Free Comic Book Day 2016 Postmortem #2: Saga Volume Five

The other thing that I bought on Free Comic Book Day was the fifth collected volume of Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s ongoing sci-fantasy space opera Saga.  I’ve written in the past that I’m a big fan of this series, and thirty issues in, it’s still not disappointing.

I suppose I need to get folks up to speed just in case they haven’t read Saga yet, which is kind of a challenging proposition since Saga, being an R-rated space opera, involves lots of death and destruction, and part of the fun of reading the series is not knowing who’s going to die next (at this point, the only characters with plot armor seem to be Marko, Alana, and their daughter Hazel, and that’s only because Hazel’s narration hints that her parents are around for later events in her life).  Given that, take all this with a spoiler warning for an ongoing comic series that’s been running for over thirty issues at this point.

Things get messy. Also, I can’t post the punchline panel here, so you’ll just have to read the book to see what they’re reacting to. (Artwork by Fiona Staples)

Volume five is primarily concerned with Marko’s attempts to catch up to the rest of his family after they’re taken hostage by a janitor named Dengo from the robot planet who murdered Prince Robot IV’s wife and kidnapped his newborn son to make a political statement about the robot kingdom’s preoccupation with the ongoing war between Wreath and Landfall at the expense of its own subjects.  Marko’s accompanied by Prince Robot IV, who despises everything about Marko and Alana (he’s spent years trying to capture them for a mission he was coerced into accepting just before he found out his wife was pregnant), but wants to get revenge on Dengo even more.  Meanwhile, Alana’s trying to convince Dengo that they have parallel interests but he can’t align himself with a group of terrorists called the Last Revolution.  From there, things get messy.  The B-plot of this arc is about Gwen, Marko’s ex-fiancee; Sophie, an orphan girl that was rescued from the brothel planet Sextillion by The Will; and The Brand, The Will’s sister, going in search of some dragon semen as part of a miracle cure The Will needs to come out of a coma that he’s in.  Things also get messy there.

Actually, “Things get messy,” is a good summary for any given story arc in Saga.

The particulars of this arc get into issues of violence and addiction in some interesting ways (as an essentially anti-war story, there’s a lot of exploration of the ways violence indirectly damages others besides its intended target).  Marko’s generally the focal point for these explorations here, since it’s been established for some time that he has an extremely complicated relationship with violence as a war veteran who’s become a sworn pacifist since he deserted with Alana.  What we learn about Marko here is that his relationship to violence extends back to his childhood when, in a fit of rage, he beat up a girl who had been torturing his pet dog.  From the series’s start, Marko’s always been an unstable character who would erupt into extreme violence under unusual circumstances, and this connection with past trauma is pretty enlightening (we see that not only has Marko always had his rage problem, but he also first learned to control it after being beaten by his father).  It does a lot to explain why Marko so often equates his rage to a form of addiction, and why even the specter of domestic abuse terrifies him (to be clear of course, domestic abuse is a horrible thing, and I find Marko’s constant monitoring of his own behavior in that regard admirable).  This subplot only gets significant attention for about one issue, but it’s still an interesting one to look at, particularly in conjunction with the storyline from Volume Four where Alana starts taking drugs as part of her lifestyle as a daytime television actress (that plot resolves with Marko hitting Alana because he discovers her drug habit, which is the inciting incident for his spiral of self doubt here).  The contrast between Alana, who sees her drug use as purely recreational and generally harmless (she embarks on scoring her first high with an enthusiasm that is the textbook definition of “not cool”) and Marko, who polices his own behavior so heavily in a variety of aspects, is really fascinating.

Way elaborate on the first sentence there, Hazel. (Artwork by Fiona Staples)

Besides all the intricate thematic stuff that Vaughan and Staples play with, there’s still just a ton of great humor here too.  Saga is an extremely sex-positive series, and most of the best jokes still revolve around stuff that’s pretty bawdy (my favorite joke by far is a panel that shows Gwen and The Brand looking on at something in horror while Gwen covers Sophie’s eyes followed by a double page spread of the dragon they’ve been seeking fellating itself).  Other, more innocent bits revolve around Hazel herself, who’s a toddler in this arc that occasionally comments on the horrible things happening around her with the kind of matter of fact naivety that the other characters can’t pull off (her first line in this volume is “My Grampa made this coat for me when I was a baby.  It is so toasty and he is dead now.”).  Either way, the book’s filled with alternately hilarious and heartbreaking moments.

I’m really looking forward to Volume Six coming out.

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