For a realm of such infinite possibilities science fiction can sometimes be surprisingly limited. Given such scope it is no surprise that many writers operating in this genre often cling to cliché or established archetypes, be they characters, technological or conceptual, in order to avoid the risk of alienating readers. This considered, it is of great credit to the creative team of Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples that in their space-war-soap-opera Saga they manage to adopt some elements that will be familiar to sci-fi fans, but yet still create a unique and exciting adventure story.
In the first volume of their on-going series with Image Comics Vaughan and Staples rapidly introduce a milieu of weird and wonderful cultures, ideas and technologies. These are primarily framed around the continuing and bitter conflict between a planet and its moon, and in one of many interesting twists the worlds in question remain relatively free from war, having ‘out-sourced’ the fighting across the rest of the galaxy, forcing all other civilizations to fall in line with one force or the other, but as with Vaughan’s previous creator-owned works, this grand backdrop is just the framework into which are woven deeply personal stories concerning the story’s core group of characters.
The central cast of Saga includes a pair of lovers Alana and Marko, who each come from different warring factions, a brooding bounty hunter known only as The Will, and a member of the ruling class (all of whom have a computer monitors for heads) called Prince Robot IV, whose butler is an anthropomorphic alligator. Despite these odd characters and settings the principle narrative concerns the forbidden love of Marko and Alana, divided by their species’, their struggle to survive and to keep their new born child from the clutches of Prince Robot IV and The Will.
Embedded in what on the surface might seem like a ludicrous action romp, deeper themes explore areas not often found in science fiction, particularly in its comic/graphic form. These include post-traumatic, as seen in Prince Robot’s recollections of his previous involvement in brutal battles, the sexual exploitation of the young via The Will’s encounter with a child prostitute, and the trials of early parenthood that Marko and Alana experience with their baby daughter. Grounding this is snappy and engaging dialogue, which manages to give each character and creature a distinct feel and personality. Switching effortlessly between both humour and pathos, it makes for a rewarding read, with no sense of conversations being added simply for expositional reasons.
And this underpins much of what is great about Saga: it is fun to read. From heart-in-the-throat moments of tension, to incidents of slapstick humour, Vaughan and Staples have created an intriguing and constantly surprising world and filled it with rich, believable characters. This despite the fact one is a talking cat the size of a German Shepherd, another is man with a TV for a head, and more than one of the people we are introduced to sport wings and horns, or a combination of both.
The art is vital to the cocktail of factors that helps Saga stand out from the good number of other titles currently on the shelves, sci-fi or otherwise. The line work, particularly on the faces and body language gives as much of a voice to the cast as the excellent dialogue, and the colouring choices really help distinguish the varied and lushly realised environments both from one another and from those seen in other space-based works. The interesting choice to use free floating narrative captions and different lettering effects for the various characters adds to the odd but engaging nature of the book and is testament to the creative team’s clever use of the medium that draws you into the strange and wonderful world they have concocted.
Volume one is not self-contained, nor does it give closure; it is very much a scene setter for what is to come from this superb creative team, and it is done masterfully. The central characters are developed, the wider themes hinted at and bigger storylines teased, but for a book carrying the title of Saga it should probably be expected that the first book is very much an amuse bouche for what promises to be a banquet to come.