other highlights from another packed issue...Great line: Because the only journalists that deserve killing are sports writers. And another: The advice to ‘kill your darlings’ has been attributed to various authors across the galaxies...and Mister Heist hated them all. Also, I love how The Brand shows Upsher and Doff mercy due to their favorite coverage of the Freelancers union during its last strike.

The Subtext: As with all recent issues, there’s some commentary here about the role of reporters in the war and within power structures, but this is again another issue that hems closer to the surface than it does to subtext. That’s not a bad thing. Metaphors have been drawn and meaning bestowed, so Vaughan and Staples are free to wisely let compelling action grow out of all that. We’ll see how subsequent arcs read upon a second time, but I have a hard time imagining any arc other than the most recent will feel as exciting in the moment as this one.

The Art: On week’s like this one where I don’t have much specific to say other than Gee, Staples is such a major talent, wow, I’m just going to start posting a favorite panel from the book. Please see this week’s below:

Foreshadowing: Not much of that (that I picked up on here), although I did think teasing The Will’s death was maybe notable. It felt significant, like a vision of things to come perhaps. His whole arc (especially after Saga #54) continues to intrigue me.

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. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.

The Saga Re-Read #16: Journalism!

By Zack Quaintance — I’m a journalist by trade...technically. I don’t have shadowy conversations with anonymous sources like you see in the movie, and I’ve certainly not been put at wartime risk (although I did cover the Mexican drug war from Texas just a tiny bit in the late ‘00s). Anyway, this is all a means of pointing out that by being a staff writer for a fairly dry trade publication, I have much room in my heart set aside for romanticizing the work done by some of the world’s most daring reporters, including those appearing in stories.

Saga #16 is an issue brimming with romanticize journalism, conveyed right from its cover by this story’s journalistic pair, Upsher and Doff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I ended up liking it quite a bit. In addition to my proclivity to appreciate journalists in fiction, I’ve just been appreciating the larger function these two are having with Saga, serving as a neutral pair and the first significant set of independent characters to not immediately want our little family to be caught, thereby facing instant annihilation (Heist aside).

So there’s my preamble. Now, let’s get to the issue, the art, and the story!

Saga #16

Here’s the official preview text for Saga #16, first released on Nov. 27, 2013, which was (maybe obviously?) the Wednesday after Thanksgiving that year:

Two war correspondents stumble onto the biggest story in the universe.

Technically, our friends Upsher and Doff don’t really learn much more about the biggest story in the universe than they already knew when this issue started. We do, however, learn that their sexuality makes them endangered on their home planet, should it ever come to light...which as re-readers may remember is a chip played against them later in the plot.

The Cover: Our (relatively) new friends Upsher and Doff make their first cover appearance. It’s also a rare appearance for them, because unlike more visually-intriguing side characters like Prince Robot IV, cover status is a pretty rare thing for these two. There’s a certain irony in that, if you ask me, seeing as they surely are the characters in our story most driven by appearing on page one. Anyway, this cover is a fine one, showing them doing their jobs in a firefight as their obvious status as journalists does little to nothing to protect them, something that will factor into not only this issue but their continued safeties as we move forward.

The First Page: An intriguing and well-done image, to be sure, if not one of the more outlandish first pages in Saga. To be fair, though, that bar has been set pretty high for this book by first pages of the past. This one simply lets us know we’re in wings territory (as is made obvious by what looks like workaday commuters filling the sky). We also know from this familiar sneering face and the no comment that the character in this panel is talking to our cover duo, Upsher and Doff. So it does it’s job that way by jump-starting this issue’s story.

The Surface: This yet another issue of Saga packed with plot, moving forward four separate storylines, three of them to the point of intersection where this arc first started. It’s all well-done too, never feeling like Vaughan and Staples are just moving their people into positions where they need them in order to keep facilitating all that plot. This is, essentially, an organic story that feels real, and that’s largely due in my opinion to the quality of the dialogue, the character motivations giving rise to that dialogue, and the distinct voices each of them have. The family banter within Heist’s home was especially a treat, including basically all of the exchanges that involved Marko’s mom.

The Subtext: As I mentioned in my intro, this reread is really helping me see the value of Upsher and Doff within the larger narrative. They are, essentially, a neutral party, an embodiment of the fourth estate. What’s more, is that Vaughan portrays them in a way that doesn’t play into tired ideas about the media being vultures or seedy or detrimental the world. They’re simply conduits for information, working stiffs who believe heartily in the value of knowledge and truth for society. They’re without question self interested, motivated by their own glory, which for my money is where most journalists go wrong, driven as they are in almost equal parts by societal validation and societal impact.

Foreshadowing: This is a weird issue to discuss foreshadowing in, largely because it ends at a place that a previous issue has already shown us, albeit with a little more context than we had before. It does, however, promise that what’s to follow what we already know is going to be action-packed. So that’s certainly not nothing.

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. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.

The Saga Re-Read #15: A steamy if misleading cover

Homina homina homina.

By Zack Quaintance — This arc reaches its midway point, again packing an almost-absurd amount of plot into one issue. This particular chapter is split between three continuing storylines: the family in the lighthouse, the journalists in pursuit of the story, and The Will and his crew on the halcyon planet. The first two chug along duly with more character development and insight but no major revelations.

The third, however...well, you’re just going to read or re-read this issue for yourself at some point, now aren’t you? Let’s get down into the weeds on Saga #15!

Saga #15

Here’s the official preview text for Saga #15, first released on Oct. 30, 2013, a rare comic that comes out on or near Halloween and doesn’t do anything overtly spooky:

Everything starts coming together.

My reaction to this teaser paired with that cover is a double eyebrow waggle and a hubba hubba. Working in tandem, these elements seem to promise one of the most salacious issues of Saga yet. To be sure, this book has been salacious in the past but not as blatantly as what seems to be hinted at by this cover. Hinted, however, is the key word, because it’s all a bit of a feint.

The Cover: This cover would perhaps be more at home on the front of a romance novel than it is on this comic, what with the way Marko and Alana’s attributes are both exaggerated (Marko’s biceps, Alana’s cleavage, etc.) plus also the faroff blurry castle in the background, which has no presence in our actual plot and just kind of screams romance novel to me, or at least fantasy. This is all, however, as I noted above a bit of a mislead, with the story behind the cover being one of Saga’s most plot-heavy yet. There’s like three panels about sex, total, and they aren’t very sexy at all, played as they are for laughs versus eroticism.

The First Page: We get one of the Robot royal family standing over a slain alien dinosaur saying, Would one of you overgrown condom failures kindly remove the dead fucking dragon from my runway? While not one of the more iconic openers, this splash is a pure distillation of many of Saga’s core elements: violence conducted with nonchalance, profanity, blunt talk, striking character design, and a distinct-and-confident voice that has increasingly crept into Staples and Vaughan’s story, made evident here somehow by the phrase overgrown condom failures. This whole arc to me has felt like watch out A TON of sh*t is going down, and this issue’s opener continues a precedent that flows right on through to the final page.

The Surface: Plot, plot, plot, with a whole lot going down. Amid the rapid evolution of what’s happening here, we also get some background on what kind of soldier Alana was: one that challenged orders that would cost innocent lives but ultimately carried them out, putting duty ahead of morals. There’s also some work done here to flesh out Upsher and Doff’s passion for their jobs, particularly when the writer (I often confuse their names) is shot by a sniper and subsequently tells the photographer to Just keep snapping pics. This is awards bait, in spite of having just seconds ago suffered a flesh wound. Also, I’d just like to note how clever it is to have Marko’s (surprisingly progressive) mom subvert usual tropes by telling Alana, a new mother’s place is in the workforce. Oh, and I think we’ll go into this more next week, but the twist that The Will et al now face is pretty clever. Me gusta.

The Subtext: Our opening act here gives us a whole more insight into the cost of war and the way forever fighting molds perspective. One of our journalists remarks of a bygone battle, One of our stringers lost an arm covering that battle. To which Countess Robot X responds by calling it unpleasant. Also showing the ambivalence that creeps into forever wars, Countess Robot X contemplates whether her people even chose the right side, so detached is she from the reasons she’s still fighting. We also get a little insight into how nations and individuals justify widespread and continuous death and violence, as Countess Robot X goes on to describe everyday commuters as a few appeasers who welcomed these savages with open arms, which should hit close to home for us readers who have lived through questionable American combat initiatives abroad. This is doubled down upon later in the same scene when the countess orders the top floor of a residential condo complex incinerated before describing the other side’s actions as madness. You (obviously) can’t see this, but I’m shaking my head pretty hard right now.

The Art: Staples work sort of fades into the background here as we are put through a whole bunch of plot development, which is a credit to her sequential storytelling ability. Essentially, in this arc she’s showing herself able and willing to do what the narrative demands, be it big dead monster designs or a group of characters talking over a board game.

Is Hazel continuing to prepare us for a tragic fall?

Foreshadowing: Hazel does a good bit of it in this issue with her narration, again preparing us for a fall (or falls) that is to come as she notes Some parents let their young kids win at games, but mine never did. I don’t think it was because they were particularly competitive, they just wanted to teach me a valuable lesson. Life is mostly just learning how to lose. We, of course, don’t know the ending of this story yet, but Hazel continues to suggest it will be bittersweet at best. Saga #54, as re-readers know, was certainly a big step in a tragic direction.

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. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.

The Saga Re-Read #14: Many Moving Parts, One Small But Painfully Heartrending Moment

Saga #14.

By Zack Quaintance — I think at this point in Saga, we’ve maybe hit our cruising altitude. The tones, concerns, and rhythms of this long story have settled into place. I’m not saying Saga gets predictable from here on out—as we learned from Saga #54, that never really becomes the case—but it does seem as if Vaughan and Staples really lock into their comfort zones, their confidence that this is a vital story 100 percent worth telling.  

What’s also worth noting in this quick hit introduction is that we once again get very little of the story’s central couple. They’re hear and they speak, but we learn more about the world and what’s happening in it from newer and tangential characters like Alana’s age inappropriate stepmom Even and the second over appearance of Upsher and Doff. Heist does a lot of work too, quickly endearing himself as a tortured writer type to what is almost certainly a pretty bookish audience.

Now, let’s break it down further!

Saga #14

Here’s the official preview text for Saga #14, first released on Sept. 25, 2013 (jeez, that sounds long ago to me right now):

Gwendolyn and Slave Girl think about the future.

As brief and safe as the usual teasers for these stories thus far, this one actually compliments the cover quite well, cluing us in on the emotions the two featured characters must be feeling. Let’s get to this issue’s individual elements...

The Cover: This cover is simply wonderful. It’s definitely not one of the more ostentatious Saga covers, nor is it one of those that has something grand to say about the story. It is, however, uniquely Saga, very much of Saga’s world with a look unlike the visuals from any other story. In it, two relatively minor characters who don’t factor all that strongly into the plot share a moment together, with the newly-named Sophie staring in wonder to a vast horizon as Gwendolyn, a repurposed civil servant hunting for her ex-fiance out of a desire for retribution and a vague sense of duty, sort o protectively stands over her. A confident, and, as I said before, simply wonderful work.

The First Page: A normal looking winged woman (later revealed as Alana’s stepmom) opens her door and asks, Is this about Alana? Is she dead? The least provocative or scandalous page in sometime. What this does do, however, is set the tone for a glimpse into Alana’s life and backstory, much of which has been obscured thus far in favor of exploring Marko and his past. Far from the most memorable Saga opener, this is one that does work.

The Surface: An old drunk man vomits on an infant. A woman goes fishing with a lance and catches a flying polka-dotted shark out of the air. A man whose head is a television re-fueling a skullship as a giant ferret guy makes a call from a payphone behind him. Some great and farout Saga visuals. Also, weird the most absurd part of all I just listed is the now the payphone. Anyway, kind of a moving parts issue, effective in getting characters into certain places. The highlight of the dialogue is the conversation between grandma and Heist, which is loaded with strong lines, including In the end, nobody really escapes this thing, and all the contemplation about losing a spouse, which really tugs at the heart, as this book is wont to do. Speaking of which, the line where Sophie says I am all dirty on the inside because I did bad things with—and Lying Cat interjects: Lying. Downright wrecked me.  

The Subtext: Frankly, I’m not sure there was much of it. Grandma bonding (and probably eventually falling for) Heist was subtle and well done, but for the most part, there’s so much plot in this issue that Vaughan’s script leaves precious little room for metaphor or subtext. The closest is The Will’s internal struggle to fulfill his mission or remain stranded and live off the land, where he is likely to be haunted but peaceful and happy.

From Alana’s goth haircut to the non-plussed look on her father’s newly-wedded face, this one panel reveals so much about her background and character.

The Art: I’d like to isolate one panel here to discuss how effective Fiona Staples artwork can be at its best: the wedding day photo of Alana’s dad marrying her stepmom, who is roughly Alana’s same age, as Alana glowers in the back, presumably made to wear that pink dress and all gothed out. The scowl and haircut are one thing, but Staples just so perfectly captures the closed off, resentment that comes with such a relationship taking root in one’s life. I also really like the visual decision to give Alana’s stepmom butterfly wings, whereas Alana’s own have always kind of looked like a dragonfly or something. Nice touch. The suburban-looking home exterior shot that bookends the stepmom scene is also perfect.

Foreshadowing/UPCOMING SPOILER TIME: A little bit gets done here. Hazel notes her mother never again set foot on the planet where she was born, which could be more evidence to support the idea that Alana will also eventually sacrifice her life for her child, as her husband did before her. Hazel also notes that her and granny do visit that planet much later, which, quite frankly, is a plot point I’ve forgotten...illustrating why this re-read has been so necessary/enjoyable for me.

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. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.