Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dirty Dozen: Saga

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series.

1. Fiona Staples brings so much to this series, and is the most essential part of its creative success and quality. There's no shortage of things to praise about her work, but I think for me what stands out the most is the character designs. Obviously there is some big, flashy stuff like The Stalk or the welcome girls on Sextillion who are just giant heads on legs, but there's a lot of more careful work done, too. The most consistent example is the different types of wings and horns on the various characters, major and minor, from Landfall and Wreath. They are all different sizes and shapes and colors, some based on real animals, some on fantasy creatures, and a few that seem to be Staples originals. They are used to not just distinguish the characters but define them, showing us immediately what kind of people they are through a small but important physical attribute. It's indicative of the level of care Staples takes with all of her work on this title, and it handles a lot of the important world-building stuff in a subtle, silent way.

2. At first I thought I really liked The Will, but now I think it's just that I love Lying Cat on her own and as his partner, and The Will himself is just sort of a dull, blank, boring non-villain. I can't pin him down, and it makes it hard for me to feel strongly about him one way or the other. I see the difference between killing and enslaving children, sure, but his total emotional detachment when it comes to murder still doesn't jive with how hung up he gets on saving Slave Girl—which is a terrible name for a character, by the way...she needs to be fully humanized quickly, but that's another point entirely—or even The Stalk. I need to know more about his history or how his brain works or something, because right now I just don't really see what drives him, why he has the job he has or really does anything he does. He makes no sense to me, and isn't funny or rich enough of a personality to keep me interested without a better understanding.

3. I appreciate the approach to violence in Saga. It's not glorified, nor is it made overly brutal or horrific. Instead, it's treated as an ever-present evil, difficult if not impossible to avoid, and always with serious consequences. In other words, violence is in this world what it is in ours. Some people revel in it, others actively resist it, and everyone is worse off for its presence in their lives.

4. Brian K. Vaughan does endings well. Not just the endings of whole issues, but individual scenes, too. He has a knack for landing on just the right spot, showing the reader only exactly as much as needed and then switching focus to the next important beat. There's not a tremendous deal of empty filler in this series or many long moments of inactivity, which is how Vaughan manages to make so much happen each issue while still taking his sweet time with the pacing of the larger narrative. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, so the story advances gradually on the whole, but Vaughan tightly structures his scenes and cuts them short enough to give everyone the room they need in each chapter. From one issue to the next, we may not see a great deal of time pass, but within each issue plenty of shit goes down nonetheless.

5. While, again, it's all gorgeous work, the other single aspect of Staples' art that continually impresses me is the coloring. It's not just that she has an expansive palette of nuanced hues, but also the different textures her color work brings. The incalculable depths of space, the fickle movement of fire, all kinds of magical spells and futuristic weapons, all rendered in very specific ways so they not only look but feel different from one another.

6. Vaughan's dialogue can sometimes be the most natural thing in the world, and then you turn the page and get something so forcedly cutesy, crass, or both that it pulls you right out of the story. It shows off, calling attention to itself more than assisting in the telling of a story. Not that there's pointless conversation. By and large, everything is said for a reason, though even that isn't always true. But there's still a tendency to play with the words overmuch, and it can be distracting to a fault. "I came like a dump truck," is the starkest example I can recall. "Gwendolyn may have been tall, but her hips were boyish, not womanly like yours," is one on the other end of crass-cute the spectrum. Even something as simple as Slave Girl asking The Will what he is if not her new master, and him responding, "The lord of shit vacations." It's a non-answer, a bit of blackhearted edginess for the freelance assassin to spit out depressingly so we can all see how good he is at brooding. I'd much rather have him say something that provides insight into a new facet of his character, or actually attempts to explain to Slave Girl why he's so hell-bent on saving her. Often, Vaughan's characters are capable of that kind of openness, but they're just as likely to pull out some overly clever wordplay instead.

7. I'm a big fan of Izabel. I don't know that she always talks completely like a teenager from our world or time, but she a very consistent voice, and it is young enough for me to buy it as the speech patterns of a typical teen from Cleave. Because, who the hell knows what kinds of differences might develop? Plus she has a fun, weird look, and she carries it well, owning her revealed innards with the same confidence as her oversized hat. And honestly, she just makes me feel safer. An extra set of eyes, a level head, another person who cares about Hazel's best interests. It's important for Marko and Alana to have allies, and Izabel was their first.

8. I love that the back covers are all just a single, solid color. Classy.

9. Here's a tiny, nitpicky thing. In the first issue, Agent Gale says that Marko and Alana disappeared twelve hours after he was transferred to her facility. Now, admittedly, when we see them interact in flashback, there aren't like timestamps, so I suppose it's possible that they go from her jacking his jaw up with the butt of her rifle to devoted runaway lovers who've read and deeply discussed an entire novel together in half a day, but...that does not seem to be the indication. Alana talks about "Secret Book Club" being the "highlight of [her] career", which to me implies that it's been an ongoing secret between them, not a one-time thing that they are in the middle of when she says that. Also, she lends her copy of the book in question to a co-worker, and that girl still has it when Price Robot arrives, so...did Alana get another? I mean, that's fully believable, but not explained, and definitely not fitting into a twelve-hour timeline as far as her and Marko fleeing is concerned. I am bothered by this kind of sloppiness. Perhaps I'm reading it wrong and Vaughan knows exactly how long it all took and it really was twelve hours, but...I find that hard to swallow, and if it is a mistake, then, I don't know. I just don't like having something so specifically laid out in the very first issue and then abandoned.

10. A final round of applause for Staples: while not every single-page splash is an absolute stunner (often they are used just for a moment of high emotion or the arrival of a new character) any time there's a double-page spread you can be sure it was selected deliberately and will knock your socks off. The reveal of the rocketship tree in issue #6 is probably my favorite, although the planet hatching in #10 gives it a run for its money. There are a handful of others along the way, each of them enormous and important and jaw-droppingly beautiful.

11. Prince Robot IV and D. Oswald Heist's long, tense interaction in Saga #12 is excellent. Heist is a character I can't wait to see more of, and I hope we can have some flashback scenes of him in his youth, maybe even with his son before he died. His writing is central to Alana and Marko's romance, and he's a very intelligent, well-spoken, and brave man in his own right. Funny, too, and warm. Meanwhile, Prince Robot IV has been the best, smartest, scariest villain in this series from the debut, and continues to prove himself a capable and ruthless hunter, as well as a skilled interrogator. And now he is closer than ever to finding our heroes, the revelation of which made his conversation with Heist feel even weightier than it already did. I think this most recent issue may be my favorite, and certainly that scene (which makes up the bulk of the issue, anyway) is one of the very best the book has had.

12. I'm wholeheartedly into Marko and Alana's love, but them as individuals I'm not wild about. They're just a little too locked into the roles they want for themselves sometimes for me to believe, Alana always the spirited, courageous force of will and Marko ever the noble family man. Not that those kinds of people don't exist, I'm just not sure that's who Marko and Alana truly are underneath it all. I think they both used to be people they didn't like in lives they weren't suited for, so now they've selected idealized new versions of themselves who they stubbornly insist on being. But this new approach is no healthier than the old one, because neither are designed to just let them be themselves. And their true selves poke through more often than they'd like. Alana, secretly, is pretty much terrified of life's necessary unknowns, but level-headed enough to deal with them when they arise. And Marko is actually a deeply pissed off dude, sitting on anger at a lot of people and things that he's had from a very young age and never dealt with appropriately. Revealing these truer, more vulnerable identities to each other is what their love is doing for them, and it's for that reason I love their love and stay invested in their story. But if I met this couple in real life, they'd drive me crazy with their incessant facades and rotating series of increasingly brave but equally false faces. And sometimes it gets under my skin even in this fictional context. Hopefully the truth will becomes more and more common as their journey advances. It would sort of have to, or else this love I'm such a fan of isn't what I thought.

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