Of Monsters and Men and Space and Topless Half-Spider Bounty Hunters

Saga is a ludicrous hodgepodge of sci-fi, fantasy, folklore, and fairy tale. It’s also one of surprise hit comics of the past year.

I find it both funny and perplexing that the rampant success of Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ comic Saga can be attributed to “word of mouth” because I have no idea how to describe it in fewer than like 500 words:

“Okay, so there’s this lady with wings and dude with horns who come from opposite sides of a planet and moon that have been at war with each other for so long that the conflict has spread across the galaxy, but the lady and dude have a kid anyway, so now a bunch of people are chasing after them, including a topless half-spider bounty hunter, a robot prince with a human body and head made out of an old TV, and…”

The setting of Saga is a ludicrous hodgepodge of sci-fi, fantasy, folklore, and fairy tale. It’s populated by dueling tropes: high technology and ancestral magic, space ships and pegasuses, holograms and ghosts. The world is hard to explain, and the plot isn’t any easier. The first volume follows our heroes’ journey to “The Rocketship Forest,” while the second, released in trade paperback last week, centers around a planetoid that turns out to be an egg that hatches a giant space baby who shoots goo out of its eyes. This all makes the series sound wacky and off-the-wall, but from moment to moment, it doesn’t read that way at all. That’s because the true effect of Saga‘s goofy universe is to unleash Vaughn’s skill as a writer of playful banter and to allow Staples to visualize it with exuberant, expressive flair.

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Saga makes an easy contrast with another sprawling Vaughn-penned comic, Y: The Last Man. Unlike Saga, the hook for Y couldn’t be cleaner: all the men on Earth die, except for one. From there, the plot follows much as you’d expect. The last man and his companions traverse a perilous post-apocalyptic wasteland to save the world. It’s an easily digestible concept, made even more palatable by artist Pia Guerra’s gift for clean, natural lines. The series’ plot and setting feel rock solid and expertly constructed. But those things aren’t at all what makes Y: The Last Man special.

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Years after reading those comics, I don’t even remember what caused all the men to die, even though that was the big mystery hanging over the whole series. Instead, I can still recall feeling stunned and numb at the death of one major character. Y devoted a lot of energy to meticulous plotting and convincing world-building, when its true heart was the quick-witted, curse-word-laden repartee between well realized characters. Vaughn didn’t need to do as much mechanical heavy lifting as the conceit of Y demanded; he could have plopped those personalities anywhere and the comic would have worked.

And that, it seems, is the lesson he applied to Saga. Yes, its setting is an utter mess, but precious little of the script is devoted to establishing it. Much of the world building is done by a displaced voice looking back on the story from the future, uttering a few spare sentences at the start of each chapter to give readers a bare minimum of framing. And though by necessity the dialogue advances the plot; Vaughn rarely expends a page just to move it forward. Rather, he uses his narrative as a tool to do what he does best: he puts a bunch of foul-mouthed weirdos in compromising situations, then shows us what they say.

Early on in chapter one, a (non-spider) bounty hunter meets a contact (a magical older woman with a single horn) to get a job. It’s a stock scene, but Vaughn jams it full of characterization — we learn that the bounty hunter is a pragmatic hothead with a sense of morality yet is willing to kill infants for pay, we see the calm racism of the contact, and we meet the marvelous lying cat (a big green space feline who calls people on their bullshit). This happens in three pages of what amounts to an infodump, yet never feels obligatory or long-winded. Plus, we’re rewarded for buying into this absurd world because even during a contact negotiation, we get to see a pant-suited unicorn lady shouting at a space superhero and his aquamarine leopard. Basically, it seems impossible for this comic to be dull.

So maybe I’ll never be able to explain what the hell Saga is about, but I know what makes it good. Every time I turn the page, I feel like I’m about to see something new, ridiculous, and delightful.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.