Review of Saga, Vol. 1 by

Book cover for Saga, Vol. 1

Saga first came onto my radar last year when it was nominated for a Hugo Award. (Volume Two was nominated this year!) In fact, I’m pretty sure that it was included in the Voters Packet.

I didn’t read it.

I don’t read many graphic novels. I understand why people like them, and part of me wishes I read more—but obviously that’s not a big enough part, or else I actually would. Simply put, I am a word person. I like massive blocks of text—the meatier the better, which is probably why Victorian novels are often my jam. When I see a page filled with pictures, and maybe a few speech bubbles, I skim. It’s a kind of inattention that others probably reserve for the opposite situation, when the only reaction to a wall of text is to read every couple of lines and interpolate. I feel bad for this reaction, because I’m aware that artists put amazing work into graphic novels, and I don’t want to devalue that work. I’m just wired to like and revel in words more than pictures. (This is why, despite having worked in an art gallery for six of the last eight years, I seldom spend much time actually looking at the exhibitions.)

When I read graphic novels, though—I’m saying this in my best Most Interesting Man in the World Voice—I read speculative fiction (but not, typically, superhero fiction). Saga is definitely in my wheelhouse in terms of what I want from a graphic novel. The actual motivation for reading it now is that I bought the first three volumes as a Christmas present for a friend. I like to give friends books I have read, so I can honestly recommend them; that isn’t always a realistic option, though, so sometimes I madly rush to read the book before I have to give it to them.

If anything, this first volume demonstrates the versatility and power that a graphic novel, unlike its literary sibling, wields in the hands of a good writer and artist. Since I spent a paragraph describing why I don’t prefer graphic novels, it only seems fair that I now spend some time talking about how graphic novels can do things that only the most sophisticated of novelists can accomplish with the written word. Fiona Staples isn’t simply illustrating Brian K. Vaughan’s story … she’s reifying a vividly imagined world of possibility.

The protagonists are humanoid. One has wings. The other has horns. They exist in a space operatic setting in which a planet and its moon are at war. There’s spider-like bounty hunters, lie-detecting cats, robot nobility with literal blue blood. The planet Sextillion features such weird imaginings as headless guards with mouths in their bellies (and rather … interesting codpieces). Saga is indubitably graphic, but in the most fascinating way. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that Staples’ art comes as close as I can imagine to China Miéville’s words. Staples would do a good job illustrating New Crobuzon.

The plot of Saga, Volume One is simultaneously conventional and unique. Vaughan unites magic and technology into a single science fictional setting that is heavily reminiscent of Star Wars, if ILM had still done the special effects but somehow George Lucas had decided to outsource all the creative decisions to the directors of the Flash Gordon era of science-fiction filmmaking. Staples’ character design is iconic in its use of colours and shading—not only to create a brilliant sense of difference, as I describe above, but to create depths of tone. I love the expression on the characters’ faces.

The story is exactly what I want in a space fantasy opera, though: intense interpersonal relationships set against the backdrop of a larger, interstellar conflict. Alana and Marko just want their child to grow up and be loved—what parent doesn’t?—but neither Landfall nor Wreath can let that happen. Peace is too dangerous to their eternal warfare. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, gut-punching story. It is … a Saga.

I’m writing this review having finished the first two volumes; I’m about to start Volume Three. So excited. I am not a graphic novel reader, but Saga definitely got me hooked. It just goes to show that you need to keep an open mind and read widely, because every form and every genre has things to offer you.

Engagement

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