Only two things prevented Saga from being our number one comic of the year – firstly, the fact that there was somehow, inexplicably, a comic that managed to be just as good if not possibly even slightly better (of which more tomorrow); but secondly, the fact that James tried out issue #1, but – while admiring the craft – turned his nose up at the setting and concept. It’s true that at first glance, Saga‘s setting could be offputting to many – what, another sci-fi epic? What, another fantasy epic? What, another quirky-mixture-of-sci-fi-and-fantasy epic? – and a part of me expected, going in, to have a similar reaction to James. Fortunately, as it so happens, I’m enjoying Saga immeasurably, as the sort of comic that simply and hugely restores faith in the medium.
Perhaps this is because, despite appearances, the series really isn’t about the quirky-mixture-of-sci-fi-and-fantasy epic at all. Sure, that story is going on in its pages – but it’s largely a backdrop. Instead, in a twist, the “Saga” of the title is in fact the saga of one family and their lives – star-crossed alien lovers Marko and Alana, and their newborn child Hazel. The series’ narration – provided by a grown-up Hazel from an indeterminate point in the future – makes clear that for all the raging war and politics in the background, the heart of the story is this trio’s quest to establish their lives happily and safely. Along the way, a strong supporting cast – comprising robotic princes with televisions for heads, ghosts of murdered children and alien bounty-hunters with curiously intertwined personal histories – play out a story that threatens to take on ominous significance, but which never really overshadows the fact that Saga entrances through the reader’s desire to see this relationship, this family unit, succeed.
Brian K. Vaughan’s pedigree, despite not having had a comics title published since the end of Ex Machina, was already impeccable coming into this – but, and although it’s difficult to make a full judgement after just eight issues published (at the time of writing), it already feels like this might exceed his previous work. Where the sheer quality of character work, plot (complete with BKV-esque shock deaths, one in particular in this run coming surprisingly early even for him) and humour are of his usual standard, where Saga stands out is that, arguably for the first time, he’s created hugely likeable and sympathetic lead characters. Where previously the likes of Yorick or Hundred had depth but not necessarily immediate empathy, both Alana and Marko are, in different ways, made to be rooted for as heroes. Alana in particular, particularly following the flashback sequences in the most recent issue, is the kind of character it’s pretty easy to fall straight in love with.
Key to a lot of this is Vaughan’s collaborator Fiona Staples, who elevates the book from a strong, intriguing character piece into a work of genuine comics artistry. Her visuals, from character design to expression to scale, are simply phenomenal – beautiful, characterful, expansive. Little touches such as the in-art lettering of Hazel’s narration, the minimalist cover design and even the chosen paper stock (while guaranteeing, as part of Vaughan’s contract, at least 22 pages of story every issue for never more than $2.99) make Saga a series that, as with some others we’ve discussed in this end of year list, celebrates the comic as an object – and one that it’s a genuine thrill to pick up every month (or to see back on the shelves following the deliberate two-month hiatus it took between its first and second arcs).
Simply put, Saga is a comic that just makes you feel good about comics. It’s rare enough that a series feels this early like it’s going to be one of the unquestionable classics of the field, but that’s exactly what this charming, funny, thrilling, beautiful object has already become. Never mind best of the year – I’ll be amazed if we don’t look back on it as one of the best of the decade.