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I love Saga! It can be so imaginative, so gut wrenching, so funny, so intriguing. It also continues to prove why Brian K. Vaughn is one of my favorite writers of all time. His characters are all complex, their interactions so organic, his plots superbly crafted. And the art? Don’t me started. All around, Saga is pretty great. Easily one of the best comics out right now, maybe even in my Top 10 favorites of all time. It’s also think it’s a little bit overrated.
See, I think the problem is that it has a bit of its own cult of personality going on. When it’s so publicly known that something is good, it’s hard to say anything to the contrary. Especially among such ruthless fans as comic book fans. Everyone who I’ve spoken to who has read this comic love it to death. They can never provide anything negative about it. Online, I see nothing but praise. It makes the top of comic book lists every year. Hell it even made Entertainment Fuse’s own year-end comic book lists.
Much of that is deserved, but the comic isn’t perfect. No comic is. No artwork is. I think it’s healthy to realize issues with things you love, and that when you address them it doesn’t mean that you no longer love that thing. So, for everyone here, I’m going to go through some issues I have with Saga. Please save your applause or boos until after the article, thank you.
This one’s a bit hard to nail down. Y’see, Saga‘s pretty good about showing you things that more “mainstream” comics normally wouldn’t. Not just two robots getting down, but spider boobs, natural birth, and giant infected scrotums. Scroti? Scrotum? Is the plural of scrotum just scrotum? English, you guys. Anyway, it’s a little tame by some people’s standards, but when a lot of first pages are full splash pages of orgasms or gore, it becomes something you don’t really want to read in public.
Saga isn’t alone in this, it seems to be one of Image’s favorite past times. They have their comic Sex (exploring the superhero genre through the world of boning), Sex Criminals (about two people who can stop time when they orgasm that decide to rob a bank together), and a bunch of other envelope-pushing comics like Bedlam and Dead@17. Sure, it gets them a ton of free publicity when they get banned from online stores, but I’m sure creators flexing their creative freedom with Image has a lot more to do with it.
Which is fine! It’s so hard to critize this type of thing without sounding like an old, over-sensitive softy. But I’m not! I’m hip, you guys! I’m “with it”. I laughed all the way through Preacher, I’ve read my fair share of Crossed. I’m cool with what you guys can dish out. It’s not the material itself I have a problem with, I think it’s more to do with its use. Shocking content is awesome, but when it doesn’t come naturally, when it’s just there for show, I think it cheapens the whole thing.
An issue of Saga was banned from Comixology’s iOS online store when the face of an injured Prince Robot displayed two dudes going at it. When I read it, I thought that it was a sign of things to come. I mean, Vaughn is great at weaving together a great plot with images as well as words. I figured Prince Robot was a gay man, err– robot who had to suppress his sexuality because his royal status demanded he sire a son. Now, as he questioned everything, he’d have to come to terms with it. That would have been cool! However, we haven’t seen any hint of anything close to that plot line since. Its seemed to be there to be there.
Which is one of my issues with Saga. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it kind of dampens the story a bit. A story, by the way, that doesn’t really need it. It’s fantastic on its own. There certainly are jokes that work, like the giant with the infected junk or the various scenes at the “theater”, but those have a modicum of context.
A lot of the violence, a few of the characters, and some of their exchanges I think are put in to go over the top just so that the comic can. Which sucks because, again, this can stand on its own two feet. Crossed — or should I say later Crossed — I can understand, because that’s it whole schtick. Its bread and butter. Saga, I feel, can work its pushed envelopes into its story, not just pour them on top.
Chase stories are great stories to tell because the conflict and the story engines are already built in. There’s always an urgency, there’s always a way into scenes, it’s a strong set up. Early in the comic, Saga was a great example of this. Much in the style of Star Wars, our heroes were constantly on the run from large, ruthless armies out to hunt them down. It made for a lot of tense issues where they were only moments away from capture. From certain death.
Now, for the past half dozen or so issues, Alana, Marko, and the whole family have found themselves more-or-less safe in hiding. Alana got a job and Marko took to raising their daughter. Instead of the constant threat of being discovered, now regular ol’ drama took over. It became much more about holding a family together then about being on the run. And, as much as some people may not like to admit it, the story sagged a bit.
That’s not to say that the quality went down. Staples’ art continued to be amazing and the character’s writing was still well done. It’s just that there wasn’t any of that tension any more. There wasn’t that drive. The comic’s story engine had changed from “stay hidden or die” to “do your day jobs and make this marriage work”. While it’s still interesting, it’s not as engaging. It’s like how The Walking Dead TV Show ground to a halt when they took forever to stay in the relative safety of the farm.
However, things look to be changing, so hopefully this was a temporary lull in a much grander, dare I say it? Epic.
When you build up an audience’s attachment to a character and over the course of a plot line have something bad happen to them, that’s what I like to call an emotional pay-off. When you build up an audience’s attachment and tease them with bad things out of the blue, that’s what I call emotional manipulation. It’s important to note because all good stories should technically manipulate their audiences. After all, Alfred Hitchcock once said movies should play their audiences like a piano, and I think comics should do the same.
Like most Vaughn books, Saga is rife with pay-0ffs, some of which are so well crafted you don’t see them until the damage to your heart is already there. Also like most Vaughn books, it’s got its share of emotional manipulation as well. My biggest example is the moment when Lying Cat is sucked into the void of space at the end of an issue. Early next issue, Lying Cat is almost immediately saved. Which makes me ask, why do it? It’s such a random event, it only strikes me as blatant manipulation.
I count having the six-year-old sex slave on Sextillion come out of the nowhere as manipulation too. She definitely worked as a character later on, but her introduction was obviously a form of manipulation. I mean, we didn’t get any hint that there was something nefarious going on at Sextillion the first time we went there. Now all of a sudden it’s the worst! It’s almost like the comic needed something heroic for The Will to do so we could be on his side. Coincidently, there’s nothing we want saved faster than a 6-year-old sex slave. Not even lost puppies.
So while there is really good character work in Saga, it’s not above manipulating its audience either. It kind of dampen things the way the needless shock images I mentioned earlier do. I think that Saga has the story, the art, and the writing power to tell a story free from needless manipulation.