The Sprawling, Empathetic Adventure of Saga

One of the most prestigious comic-book series in print today is an unwieldy, profane, and glorious ode to compassion and equality.

Part of a panel from 'Saga'
Image Comics / Fiona Staples

Image Comics’ space-opera comic-book series Saga imagines a vast universe with strange inhabitants. There’s a telepathic, bald cat who yowls “LYING” at people who don’t tell the truth. There’s a queer, disemboweled ghost who works nights as a sassy teenage babysitter. And there’s a drunken cyclops who writes trashy romance novels, but may secretly be the galaxy’s leading intellectual. In one scene, readers meet an assassin with the armless body of Venus de Milo; when she casts aside her skirt, she reveals the abdomen of a spider and eight legs clutching different weapons.

In short, Saga can seem bewildering; but at its core are simpler themes of love, loss, and growth. The story begins with Alana, Marko, and their newborn daughter, Hazel—a taboo, inter-species refugee family fleeing the intergalactic war between their home worlds. Yet over the dozens of issues released since Saga’s 2012 debut, co-creators Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan have lent humanity to their entire ensemble. (Issue #50 is out this week.) Characters who might seem like one-note tropes—the jilted ex, the jaded gun-for-hire—become far more complicated. Former enemies turn into reluctant allies, and then beloved family members. Despite the magic and spacecraft, Vaughan writes and Staples inks to life a universe that looks, in many ways, like our own. (One arc even takes place in an area that resembles an American middle-class suburb, complete with trampolines and jungle gyms.)

Saga relies on a stable of heroes, antiheroes, and villains who span the spectra of age, class, gender, race, and sexual orientation. The constant violence these characters face forces them to make painful choices, and though they sometimes make grave mistakes, Staples and Vaughan don’t demonize them. As a result, Saga is filled with well-rooted plotlines that engage organically with the characters’ arcs and with tricky topics such as pacifism and abortion. The series’s ethos and stunning quality has led to widespread acclaim: Saga has collected a staggering 12 Eisner Awards (essentially the Oscars for comic books). And as the political sphere grows ever more toxic with ascendant nativism and other displays of prejudice, Saga stands out as a profane, glorious ode to compassion and equality.

Since Saga is a comic series, it’s worth starting with the art: Staples’s illustrations hold a particular power even viewed apart from the narrative. In science fiction, as in most genres, white masculinity is the cultural default. Some people bound to those norms have viewed deviations—for instance, a black Stormtrooper in Star Wars or an Asian woman captaining a starship in Star Trek: Discovery—as millennial pandering at best, or “white genocide at worst. Yet as Vaughan has recounted in interviews, Staples’s first question when he pitched the main couple to her was, “Well, do they have to be white?” The artist went on to model Alana as a mixed-race, dark-skinned woman and Marko as an East Asian man, though both are aliens. (Alana has small wings, and Marko sports a daunting set of ram’s horns.) While horns-versus-wings intolerance between their home planets is a proxy for racism, their skin color is never discussed in the series. And because the duo are the main characters, they become the implied default of their universe.

Staples’s drawings also subvert exhausted racist tropes. Popular films and TV shows often strip Asian men of sexuality and masculinity, a tendency that Asian American celebrities like Fresh Off the Boat writer Eddie Huang and TV star Jake Choi have criticized. Staples has noted that some readers can’t even tell that she depicted Marko as East Asian because she didn’t rely on caricature to distinguish him as such. Meanwhile, pop culture regularly exoticizes women of color, rendering them as one-dimensional figures. By contrast, Staples manipulates Alana’s expressions to capture her multifaceted personality: the sly humor to her smirk, the willpower under fire, the softer love for her husband and daughter.

Image Comics / Fiona Staples

As The Atlantic’s David Sims wrote in 2014, Saga is basically unfilmable because of its narrative’s epic scale, its outrageous denizens, its violence and sex, and related technological and financial challenges. But Saga also makes visible individuals whom Hollywood has historically ignored or erased on the flawed grounds that stories about queer characters or people of color aren’t broadly marketable. Vaughan confessed that he worried Saga would be canceled by its third issue partly for this reason.

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.

As one might imagine, Saga has sparked controversy. In 2014, the American Library Association declared Saga to be the sixth most frequently challenged book on the grounds of unsuitability for children, sexually explicit content, offensive language, nudity, and an anti-family stance. Saga does indeed feature crude language, and shows sex and death in lurid detail. Then again, Vaughan and Staples didn’t design Saga for children (Image Comics classifies the series “M,” or appropriate only for readers aged 18 and older).

The claim, meanwhile, that Saga is opposed to family misunderstands it completely. The entire series centers on a star-crossed married couple struggling to care for one another and to raise their child in a vicious world. In a rare scene of peaceful joy, the last panel of the latest hardcover book shows these exiles with the cobbled-together clan of loved ones they’ve picked up during their travels. Amid its characters’ imperfection and even dysfunction, Saga always returns to heartwarming themes: finding and building family, and earning redemption through forgiveness and love. As the narrator reminds readers, “If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then a family is more like a ROPE. We’re lots of fragile little strands, and we survive by becoming hopelessly intertwined with each other.”

In the end, trying to capture the deeper import of Saga’s freewheeling mythology is a Sisyphean task that risks reducing it to the sum of a handful of parts. This is, after all, a sprawling tale that shuffles the beats of numerous genres, including pulp romance, road trip, Western, dark comedy, and political thriller. And much of Saga focuses less on prejudice and more on smaller-scale pains that can be devastating in their own right. Over nearly six years, Vaughn and Staples have spun to life characters who are far more than their identities. Perhaps this is where Saga dares most greatly: when it claims, and then shows, that people of all backgrounds can be funny, hopeful, scared, ambitious, petty, vengeful, calm, and fierce. And that all their striving might make for a really good story.