Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Comics You Should Read: SAGA

Comics You Should Read: SAGA


So here is my brief history with writer Brian K. Vaughan. When I was in high school and college, as many do, I got really into Alan Moore. I read everything by him I could get my hands on. My favorite was Watchmen (shocker), but my other favorite was his extended run on Swamp Thing. In fact, I may even give Swamp Thing the slight edge over Watchmen, if only because the run is so sprawling, epic, wonderfully trippy, lyrical, dark, romantic, and just plan awesome. I read Swamp Thing via the various collected editions of Moore's run, but all of that back-reading made me eager for new Swamp Thing stories. So I jumped at the chance to get onboard with the early 00's Swamp Thing series written by a guy who I'd never heard of before that point: Brian K. Vaughan.

Vaughan's Swamp Thing was controversial at the time. Instead of following the continued adventures of Alec Holland, the guy everyone knows as Swamp Thing from comics, movies, and TV, it instead chronicled the adventures of his now-teenaged daughter, Tefe, who was just now manifesting her supernatural abilities. Because Moore cast such a long shadow, and because there was perhaps less interest in a book about Tefe, Vaughan's Swamp Thing fell a bit under the radar. But, it quickly became one of my favorite comics at the time. Like Moore, Vaughan mixed big, mind-bending concepts with a knack for real-feeling dialogue that grounded his characters. Even more so than Moore - who mixed realism and naturalism with a very literary, often psychedelic vibe, Vaughan brought naturalism to sci-fi comics in a way that I'd never really seen before. In comics, where so much writing tends to be hyper-stylized, it was incredibly refreshing to read sharp, clever dialogue like Vaughan's. Looking back, I'd lump Vaughan in with the trend in pop-culture at the time towards genre-bending, progressive fiction that gave us smart twists on genre staples - from guys like Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, and other comics writers who brought TV and film-style smarts and snappiness to comic books. It makes sense then that Vaughan would go on to write for Abrams' LOST, and then team with the godfather of this sort of stuff - Stephen King - on the TV adaptation of Under the Dome.

But before he moved to TV, Vaughan moved from Swamp Thing to other comics projects. He wrote a really good mini-run on Batman, which moved him up further on my ladder of favorite writers. But what cemented him on my (and many others') all-timers list was his seminal work on Y: THE LAST MAN. I could write about Y all day (and have, on other occasions). Suffice it to say, it's a modern fiction classic, and if you haven't read it, go do so right freakin' now. I really think Y is in many ways the defining comic book of the 00's, and I also think its influence went well beyond comics, influencing TV, film, and more with the way it placed a sort of geeky, quirky lead into an apocalyptic, globe-trotting adventure. With Y, Vaughan's writing style became more defined. He showed a knack for mixing wry, sardonic humor with jaw-dropping cliffhangers and can't-miss-an-issue serialized storytelling. And he showed a proclivity for inserting real-world facts and social commentary into even his most out-there stories. During and after Y's run, Vaughan produced some other great books. Most notably, a lengthy run on EX MACHINA, a sci-fi political thriller about a former superhero turned Mayor of New York City. There was also his run on Marvel's teen book Runaways, his superb graphic novel wartime parable Pride of Baghdad, and his spin-off companions to Michael Chabon's novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which looked at the present-day legacy of the novel's characters.

But once he went to work on Lost, Vaughan's comics output pretty much stopped - right when he was the on top of the comics world and widely considered the best in the biz. There was a major void in comics without Vaughan, and I'm not sure that any other book in the early 2010's supplanted Y as the next must-read, cross-genre, cross-demo mainstream breakout comic book hit. However, in 2012, Vaughan returned to comics, after an extended absence, with SAGA. And very quickly, things picked up where they left off - with Vaughan at the helm of the medium's most accessible yet challenging book, and its most must-read hit.

SAGA is sweeping, space-opera sci-fi, but not really. At its core, its a romance story and family drama about two soldiers on opposing sides of a never-ending war who meet, fall in love, and have a child - which makes them fugitives. As is typical of Vaughan, the characters in Saga are refreshingly three-dimensional, not at all conforming to typical gender or other stereotypes. Marko, a horned intellectual from the planet Wreath, is calm, contemplative, spiritual. His wife, Alanna, is a winged native of Wreath's enemy planet, Landfall. She's hot-headed, outspoken, and tough-as-nails (though also fond of reading trashy sci-fi novels).

The book is called Saga, and Vaughan has set up a sprawling saga indeed. He's populated this cosmic universe with all manner of strange races and creatures - from the TV's-for-heads race of alien Robots, to the ruthless-but-honor-bound bounty hunter called The Will and his feline companion, Lying Cat. Although the main story is actually very intimate - the world that it takes place in is incredibly vast. But that's what Vaughan does so well. Marko and Alanna talk, bicker, joke, and banter like any other young couple would - they are instantly familiar and accessible despite their horns and wings. At the same time, the world of Saga is filled with weirdness that continually wows me. A huge, huge part of that is the absolutely stunning artwork from Fiona Staples. Staple's unique style is completely unlike any other comic book art I've seen. It's simple and iconic and expressive, yet filled with oddball and surreal details, and rendered in lush, cosmic colors. I've never done this before, but I became such a fan of Staples' art that I bought a print of one of her Saga covers to put on my wall at home. It's just that cool.

The world of Saga is big, and I suspect that, ultimately, this story will be HUGE. Over twenty-something issues (or three easily bought/digested collected volumes), we've seen the adventures of Marko, Alanna, and their newborn baby Hazel as they flee from planet to planet, on the run from various parties out to hunt them down. But the narration, from a presumably grown-up Hazel, hints that we're still only in the very early stages of Saga's saga. Vaughan peppers Hazel's narrative captions with all sorts of tantalizing hints of what's to come. And it's clear that when all is said and done, this will be a cosmic story that spans multiple decades and generations. Vaughan is swinging for the fences with this one.

Even still, SAGA is, like Y: The Last Man, a near-perfect comic book for people who are just getting into comics. It's got great male and female characters. It's got weird sci-fi and plenty of shocking sex and violence, but also humor, romance, all-too-relatable characters - and a story that serves as a clear mirror-image of our own world and our own time. It's self-contained - and still at the start of its run - but it's also on its way to being a true epic.

If you're looking to get onboard with comics, or if you're a comics fan looking for the one must-read book that you've got to be keeping up with to be a part of the pop-cultural conversation, this is it.

READ IT IF YOU LIKE: Star Wars, Star Trek, Y: The Last Man, Lost, Chuck, Buffy, Firefly, sci-fi, romance, humor ... er, just read it!

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