I have a confession.
I’d been putting off reading Saga for a long time. It’s one of the first titles that come up in nearly every conversation about graphic novels. It’s recommended almost every time I see someone ask which graphic novel they should read next. The hype was so great that I figured the actual story couldn’t live up to my expectations.
Holy shit was I wrong.
Saga begins with the birth of a baby. It’s not the picture perfect birth you might expect from a children’s fairy tale—at least, no fairy tale I’ve ever read depicts the bloody, sweaty, profanity-laced side of birth—and it marks the beginning of the story, not the end. And while the rest of this first book follows the adventures of that baby’s parents, Alana and Marko, the overarching story revolves around the life of Hazel as she slowly grows into an adult.
The universe of Saga is consumed by war. Landfall is the largest planet in the galaxy, home to a winged species of humanoids like Alana. Wreath is Landfall’s tiny moon, home to a horned species of humanoids like Marko. Planet and moon have never been on good terms, but now their war has expanded and outsourced into the entire galaxy.
Marko and Alana fought on opposite sides of this war, until they met each other and fell in love. Hazel represents the potential for peace between the warring wings and horns, and she blurs the black and white lines of the conflict for both sides.
Naturally, neither Landfall or Wreath can permit this. Landfall sends a royal robot (yes, you read that correctly) to hunt down the family, and Wreath contracts the most deadly mercenaries in the galaxy.
For a story with a scope as epic as Saga, the heart is always the characters. The ruthless mercenary will stop at nothing to save a child from a life of slavery. The lethal warrior will do anything to end the cycle of violence. And the quick-tempered soldier is a loving mother with a passion for romance novels. The cast of characters is large and varied and full of the beautiful contradictions that make up humanity. Or, you know, a winged and horned variation thereof.
Vaughan juggles a dazzling collection of moving parts with precision and skill. Minor details in the plot that seem like throwaway worldbuilding elements come back to play a critical role multiple volumes later. An internally consistent magic system exists right beside futuristic technology. Various storylines weave in and around each other, creating a story that’s a masterful work of art.
And, of course, there’s the art.
Fiona Staples’ distinctive style breathes life into Saga. Some drawings are intentionally simple and to the point, while others are intricately detailed. Each and every panel is beautiful, with colors that pop from the page.
Staples also play a significant role in developing the story. The flashbacks that help build a rich sense of character and the visual worldbuilding details are her ideas, and they add so, so much to the story.
As awful and violent as much of the Saga universe is, there is always light. This is no grimdark tale of hopelessness and misery. Villains show compassion, the heroes sometimes come out on top, and the humor will have you laughing aloud on several occasions. And perhaps best of all, the characters never fail to help each other out when they need it most.
There’s an element of almost-but-not-quite fourth wall breaking throughout the story. A future version of Hazel chimes in every so often to address the reader and offer commentary on her parents’ actions. The first instance of this (which happens to be the first line of the book) can also be taken as Vaughan speaking to readers about the beginning of Saga:
This is how an idea becomes real.
Sometimes Vaughan uses Hazel’s voice to comment on the nuts and bolts of writing, such as explaining what it means to Kill Your Darlings, right before killing one of his. It’s a highly effective technique and only served to draw me further into the world of Saga.
If you can’t tell by now, I loved everything about this first book of Saga. I nearly read the whole thing in one sitting, which is practically unheard of for me. I laughed, I cried, and I spent way too much time admiring the gorgeous art.
If anything I’ve said sounds intriguing, I highly encourage you to give Saga a try.
You won’t regret it.