“It was a time of war. Isn’t it always?”
I’m going to say this up front: Saga, Image’s new ongoing from Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and artist Fiona Staples, is my first new must-read book of 2012. Combining gorgeous creature design and playful worldbuilding with cynical, adult storytelling, Vaughan and Staples have crafted a book that is genuinely unlike anything else on the shelves right now. Funny, bloody, dramatic and, at times, ridiculous, Saga #1 does everything an opening issue needs to do with economy and style.
Marko and Alana were foot soldiers on opposite sides of a galaxy-spanning civil war. Alana is a winged woman who grew up on an alien planet ruled by robots. Marko is a horned man whose people are mystics living on the moon of Alana’s homeworld. Their people have been warring for years, and neither side is very happy to find out that Alana and Marko have defected, married and had a child. Both sides are sending soldiers and mercenaries to hunt the trio down, but all the two young soldiers want to do is find a quiet little slice of the galaxy where they can relax and watch their daughter grow up in peace.
There’s a pleasant sense of absurdism running lightly through the book, enhanced by the fact that this is a fantasy setting clearly created so that anything can happen. A mercenary travels with a giant cat that can detect lies, while Prince Robot IV, a TV-headed robot and veteran of the ongoing wars, suffers from PTSD. But that adventurous sense that anything can happen is kept grounded by the very human story Vaughan is telling. We may not understand the rules of the Saga universe just yet, but we understand what’s at stake and why the main characters are fighting. And what’s more, we care.
I’ll be the first to admit that the clash of the book’s wondrous design and its gritty tone falls squarely into my storytelling sweet-spot, but it’s a tough balancing act, and one I don’t think most creators could manage. Staples has some difficult work here in trying to blend those two tones, and she pulls it off very well – see the treacherous, uh, wolfman mechanic with a dragonbone garage door… as he gets gutshot, and is forced to hold his innards in with one hand while trying, briefly, to atone for his betrayal. See two robots make love in a lavish royal palace… before one of their TV-heads flashes briefly onto the bloody aftermath of a recent battle, rendering him unable to continue.
Part Lone Wolf and Cub, part Star Wars and all Vaughan, Saga #1 almost certainly won’t be for everyone. But I genuinely think everyone should give it a shot. The blend of science fantasy and gritty war drama has been done before, but Marko and Alana are well-realized, interesting characters, and the introduction of their infant daughter Hazel gives the series a necessary dramatic kick. Saga #1 is just a well put-together book on almost every level, and one well worth your time.