Thursday, March 08, 2012

11. Saga #1 and Why I'm So Glad Brian K. Vaughan is back in comics

Wow, haven't used these particular writing muscles in a while.

A great first issue is a rare and wondrous thing. Especially rare and wondrous when it's wholly new, creator-owned and unexpected. Saga is two of those things, although "unexpected" doesn't really seem fair, since the expectations on Brian "Y the Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways" Vaughan aren't exactly small. But a sweeping sci-fi/fantasy epic from Image? That's something new and different, and there was every chance that one of my favorite writers in comics might stumble.

Good news. He didn't. In fact, he and artist Fiona Staples have created a promising, ambitious and gorgeous new world that I can't wait to explore further. Saga blends together big ideas like magic, blasters, robots, intergalactic war with smaller, character-based notions like family, loyalty, honor and hope in one hell of a first issue.

Vaughan has a history of strong characters and a light, approachable touch even with heavy subject matter like politics, post-apocalypse or coming of age when your parents are super-villains (OK, that last one's not universal) and that continues in Saga. The galaxy is at war, as two different races have expanded their war beyond their own planets to battle by proxy on other planets, there's a real sense that this war has deep history and could go on forever, with no real victors, and yet, the simple struggle of a mismatched couple to provide a better life for their new child feels hope-filled and full of potential for adventure. You know how Star Wars starts out with Luke's family being murdered by stormtroopers, and it's kinda horrible, but at the same time you see this kid who always wanted to see the universe finally being given the chance, and learning that he has a heroic legacy he never knew about? It's kinda like that. The baby (who's narrating the story from the future) is born in death and carnage, on the run from the very second she comes into the world, and yet, there's this sense that her parents have a big, amazing adventure ahead of them.

The mix of ideas here is worthy of Grant Morrison at his best, with TV-headed robots co-existing alongside fantasy creatures, "Heartbreaker" guns that wound by bringing up painful memories, giant monsters, spaceships, old school maps with things like "The Uncanny Bridge" on them, etc. The story ranges from metropolis-like sci-fi cities to caves and sewers, and while many a would-be story alchemist has faltered trying to blend science-fiction and fantasy, so far Staples and Vaughan are producing the best of both worlds.

Speaking of Staples, I have to admit that my first reaction to previews of her art was not entirely positive. I was used to the photo-real work of Tony Harris, the solid realism of Pia Guerra, the anime-influenced stylized work of Adrian Alphona, and Staples' work was entirely different. I realize now that this is not at all a bad thing, and she is of course perfect for this book. Her ability to design such a wide variety of creatures, characters and technologies is no small part of why the fantasy/sci-fi mix works as well as it does. And her characters are very expressive, from the grin Alana shows off when she displays her pistol to the pained look of Marko as the forces are killed all around them early on. This book is about big ideas and big moments, but it's going to live or die on the reactions of the characters, and in that regard, Staples absolutely shines.

Here's something else. In comics these days, it's often the case the even good single issues feel a bit slight. Marvel and DC are both doing 20-page books, and a lot of creators use either decompression or a standard of writing where they spread their tale across a 5- or 6-issue arc, and some of the individual issues feel a bit slight. There's every possibility this could happen over the course of Saga, but in 44 pages, this story felt massive. The world is introduced, as are a half-dozen characters, the heart of the story is nailed down in one simple bit of dialogue ("I want to show our girl the universe") and there's a nice, self-contained romance story told in the course of these pages.

For me, Saga #1 had a lot of expectations riding on it, due to Vaughan's pedigree and Image's strong rate of success with new books of late. I'm happy to say that it exceeded those expectations at every turn. Cannot wait to see where the story goes from here.

Saga #1 releases on Wednesday, March 14th. You can see a 4-page preview (which doesn't even begin to do it justice) here.

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