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The Hype Hangover: (Re)assessing Saga
”Thus ends my restless progress in America,” wrote one-half of America’s favorite ”cadastral surveyors on contractual assignment1,” Charles Mason, in his journal that chronicles the eponymous Line that bears his name and that of his partner, Jeremiah Dixon. Mason’s statement contains weariness, frustration and a restrained sense of accomplishment. As I turned to the last page of Saga #6 (which ends the comic book’s first story arc), I thought of that eighteenth century English astronomer (as one does) and understood what he meant by ‘restless progress.’
To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ or ‘Metacritic’ score for comic books. Someone more entrepreneurial may want to ‘get on that’ as the saying goes. Too often the scores that these aggregators of taste generate become shorthand for what’s good or bad. In other words don’t believe the hype, pro or con; decide for yourself. Imagine for a moment that there was a ‘Tomatometer’ for comics. Where would Saga rank? High eighties? Low nineties? Would it claim the equivalent of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary (much loved and little seen), which ranks at the top of Rotten Tomatoes Best films of 2012 with a 99% approval rating? Critics, what do they know.
Since its much hyped double-sized debut in March 2012, Saga has fast become a ‘critical darling.’ Much of this fanfare is due to the fact that Saga marks writer Brian K Vaughan’s return to comics after a two year hiatus2. Pop culture ‘homecomings’ can be tricky affairs — see anything with the word ‘prequel’ in its description — the knives are quick to come out especially among the staid and jaded. Not so for Saga. A Google search for reviews of Saga #1 nets this:
”Saga #1 … is the reason I read comic books.” – Joey Esposito, IGN
”With one issue, Saga has already earned its spot as one of the best new comics series of 2012.” — Ron Richards, iFanboy
”Saga represents what comics can do so well there is story, character, world building, [and] erudition.” – Ryan K Lindsay, The Weekly Crises
On episode fifty-eight of the Two-Headed Nerd Comicast, Joe Patrick (when he could get a word in edgewise thanks to his co-host, Matt Baum) gave Saga #1 a strong buy-it, ditto Baum. Patrick eschewed the hysteria as he searched to make a sober assessment: ”I wasn’t expecting what I received … it’s very well told … I need more time to get to know these characters and this world … it’s a tough book, but I’m willing to go on this journey.”
Like Patrick, I too was skeptical and somewhat unsure about Saga at first. Although in my review of Saga #3 for Comics Bulletin I sound a lot like a Kool-Aid drinker of the first order: ”It is, perhaps, a bit of gilding the lily to say that Saga is the epitome of what the sequential art form can do, but not by much.” Whoa there big fella’. In my defense (and to provide some needed context) I was talking about how artist Fiona Staples incorporates words into her art; Staples letters Hazel’s narration (Vaughan’s text) into her artwork. In the same review, I wrote how I found Vaughan’s winks at the reader, use of present-day slang and occasional cuteness too clever by half and superfluous to the story.
In the case of Saga, the furor of the faithful has not translated into sales. Saga sells very well … for a non-Marvel or DC title. In the six months since Saga was released it has consistently been ranked in the Top 50 in comics sales according to The Comics Chronicles (comicchron.com). Sales figures are never a good yardstick to determine quality; is 50 Shades of Grey ‘good’ because it sets sales records, is ‘Avengers?’ I’m in no way trying to pick a fight or make Saga out to be a straw man based on its sales. Perhaps Saga‘s monthly sales suffer as would-be-buyers ‘wait for the trade3.’ I do find it interesting that such a critically lauded comic book doesn’t ‘move more product’ month-to-month, but that is another (and longer) discussion for another time.
As I like to say on my blog: so what? I like Saga, I don’t love it. Even more so, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m overlooking something. I cannot put my finger on what it is other than to call it restlessness. Maybe it’s a kind of hype-hangover, that feeling that nothing can be as good/great as people — whose opinions I trust – continue to say that it is, couple that with my own innate skepticism and I’m left feeling a little cold.
I find I’m a ‘Fiona’ more than a ‘Brian.’ Staples art is why I keep returning to this series and what I find stays with me for long after I’ve finished reading each issue. I’m never sure how much influence the writer has on character designs, however, Staples art for Izabel, Prince Robot IV and The Stalk are all unique, clever and wholly imaginative. Staples is a master when it comes to conveying emotions on the faces and in the body language of characters. I would go so far as to credit Staples with much of the praise that this series receives for having identifiable and relatable characters, no small task since this series takes place on alien worlds and in galaxies far away.
Where this series falls down for me is that, first, the type of sequential storytelling that Vaughan attempts here seems better suited as a novel or for television; and second, I’m not convinced (yet) that there’s a lot of ‘there’ there, what I mean is that Vaughan offers up a lot of ideas and ‘wouldn’t-it-be-cool-ifs,’ but what’s this story really about, the focus remains fuzzy.
By my count there three primary character arcs/plots: Alana and Marko, Prince Robot IV, and The Will with various subplots (and complementary characters) and sub-sub plots (more complementary characters) taking place in each of these main plots, that’s a lot of ground to cover in a 20+ page comic book. It would work as a novel, definitely, but, imagine for a moment, that this were a TV show. Can you picture the promo poster, all the characters lined up or tastefully grouped and posed cycloramaed and photoshopped?
The challenge for Vaughan going forward will be to see if he can keep each plot moving at the expense of the other two. This all-at-once multiple storytelling approach is de rigueur in ensemble television dramas. Does a concurrent fleshing out of The Will and/or Prince Robot IV dilute the story about the on-the-run Romeo and Juliet (Marko and Alana)? Isn’t Saga supposed to be their story? If so, how much does the reader need to know about the private lives of PRIV or TW? Don’t you want to know more about Marko? Alana? Hazel?
The more I think about it, there is one theme that connects each of these characters/plots: in the first six issues, each character has become a caretaker, responsible for another life; Alana and Marko care for Hazel, Prince Robot IV’s has learned he’s going to be a father and The Will is responsible for the young girl he liberated from Sextillion. Perhaps, Saga is ‘all in the family?’
Off-the-top of my head, here is a list of ideas/concepts that have been introduced in Saga so far: an endless war between different cultures/races, magic, science, occupation, rebellion, the abuse of power, secrets, a sex planet, bounty hunters, a sentient spaceship made out of wood, torture, prejudice, parenting, pacifism, romance novels, a cat that can suss out lies, a smart-alecky ghost of a dead child, children, robots, marriage, love, death, sacrifice, and family to name two dozen. And I’m sure there are more. Ambitious almost covers it; maybe, we need to invent a word ‘ambitiousisher’ or ambitious-33.
For me, what Saga lacks is focus, it’s like an over-caffeinated tight-rope walker on a unicycle reciting Shakespeare in Gaelic while texting an explanation of the kobayashi maru, watching episodes of Battlestar Galactica, and building a 1/1 scale model of 1971 TR-005 Panasonic ”Flying Saucer” TV out of balsa wood while balancing on spider silk strung between Titan and Io.
In his attempt to parse Saga, perhaps Patrick was prosaic: ”it’s a lot to take in.” Saga is all of these things and none of these things and that’s why I have trouble becoming a card-carrying member of the ‘cult of Vaughan.’ I can take complicated and I can handle a cast of thousands. My question is: to what end? By being about all these things in one way or another, Saga is about none of them. Sorry, to go all ‘fortune cookie.’ Saga (and maybe this is appropriate given its name) wants to be complicated, it wants to be all things to all readers and it doesn’t have to to still be compelling and one of the better comic books of 2012 and beyond. If the ideas/concepts that I listed was reduced by only two, would you miss them? There’s nothing wrong with over-reaching, too much, however, is too much.
Staples and Vaughan are creators whose work warrants the phrase, ‘singular vision.’ There may be much that is superfluous in this comic (as Patrick is fond of saying, ‘your mileage may vary’) and yet, it works, how well, well, your mileage may vary. Saga is good, epic even, and as much as I want less, what I really want is more — more Marko, more Alana, more Prince Robot IV, more The Will. Saga tests my patience, makes me restless; settle down Mr. Vaughan, Ms. Staples, settle down Saga and (maybe) I’ll do the same.
1 I only wish I was smart enough to come up with a line like this. It’s said if one is going to steal, steal from the best and so I liberally borrowed this phrase from Thomas Pynchon’s doorstop of a novel Mason & Dixon (401).
Keith Silva works in television, it’s a small space, but, hey, it’s show business! The rest of his time he writes for Comics Bulletin and his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun?.
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