Sunday, May 26, 2024

Saga: A Bloodchilling Double Feature

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Hello there, dear readers. You may wonder why there hasn’t been a Saga review in a while. The reason is a turn of events I’ve been dreading for some time. This is not to say the comic’s quality has decreased in the slightest – I’m not sure that’s a thing that can happen. But Issue #53, while eventful, gives me little to flesh out in terms of analysis. Simply put, it does very little we haven’t seen before; in fact, it seems to me like it’s reprising its old dynamics to little effect. Whether that is telling of the course this comic is taking or my own limitations as a writer, that’s up for debate.

Regardless, I decided to make a double Saga feature for this occasion. Issues 53 and 54… IN ONE GO. Another reason I decided to do this is the particular tone of both issues, or rather, their narrative flow. You could think of them as one of those two-episode stories with a cliffhanger in the middle and a foreboding “to be continued…”. As previously stated, while these issues may start feeling somewhat formulaic, shit does get real.

Naturally, MASSIVE spoilers ahead.

Issues 53 and 54
“That is the hardest part of being alive.”

Long-ish story short: it’s one catastrophe after another, the first of which occurs in the shadows of corrupt practices. Asshole extraordinaire Special Agent Gale meets up with Hebdomadal’s editor-in-chief to talk about the story Upsher and Doff intend to expose regarding Landfall’s role in the destruction of Phang. To keep the matter under wraps, his first recourse is blackmail. When the threat of exposing Upsher and Doff’s relationship doesn’t work, Gale opts for a more definite measure by unveiling the assassination of Sir Robot’s source, then staged as a suicide.

Really, why pose the first threat when the second deal was already a go? Is this a writing oversight or a device to flaunt Gale’s asshole-ness? Whatever the case, the story is now buried – not that it would matter much considering the state of affairs for our heroes. Petrichor and Ghüs come upon Doff’s body. There is no death confirmation, but one man down is one man down, so this party sparks the mushroom flare, which Hazel and Upsher see from their camp. In an ironic twist for Hazel’s relief, Squire shows up right before their eyes, held at gunpoint by Ianthe, because of-course-she-fucking-would.

Now that Hazel is within her grasp, Ianthe means to escape the planet and come out the winner. But being who she is, she cannot help by making an evil tirade, gloating on having shot Doff, much to Upsher’s fright. Painful as this disclosure is, it buys enough time for mum to arrive and make the save. Unfortunately, Ianthe is a quicker shot and blasts Alana’s right wing apart. Then again, Upsher takes the opportunity to blast his mushroom flare directly at Ianthe’s mask, mangling her delightfully bad. The tabloid hero pounces at her, prying her gun away and killing her. On this side of the world, things came out for the better, though the wounds and the possible loss sting hard.

Now, when this arc started, it seemed like Ianthe would be the most daunting baddie so far. She certainly was the cruelest, but her downfall began as soon as she lost the slightest possession on the board. Now, as we go to the other end of the world, we see her purpose as a narrative device was truly to reinvigorate another menace whose edge had been dulled by loss and heartbreak. The Will has returned to his early designs: take Hazel and exact revenge on Sir Robot for the death of his lover.

Sir Robot, impaled and death-bound, attempts to make a bargain. It’s one bad thing after another with this guy. First, he accidentally shows The Will an episode of his childhood and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. Then, Marko walks in on the scene as soon as Robot offers to sell Hazel and her family out. Awkward. Fortunately for him, Marko doesn’t ever believe anything Sir Robot says. Magic goat dad probably thinks this is a gambit to save his own ass. As usual, Marko tries to go for a peaceful solution. He offers to surrender himself willingly to The Will (heh) as long as he lets Sir Robot go.

The Freelancer turns down the offer, tearing Sir Robot’s head off. This is a point of no return for several characters. Upsher has had to experience firsthand the violence he would only observe. Squire is now an orphan. And by the looks of it, The Will may be too far gone for even a Lying Cat return. Issue 54‘s cover maintains the tone with the design of a single black feather floating on a bloody pool, warning the reader for further horror.

Hazel’s retrospective narration makes a come back in the scene of the killing, shedding light on her father’s state of mind. Marko has witnessed something a few readers may have also thought impossible. Anyone can die in this comic, many have. But the demise of one like Sir Robot, amoral, ambivalent, hilarious at times and damaged to the core is not an easy pill to swallow. It’s certainly a lasting impression at least.

Things like a strict upbringing and a life as a soldier have likely done a number on Marko as a person. Alana and he agreed to never resort to even a spanking if Hazel misbehaved. If we believe Hazel, she turned out relatively alright. But we may not be able to say the same about her father. The Will’s spear malfunctions as he moves on to kill Marko. The latter takes advantage, lunging ahead. His expression as he tackles The Will off the cliff is nothing short of frightening. It’s bloodlust become an expression.

The two land in Ianthe’s ship below, right on Sweet Boy’s carpet of all things. The predator swaps places with the prey as Marko climbs on top of him, hands tight around his neck. Behind his bloodshot eyes, we see the triad of trauma unfolding in his brain. His father. The Stalk and Big Sophie. Gwen and Little Sophie. All taunting him to give in to death, one panel each. The fourth one, however, is awesome. Lying Cat slashing the illusion away with a doubtless, striking “LYING”. The Will fights back, reaching for a remote to launch the ship off from the water. In the ensuing chaos, The Will attempts to gain some ground, but Marko manages to utter a flaming spell to keep him at bay.

Back in the shore, everyone can see fighting in the distance, including Alana, who just knows her husband is in trouble. The conflict is too far from their reach to become involved. The ship elevates upwards past the planet’s atmosphere, well into orbit. The Will knows Marko is too weakened to blast him again, so the confrontation becomes a purely physical matter. Marko takes the first hit, but he’s not as spent as The Will believes. He uses one last burst of magic to meld The Will’s gauntlet with his own hand. Taking advantage of Will’s burning pain, he delivers the headbutt to end all headbutts – a goat headbutt.

Marko has taken a definite advantage over his adversary. He stands tall over The Will, shield in hand, ready to behead him… but he relents. A deadly mistake, one which The Will seizes, stabbing Marko in the back with his mangled hand-gauntlet amalgam. As readers, we may have expected something like this from him. It’s not the first time the inner conflict between pacifism and bloodshed has caused Marko trouble. We may berate him; we may facepalm. But above all, we must never forget that this comic features heaps of trauma that come to claim our heads.

Wouldn’t go as far as saying Saga takes a very active or nuanced approach to mental illness or emotional damage. That said, no character is really one dimensional, or untouched by these wounds… except for Special Agent Gale, fuck that guy. That said, it’s also not a superficial or simplistic approach. I’d even call it compassionate, for even the baddies have their burden to carry.

As Marko lay dying on the ship’s floor, he revives a moment he had with Hazel. While helping her build a moat for her sand castle, Marko has a chat with his daughter. As it often occurs in conversations with kids, their understanding of the world and their convictions can exhibit more maturity than we do in our adult experiences. And these can shine through even in the most carefree of times. Hazel asks her dad if he would be okay with her never having kids. Marko replies that he doesn’t care what she does, so long as she is kind to everyone she meets. For all the awful things he has experienced, the core motivation is to pass on something better to his daughter.

Sometimes that’s all we can do.

Usually, at the end of all Saga issues, we get rows of fanmail below the header reading “TO BE CONTINUED.” On this particular occasion, the editor was kind enough to leave a blank below the header for us to process what just happened. I believe, below the tears, the consensus will be to ask “Is Marko dead?” I’d rather not pose doubt to undermine such an emotional moment, especially since these two issues ran on just that, emotion heaped across over fifty issues. Never let anyone tell you it’s silly to become attached to fictional characters.

All in all, these two issues didn’t really do anything new – but they didn’t need to. The only downside I could see was that I’d be writing a shorter review that I’m accustomed to. There was a main ingredient here at work, and it was death, something media like Game of Thrones vulgarises when using it as a selling point rather than a narrative device. Saga didn’t need to do that because it respects its characters and it respects the attachment we as readers have developed towards them. We can trust Brian and Fiona to guide us lovingly throughout this loss, and forward towards the uncertain future.

Thanks for reading.

Saga Issues 53 and 54 Credits

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

All images are courtesy of Image Comics


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