His fears, of course, were never realized. Saga now sits comfortably in the comic-book mainstream, and many commentators have referred to it as a gateway into the medium. Even Hollywood has finally begun to understand the financial upsides to diverse casting and storylines—films like Black Panther, Girls Trip, and Love, Simon have received rave reviews and become box-office successes in the last year.
But even before this growing shift in representation, Saga had placed women—and, typically, women of color—in positions of power as respected soldiers, bounty hunters, and community leaders. Staples introduces the story’s first trans woman, Petrichor, during Saga’s detention-center arc with a splash panel—a full page devoted to a single image. Looking through a young girl’s wide eyes in the prison’s communal shower, readers see an unfamiliar, naked woman complete with what the child identifies as a “dad piece.” (It’s a notable departure from our own world, where trans individuals are so marginalized that one of the community’s biggest events is called “Transgender Day of Visibility.”) And on the very next page, the child quickly and easily accepts that Petrichor is a woman.
Saga’s call to empathy lands more strongly still because of the way Vaughan’s story harnesses Staples’s images. The writer has a gift for fleshing out how a character’s intersecting identities and experiences inform how they see the world and the choices they make. In Saga #35, a crazed assassin holds hostage a duo of gay reporters, who come from a rampantly homophobic world. To save his partner’s life, one of the journalists must obtain information to give his captor—and to buy that information, he outs a closeted politician from his home world. Staples draws the reporter with hung head and wearily closed eyes, making readers feel the weight of his decision. Afterward, his partner asks, “How many more lives are we going to help this maniac destroy?”
Vaughan and Staples also take a multi-layered approach when complicating their readers’ sympathies toward characters. Petrichor is virulently racist against Alana and people from her world, but she connects with their cross-species child, Hazel, whom she sees as a fellow misfit. Marko’s troubled relationship with pacifism both stems from childhood abuse and his fear of his own bloodlust.
Though Saga carries a political message through the mere fact of representation, its storylines often critique the real world. In 2017, Vaughan referred to Saga as his attempt to “make sense of the war-torn planet [he’s] brought [his] children into.” Saga explores one character’s violent struggles with untreated PTSD—perhaps calling to mind the difficulties faced by the nearly half of returning U.S. veterans who need mental-health services and don’t receive professional help. Sometimes, Vaughan’s brutal world is more humane than our own. While Petrichor is housed in a women’s correctional facility, in February Boston prison officials declined to do the same for a transgender woman who is incarcerated.